I decided to visit the now infamous “Treeisalive” commune and see what The Garden was like for myself. I met a lot of amazing people and learned a lot.
It all started a few weeks ago. I have a close internet friend of about fifteen years who until recently I had never met. A few weeks ago I was passing through her town and we decided to finally meet. It was a magical internet experience that led to another magical internet experience.
During our conversation it came up that I’m in college studying radically sustainable infrastructure in experimental communities. She said I have to check out the TikTok cult commune. This was the first I had heard about it.
What is Treeisalive?
I quickly found the TikTok account treeisalive and watched all the videos. It didn’t make sense. It just seemed like a normal communal farm. How was it a cult?
Also treeisalive is the name of the tiktok account, not the commune itself. Treeisalive is an account owned by a person called Tree. Tree explains in his videos that the actual commune is called The Garden.
I read many articles featuring various wildly absurd claims. Some said it’s a cult because it’s near towns that are historically unfriendly to black people (so they must be racist, and therefore also a cult?). Watching the videos on treeisalive, it was obvious that a significant portion of the people at The Garden were black.
Other articles claimed they were a cult because they dumpster dive and eat pest animals and insects. To me these claims all seemed obviously false, elitist, anti-homeless, and anti-communist. The Garden just seemed like a normal communal farm.
Noticing Cracks In The Arguments
Reading the comments on the videos on treeisalive, it was wild to see how visceral and disjointed the attacks were. Many of them were alleging things that were plainly false. I saw one example where a video of a black person had a comment asking why there were no black people. It was just bizzare to read the kinds of comments people were posting on the videos on treeisalive. I mean really you should go read them and see for yourself. It just doesn’t make any sense the kind of attacks they are getting.
So I decided to stop by and check it out for myself.
I stayed three days and two nights. I had a lot of great conversations and met a lot of great people. It is in fact just a normal communal farm. They live together for free and grow their own food. They’re simple, decent people just trying to get by and live a good life.
Problems I’ve Seen With The Coverage of The Garden
A lot of people just don’t understand what communism is or how it works. I think this is one of the most confusing things about The Garden for a lot of people online. Anyone can show up and be a part of the community. The community expects you to help out and behave yourself, but beyond that you are just one of many. There is no leader. There is no owner. Everyone has an equal voice and all decisions are made by unanimous consent.
In practice, this doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Generally it means no one agrees. But everyone keeps talking about things until they find a compromise that everyone can get on board with, otherwise a given decision is simply not accepted by the community.
It’s not called Treeisalive
Another problem with the coverage I’ve seen is the name of the farm. A lot of people call it Treeisalive, after the screenname of the TikTok user whose videos initially went viral. This person, named Tree, is one of the 30-40 people who live at The Garden. The farm is called The Garden, not Treeisalive. I’ve spent many hours talking to Tree, and he is a lovely person with good intentions and good actions. He doesn’t deserve the deluge of hate and threats he’s received based on false accusations from people around the world.
People on The Fringe Do Not Represent The Community
I read articles critiquing The Garden by talking about problematic people who showed up in the past and had fringe views like QAnon or supporting Trump. First of all this is the south so these are not fringe views here by any means, but also you have to understand that the fact that these people left shows that the community does not share those values, not that the community somehow agrees with them.
What Was The Garden Really Like?
I met lots of Queer and BIPOC people at The Garden who are living happy and free here. They work to live rather than living to work. There is no money. There is no hierarchy. There is no leadership. It’s just people growing food, cooking food, eating food, and spending time together working on art. This is what life is supposed to be like. You should be so lucky as to spend some time in a place like this.
VICE Is Making A Documentary
While I was here, a VICE film crew showed up to film a documentary. As I understand it, at least one conversation I had with Tree will be featured in the documentary.
Okay Let’s Talk Specifics
The Cat Story
I asked the old-timers about the cat story. First of all it was many years ago and almost none of the same people are still there. Certainly Tree was not there when this happened.
There was this psychotic cat that was killing dozens of chickens. People agreed it was almost thirty chickens that this cat killed. It didn’t even eat them. It would just kill them and leave the carcasses. So the community tried all kinds of things to keep the cat away from the chickens, but it kept killing them. They let the chickens free range so there’s only so much they can do to stop predators nonviolently.
Eventually the community voted to kill the cat, and so they shot it. There’s nothing wrong with that. If a feral pest is killing your animals then you have to defend them.
