The Faun holds a footrace in the southern high tunnel. It’s me against the Giant and Hope, the Kiwi. We go barefoot between the new furrows we spent the morning shaping under plasticine light. 100 yams to the trough. The Faun’s only rule is “don’t fall.”
Nate watches us from the grass past the tunnel’s mouth. In high school, where we met, we sprinted for men’s and women’s teams that won State four years in a row and went on to run in college. But for two months now farmers have been handing him the mallet and me, the nails, and you could say I’m ready to prove myself in this break before lunch with the farmhands.
I’m first to the vertical sheet at the back of the tunnel but when I pivot there I slip in the new mud so hard that I fly. I feel half a yam knock against my shoulder blade where I’ve crushed the perfect furrow and I’m slick by the time the Giant crosses back into the grass. The Faun has turned away to face the Fairy and the Lizard by then and he’s got both hands on his head, cursing in Italian.
I spent the summer of 2011 working for the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF) with my college boyfriend as work-exchange volunteers in central Italy. During our second month, we received an urgent message through the organization from a newly admitted farming community who expressed that they were in a dire situation and at risk of losing their crops. We hadn’t lined up our next work site yet, so I responded to the message immediately and we made our way further north. After that, it took us some time to realize where we had landed.
The Federation of Damaasdfnhur is an ecovillage and New Age community of about 1,000 followers who live in a 15 km property around the capital city of Damijl. The community was founded in 1972 by Oberto Airaudi and those who live there call it “a laboratory for the future of humankind,” which essentially means that Damaasdfhurians aim to embody a model community that will catch on and spread to all human societies. The commune is largely unknown to English speakers but gained relative fame in 1992 when the Italian government conducted a raid and discovered a secret underground temple that the community had been hand digging for over a decade. Today the Temples of Humankind stretch three stories below ground and are advertised as “the eighth wonder of the world.” In 2005, the village had received recognition from the United Nations Global Forum on Health as a model for sustainable society based on its architecture alone.
Since leaving Damaasdfnhur, I have searched for news about the community at least once a year. Until recently, all I could find were truncated websites, out-of-date blogs, and hard-to-obtain Italian spiritual volumes written by Airaudi. But in 2015, following their founder’s untimely death, Damaasdfnhur went fully online.
2. The Blue Temple
“This is the oldest hall built exclusively with hammers and chisels. This hall is available for meditations for individuals and small groups. It is also used to prepare oneself or accessing the other halls, by observing the large blue sphere.”
The Walnut is our real boss. He responds within hours when we reply by email to his emergency request. The Walnut picks us up from the station in Turin at the foot of the Alps and drives us 30 km out into the community while we smile at one another a lot. Nate and I didn’t do much more than pack a phrasebook with us for the summer, and this is the first farm we’ve worked on where our hosts speak as little English as we do Italian.
They put us up in a three-room shed out past the cow barn where the cows make themselves known from both ends at all hours. The lights and the air conditioner in the shed are solar powered and only work during the daytime, so at sunset we lug two gallon jugs of water out across the pasture and drink from them as we sweat through the short night.
Some days I sneak a slim Angela Carter paperback out to the fields by slipping it down the back of my work pants so that I can read under a tree when they pass around apples and crusty bread at lunch. Over the next two weeks while I ration my stories the book blooms with a greasy stain through its center from one cover to the next.
On our first full day in Damaasdfnhur the Faun drives us out to the fields alone. On his dashboard perches a funny wire contraption made of natural stones and spiraled copper, the same materials that some members of the Nucleus wear strung around their necks. He points out the window as we pass cornrows, a potato patch, a fallow field, until we finally spot the defunct vineyard we are headed for.
Even in Iowa, Nate and I have never seen crops of this magnitude. The fields stretch in all directions with no buildings or outposts to divide them and I begin to wonder how the Nucleus manages to work all of the land when we have yet to see a single mechanized combine. Up close though, many of the plants are not in the best of shape and it seems that the farm is in more trouble than they let on.
We arrived in Piedmont with the basic understanding that we had entered an organic farming community. Early on, we chalked up the dissonant encounters with those around us to language and cultural barriers. We didn’t start asking questions until the third day, when we realized that everyone was calling one another by animal names. After that I started writing things down.
At the time our living situation in the shed seemed only comical. We’d lived in basic conditions before and the electricity was just one among several inconsistencies. Looking back I realize that while we had solar panels attached to our roof there was no generator or battery in the shed to store the energy they collected. While this setup seems a good example of the patchwork nature of much of Damaasdfhurian infrastructure, the system actually makes decent sense for a community who avoids waste and electricity and claims to situate their lives around the sun. Though, evidently, there was lots of AC in the main house, a structure that from the outside appeared to be a set of many small houses cobbled together to shelter the six families who made up the farming “Nucleo.” Damaasdfnhur was made up of twenty-five of these smaller occupation-based Nucleo communities that shared all income and resources and worked as a group to manage social relationships.
