Settling the Swan

The Martin Farm had been practice, a dry run for the real thing. We’d had to treat it as such because we had no choice. For all we’d known, we could have been there for over a year. Sanitation and shelter couldn’t be put off, and even as it was we’d experienced epidemics of hep and staph. Nasty wake up calls indeed. But now began a whole new era where the land would be our own. We’d talked enough about the prospect over the summer to crystalize the agreement that this would be a lifelong commitment. We had big plans, deep, long and noble plans.

Buses that hadn’t been cranked over for almost 5 months got lowered from the blocks that had held them level with tires off the ground; their engines were jump started by the motor pool guys and they trundled up the road and out the front gate. Being one of the disabled buses, Shades of Blue sat there forlornly waiting for the next round of migration, to be towed by one of the stronger trucks to a new parking place on the new land. Finally our turn came. The chains wrapped around our frame and we lurched along down the rutted road, out onto Drakes Lane and through the hollow, past our trailer-dwelling neighbors, to the new front gate.

Most of the arrived buses and vans plus all of our people still living in makeshift plastic and canvas shelters had headed down the crude, overgrown logging roads to what then seemed like idyllic sequestered spots in the forest. Because we were being towed, our choices were more limited. We were dragged down to the far end of the cleared land. We stopped and looked around. Across the field we noticed an oak tree that stood taller and fuller than any of the spindly second-growth trees around it.

“How ’bout over there?”

Jose, our tow truck driver shrugged his shoulders. “Looks good to me.”

The chains were unhooked and we found ourselves in a shady spot with a nice view of the meadows that – we envisioned – would eventually be transformed into fields of grains or vegetables. There were enough low-lying saplings and shrubs screening us from the roads to provide some privacy. We stepped out of the bus and surveyed our surroundings. There was a slight depression leading down to a seasonal creek bed that had gone dry through the end of summer. Halfway down the slope, the Raised Roof Bus had parked with its contingent of single folks. About 30 yards away was the Santa Rosa Bus, with the four-marriage of William and Joseph and their two kids.

“This is your yard, girls,” Anita told Kristina and Janine. We reminded them to watch for the poison ivy and to keep an eye out for snakes. At the Martin Farm a few timber rattlers had been encountered and the locals had assured us that the woods and creeks were home to copperheads and water moccasins, too.


Within the first few weeks we decided to call our place for what it was: the thehouseFarm. We christened the end of the open field where we’d parked our bus the Head of the Roads for it was from that point that the logging roads radiated like spokes from a hub: First Road, Second Road, Third Road and our new address, Fourth Road. At the entry gate to the property, adjacent to the house – which was labeled The House – a small sentry booth was built out of rough-cut lumber. This would be our Gate House. You could fit four people into it, sitting in a circle on its built-in bench, but barely.

Over the first few days as we all wandered around and explored the property, we discovered that if you followed First and Second Roads through the woods, they eventually dropped into beautiful meadows just above the main creek on the property, Cox Branch. The Second Road Meadow was chosen as our Meditation Field where, every Sunday, we would gather before sunrise – just as we had on the Martin Farm. But here, there would be no train running through our meditation. And from the spot at the top edge of the meadow, where we would sit, we would be looking across the canyon of Cox Branch at the thickly forested ridges of our own land.

As we’d done on the Martin Farm, we adopted the creek as our bathing facility. Skinny dipping was the way, and for those first innocent weeks it felt natural to socialize with our friends in the raw. We were opening up to one another at every level.

First priority – again – we set about digging shitters. We were much more spread out on the new land and more latrines were necessary. At the same time, we began planning the new water system and putting together a simple factory for building pre-fabricated houses following a design we called a “Dutch frame,” which was based on trusses shaped like the profile of a Dutch barn. They were as economical a use of two-by-fours and four-by-eight sheets of plywood as you could devise. We all had hopes of having our own simple houses before winter.

