Technologies for Living – Year 2

We were reasonably settled. The locals seemed to have reached an equilibrium point about us. The hippies, though strange and possibly immoral, kept to themselves except when they were spending money in the local economy or helping out some neighbors. We were breaking even and that was OK.

Meanwhile, those of us with any craft skills were hard at work training the majority of us who had none. There were a few carpenters, a few gardeners and even tractor drivers, a couple of printers, programmers, radio experts and electricians, nurses, teachers and plumbers. Because there was no infrastructure beyond The House, a tumbledown shack, a sheet metal barn and some dirt roads, we had our work set out for us.

We invested in used equipment and bought nothing new. This included  a press and copper cooking pans for making sorghum syrup, several vintage trucks and tractors, farming implements, a road grader and backhoe, our aforementioned phone system, big Harris printing presses, washing machines and driers for the laundromat, refrigeration units and a surplus Greyhound Scenicruiser bus.

Through an informal apprentice system we manned crews for construction, vehicle repair and customization, food growing and processing, book publishing, primary health care, midwifery, road and water systems, phone installation and maintenance, and canning and freezing.

We cooked on propane stoves and one of the few exceptions to allowing outside businesses into the community was the propane truck that would fill the large supply tank at the head of the roads. No matter where you lived on the Farm, you had to fill your household tanks from that central supply. If you lived within a hundred yards or so, like us, and had a 5-gallon tank, you could carry it to and fro on your shoulder. Forty pounds. No sweat. If you lived further away, or had a larger tank, you needed wheels – at least a little red wagon and probably a motor vehicle – to handle the refill and transpo.

Firewood supplies came from wherever you could get them during the first winter, but by the second we’d established a working relationship with Homer Sanders, who owned his own wildcat sawmill. We helped him harvest hardwood logs and he taught our guys how to run the mill. In exchange for labor we’d take a share of the sawn timber along with the slap – the bark-covered slices that had no value for construction. The logging/firewood crew would drop off the slab – sometimes cut into stove-sized pieces, sometimes not – in locations ranging from public piles to custom home delivery. You’re luck in getting firewood might vary according to how close you were to someone on the wood crew.

There was also the Salvage Crew, who arranged with local towns and property owners to demolish structures in exchange for our keeping the materials – lumber, bricks, roofing, flooring, windows and doors. These resources were trucked back to the Farm for use in building our own structures. As with any other resources, the policy was officially to provide to those who needed them. But since we were all in need of these resources and there was never enough to go around for everyone equally, some game-playing and deal-making was involved in the distribution.

I’ll bring you firewood if you drop off some bricks.

I’ll let you use my crew’s truck if you fill and pick up my propane tank on your way.

I’ll bring flooring to build our tent platform because, well, I’m driving the truck that carries the flooring.

Some days you were lucky; some days not so lucky. And some people were in a position all day, every day, to make deals. It was perhaps not the most idealistic demonstration of spiritual collectivity, but it was the most organic and practical. Trying to manage pure equality would take a bureaucracy and we simply didn’t have the people or money to support such a management structure.

The functions most closely approached bureaucracy and the “power of the state” were probably the Gate, housing and manpower.

The Gate needed to keep track of the comings and goings of everyone. We kept a Gate Log that tracked every visitor that arrived and/or entered, and every vehicle that exited, whether visitor or resident. It was all hand-entered and visitors were told how long they could stay. If they didn’t show up at the Gate on the day they were schedule to leave, we’d call or send someone down on the Farm to get them.

Housing was closely related to the Gate because anyone staying for a night or more needed to be assigned a household to stay with. That household was accountable for them. And given that we had little housing, even at the most primitive level, putting visitors up was almost always a stretch. And yet, we hoped for visitors once we got beyond our initial “closed gate” period. More visitors meant more potential members, which meant – we hoped – more resources for growing a larger and more exemplary intentional community. And once we issued our invitation to any expecting mother to come to the Farm and have their babies home-delivered for free – along with our offer to care for and even adopt unwanted babies – our housing obligations expanded to providing homes for up to 3 months for these temporary individuals or couples.