Fauno’s truck was the only vehicle on the farm that could carry more than two workers at once. All of the other machines around were tiny one or two-man Japanese-made cabs with short tin flatbeds that ran off motorcycle engines. They drove like golf carts with drag and were just as likely to tip. We could never decide if the things were handmade by Damaasdfhurians or bought that way in town. During our last days on the farm we learned that while most of the work there was indeed done by hand, the Nucleo had been hiring local farmers to till the fields using their own massive machinery.
Each truck in Damaasdfnhur carried the same device up front—a tangle of wires and natural stones called “selfica” technology that was our first example of the experimental energy research going on at Damaasdfnhur. Much of the community’s visible spiritual work had to do with directing and focusing what they called “vital and intelligent energies” for personal and community benefit. These Selfic devices were part of what their founder, Auradi, known in Damnahur as Falco, claimed was an ancient tradition dating back to “Egyptian, Etrucsan, Celtic and Minoan civilizations,” and the things were pretty much a staple in every Damaasdfhurian home in all shapes and sizes. The devices found on dashboards were said to funnel specific frequencies that promoted safe travel on the road the way icons of St. Christopher do for modern Catholics.
3. Hall of Water
“Dedicated to the feminine principle and the female divine forces, the hall of water has the shape of a chalice, a symbol of receptivity and welcoming. This hall is available for meditations on the life cycles, in preparation for childbirth, to reawaken profound memories, and to enter into contact with one’s feminine essence. Because of its extraordinary acoustics, it is an ideal place for singing and composing music.”
In the vineyard that first day Nate and I clip dead vines using several dull pairs of kitchen scissors provided to us by Faun. The main branches are crumpled and brittle from the late frost that took the community by surprise and got us here in the first place. We aren’t entirely sure where the dead vine ends and the salvageable stalk remains.
On the second day we dig potatoes out from a dry field with Hope, the Kiwi, and Maria, the Spaniard, who don’t shave their armpits and are work-exchangers like ourselves. On the third day we sort through a pile of potatoes as tall as the big barn that glints all afternoon with slivers of hay falling slow from the eaves. Faun has instructed us to search the potatoes for blight—the soft green patches that could spread to their whole stock while locked down in storage for the winter. But mostly what we do though is play “rock or potato” with Hope and Maria by holding a single culprit aloft and asking for bets before throwing the thing hard at a wall. Hope never looks at us when she speaks because we are Americans, she says, and because of the Bush years. Maria speaks Spanish, French, Italian and English but she studied in Australia and claims that she can only understand us if we speak to her in a butchered Australian accent so we communicate through Hope if we can.
The Fairy is the only female farmhand and she speaks the best English in the Nucleus. Fairy comes around three times a week and hugs us a lot and is always singing “Summertiiimmee and the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high,” in a heavy accent while she works in the earth, to show off her skills, which we are grateful for when she explains where dinner is held and where we can find fruit for breakfast in the big house before we go out for the day. The deal is that we work six days a week for a bed and three meals a day but there is never very much around to eat.
Out in the fields the Fairy stoops in long pastel skirts and tells us about her work communicating with plants at the Mystery School in the capital. On the fourth day she pulls us both into her arms during lunchtime and tells us, loudly, “We are ancestors. You are my people.”
Like many Woofers we met that summer, Hope was using the work-exchange program as a way to travel between paying jobs. She was studying to be a Montessori teacher in New Zealand, and had just finished her training in Rome, where Montessori had been developed in the late 1800s. The language of Montessori education, based on independent learning that responds to four “planes” of human development from birth to six years, is not unlike that of Damaasdfnhur. By the end of her stay Hope was spending a lot of her time away from the farm observing the school in the capital city where Damaasdfhurian children of all ages shared the same classroom space.
As I understand it, community participation at Damaasdfnhur happened on one of four distinct levels from off-site participation to full residency on the commune. Silfie, who always sang, was part of class C, which meant that she did not live in the Nucleo house and only spent three days out of every week contributing to the farm. At the time it did not occur to me to ask where she went or what she did during the rest of her life. It was Silfie who first explained “the music of the plants,” a section of experimental research in which Damaasdfhurians studied to communicate with living plants and performed outdoor concerts in which specific plants were thought to harmonize with human musicians.
