Introduction

We named it The Farm, a deliberately plain label. Given its roots in the mind-altered visions of late Sixties San Francisco, our community could have ended up with a moniker better matched to the times: maybe Astral Village or Peak City or Unified Fields. We could have officially adopted what some locals chose to call it on their own: Gaskin’s Place.

Instead, we agreed on the most generic descriptor possible. The Farm was plain like the Amish folk who lived down the road. Like them, we sought to live simple lives, but our simplicity was relative – to the way we were raised in the emerging American middle class, and to the lifestyle the rest of our cohort sought to live.Farmies in the Meadow

Of course, we were very much unlike the Amish in many ways beyond those of our different heritage. We joked (OK, “Stephen joked”) that we were the “Technicolor Amish,” arrayed in our worn denim and granny dresses, patched in rainbows of corduroy and brocade. Like the Amish, we chose to settle out in the country, away from urban life, but we weren’t trying to separate ourselves from the world; were out to save it.

We were regarded as a somewhat mystical society – bootstrapped from psychedelic experiences – that believed in telepathy and described the psychic space in physical terms – a topography full of planes and levels. We founded our community around agreements, adopting two Biblical verses from the Book of Acts to describe our collective economy:

44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.

We turned over our savings, from the piddling amounts most of us had tucked away to entire trust funds. We took a vow of poverty, regarding all property as shared goods, and committing ourselves to living as an example to the world of how people of good will could grow together cooperatively, collectively and peacefully.

We tried hard, most of us, most of the time. In retrospect, it was a remarkable voluntary effort that endured for over a decade before the agreements – the unwritten glue that held things together – began to crumble.

It’s a fact that most of those who dropped out in the late Sixties and early Seventies did so tentatively, with one foot (their savings, trust funds, family expectations and career plans) still in the straight world as they dipped an experimental toe into communal urban households or small homesteads with a goat and a chicken in the yard. The vast majority dropped back in as soon as things got uncomfortable. At the Farm, most of us stayed dropped out.

Being a cross section of (predominantly white) American society, there were a few who lived for years on the Farm and never really lost the financial safety nets that remained available to catch them whenever they chose to leave. Had I been in that situation, I believe my experience of the Farm would have been very different. It would have seemed more like a very long Outward Bound adventure. I wouldn’t have been betting my life like I did. My unwritten commitment would have included an internal “just in case” clause.

My personal understanding was that the Farm was a permanent commitment. That, I believe, is the only reason it lasted in its collective form for as long as it did – 12 years with a common bank account and no declared individual income. But in the end, it proved to be a grand experiment for all of us.  The small contingent that still lives on the land in Tennessee under a “pay your own way” arrangement may not see it the way I do. For them, the Changeover in 1983 mostly affected their economic relationship, but not so much the social agreement. I’m glad they’re still stewarding the land and that the decollectivized Farm – as a gated community of not-rich people (again, Stephen’s description) – continues to occupy that place.

As a collective experiment The Farm was one whose hypothesis was posed by all of us who agreed to be both scientists and subjects. How else could hundreds of middle class American youth have been persuaded to live primitively and at risk for so many years? For us, the bet was that we’d make enough right decisions to create a community and a lifestyle that would sustain itself not just for 12 years, but for generations. Hundreds of us took that bet, laying down our savings, our income, our future security and the health of our families in the belief that the collective – the solidarity of our vision – would provide for us going forward.

This story was originally recorded in a weblog begun in 2004. In this rewrite, it remains my personal account of the 12 years I lived as a Farmie.

The Farm was an important piece of 20th Century American history. It’s difficult to imagine anything like it happening in any other country. Its history is recounted on The Farm’s websites, but the day-to-day details of life in that intentional spiritual community- that family monastery – in that particular era are barely touched on in any other existing accounts. Farmola will certainly not stand as the definitive account. There are thousands of personal experiences of The Farm that remain to be recorded. In living my individual lifestream, I missed out on a lot of great stories.