Housing was also charged with finding homes for people who, for whatever reasons, needed to change dwellings. We were a restless, nomadic lot, and in the communal living experimentation process, people would often find themselves incompatible. Good enough friends to live on the same commune, but not good enough to share the same bus or tent or small house. For many others, the beginning of childbearing defined the need for more or more weatherproof spaces. It was like musical chairs – to make room for one family required another family to move. There was never a situation where a new housing development opened up. It was always “just squeezing by” and whoever was in the role of Housing Lady (it was always a lady, just as there was always a Bank Lady) had one of the most socially challenging positions on the Farm.

Manpower was almost as big a headache, for whoever sat in that chair had to balance the Farm’s needs for public services with those of income. Strictly through word of mouth, the manpower guy (always a male) learned of every person’s situation. Were they gainfully and effectively employed? If not, did they have an excuse? Did they need to learn a new skill to fill in a vital gap in community needs? Were they a problem to their crew or straw boss? Was diplomacy required or did they require a more hard ass approach?

The deal was, you did as much as you could. Every resident needed to be tapped into the Farm’s needs. But due to many circumstances – our frequent epidemics of debilitating flu or the need to be home with newborn babies or the occasional visits from off-the-Farm family, or the need to move or build a new dwelling structure – even the most responsible hardworking members might become unavailable. And yet, operations could not be shut down when it came to farming or using the good weather to construct buildings, or keeping paid crews working in the field.

We were inventing self-governance practices as we discovered new needs. We didn’t adopt any established practices and procedures; we made it up as we went along and everyone was supposed to go along with our ad hoc solutions. There were occasional protestations and flareups. It was obvious, sometimes, that our systems were not capable of dealing efficiently with business needs. Sometimes operations seemed just plain dumb, but most of us were willing to give the people with the responsibilities the benefit of our doubt. I’d think, “Better them than me” in those position. But being a frequent Gate man, I did my share of negotiating and taking the heat from frustrated friends as I twisted their arms to persuade them to take yet another visitor into the confines of their family lairs.

Our technology for handling these social transaction was ingrained in our way of communicating with one another. The engine that drove it was our mission – our agreement – that these difficult passages needed to be negotiated as gracefully as possible as the means to demonstrating global level collaboration. Patience and surrender were the teachings. We had all come there as students.

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Sorting 101

I’d had my first taste of “sorting it out,” a face-to-face social practice never taught to me growing up. Somehow I’d managed to avoid such frank encounters with others, even with trusted friends. Among those in my closest circle, disagreements were shrugged off. “Fuck it.” And as to those outside the circle, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

Stephen taught that truth must be arrived at between people; dishonesty in relationships had no place. Souls must be bared. Part of me inside felt rubbed raw and I stared out the bus windows, silent, for the rest of the ride.

The Caravan paraded along the beachfront of San Francisco, finally parking in a large paved lot in front of the arcade that identified itself as Playland. Our arrival had been expected and there were scores of people waiting to greet old friends and relatives who’d been away for three months.

The Shades of Blue family – such as it was – was breaking up. Everyone except for Donald, Anita, her kids and me had another place to go. I figured they must have been glad to be escaping the confines of bus life. There was no ceremony but for hugs and pats on the back. We sat there for a while, took a walk on the beach – I took the opportunity to put my hands in the Pacific Ocean for the first time – and then it was time to find a place to park. Donald suggested the Panhandle, an area adjoining the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, just beyond Golden Gate Park.

We were far from the only bus parked there, and many of our fellow bus families were not of the Caravan; bus living served the needs of the nomadic hippies who spent part of their time in the city and part in the open spaces of the Bay Area. There was acoustic music happening well into the night, but we slept soundly after the long traveling day.