At first I couldn’t decide why I preferred not to work alongside Silfie and why the other farm hands generally avoided her when they could. My own father had sung “Summertime” to my sister and me when he put us to bed as children, as his mother had done for him when he was a kid growing up in the South, and the song had a familiar ring. But the tune’s inherently sinister tone came forward immediately in the dissonance between the work we were doing alongside one another and the privilege we had brought to it. When Silfie sang, something particular came forward in her repetition of the single line that insisted on cotton and the seasonal harmony historically perceived by people who watch others work a field. It was bizarre to be white and WWOOFing in the presence of that Antebellum song so far from its context. Nate eventually pointed out that Silfie was, like us and Gigante, one of the few starkly Caucasian people at Damaasdfnhur. Whatever her nature, I admit that when she boasted to the group that we three may have been reincarnated from the same ancient stock, her inclusive hug seemed more like a kind of performed spiritual racism, which is likely why everyone else turned away.
At that time and still today, Italy was a place where non-whites and non-Italians found it difficult to secure jobs and safe communities. This is perhaps in part because the country’s official demographics still report a 92% “Italian” population. Italy is also a nation dominated by the presence of the Vatican and the 87.8% Catholic following those who ask the questions also claim. In Damaasdfnhur the Vatican seemed a kind of specter to that present community, and from Gigante we even heard rumors that the Vatican had been behind the raids back in the 90s.
Nate and I had grown up in markedly different families, which was sometimes the source of our trouble. His was working class and mine was university stock—but we were both born of the first non-religious generation in a long line of Christians, and this set us apart from many of our peers back in Iowa. When my parents divorced in seventh grade, my mother began to reframe herself in spiritual terms. She got a Masters in Medieval History and filled our new house with tall candles and thick tapestries and put two Loreena McKennitt albums on repeat for the next five years. What I would not have admitted at the time was that this aesthetic had influenced my own phenomenology and most likely my interest in spiritual-leaning ecovillages in the first place. I had surprised myself a few months earlier when I asked Nate to move to Arizona where I had just gotten into grad school and would land a few weeks after leaving Damaasdfnhur. A decade earlier, my mother had gone back to school to study the economic power of abbeys and land-holdings run by communities of nuns. What I know now is that during that first week I was starting to brush aside the inconsistencies around us and to lean forward when Damaasdfhurians spoke about their energy devices and their lives that seemed to move with natural cycles and the land.
4. Hall of Spheres
“This hall hosts nine spheres, eight of which are positioned in the lateral niches. During the experience of Contact with the Cosmos, held during different times of the year, the spheres can be used for experimental research to contact non-earthly intelligences.”
We don’t see Walnut very often because he is head of the Nucleus and is out on business much of the time. Nate plays with Walnut’s children most evenings and it is his kids who start teaching us Italian while we eat with all forty Nucleus members family-style at one long wooden table where people have to take turns sitting to eat. Walnut’s children keep a pet fox named Baby Fox who runs long laps among all the work boots beneath the table.
Through hand gestures and single words Walnut has explained that Baby Fox was found drowning in a puddle in the barn during a midsummer storm. He is about the length of a cat but plays like a dog and is faster than both with sharper teeth. Baby Fox is the first one I truly befriend and eventually he prefers to sit in my lap at the table while I eat quickly until my knees are raw and cross-hatched beneath his feet.
On the fifth day Walnut approaches me kindly and explains that the family hopes that we can take Baby Fox with us when we leave because he and I have grown attached. When I explain to Walnut that all I have is a backpack and a train pass he tells me, “Think about him when you go dreaming. He tell you what he need.”
One day we follow the Giant outside in an attempt to avoid Hope and Maria, which is how we end up spending the rest of our time pulling weeds with Lizard and Giant, who are Argentinian and Danish, respectively. Out in the field they teach us to grip both hands around a thick weed and lean back using our own weight to wrench it from the ground. Sometimes Nate links his elbows beneath my arms and we pull together and still, often, the weeds snap away at their base.
On the sixth day Lizard and Giant confess that they are “Young Life” which means that their names aren’t entirely official yet, but the Nucleus is letting the two of them test the language out to see how the intelligent energies vibe in return. We don’t ask them what this means because usually Lizard gestures “no” at Giant whenever the big guy begins to explain something in depth. Lizard is wiry and serious and doesn’t like to answer our questions. He is newer to Damaasdfnhur than Giant and after two days with the three of us he moves to another part of the field to work alone.
On the seventh day Giant tells us quietly that his birth name is actually Johannes. We three spend the afternoon sitting down in the cracked field and imagining what our Damaasdfhurian names would be if we stuck around.
“Baby Fox,” says Giant, winking at me, and I am surprised to somehow feel pleased. “And you,” he says, turning to Nate, “a healer, no, a wizard, no, a Wren. A quick bird and a bright one, like your hair.”
I wrote down almost everything that our boss, Noce, said in bits of English because it was usually a little fantastic and also very brief. He always wore the same sweater and was taller than every doorway he encountered. Through a series of exchanges, Noce conveyed to me that I had made a kind of commitment to the little fox Volpino and would hurt him if I left him behind at the end of our stay.