Combine what you imagine life must have been like for pioneers heading west in the 19th Century and settling on the frontier with pilgrim quests to found free religious communities throughout history. Add the mix of mind-altering substances, rock and roll, environmental consciousness, the political turmoil of the Sixties and a touch of modern communications technology, and you can map very roughly where we were at when we established our new village in the hills and hollows of Lewis County, Tennessee.

We formed at a certain time, in a certain place, for certain reasons. What we believed and hoped would happen did not all happen. Yet much of the spirit of community from The Farm still thrives in the relationships and collaboration among its former and current members. There are, I’m sure, many useful lessons to be found within this history.

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(Photo: David Frohman)

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7 Comments

  1. Judith said,

    April 4, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Thank you Cliff. It’s good to see your Farmie recollections and reflections back on the Web, and I look forward to seeing them in book form not too far into a common future.

    I am one of the people who was heavily influenced by Farm philosophy and pratices though never made the journey, or the commitment,to joining. A few years younger than most ofthe early settlers (and a good thirty-five years younger than my aunt, who was an original member of the Caravan and early Farm), I too related to being Technicolor Amish in many ways I believed in,a nd lived, karma yoga, compassionate vegetarianism, and simple living, and learned from the Farm’s publications and speaking tours how to make tofu cheesecake and that natural childbirth was a path to getting high in a spiritual way as well as a rite of passage. A modified monasticism fit in with my personality well, and I lived it in my job and community life in California. I had less need to be “entertained” than most of the people around me, including the New Agers.

    I wasn’t ready to give up what autonomy I had over how I lived these things though and that’s what kept me an independent hippie semi-peasant instead of a Farmie in the long run. I wanted the freedom to spend my very few extra pennies on organic olive oil and lemons and to eat a Polarity cleansing diet for ten days once or twice a year without Margaret or Stephen telling me that I was being “superstitious” about diet. I wanted to be able to do my own research and to choose whether or not to give my (at that point non-existent) child antibiotics if she developed an ear infection, without getting chewed out by the Clinic Ladies. I wanted to be able to have a dog if I wanted one. And I rather fancied having a supportive mate and sharing the bonding of the sacrament of childbirth with him, but I was unsure of my ability to find one, and the prospect of living an obligate celibate life in a tent full of other single women on the fFarm seemed a bit dicey. And quite honestly I didn’t like the music the Farm band played. Too loud and feedback-y for my folk-bred tastes.

    So, in terms of the Big Picture, Stephen and the Farm were my guides. the larger values were shared, and I picked up much of the language and philosophy by long-distance osmosis, and found it preferable to a New Age that was becoming increasingly materialistic like the larger culture.

    in the long run, Farmies, what I’m saying is that your history is also my history though I knew far more about you than you could have known about me. I studied you through a sort of one-way glass, imitated you in the ways I could (such is the way of younger siblings) and now that we are all on the same side of the mirror, so to speak., there is much we can learn together.

  2. Roan Carratu said,

    April 6, 2008 at 12:13 am

    Thanks for writing this. My memories are a jumble of disassociated events and experiences with very little chronological order, so writing my story about the Farm is likely never going to happen. Or if it does, it will not be very accurate. You are good at doing it with some reasonable accuracy.

    I had discovered the same stuff Stephen had on my own, from having been in an elite military unit and facing the heavy extreme stuff that was common those years. I had already tossed my life to the wind when I mutinied against going to Washington DC to ‘put down’ the Moratorium in the manner of the later Chinese massacre in Peking. I would have gone to prison for the rest of my life rather than kill people, especially in my own country.