So here’s where it gets a little weird. Someone who was there at the time (many years ago) decided to add the meat to a pot of soup that was being made in order to avoid letting the meat go to waste. I can see why they would feel like this is the morally right thing to do since they had to kill the animal and they didn’t want to let it go to waste. There is nothing wrong with killing pest animals, particularly when they are killing dozens of other animals just for fun and not even eating them.
Okay Sure That’s Weird But How Is It Wrong?
Americans go crazy over people eating certain kinds of animals. Horses are a good example. Horses have been eaten all over the world since time immemorial. But a few years ago some Karen suddenly discovered the fact that horses have been a staple food of humanity for literally thousands of years, and started a hysterical uproar about the injustice of eating certain kinds of animals.
Now I know there are arguments against eating any animals, and actually most of the people at The Garden are vegan. But even vegans will eat farm eggs. Chickens that live a good life lay eggs that are widely considered acceptable food by many vegans including some at The Garden. Likewise, edible pests might make sense to some people as a food source. There is a huge moral difference between raising animals for food in inhumane conditions versus using meat that has been slaughtered for the safety of your community. Ask yourself if this would be a story if it had been a coyote; obviously not. People see psychotic feral cats as somehow magically different from coyotes. In reality they just aren’t different.
Personally I would not have eaten the cat soup. I try to avoid meat, but I do understand why some people did eat it. If eating pest animals rather than letting them go to waste is the biggest moral outrage you see in the world today then maybe you should read a newspaper and leave these people alone. And again to reiterate, almost no one who was there at that time is still there today. The people like Tree who are facing death threats and conspiracy theories over this story were not even a part of the community until years later.
The Dog Story
Rel had a dog. The dog got hit by a car and died. She decided to taxidermy it and posted about how much she loved the dog and how she wanted to keep it around in another form after it was taken from her by the car accident.
Okay, again, sure that’s weird, but how is it wrong? It’s very common for people to taxidermy their pets. There are shops all over the country that do this for a living. This is literally a whole industry in this country.
Like I fully acknowledge that this is weird, but it’s not unusual or abnormal. It’s not illegal or even frowned upon by the taxidermy industry that does nothing else. Nobody would even be talking about this if people weren’t out here seeking attention by attacking these people with lies.
Black Representation and Satisfaction
One of the criticisms that The Garden has gotten in the press lately is that it is near to towns that are historically unfriendly to black people. I’m not sure I see a logical connection between historical problems outside The Garden and the moral virtue of The Garden itself.
As a sociologist, I’m interested in things like quantitative racial representation and the self-reported qualitative experience of the black people who live there. In both cases, structural racism is easy to measure. So let’s try to do that…
Checking For Structural Racism With Quantitative Measures
Tennessee is 16.76% black. The Garden is more black than the state it’s in. In Sociology and Social Justice, we call this difference the racial segregation index. It’s a good and simple way to see if a given community is underrepresented for a given population. In this case, there are more black people at The Garden than there are in Tennessee, so there is no argument for Quantitative Structural Racism.
Checking For Structural Racism With Qualitative Measures
When I talk to those black families who live at The Garden, they say they love it. They talk about how it has made life much easier for them. They talk about how they want their kids to grow up in this safe, healthy, positive environment instead of the toxic, racist, capitalist, dystopia outside. And yes they have even made videos explaining all of this in order to shut down those people wrongly attacking the community on behalf of the black people who actually live there.
In both cases, The Garden is doing great. It’s worth reiterating that black people are actually over-represented at The Garden compared to the state and national demographics. Creating an environment where black people feel safe enough to over-represent compared to both the state and national numbers means you’re doing a great job of creating a place for them in your community.
Audre Lorde said that growing up as a black woman in America was like growing up in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon. Anything we can do to make things easier for black families is something we should do. We should be listening to them when they say this place is great for them, and not trying to tell them they’re wrong to feel safe and healthy and happy.
Let’s Talk About Infrastructure
I am traveling and studying infrastructure, so let’s take a look at the infrastructure at The Garden.
How They Solve For Telecom/ Internet
This building is the office. You see it right away when you enter the property. On top of the office is an antenna mast as shown above. This mast has a directional cell phone antenna pointed towards the nearest tower. That antenna runs into a HiBoost cell phone booster which then boosts the signal and directs it out into the local community.