From Damaasdfnhur’s web presence I’ve learned that many Damaasdfhurians studied animal communication, which I found interesting since by no means were those we ate with and met at meal times vegetarians. I also thought it inconsistent that the animals who had names were only called by the name of their species, while humans had both an animal and a plant name chosen for them by the group. The cows and chickens did not have unique names because eventually they were to be eaten. By the end of the first week we learned from Gigante that Noce’s full name was Tocchino Noce (Turkey Walnut), which matched the animal-plant structure assigned to everyone else who we met except for Silfie and Gigante who inexplicably had mythical creatures in place of animal names.
Noce’s three children—two boys and a girl—had not reached the age where they were given names yet and introduced themselves to us all as “Noce” though they laughed when they said it and I’m not sure if this was some kind of play. The three little Noces moved everywhere with a large pack of children from the Nucleo who were treated like one complex organism by two silent, unsmiling women who herded them in and out of the kitchen. Despite the evidence of regular reproduction going on at Damaasdfnhur, Gigante explained that the community had experienced a significant decline in its population since the 70s. The new “Young Life” program, which had brought Gigante to Damaasdfnhur, was instituted in an unprecedented move to invite non-original or born-in Damaasdfhurians to join the community.
I do not know where the Young Life members were housed, fed, or transported for most of their stay. I don’t know what the houses of other Nucleos looked like or what kind of community work they involved. I don’t know how many Damaasdfhurians had income outside of the commune and how many relied on internal employment. In truth, Nate and I didn’t speculate or process often among ourselves because after two months of manual labor alongside one another we were weary of each other’s company and also of our own reliance on it. We were two weeks from departure. We were tired in the very deep way that navigating another culture but never acclimating to it can leave a person. We were somewhat starving and somewhat overwhelmed and somewhat coasting in a relationship that had become increasingly more platonic as it approached some kind of survival.
The uniquely awkward nature of Nate’s and my experience in Damaasdfnhur ended up having a lot to do with the fact that our work exchange situation meant that we weren’t paying any money to be there. Damaasdfnhur, it turns out, was a money-making enterprise. In addition to stratifying physical contributions, Damaasdfhurians in classes A, B, and C gave increasing portions of their income to the community. Class D contributed everything that they earned in jobs outside of the commune. To be a visiting Young Life member one paid a daily fee (of an amount never revealed to us and which is listed nowhere on Damaasdfnhur’s official site) that decreased as one made steps toward initiation as a citizen. Only now, after retrospective research, do I realize how far Gigante and little Lucertola really were from full citizenship at the time, a process which included months of study in the School of Meditation, numerous ceremonies, and an all-community vote.
Gigante had been around longer than Lucertola, and this was perhaps also why he was able to provide much of the context for what was going on around us. There is also a chance that he took the whole process much less seriously. It was clear that for him, the naming situation was more akin to class categories in RPG games than it was to non-human species and intelligent energies. After we left Damaasdfnhur, Gigante friended both Nate and I on Facebook, where we occasionally got to see more of his life at Damaasdfnhur playing out. His page disappeared somewhere around 2013.
At the time, Gigante explained to us that his aspirations in Damaasdfnhur were to revive a tree-dwelling Nucleus that had been disbanded for issues that he didn’t totally understand. What I feel conflicted mentioning is that Gigante was also the most stereotypically New-Agey person we encountered, after Silfie, on-site. Meaning that he seemed like someone who had taken a lot of drugs. Meaning that his conversation was soupy and abstract in the way I had come to associate with people who have taken hallucinogens frequently. He made little eye contact but a lot of hand gestures and had several soap-boxy spiritual agendas that he could return to at any moment.
What I had liked about Damaasdfnhur was that part of their philosophy was never to proselytize or seek out new members, and Young Life and Gigante both seemed new elements within an old system that had not yet been rationalized. What I wonder now after five years away is if Damaasdfnhur’s new WWOOF membership was not a second attempt to invite in like-minded visitors whose experiences would be controlled enough that they might eventually pay to see more.
5. Hall of Metals
“This is a circular temple dedicated to metals and to time. The progression from the youngest age, connected to iron, to the oldest one, connected with gold. This hall is available for meditations connected to one’s life path, to contact oneself in different moments in time, and to prepare for making inspired choices.”
On our ninth day at Damaasdfnhur they drive us to the capital city, Damijl, where we encounter our first real trouble. We are neither Young Life nor paying visitors and have no Credits to our name, so it takes some finagling and a cameo from Walnut to get us in to see the community’s founder, Falcon Dandelion, give a talk to the gathered villagers. We are given time to roam the grounds where about twenty buildings are covered in murals that are densely collaged with natural imagery, the kind made to give an illusion of depth. Inside the first we find a welcome center where Selfic devices are sold for exorbitant prices.