The next morning, after a stroll through the fabled Haight Ashbury neighborhood, we talked about next steps. Donald suggested we cross the bridge to the East Bay to stock up on organic groceries at Erewhon, then drive back and cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin where he knew a place we could hang for a while and figure things out.

I continued to be enchanted by the panoramas, this time of San Francisco Bay. I thought, “This is a place I could fall in love with.” I’d encountered some counterculture living around D.C., but the Bay Area seemed to have been taken over by it. It felt like another country where I was the tourist, my hair and beard still too short to qualify for native hippie respectability.

At Erewhon we loaded up on beans, flour, honey, brown rice, fresh veggies, oatmeal, incense and rolling papers, then headed for Donald’s secret encampment. After an impressive drive across the Golden Gate bridge, the road took us into the hills of Marin, over the shoulder of Mount Tamalpais, where we stopped to sit and watch fingers of fog come creeping up the ravines from the ocean, providing yet another magical visual experience. Then, brakepads smoking,  we descended back to sea level, navigating the big bus along a treacherous winding mountain rbluebuspalomarin1oad, through Stinson Beach, around a lagoon teeming with birds, and then along a desolate unpaved road to a bluff overlooking the ocean.

“I figure we can stay out here until Monday, then we’ll go back into the city for class,” Donald said, referring to the resumption of Stephen’s weekly meetings. After hiking along the trails in the late afternoon and witnessing my first spectacular Pacific sunset, I barely slept a wink that night. I knew the next day would bring a reckoning.

It was time, as Donald put it, for us to “get straight with each other,”  and the next morning, after a hot cereal breakfast and a few tokes in preparation, we entrusted Janine to Kristina’s supervision outside the bus and began to sort out where we were at with one another.

It occurred to me that I’d never “gotten straight” in this way with anyone. Not even with my trusted friends, family members or previous girlfriends.  And even on those occasions, it had always been a matter of getting it over with as quickly as possible. Whenever any of these relationships had gotten “sticky” or created discomfort, I’d looked for the quickest and most convenient way out of the situation. I began to realize that, in fact, nothing had ever been “heavy” in my life, at least not in terms of a personal relationship. anitadonaldpalomarinI’d always regarded myself more as just a young guy out in the crazy world, dodging responsibility.

Meanwhile, Donald was using what I assumed to be skills taught by Stephen for running a meeting. He was setting up this our 3-person encounter as if it was a major turning point in our lives and relationships. I realized that I had nowhere to go; I was on the edge of the continent, on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean.

We passed the joint around again and I felt like a cornered – but stoned – rat. I looked at Anita and she looked back, directly into my eyes. We held that 2- way gaze – the Caravaners called it “eye-vibing” – for what seemed like an eternity, until I broke it off to look out at the huge ocean.

“There’s a place,” began Donald, “where you’ve got to cop to the energy when you’re sorting it out with people, and you ought to let that energy pass between you. If you can’t keep eye-vibing with ’em, you’re not really being honest. If it’s gonna get heavy, you gotta come on behind it and let people see into your soul.”

Now Donald and I were eye-to-eye and, after that admonishment, I couldn’t pull my gaze away. I started to break out in a nervous sweat, then felt a lump rise in my throat. So this was “heavy.” Donald breathed deep, then let it out in a long exhale, as if he was blowing out a huge candle. “See?”

“Yeah, right on.” I was wrecked. I looked back at Anita and we eye-vibed for the longest time. Waves of emotion rose  up inside, telling me that yes, I did care for this woman, this lady. She’d been my close friend and lover for months. She’d brought a new level of adventure and risk into my secure but too-cautious life. She’d introduced me to a wildness of dreaming that my other friends had seemed to avoid. I really did hope to stay with her, beyond just needing a place to crash in a strange place. Where that would lead, I had no idea and didn’t really care, we were so in that moment.