HiBoost is basically the same thing as WeBoost. It looks the same. It costs the same. They have the same reviews. They have the same specs. I have a much newer WeBoost on my camper which is a lot more powerful, but mine can’t reach the tower because of all the trees. So putting the antenna on a mast on top of the office like this is a super good way to overcome that problem and get great cell phone access even when you’re surrounded by dense forest.
Put Poop In The Garden!
As a student specializing in radically sustainable infrastructure in experimental communities, this place is doing really interesting and exciting things with poop. They are composting all their human waste along with their food waste.
My piece in the upcoming VICE documentary focuses on this topic so let’s get into it!
The normal corporate-scale agriculture techniques in America call for dousing the ground with ammonia and other chemicals in order to add nitrogen and kill all the other plants, microbes, and fungi which are critical for normal biomes.
The problem with this corporate-scale technique is that it destroys the soil, and farmers have to till deeper and deeper to find living soil each season. This is a big part of why it’s so likely we will have another dust bowl very soon. Farmers are using disastrous and self-destructive techniques to maximize profits at the cost of the future of humanity.
First let me say that the only alternative to sustainability is death. Composting is radically sustainable because rather than merely being a practice that will continue working over time, it actually improves the soil and makes the world better as a side-effect; it’s not just zero sum.
Adding compost to the soil feeds the plants and microbes and fungi that are crucial to maintaining a living and healthy soil.
Check out this guided tour of the process from Tree and Julia.
The technique they are using here is also very cool. They have a series of concrete bays with an outhouse floating over them. When a bay gets full, they move the outhouse to the next bay. By the time the bays are all full, the older ones are ready to be used as a great soil additive. You can find more pictures in the album here.
Solving For Water
They are doing a ton of rainwater collection. In contrast to the Taos Earthships and Slab City, Tennessee has lots of water! This means simply attaching rain gutters to collection tanks allows The Garden to have plenty of water. They also have a well and a spring.
Examples of Water Collection
This is a photo of the summer kitchen which is open to the outdoors. It has gutters which direct all the rainwater into holding tanks that feed into the sinks.
Here you can see two tool sheds with a gutter in between routing the rain water into a basin where it collects for use.
Examples of Water Storage
This setup reminds me of the way they do water at Slab City. IBC totes like this are ubiquitous in the desert. Here they collect rainfall from different buildings. Notice the hose running out of the IBC tote in the background. It runs into a very special water heater.
Okay so that hose runs into a custom steel box with a fireplace underneath it. Julia said they bought it from the Amish. Here’s a video they did on treeisalive explaining the whole process. Here’s another explanation video by Rel.
We talked a lot about the different water heating techniques I’ve seen and documented in my travels. Most people are using solar or gas heating for showers. This is the first time I’ve seen fire-heated water. Very cool!
This is a great solution for a place that’s often overcast.
Examples Of Water Filtration
At The Garden, they are relying on well water and spring water so they don’t need to filter it. On a recent visit to another commune, tree posted a video to his treeisalive account explaining another technique. The other commune in Puerto Rico does rain water catchment and then they put that rain water through a ceramic filter which purifies it for drinking. Ceramic filters are great because they are permanent filters and so you don’t need to buy replacements every month.
The product that Tree is showing on his treeisalive account is the Berkey Ceramic Gravity-Fed Permanent Water Filter. These filter out not just viruses and bacteria but also heavy metals and lots of other problematic things that might end up in your drinking water. If you configure it with four filters then it will process 12,000 gallons before needing to be replaced. That’s an insane amount of water! A person living off grid sustainably needs about a gallon of water per day.
Berkey recommends that a filter configured the way I describe with four filters can provide for up to eight people a day. This means that you would need four to seven of them for a tribal-scale group of 30-50 individuals like the group at The Garden. With these filters, they could live off rain water or other potentially contaminated sources while safely filtering that water to drink for over four years.
Check out this video tour of the Puerto Rico system from treeisalive.
Creative Livestock Enclosure
Julia gave me a tour of the whole grounds and this was one of the most interesting creative structures I saw. They took an old tent trailer and put the roof up on boards. Then they put up chicken wire for the walls. Very creative!
Upcycling More Broadly
They have lots of examples of upcycling which is a more radical zero-waste form of recycling. One great example is the schoolhouse with its recycled tire roof. Here’s an explanation from tree’s treeisalive account…
When Tree recently visited another commune in Puerto Rico, he posted a video on the treeisalive account with a great explanation of different methods for making garbage into structural bricks for construction. Check that out here.