    In San Diego in 1972, I ‘researched’ many different LSD inspired ‘spiritual’ groups before I finally joined the Farm. They were either flaky to the max or an absolute dictatorship of some guru, and I found the efforts to give acid enlightenment to the masses through audio/visual shows to be pathetic, the other alternative that was big at the time. I saw kids starve themselves to death to ‘purify’ their bodies and become ‘light beings’ and others did even worse things. Mostly I saw ego and bad drugs running rampant throughout the ‘hippie’ culture .

    Then the Farm Band put on a show at a local University and I saw people with minds that had experienced what I had, and knew more than I did about the experience. I got the ‘Great Western Tour’ album which was Stephen talking the ‘spiritual technology’ he had discovered and found it was exactly the same as I had discovered, only much more thorough. So when Michelle and I decided to tour the country, fixing up an old milk truck into an motor home for a few bucks, and we pulled up to the Gatehouse in Tennessee, I felt the difference immediately and got down and kissed the ground, knowing I was home, at last.

    Well, the Farm experience first scraped off the corners of my ego and then stomped it to death, for I didn’t fit into the Farm any more than anywhere else I had ever lived, but at the same time, I loved the Farm more than anywhere else I could have ever imagined. It was exactly the opposite of the military experience of cruelty and horror and intimidation I had experienced before, yet it was not an extreme, but rather the middle of what Humanity could do.It was the stable center between the extremes of Humanity.

    My mind does not pay much attention to the immediate here and now, but rather the huge world of here and now, and that is my talent and my curse. I could not ‘hang out’ like others, and that made me a rather uncomfortable person to be around. It also made others uncomfortable, so Michelle and I ended up living alone in a bus by the cemetery. Everyone was nice to us, but we were not particularly welcome. You see, I cannot remember names, even my closest friend’s names. That messes up your life more than anyone would guess. It seems insignificant, but if you are really bad at remembering names, like all extremes, it messes your life up. Still does.

    It’s a brain function thing, not an attention deficit thing. It has something to do with that part of my brain not being used like other’s brains do.

    But I knew and loved every face on the Farm, every person’s personal spark, and the core information was the purest distillation of Human spirit I had ever experienced. And it still seems evident to me that the Farm collective was disbanded by outside forces, although many would not like to think that. But it won’t be the first nor the last such collective effort to be split and made ineffective through the use of agents and the Equation of Division. And I don’t blame Gaskin either. I don’t even want to know who the agents were. I forgive them.

    And believe it or not, I think the world will someday live as we did, not necessarily in the woods or with a poverty vow or any of that, but in communities that know and use that essential spiritual technology that explains so much to me and which made the Farm’s basic layer of agreed upon compassion possible.

    BTW, Cliff, I think we met in the West Virgina acid commune a few years before I arrived at the Farm. More than one Farmie lived there for short periods of time like us. I sometimes wonder what happened to that commune.

  3. Don James said,

    May 18, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Roan, I read your comments and found myself identifying with you. I too went with my girlfriend and figuratively kissed the ground at the gatehouse, not really knowing what I was getting into. I understand what you’re talking about as far as your personality development. I had that as well. I basically lacked the ability to stay focussed on ideas trains for whatever reason. Part of it was interest. I had this ability to absorb all I could ask for from my senses. I thought of it as being able to save impressions or imprint on several sensory events at once. Sight, sound, smell, touch and get enough from that that I didn’t feel a need for much story line. Unfortunately that alienated me from most people. It might be in the category of autism or maybe just the loner prototype.

    Anyhoo, it wasn’t what the Farm was about or Stephen. They were very social and into oral communication (as well) and I was lacking in those skills and didn’t fit in and at the first “up in my thing” I was offended and we moved into a bus with another couple, but of course everyone was doing Stephen’s thing and I decided it was the highway. Because of my ability to imprint, I did imprint on the higher consciousness that was very real there and took that with me.

    As to outside forces closing down the old collectivism, I’d say it was more the same forces that shut down Soviet Russia. Collectivism does not work for all people. Some will be motivated by compassion, but others need the prod. And there was not true democracy, which means no person has more authority than anyone else. For whatever reason, I think Stephen did maintain control and that was his mistake. He had no history of management and should have stuck to what he knew, which was being a spiritual teacher.