The very elegant sorghum mill was being completed on a hillside below the main road. The not so elegant motor pool was being located not far from it. And the barn that had come with the property became the home to two Belgian Percheron draft horses we’d bought from the Amish down the road. Twice every day, those massive horses pulled a wagon through the community – in the morning to pick up our empty 5-gallon water jugs, in the afternoon to deliver the filled jugs.

As we’d begun to do on the Martin Farm, we sent laundry runs in to the Summertown coin-op several days a week. A rotating crew of “laundry ladies” loaded into a box-back truck for the short ride along with sacks and buckets of soiled and smelly clothes. The neighbors in town were no doubt a little put out by our taking over their small laundromat, but they soon adjusted their schedules to avoid us while we set a priority on building our own clothes-washing facility. And as more of our ladies got pregnant and babies started popping, the urgency around clothes and diaper washing would become even more intense.

The weather cooled and the leaves began to fall. The woods were spectacular with color, especially as we’d gaze at them bush-tired every sunset and on Sundays at sunrise after meditation. We were working harder than most of us had ever worked, under primitive conditions, but we were in our glory. In these days we were all the most optimistic true believers. Compared to the cynicism and despair I’d felt a year earlier, I harbored no doubts about my path in life. I’d found a common mission with almost 300 others.

We were establishing a sanctuary. Sometimes we’d think of it as a “family monastery.” Stephen had negotiated a treaty with the local sheriff, T.C. Carroll, where T.C. agreed to not enter our property as long as we kept order within our borders an didn’t export any disorder into his turf. We reached out to our immediate neighbors in the most helpful ways possible, and to a remarkable extent we were accepted into the extended community of Lewis, Maury and Lawrence Counties. At least we were tolerated by even the most begrudging natives.

As the weather cooled we created the role of Farm Scammer – our intrepid shopper for essential hardware items for the community, notably wood-burning stoves. There proved to be plenty of them out of use and available in old barns and backyards in the country all around us. Some had been built for burning coal, some were classic pot-bellies, others were true log-burners. The Scammer brought home sections of stove pipe and flanges for mounting the pipes through our bus and tent roofs. We were all such naifs and amateurs, but we were forced to learn the rough skills of tinsmithery, firewood sawing and splitting, the building and tending of heating fires.

We got ourselves a miniature pot-bellied stove, and in the mild chill of late autumn it had no trouble heating the inside of our bus beyond the comfort level to where we had to crack open the windows.

Anita, like about a dozen other ladies, was definitely showing her pregnancy. Ina May had begun to select other women to train in the skills of midwifery. She’d found a friend and mentor in Dr. Williams, the local country doctor from Mt. Pleasant, who had decades of experience delivering babies at home. All of the pregnant women were checked often by the midwives in training, following the Doc’s guidance.

By the time December rolled around, we were having some truly cold and raw weather, with hard frost in the mornings. We slept under layers of blankets and sleeping bags. The little wood stove could still warm the place, but it held too little wood to burn for long after we’d gone to bed. Mornings would be bitter , with ice crystals on the inside metal roof above us. I’d jump out of bed to load my prepared stack of tinder and kindling in the stove front, light a match to it and jump immediately back into bed, panting, lips quivering, toes frozen, hoping the fire would roar to life. Another frantic scamper would have me carefully inserting the next stage of kindling that would eventually result in enough heat to ignite a big enough chunk of wood we could burrow under the covers for the 20 minutes required to raise the interior temperature.

The Farm was still buying its food wholesale from local dealers, and having put so much money down on the property, the food rationing for that winter was pretty strict. You got a certain amount of flour, a certain amount of oil, margarine, beans, pasta, carob, salt, pepper, oatmeal, and our own Old Beatnik Sorghum Molasses – from the batches that weren’t good enough to sell. We learned to roll tortillas and make bean burritos. Some of us knew a little about edible plants and we’d bring dandelion greens and sorrel when we could find them.

We had plans to put all of our cleared land under cultivation and maybe even to grow on some local rented land. A busload of us returned from an apple picking gig in Michigan with bushels of fruit, but we could only eat so much of it. We had no operations for canning or freezing or dehydrating fruit at that point.