One of the things I really liked about The Garden was the way they are not just growing lots of food, but taking special pride in it. For example, here’s one of the many cute signs they hand painted to illustrate what’s growing in each row in the fields.
As Patrick often says, they’re growing basically everything that’s possible to grow here. This includes everything from pears to plums, from salad greens to herbs. Tree posted a video of a great walkthrough they did of some of the crops they’re growing on his TikTok account (@Treeisalive). (I hope I’ve been clear that treeisalive is the screenname of Tree’s TikTok account and not the name of The Garden.)
DIY Community Oven/Stove/Griddle
They have a really cool cooking station in the enormous communal kitchen. built this giant combination oven/stove/griddle. It’s also an amazing heat source. The stove is just this simple sheet of expansion grid on top of cinder blocks. They build a fire inside and then cook on top.
It also works great for toasting bread. I made everyone avocado toast on this stovetop one morning as my thank you and public offering for hosting me. It turned out great.
The griddle is super simple. Just cinder blocks with a steel griddle top laying on top. Not even any concrete.
The oven is super cool too. Basically they made a fire box at the bottom with cinder blocks, and then balanced a steel drum on top. Then they used local stone and concrete to create a channel for the fire to go around the drum and into the two smoke stacks. The door is just a piece of steel that’s been cut to fold around the drum at the edges.
As usual, treeisalive has a great detailed explanation of this with video…
Hanging Coffee Sock
This is a super cool and simple method for brewing a pot of coffee. It seems so obvious once you see it done.
Rel is a really cool artist who lives at The Garden. We had lots of great conversations about our mutual rage at corporations leveraging the police to protect dumpsters full of food from hungry people who might eat it. Rel is a big dumpster-diving activist among many other interesting things. Check her out on TikTok.
One of her projects is building a sort of modified french drain system. This drains the water from around the kitchen area. It’s a really cool idea. She shows some more detail in a video here.
Upcoming Event At The Garden
They have an annual event coming up called Tribal Revival. It’s April 16-30 at The Garden. This event is completely free like everything they do. There will be live music and art and lots of workshops about everything from permaculture to solar power.
They have even asked me to teach a workshop which will probably be about solar powered refrigeration (an enormously challenging but totally solvable problem!)
Final Thoughts: Patrick
One of the co-founders of The Garden is a man named Patrick. He describes the purpose of the community as,
“To enable and empower as many people as possible as fast as possible to no longer need money.”
I could not agree with him more on the crucial need for this kind of progress in the world.
The upcoming VICE documentary will focus in part on Patrick, but until then check out this great interview he did last year.
“I would love to see tens of thousands or millions of people living in small communities all over the world in a network of mutual aid and shared land.”
Patrick and I spoke at great length over the last few days about everything from how to fund communities, to how to build community networks, and how to build a shared community purpose.
He and I stayed up all night last night talking about our respective personal philosophies for how to help make the world a better place.
The world is in pretty big trouble as far as I can tell, or more precisely the humans in the world. No matter how bad it gets life will probably find a way but humans are lost. We are destroying the water, destroying the air, destroying the ecosystems, and destroying ourselves…. But why? The reason I believe is that we are doing things for the wrong reasons, we are disconnected from each other therefore working against each other and ourselves. thinking that the way to get ahead is to get ourselves ahead but really the way to get ahead is by taking care of each other. We have become so separated from each other that we don’t care about each other, because we don’t NEED each other, we are INDEPENDENT. We have MONEY. we don’t care about each other because we’re separated from each other and we’re separated from each other because we don’t care about each other. I think that the best possible solution is to create spaces where we can learn how to appreciate, value, and take care of each other. This isn’t something that is going to be easy it is something that we have to strive for and learn how to do. If we want to live more sustainably we have to live more connected with each other and to live connected to each other we have to find the value of each other and if we want to find the value of each other we have to put ourselves in situations where we depend on each other. it’s the only way…. Humans lived in tribes successfully for hundreds of thousands of years it’s only just recently that we’ve become INDEPENDENT by becoming independent we work against everyone else and ourselves. The answers are not in a book we have to LIVE the answer we have to PRACTICE getting along with each other.. again, we have to practice putting others first, we have to practice going back to the way it was. We have to practice living in community.Otherwise there is no hope for humans.Sorry not sorry.
I really liked The Garden before I met Patrick. Getting to know him these last few days made me feel so strongly that the work they’re doing is vital for building a better future. There is so much that they are doing right at The Garden. Patrick is right at the center of it. I could not agree with him more.