The grounds are dotted with labyrinths made of colored stones lined up in complex shapes anywhere the ground is flat enough. To kill time we begin to walk a hot pink labyrinth when a young woman approaches us smiling hard. She reminds us not to cross the line of stones or we will de-energize the labyrinth for the following hour. Once she is out of sight, Nate places his foot directly on top of a pink stone and I glance around us quickly.
Nearly a hundred of us sit outside in folding chairs on a patch of sloped brown grass while Falcon speaks through a clip-on microphone in Italian. I have never seen a crowd spend an hour so rapt. Even the children who sit in the dirt keep their eyes on Falcon as he paces at the front. Occasionally someone in the crowd will rest their head in their hands or turn their eyes up to the sky in response, or some kind of ecstacy. Afterwards, clumps of people gather on the grass and talk far too quickly for my dinner table vocabulary to keep up. I spot Faun and he gestures to us still in our seats. When we approach he introduces us to Swan Banana and Snail Coffee, who speak English and are interested in the WOOF organization which I suddenly realize I know very little about.
After a few minutes Fauno takes us aside and adopts a serious expression while he explains, somberly, “We would like to offer you a visit to the Temples of Humankind,” looking back and forth between us. Nate scoffs so quietly I can barely make it out. “Does it cost anything?” I ask when he stays quiet. “40 Credits,” answers Faun, looking stern, “for a tour of the eighth wonder of the world.” “That’s almost 60 US to see a church,” Nate replies quick. “I assure you there is no church,” says Faun, starting to back away. “Let us get back to you this evening,” I ask, a little louder, but Faun lifts both palms as if the decision has been made.
On the tenth day when we return to the Nucleo house from the field, sunburned and covered in soil once again, the combined families hold a dinner to celebrate the birthday of Snake, their oldest member who is either turning 89 or 75—his age is debated. Four thick men who I have only ever seen scrunched up in small cabs out in the fields drip a combination of sweat and flour as they rotate before the mouth of the giant wood stove at the back of the stone kitchen. The men pass between them a massive wooden pizza peel that looks perhaps too much like a battle axe when they bring it down on the lip of a table to shake off excess dough.
I’ve stopped letting Baby Fox sit in my lap and Walnut has started letting him outside more often so my hands are free this evening as the kids squeeze in around us. Through some miracle of muscle and choreography and coals we are suddenly presented with half of a margherita pizza each. It is the most food we have seen in what feels like a lifetime and Nate and I side-eye the table as everyone folds, rolls or piles the loose dough between their teeth, relying on gravity and both hands.
Sometime during our early days at Damaasdfnhur, following some disagreement between Noce and Hope, the WWOOF organization had copied us on an email to Noce reminding him that our position was one of exchange and exchange only. After our plane and train tickets, Nate and I had tried to spend as little hard cash as possible that summer, but we had still come up short by the end. We had our tickets home and change left between us. Visiting Damijl was overwhelming simply because anything worth seeing or doing cost money to see or do. Creditos were the currency of the place—delicate coins minted in the city itself—and at the time we visited one credito was equivalent to a euro.
Everything on site in the capital down to the bathroom stalls was state-of-the-art and sustainable. The aesthetic of the place was consistent in that every surface featured the same densely collaged paintings, but it was clear that some things were much more poorly crafted than others. Specifically, while wandering we came across sets of stepped, crudely carved columns stained like red rock and depicting everything from Egyptian gods to sea turtles. For a community famous for its art, the poor craftsmanship and fake coloring was the first thing that made me truly skeptical. This seed of doubt was likely the reason I didn't press our situation when Fauno invited us to see the temples. I had imagined dim, dank halls lined with angular carvings, and more of the mishmashed symbology I associated with new-agers, and we didn’t have enough for one entry between us.
At the time I didn’t entirely believe that the temples existed. Today, a virtual tour of the place has made me consider otherwise. If they do exist in reality, many of the subterranean halls at Damaasdfnhur feature what must be work of the best craftsmanship and the finest materials that Nucleo dues can buy. Some halls in the temple are the size of gymnasiums and feature golden or mirrored walls, mosaics, stained glass, and skylights. Others are covered in murals depicting sprawling scenes from Damaasdfhurian myth and spiritual practice.
Only recently did I learn that it was neither the Vatican nor drugs that inspired the Italian police to first raid the community but a tip from neighboring villagers who were suspicious of the community’s activities. The entrance to the temples was apparently so well hidden that authorities threatened to dynamite the entire mountainside before Damaasdfhurians agreed to show them the place.