    He really was revolutionary at that and his experiment of confrontation to expose the subconscious was excellent and will prove down the line to be the best way for spiritual aspirants to live together and use that living together itself as sadhana. But it’s the hardest yoga and I think THAT is the main reason really that the Old Farm failed. Plus asking of people to be saints. Pretty intense and extreme. A noble venture and those who failed the test have nothing to be ashamed of.

  4. March 23, 2009 at 1:43 am

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  5. Michael Traugot said,

    June 23, 2009 at 5:51 am

    Cliff my first reaction upon reading your intro was that you certainly got it pegged about different people having different experiences at the Farm. It’s like the intro to the old TV program “Naked City,” which went “There are eight million stories in the Naked City: this is one of them.”

    We projected ourselves, “manifested” ourselves as together and united, and we were, in many ways, and the “outside world” saw us as that, but we also packed all our individual baggage accumulated up till that time, and brought it to the Farm. The surprising thing is we all got along so well–it WAS that sense of total commitment, which I shared with you and many of the other original founders, and some of those that followed . . . But we tended to forget that we came with personal stories–psychedelics and the way we lived tended to erase boundaries– thus could not necessarily integrate the differences . . . These were revealed, as you properly stated, when times got hard, around the “changeover,” when people started calling in their hedges, those who had them . . . a lot about how we responded to the changeover is explained by our original stories.

    We were both united AND individuals.

    Well I haven’t read much of Farmola yet, but I look forward to it.

    PS: My 1994 effort at telling the/a Farm history from my perspective, entitled “A Short History of the Farm,” has been circulating since then, informally and hopefully soon as a “real” publication. As with yours, my history tells what it looked like from my perspective, as one of the originals–and I lived there from the beginning through 2000. I think the more of us who tell our stories, the better for us and for our kids, and for people in the future who try to make sense of our times and draw some lessons.

    Thanks for putting out the energy and caring enough to do this.

    • cfigallo said,

      June 23, 2009 at 8:30 am

      Hi, Michael. Yes, your writing inspired me to do this and to take a finer-grained approach to describing what life was like on a day-to-day level. Which reminds me that I need to draw myself back into that mode. I tend to get “meta” about the Farm – analyzing how the whole thing worked (or didn’t) rather than describing what life was like for one person in a collective. And then there’s the hesitance to step on anyone’s toes – to attribute any dysfunction to any fellow member when – compared with the rest of America – even the trippiest of us was voluntarily putting out tremendous effort and making huge sacrifices just to be part of the Farm’s mission. I will endeavor, therefore, to recount daily life with a light, perhaps humorous, touch. Thanks for commenting.

  6. January 4, 2010 at 4:09 am

    Hurray for the ‘Farm Experiment’, as one who was born in San Francisco in 1957 and run-away to the ‘Huckleberry House’ in 1967, the ideals and lifestyles on the farm were what got many of us, Further …
    Once at the Farm in Tennessee, I asked Stephen about ‘Chocolate George’ a
    Hells Angel who lost his life avoiding a crossing cat, and how that changed me in my early years toward non-violence, Stephen seemed to pronounce a mantra or prayer for this ‘brave hero’ of the Haight-Ashbury movement …like Gaskin himself who had faced death in Korea and many other figures of the 60’s to present … a reaction towards a violent way of resolution towards a non-violent way …
    Like the Dali Lama says: Compassion is the Radicalism of Our Time …these compassionate hero’s I hope will be remembered for paving the way
    for Peace and Awareness in our lives and an alternative to, ‘the unpresedented megalopolis as demonstrated in Marshall McLuan’s,”Social Theory”
    The ‘experiment’ has yieled many fruits … and Love personal to many .

    Om, Thanks …


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