After a long silence, save for the whispers of the wind and surf and the occasional playful voices of the girls, Donald spoke.

“You know, this has been a really high experience traveling with Anita and helping her manifest this bus. I gotta say, I’ve gotten real close with your old lady, Clifford. I could do a thing with her. But I know that before I got on Shades of Blue, you were her old man and I don’t want to split you guys up. I see how the girls like you. I know how much she wanted you to come out here.”

I felt some relief, knowing that Donald had certainly filled the role of manifestor – a term that I’d picked up since I’d arrived. The manifestor is the person who keeps a scene together materially. Donald had maintained the bus, driven most of the miles, and served as the father figure for the bus family. He had a few years on me and even more on most of the rest of the passengers. He had skills I knew nothing about, from mechanics to leading this meeting. He’d helped Anita and I wasn’t sure just how close they’d gotten before I arrived, but I could feel that there had been something closer than friendship.

Anita’s attention had been alternating from me to Donald and back again. I wasn’t sure where she was at, so I broached the question through the lump in my throat.

“So, do you want me to stay on the bus? I don’t have to, you know. I can find another place out here.” I didn’t believe it. “I still want to be with you. That’s why I came out.” I did want to be with her.

She didn’t respond, but kept eye contact with me. I was trying to interpret what was coming through, on…what? On the astral plane? Some other plane besides the verbal one?

Finally words broke through. “I think I know that I want you to stay with us, Clifford. I’d hate for Donald to leave, though. Can’t we all just stay on the bus together?”

Donald instantly nixed the idea. “No, that’s not what I’d want. The energy would be all wrong. You guys got a connection. You got karma you gotta work out.  Maybe sometime later, it’ll feel cool for me to be with you, but I don’t feel straight staying here in this energy. So once we get back to the city, I’m gonna find another place.”

Anita’s uncertainty was all he needed to make up his mind, and the deal was done. Suddenly, my feelings fell from relief to bearing the weight of the world. I wouldn’t have to find a place to live in unfamiliar territory, but now I was faced with building a relationship in a new situation, a heavy situation with no other relationships to lean on when to got tough. And I’d have to assume the mantle of manifestor for Anita, her kids and the Shades of Blue.

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(Photos: Cliff Figallo)

The Shades of Blue

I got big hugs in the doorway from Anita, Krissy and Janine and was pulled up the steps into an interior that looked very different from the one I’d built in Virginia. Set aside the fact that Anita’s sister was no longer aboard – she’d decided soon after joining the Caravan that communal bus living was not for her. Indeed, the apparent arrangement on the Caravan was that, unless you were a family with kids, you filled up all available space in your vehicle with whoever wanted to join the community but didn’t have their own vehicle. So Anita’s bus – which, after painting, had been christened Shades of Blue – was now the mobile home for 10 people plus the newcomer, me.

Instead of the single bed platform I’d built in the back, there were now two double-decker queen-sized sleeping platforms, with another low platform butted up to the back of the driver’s seat. Thick foam pads covered the platforms. The ceiling was partially covered with rectangular, ill-matching carpet samples, glommed for free from stores found along the route. A small gas stove crimped the aisle-way, with a short plywood counter and sink making up the kitchen. A straight length of black plastic tubing directed drain water through the floor to the ground.

Tall Erik needed to bow his head to move through the bus. I plopped down on the platform behind the driver – a blond, lion-maned fellow named Donald – and was introduced to the rest of my traveling companions. The names entered and vacated my mind in an instant as the bus was put in gear and began to make its way out of downtown LA.

Janine and Krissy were happy to see another familiar face from their past, and they snuggled up to me where I leaned against the cool metal wall of the bus. The smell was a mixture of incense, pot, sesame oil and the musky aroma of unwashed laundry and human bodies. And while one of the “ladies” (as they called grown females) began to prepare food at the counter, most of the rest arrayed themselves on the platform around me and stared forward through the windshield.