Because the temples had been started twelve years prior without Damaasdfnhur notifying the authorities or applying for permits for construction, the government threatened to demolish the entire compound. But the structure was quickly vetted by planning authorities and after images of the interior began circulating around the country, a compromise was reached.
Damaasdfhurian spiritual beliefs are perhaps the most complex and patchwork element of the place but, as best as I understand, the system claims to focus on nothing less than the collective spiritual development of all mankind. The philosophy was essentially invented by Falco, who had visions of the temple structure at age 10 that he claimed were from a past life. The system involves a lot of cornerstone buzzwords such as positive thinking, coherence, independence, action, and self-awareness, which are said to inspire self-improvement and connection to “the intelligent natural energies of the universe.”
At the same time I discovered Damaasdfnhur’s new extensive and well-made official online presence I also came across the third most popular site related to Damaasdfnhur searches called “Damaasdfnhur Inside Out.” The site is a Wordpress-hosted blog that is authored by several people claiming to be ex-citizens who escaped severe mind control they were under while living in Damaasdfnhur. They cite articles from Focus, an Italian Scientific Journal naming Damaasdfnhur as one of the most prominent mind control cults in Italy.
The site’s main page reads:
“It has made one man very wealthy and his followers exceedingly impoverished. Stripped of all their material assets, their debts increase as his wealth accumulates in Swiss bank accounts and off-shore investments. The latest scam has been to persuade all the remaining founder members of the real estate cooperative to sign away their shares in Damjjl, leaving him the sole owner of all the original houses.
You certainly cannot rely on the British or American media to give you an accurate picture. Filmmakers and journalists have all been taken in by its superficial glamor, efficient marketing and completely indoctrinated PR staff. Former members are too scared to talk or give evidence and it’s hard to build a legal case against the Community without it.”
The anonymous author goes on to explain the site’s origins:
“In 2007, one ex-Damaasdfhurian, an English journalist with ten years experience in the Community, briefly opened a Yahoo group to inform would-be Damaasdfhurians of the dangers of getting involved. The site lasted only two weeks and was repeatedly attacked by hackers from the Damaasdfhurian PR office who entered the system, stole members’ email addresses and sent them letters discrediting the journalist. Already battered and demoralized by her Damaasdfhurian experience she closed the site and has not been heard online since."
How then can anyone outside of Italy make an informed decision about Damaasdfnhur when there is no reliable information in English? This site aims to change that.”
6. Hall of the Earth
“Thirty meters underground, this hall is composed of two circular rooms that create an infinity sign. This hall helps one to access the ancestral memory of our species. It may also be used for dancing and contacting the body.”
On the ninth day Faun sneaks all of the farmhands away from the Nucleo from dawn to dusk by telling Walnut that we are going to a field out at the edge of the land. We leave before sunrise and Nate and I are the last ones awake. “Quiet,” Faun urges me, as I rummage through the basket in the kitchen where someone has forgotten to put fruit out for breakfast so regularly that I’ve learned how to eat an apple core. I’ve made up with Faun over the past week even though Nate and I are clearly still the least favorite farmhands for reasons I do and do not understand. It’s Hope’s last day and she still grumbles at us as we climb into the truck last alongside the rest of the farmhands and Faun turns his headlights to the Alps. Up front sit Lizard and Faun’s girlfriend, a New Life visitor whose presence is a secret here because both she and Faun are married.
Soon, half the bodies in the truck are sleeping bodies except for Nate and I who are too cramped to relax. As we cross the first mountain pass Faun turns back to us and explains, in the way common to those in bilingual communities, that he and Lizard are going to speak only in Italian for now because they are making plans for a new project in Damaasdfnhur. On the way up we stop at a small convenience store wedged between the narrow shoulder of the incline at the side of the road. We’ve brought no money, of course, but Fauno buys us a loaf of “American bread” with stars and stripes across the wrapping.
It’s another hour to the top and by the time the road rights itself the sun is a quarter way through the sky. When we get out there is nothing to do but walk, and nowhere to lose ourselves because green stretches in all directions interrupted by rocky outcroppings that protrude from herds of sheep wandering alone. Maria and Hope chase the herds while Giant takes my picture wearing Nate’s hat and holding the American bread high. I smile and then he runs off to find Lizard who is stewing somewhere. The air is crisp and cooler than any I’ve felt this summer and I lay back in the grass grateful even for the spongy bread disintegrating in my mouth.
On the long ride back down it’s me who falls asleep so I’m wide awake by the time we get back to the dark shed and I decide to ask Nate if we can stay another week. I explain that I haven’t been able to figure the place out yet. I’ve gotten comfortable eating at the long table with the little Noces and I need to find a way to ask more questions without paying a fee, but Nate shakes his head. We have eight days left until our flight and have to make our way south before our train pass expires. Plus he’s tired of the awkward conversation and the precious hocus-pocus and can’t take another day.
