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.

NEXT>

(Photo: David Frohman)

Advertisements