We talked about my ride across the country and about their escapades in the southern traverse, including a run-in with some hippie-hating cowboys in Colorado. My companions were all single, none of them California natives. It was disconcerting to me that the expression “far out” was uttered so frequently. It seemed to serve as an all-purpose response to any statement, covering the full range of meanings from just barely OK to absolutely miraculous. It was the comma, colon, period and exclamation mark in our conversation.

Most of the far-out-espousing folks had joined the Caravan after encountering it in towns or campuses where Stephen had been invited to speak. The Caravan had not been planned, but had formed spontaneously when people who’d considered themselves students of Stephen decided to accompany him and his family’s bus on the journey. Together, they provided a supportive real life example of the peaceful collaboration at the root of Stephen’s presentations.

As I’d learned from his book, Stephen was married to a wife and also to another couple. Like the people I’d met on the New Hampshire bus, he lived in a four-marriage. And yes, the Shades of Blue passengers told me, there were many – maybe a dozen – of these configurations on the Caravan, each formed in a flash of loving inspiration that was beyond rational explanation.

I’d traveled as a naive teenager through Europe, even through the week-long Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, and through the exotic Arab culture of Tunisia, but I had a feeling that I might have just dropped into an even stranger rabbit hole.

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To drop or not to drop

The book was barely a half-inch thick. On the cover was a 6-sided symmetrically colored mandala, full of the concentric swoops, like what you see when you’ve just looked straight into the sun, then closed your eyes. The title – Monday Night Class – was on the back, over a color photo of a gangly long-haired, bearded guy sitting, with knees bent into the air, on a low stage, evidently explaining a point to a large crowd of people. Inside the book, the print was purple. There were no page numbers. The frontispiece was a full-page portrait – printed in the same purple ink – of the bearded guy looking back at you, straight into the camera lense but more than that, right into your soul. It gave me a chill.

As we drove back across the Potomac River to our apartment in Virginia – after Anita’s announcement that she fully intended to join these people on their circumnavigation of the country – I found myself actively resisting the urge to join her, but she didn’t care. All she needed was for me to fix up the school bus she’d bought during the summer while I’d been in New Haven, vainly trying to start up our lefty political magazine.

As she’d told me, the bus caper was part of her life dream – to drive off into the sunset and “find a piece of land.” I hadn’t come to that place yet; I didn’t understand the bus, nor was I ready for the driving off or the finding of land. I’d visited a small commune in West Virginia with its goats, outhouse, pungent smells and pervasive dirt. The people were nice enough, but damn it, some substantive changes needed to be made in this country and…well, I just didn’t know.

I committed to helping her pull out the bus seats and build a bed platform from 2-by-4s and plywood. I wasn’t happy that she was so eager to leave. Our relationship was casual, but the fact that she had two sweet young daughters and I’d become their erstwhile male figure felt important to me. Anita was five years my senior, which meant she had gone through more life adventures than I. And here she was, going off for yet another adventure that I was choosing to miss.

Within two weeks, the bus was ready. Anita’s sister had agreed to go with her to help with Anita’s two beautiful young girls, Janine and Krissy. One small problem: only I had experience driving the bus, and  both occasions had been terrifying. A school bus feels enormous and uncontrollable when all you’ve ever driven is a car and a motorcycle. I agreed to drive them to where Route 66 split off from the Beltway and headed south and, in the process, provide them with their driving demo. From then on, they’d have to figure it out.

Aside from instruction about double clutching and warnings about the lack of power steering, not much was said on the way to the departure point. My friend and roommate, Tom, followed us. I pointed out the lack of synchromesh in first gear, then stepped down to the ground as Anita settled into the driver’s seat. Tom and I watched as she crunched the bus into gear, carefully accelerated, and hit the speed limit. Krissy and Nini waved goodbye from the rear window as the bus disappeared into the distance. I felt a pang of envy.