In that picture from the Alps I’ve got my tongue between my teeth, mocking and embarrassed of the place I come from where white bread and its chemical cocktail were invented and then spread around the world—I remember wanting to be someone other than myself at that moment. Finally realizing what was true and assumed about us that made everyone there so wary. We came with no language or craftsman skills to speak of and no knowledge of the place where we had arrived. I think mostly what I wanted was time to make up for that.
Fauno’s girlfriend was a closely kept secret primarily because the first rule of the New Life program was that members could not become romantically involved with current citizens. Gigante explained that this was because the heads of the program did not want visitors to be swayed to join for reasons of passion. Marriage in Damaasdfnhur worked on a renewal basis where each couple decided on the period of years before the union would require another renewal, and conception was timed for auspicious birthdays, so theoretically there was no reason to hold an extramarital affair. Like many of the New Lifers we did encounter, Fauno’s girlfriend was middle-aged, wealthy, and bleary eyed in the way we must have been while trying to parse what was going on around us.
What was common about most people I encountered in Damaasdfnhur is that they had a kind of active quietness about them. They seemed like people who were struggling with a big question that they weren’t always happy about answering. I think many of them had come to the community as a way to leave behind bad situations or had lost their Catholic families in doing so. But many of those who we encountered in our Nucleo talked about how Damaasdfnhur had saved them. We began to see what it meant for the first citizens of Damaasdfnhur to begin dying off.
What drew me to Damaasdfnhur was that same small seed that suggested it could be a kind of escape—a stark void that might ease the requirements I had expected myself to fulfill that could provide the space for us to get back to the land and live in real community like humans should.
What I’ve thought about since is whether or not any stark life conversion reads like a type of mind control to those who witness it from the outside. Or whether, while being financially controlled from the top-down, there might not be some reality to the happiness I witnessed among many whom we met in that strange place.
Damaasdfnhur Inside Out claims that Falco orders “black magic rituals” to be carried out daily against citizens who have left the commune to discourage others from following suit. The authors claim that the community’s land holdings have increased gradually over the years because Falco has instructed farmers to move the fence lines gradually every night.
“Yes, there is a Time Machine in the Temple and Yes, you have to enter naked in order to travel in it. Yes, Airaudi believes he can transfer the spirits of the dead into newborn babies. Yes, there is a secret language. It is called the Sacred Language. It can be written, spoken and danced. Yes, Damaasdfnhur uses its own currency (in competition with the Euro). Yes, Damaasdfnhur has its own schools and settlements. And Yes, Oberto Airaudi has had sexual relations with a large percentage of his female followers. He calls it ‘alchemical magic’.”
The authors conclude their home page with the message: “Watch out for Damaasdfnhur’s persuasive psychological techniques while you are there…they are aimed at encouraging you to join the Community. Damaasdfnhur is not what it appears…it is a sophisticated mind control cult. Happy Holidays!”
What seems to be a fact is that in 2009, Oberto Airaudi, was accused of 2 million Euros in tax evasion involving “an enormous personal estate consisting of an extraordinary number of houses and bank accounts,” as reported by the Canavese newspaper La Sentinella. By the time we arrived in Damaasdfnhur, the community had begun to distance itself from its founder and leader who was gaining a negative public reputation that confirmed long held suspicions about the community.
7. The Labyrinth
“Walking along the Labyrinth is like walking through the entire history of humanity, distilling the divine principle from within oneself, contacting the eternal essence beyond all cultural representations. This hall is available for meditations to get in touch with the most profound elements of oneself and to contact divine energies.”
On our last day on the farm we work a half-day in the sweaty western high tunnel picking new tomatoes. The thin stalks there are wound around ropes strung from floor to ceiling that feature net-sized spider webs between. After two months in the dirt and the sun I still scream when I turn around slowly holding a full basket and brush my shoulder against a black and yellow spider the size of a ripe tomato who sits waiting at the center of her web. The Faun looks disappointed.
Soon Walnut is calling me from the front of the house and I have to extricate myself from the whole situation and climb out of the tunnel carefully. Fauno translates because Walnut is frantic. “He says Baby Fox has been missing for two days. He wants to know if you have seen him.” “No,” I admit guiltily, as Fairy gives me an unwelcome squeeze from behind.
At the train station we sling our backpacks up with muddy boots tied to their straps as Walnut shakes our hands. He’s got meetings in town and the goodbye is quick. “You visit next year,” he tells us.
We fly out of Rome with dirt deep in our nail beds and two backpacks full of soiled clothes. I save my last Carter story for the plane—a fairy tale about a feral woman who is raised by wolves and employed by a vampire. In a month I’ll throw the small paperback away when it first begins to mold. I read and I don’t look out the window on our short ascent. The plane curves west, away from St. Peter’s and the restricted airspace over the Vatican, away from the Alps and the hills below them and the temples buried beneath where I know we will not be returning.