And as the winter came on, the rains came with it. What had been dry dusty roads turned to deep muddy bogs. We hunkered down in the cold. And on one especially frigid night in early January, our son Timothy arrived to this world in the Shades of Blue.


A place to call our own

What promised to be a cataclysmic event – our being caught red-handed growing pot out in the back forty – was promptly relegated to the past and the future. We had plenty to occupy our attention in the present, our accused perpetrators – including Stephen, who had accepted responsibility as the leader of our band of settlers – were released on bail and the trial was continued for a while. Meanwhile, we’d installed running water to standpipes along the main road, the community garden was yielding plenty of fresh veggies, a busload of our people had driven north to Michigan to pick fruit and bring many bushels home, and finally, we’d begun construction on a six-sided building to house the community store and root cellar.

We regarded the store building as a gift to the family who was letting us stay on their land. It was a nicely crafted construction – the first wood-framed building I’d watched being assembled since my father had his design transformed into reality in 1960. So we did have some craftsmen among us. Knowing that there were experienced people in the community to lead our farming, mechanical and construction projects instilled some confidence that we wouldn’t bungle our way into oblivion. The dumbness of the pot caper had unnerved me a bit. It certainly made gate duty more of a challenge, choosing our words even more carefully than before in responding to the questions of local Tennesseans.

Even as it began to feel that we might be digging in on the borrowed property for a while, the news spread that a piece of property just down the road was for sale. It was called the Black Swan Ranch, and its thousand acres had been used mostly as a cattle spread. We’d made an offer and the sellers were taking us seriously. I was amazed, given our sudden notoriety. Though we’d heard no outrage in reaction to the bust, I couldn’t help but think that there’d be resistance to our actually buying property in the area.

A couple weeks later, my fears proved unfounded as the deal was closed. The Black Swan would be our new home. Paul and I were invited to take a look at the land to see how our gravity-fed water system would be laid out. In the motor pool, one of the VW bugs donated by its owner to the community was transformed into a racy looking conveyance for Stephen’s exclusive use in getting around the new land. He called it the Boon Duggy. With Stephen at the wheel, Paul and I followed in a pickup truck for our first look. Just a half mile from our front gate, we turned down a smaller dirt road that led through a hollow and up the hill to a fence line. There was a white single story house and a corrugated metal barn next to a smaller wooden storage structure that showed its age. We stopped and looked around.

The house seemed to be at the high point of the property, withmainroad a dirt lane leading down a gentle slope following the cleared fields that were bordered by wooded ridges and hollows that – we were told – defined the watersheds of two creek systems – Cox Branch and Swan Creek. There was a well at the house – that would be our main source at this high point. But the lay of the land would determine where our residential areas would be. We might need to develop another water source and another system further down the road.

We went exploring, driving down the main road – a rutted, unimproved track that still showed signs of having been used mainly by the cattle herd. The cleared land was said to be about 200 acres. As in the property where we were temporarily holed up, the forests showed all the signs of having been ruthlessly logged of the best trees. What was left were mostly scrub oak and immature hardwoods of the hickory and maple families. Supposedly there were some good sized beeches and maples deep in the creek valleys, but we decided not to venture down the narrow logging roads that traced the ridge lines.

The next week, Stephen announced our plans for moving to the Black Swan. Those plans included our starting our first cottage industry – the production of sorghum molasses, a syrup made from a variety of sugar cane that was used as the southern version of maple syrup from the Northeast. To prepare for getting into that business, we’d build ourselves a sorghum mill where the juice would be pressed out of the cane and then boiled down for jarring under the label Old Beatnik. We’d also, immediately, secure another of the water storage towers from the boys camp where we’d salvaged the tower on the Martin farm. This new tower – a taller structure at 50 feet – would be erected near the house on the new property, at the highest point available. Flexible black plastic pipe would be run down alongside the road to wherever the residential neighborhoods would located.

Once those projects were underway, we’d begin moving down the road – the still-running buses first, followed by those, like ours, that needed towing.

The excitement seemed to drown out the concerns about being busted. The move began in September, 1971.