They were off on an adventure. I would continue slinging bags of Christmas mail at the airmail depot until midnight. Tom and I got into the car and, there on the seat Stephen’s picture looked up at me from the book cover as if to say, “So now what are you gonna do?”

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Tea time in a parking lot

Over Thanksgiving in 1970 Ronnie Black, a friend home on college break, told me of a band of hippies that had stopped by his school in Ann Arbor the week before. A happy, friendly bunch, they’d impressed him in recounting the birth of a baby in one of the school buses that served as their traveling homes. They’d described the birthing as an experience on the order of a psychedelic trip.

Ronnie , being an extreme math wiz, was not, to my knowledge, prone to being impressed by the magical nor by the birth of babies. So when I noticed a feature story in the Washington Post a few weeks later, describing the arrival of a caravan of hippie-laden buses in the nation’s capital, I just had to check it out. Actually, it was my girlfriend Anita who made the first contact as I worked the swing shift at the National Airport post office. The following day, we drove in together and she introduced me to the family she’d met, parked with about 3 dozen creatively converted vintage buses in the parking lot behind a downtown church.

Their bus had sweeping fenders with separate headlight pods that dated its construction in the Thirties. The rear third of its roof had been cut away and a wooden loft with windows had been appended to fit the space, rising 3 feet above the stock roof. It was not the only bus so modified, but each bus and van was unique in its age, color and customization. They packed the parking lot behind the church, surrounded by other red brick buildings in the neighborhood, about a mile north of the White House, just off of 16th Street.

Long-haired men and women wandered and socialized amidst the mobile encampment. There were no police that I could see. The women all wore granny dresses, the men wore worn denim, patched with bright corduroy and fancy embroidery. These were hippies out of some catalogue of genuine goods, not like most of the east coast variety  I was familiar with, with their Edwardian fashions.

We knocked on the bus door – crafted of rough wood, replacing the original – and were invited in. The interior was set up efficiently like the cabin of my father’s sail boat, with a booth for an eating area, a small apartment-sized gas stove, a miniature wood-fueled heating stove, two double beds stacked under the loft, and two child-sized beds. A couple, smiling broadly, introduced themselves to me: Allan and Maylee. At their invitation, we sat down at the table across from them.

“Would you like some peyote tea? We’re using up our stash before we head into the deep South.”

I’d heard of peyote, but had never tried it. The previous summer had included some experimental forays, and I remained open-minded and curious. “Sure, why not?.”

I sipped about half a teaspoon full through pursed lips, my intent being to swallow, but the moment the liquid hit the back of my tongue the gag reflex took over. Our hosts smiled appreciatively as my tongue tried to reposition the liquid where tastebuds would miss it. An acrid aroma filled my sinuses.

“Take in a deep slooow breath,” said Maylee. “Relax your throat. Now exhale slowly and let it slip down the back of your tongue.”

Never had I imagined that anything so bitter could enter a human mouth, but following Maylee’s advice it did go down, and sip by sip I made some progress. The concentration alone seemed to be changing my perception.

Meanwhile, I was learning with some amazement that Allan and Maylee were half of what they called a “four-marriage” with another couple, Daniel and Fanny. And that Allan was actually the husband of Fanny, with Daniel being the legal husband of Maylee. And that their mission, as part of this traveling group, was to bring a message of non-violence to the young and angry generation of idealists around the country. So this wasn’t a lark, meant to shock the square American public. It had a noble purpose.

The Caravan, as they called the convoy of vehicles, was following a spiritual teacher – which they took care to distinguish from a guru, as the Beatles had referred to Maharishi – whose name was, simply, Stephen. They handed us a book of his words as transcribed from talks he’d given in San Francisco, origin place of the Caravan.

“Here. It’s yours. Keep it. Read it.”