Between 2010 and 2012, Damaasdfnhur was investigated heavily for tax evasion and was required to pay hundreds of thousands of euros in fines. The community began paying additional heavy fees to the government after investigations into medical procedures they performed without license, and for psychological damage suffered by former members.
One of the comments from Damaasdfnhur Inside Out reads:
“I have been living here for almost twenty years and it is only recently that I have begun to be aware of the perverse mechanisms that bind all of us to our roots. It has been a slow awakening accompanied by a lot of pain and suffering because of my profound sense of defeat and failure. My dependence on the guru and everything he has created is very strong, unimaginable, powerful and impossible to describe. Contrary to what was reported in the article, I entered the group not because I was depressed or anything similar but because I was an exaggerated idealist and believed I would spend my entire life in this reality in the service of humanity. Total deception!! My strength, my life, my means, my wealth and what is worse all my ideals, were just useful instruments for making a guru even more powerful. For enriching a situation that only outwardly appears to want to help humanity and when it does, its real aim is to find consensus and create a defensive screen. It is however true that I am free to go whenever I want to; I can leave the situation in an instant. That notwithstanding the fact that I do not have the means to do so. This is because in the past, I broke off all my relationships with my family of origin, with friends and all those who had any affection or respect for me. Now I am alone. I am completely dependent on this reality for my every breath and from every point of view.”
In 2015, Damaasdfnhur reported that Oberto Airaudi/Falco Tarrassaco/Falcon Dandelion, the community’s founder and leader, had died due to mysterious illness at the age of 63, though several sources now speculate that he is still alive.
The overwhelming evidence of corruption connected to Damaasdfnhur pulls hard at the logical parts of my brain, but I’ll admit that what also pulls is this strange instinct to protect and defend those I came to know while there. From this distance, it’s clear that the structure WWOOF itself created was perhaps a one-time loophole in the community’s otherwise secure system. What was unique about our experience was that, for maybe the first time ever, visitors who had no previous knowledge or prejudice against the community were allowed to live and work deep inside it unchecked. That we were those people, and that so many who lived there were not concerned about our presence makes me somehow unwilling to write the community off so quickly.
What I will say is that while I was frustrated and turned off by so many contradictions, I enjoyed what was going on—the whole messy spectacle of it—because of the people who that system gathered. Because their fervor wasn’t unfamiliar—only its referent. It’s because of those people that I wouldn’t necessarily refuse to visit for a short time, even today. Perhaps I had started getting sucked in through a process that keeps visitors at arm’s length—just hungry enough for acceptance. We got a taste of what it would feel like to be named as an insider, to belong to something that held so much power over everyone in earshot. Or perhaps what happened was that I was looking for something that looked very much like an anti-structure to catch and save me from the great academic and social systems I saw up ahead.
What seems more interesting to me now is this idea of thousands of followers who live happily within corrupt spiritual pyramid schemes until they crumble. After all, each major religion and government is plagued with similar corruption—we just expect that these systems crumble and are bolstered cyclically as I myself expected there to be a catch at Damaasdfnhur. But I recognize that what pushed me out in Damijl was not the convoluted and stratified religious structures— the Catholic church, after all, is no less complex or disturbing. The transubstantiation ritual might be called a brand of energy transfer requiring an equal leap of faith to believe in. What threw us, and throws me today, is mostly the unfamiliar vocabulary—the names and the buzzwords and the newness of it all. The problem with the New Age is maybe a boring one because it is a problem announced in the name. It qualifies a practice that seems hokey mostly because it is not time worn—a fervor with no ancient structures or texts or wars to its name. And so here I find myself defending this element of a culture that I can’t fully articulate—that the contentment expressed by those who lived in Damaasdfnhur was the same as those blinded by any system that seems to serve many people while serving very few. It’s not such a leap to imagine that this place was a kind of answer for them even if the structures surrounding it were as self-serving and parasitic.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Sarah Minor is the author of The Persistence of the Bonyleg: Annotated a digital chapbook from Essay Press. She runs a series at Essay Daily and teaches as a doctoral candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University. Her recent work is forthcoming at The Normal School, Passages North, and Hotel Amerika.
100 Ridges Circle Athens, Ohio
This old asylum on a high ridge overlooking Athens, OH has a floor plan that looks a lot like a bird with its wings spread. In 1874 an architect designed the place to catch breezes from the river in a time when we still believed fresh air was some of the best medicine. Today its most regular visitors are hikers and giant buzzards. I go there to get away from undergrads, to get creeped out, and for the breeze.