On departing after our short visit, my head was zooming and floating from the combined effects of strong peyote, challenging information and the spirit-lifting presence of the New Hampshire Bus family. I was thinking what an appealing and fantastic caper it seemed to be, while a super-rational internal voice protested that the idea lacked any sense of practicality, and therefore must be both stupid and naive.

I asked Anita,  “How can they pull this thing off? How can hippies – HIPPIES – fix up and maintain all these old buses while trippin’ on peyote and smokin’ grass? Who’s paying for all this? Where’s this all leading?”

In response Anita announced simply, “I dunno, but I’m gonna join ’em.”

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Setup: the Sixties

I was there through the Sixties and I remember them. I was a white middle class kid who started junior high school in 1960 and graduated from college in 1970. My youth lives in my memory as a catalog of TV shows, characters and incidents. When I watched coverage of JFK’s assassination and funeral, it was on a black and white TV.

My rock’n’roll upbringing took me from Elvis through the dissolution of the Beatles, laced through with jazz, classical and some pretty decent pop. I took first holy communion but left the Catholic church at 14. My folks didn’t mind; it relieved them of the obligation to act religiously.

During the summer of ’65 I was a curb waiter at a drive-in burger shop. The theme songs blaring from car radios included Satisfaction, Like a Rolling Stone and Eve of Destruction. I was primed for disillusionment and open to leave lifestyle assumptions behind.

A civics teacher in my senior year had us subscribe to the NY Times and read the columns of Russell Baker and James Reston. We learned that the rationalization of the Viet Nam war was a lie. We learned that the press allowed that lie to go unchallenged. We learned that the war was a waste, generating huge profits for defense contractors while killing hundreds of thousands of peasants. We learned that our government was not the force for unquestioned good that previous history courses had claimed. I went to college because, well, that’s what was expected. My only friend to volunteer for service in Nam had the last name “Peace.” It was a world filled to the brim with irony.

In the summer of ’67 I traveled through Europe “on five dollars a day” with my best friend Lewis Black. I shit you not. Getting our heads outside of guysbensweddingAmerica for the first time changed our perspective of the World’s Greatest Nation (as we’d been brought up to regard it). We heard Hendrix for the first time in London. I bought the British version of Revolver.

But my close friends and I weren’t introduced to our first non-alcoholic mind altering substances until that autumn. We’d barely begun to appreciate getting high when 1968 – with the murders of JFK and MLK – politicized us. That was what, today, they’d call an extreme buzzkill. I was pissed for most of the next year but got my new buzz from taking collective action, massively.

Marching with half a million people on the Mall was actually the most mind altering experience I’d had to that point. Until being in a place with that many people, you have no clue what it’s like. It felt amazing, affirming and I’m sure we were all bummed that such seemingly irresistible strength was so totally blown off  by the morally puny president and his clownish crew in the White House.

I graduated from college with a red fist safety-pinned to my gown. The University of Maryland had been on strike for over a month before I casually accepted my diploma. I had no interest in seeking a job as a psychologist in the same corrupt nation that had elected Richard Nixon.

During the summer of 1970 I tried to co-invent a way to work with friends on a socially justifiable project, but politics within the Left had become divisive, petty and ugly. The circular firing squad had been formed and I didn’t want to get shot, much less shoot some other well-meaning schlub. So politics was out. Psychology was out. More school was certainly out.

I could only find fulfillment being around a lot of people on the same side as me. I knew I found contentment helping people who needed some. I felt that I was done with the D.C. area. I wondered if I should go back to Europe or join The Peace Corps or emigrate to Canada.

The energy of revolution seemed to be all around me, but I found no direction attractive enough to move.

So there I was, existentially frozen with a clearly corrupt buffoon elected to the Presidency, involved in an intractable and seemingly unresolvable war on which a growing number of Americans had given up. There were myriad social problems at home needing attention and funding.

It was much like America in the summer of 2008, except we had no presidential election happening to provide a window of hope. I was waiting for deliverance.

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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)