LA Times 2004

Aging of Aquarius; Graybeard capitalists keep hippie dreams alive as communes learn to adapt.

Anne-Marie O’Connor | Times Staff Writer | June 27, 2004

The Farm, Tennessee — Albert BATES grows nostalgic remembering the freewheeling days when hundreds of hippies left Haight-Ashbury in a caravan of psychedelic buses for a celebrated back-to-the-land pilgrimage. Bates was a law student when this electric circus rolled through New York in 1970, and he found it irresistible. Soon he followed, joining a young, affluent exodus to the American countryside that would be one of the most profound social experiments of its time.

His long hair and beard have grayed, but Bates still lives at The Farm, the storied American commune he helped build in backwoods Tennessee. Sipping Mystic Brew organic coffee at its eco-village, he chuckles at the memory of the trippy energy that once inspired some communards to boot up their “Marijuana Macintoshes” and design a Geiger counter they sold, for almost nothing, as a dashboard ornament for anti-nuke protesters.

“It was a novelty item, but it turned out to be very accurate,” Bates says with a grin. “It was pretty funny.”

The homegrown Nuke-Buster is no joke now.

Today, the computerized, satellite-accessible nuclear detectors are used worldwide by police, military, firefighters and federal disaster officials. They are used to stem nuclear contraband at the borders that Belarus and Kazakhstan share with Russia. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sales have risen 30%, to $2.5 million last year. The Farm-based manufacturer has been commended by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Not bad for a place that spent years under FBI surveillance.

“Homeland Security’s been good to us. We’re high-tech hippies now,” says Stephen Gaskin, the charismatic former San Francisco State lecturer who was once The Farm’s guru, preaching a long-abandoned doctrine of multiple-partner marriage and marijuana spiritualism. “We’ve had to find ways to survive,” Bates echoed, “in the material world.”

Hundreds of American utopian communities face the same challenge. A surprising number are thriving. But if American communes were once, in the eyes of Joan Didion, “slouching towards Bethlehem,” many today lean closer to Merrill Lynch.

Tie-dye, wood-burning stoves and mandalas still abound. But so do multimillion-dollar industries and financial restructuring that residents earnestly liken to the transformation of the Communist world. They may have dropped out of mainstream society to live a utopian dream, but now they embrace capitalism as a tool of survival, on their own terms. Most, including The Farm, no longer define themselves as communes, describing themselves as collectives, cooperatives and egalitarian communities.

More than 600 such settlements in the United States are listed in the directory of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. The Fellowship’s executive secretary, Laird Schaub, estimates that at least 10,000 Americans live in rural collectives.

That population could climb as high as 150,000 when religion-based cooperative communities — such as the Hutterites, who do not believe in private property — are factored in, according to University of Kansas religion professor Tim Miller, who studies communal life.

People in their 20s and 30s still join collectives, but now more of the newcomers than ever before are older than 50, Schaub said.

“There’s a surge,” said Schaub, 54, a member of the 30-year-old Sandhill commune in Rutledge, Mo. “We’ve been astounded at how easy it is to get summer interns who want to learn about organic farming. We have to turn them away.”

The communities produce industrial strength quantities of organic nut butters, artisanal cheeses, vegetables, tofu, hammocks, commercial vegetable and flower seeds — even a dessert wine endorsed by European wine snobs.

Virginia’s Twin Oaks produces hammocks for Pier One. The nut butters produced by a Missouri commune, East Wind, supply such mainstream chains as Whole Foods and Wild Oats, whose stores also market Sandhill’s organic sorghum.

In a region where family farms have become an endangered species in a single generation, organic farms such as Sandhill are lauded by the Missouri Department of Agriculture Web page as possible models for survival.

Some communities, like Harbin Hot Springs, in the Northern California town of Middletown, host paying tourists, with such amenities as hikes and shiatsu massage. Innisfree, in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, runs a boarding school for disabled children; another community has a summer camp for urban kids. Sunrise Ranch in Colorado runs a conference and retreat center, a growing source of income.

The communities have slick websites, marketing directors, federations, group health plans, hotlines, magazines, conventions and thick directories filled with romantic names — Dancing Rabbit, Dancing Water, Abundant Dawn, Dawning Star — that evoke an ocean of idyllic yearning.

Far from retreating from society, many invite the world in. Last year, the Findhorn community in Scotland hosted a U.N.-affiliated environmental conference. The Farm started its own U.N.-recognized international relief agency, called Plenty.

Yet at many communities, the graying elders are soul-searching as they ponder who will carry on their legacy. People interested in living there permanently are often aging ’60s veterans who are among the 74 million U.S. baby boomers making the transition to senior citizenhood.

Even at the venerable Farm, hundreds of commune-born children have grown up and moved to Nashville, New York or California. Few return to live at the end of this dirt track, past the farmhouse where the Confederate flag flaps in the breeze.

“There are people who need to see their children come back here, as an affirmation that what they did has legs,” said Cynthia Holzapfel, 56, the managing editor of the $1-million-a-year Farm-based Book Publishing Co., which has had several bestsellers: “Spiritual Midwifery,” “Tofu Cookery” and “Defeating Diabetes.”

“I’m a little more Buddhist about it. We’ve built it. If they’re going to come, they’re going to come,” said Holzapfel, a warm, open-faced woman with Birkenstock sandals, thick yarn socks, and a gray bob, leaning against a shelf of soy “meat” products in the warehouse of the mail-order health food business at The Farm.

Capitalism wasn’t the only thing that happened to The Farm along the road to Utopia. The commune engaged in a collective divorce in 1982, firing their charismatic leader, Gaskin. Homes that once housed 60 people were given over to single families and residents were required to contribute $135 a month to the community foundation. The bitter exodus that ensued downsized The Farm from a 1,500-strong commune to a 200-member cooperative today.

Deer roam; hippies thrive

That divisive rupture, like The Farm’s ragtag infancy, is difficult to envision in the serene pastoral landscape beyond the pamphlet-filled visitors center. Rustic wood-frame homes nestle in the trees and sun-bleached grasses of gentle hills reminiscent of Marin County.

Roaming deer herds, swelled by three decades of vegetarianism, lend the 1,750-acre Farm the look of a game park. Grain silos are painted with flowers and butterflies, and rusting psychedelic buses from the 1970 exodus dot the landscape.

Near the entrance gates to this idyll lives Gaskin, who led the four-month bus caravan from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco to the motherland at a time when the Vietnam War was raging, the Haight was fading and the Manson murders had cast a dark shadow on the California counterculture. Gaskin, a buoyant 69, with long gray hair and fringed Davy Crockett epaulets of beaded buckskin, is living out his days as something of an international hippie emeritus (“famous but not rich”) in demand for such honors as judging the annual Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.

But for years this was the Stephen Gaskin Farm, and he made the rules. He led Sunday morning meditation services, presided over his followers’ weddings and funerals, and managed the commune’s finances. (Though for most of 1974, he had to do this from the Nashville Penitentiary after he was convicted of marijuana cultivation.)

His wife, Ina May Gaskin, was one of the pioneers of the modern natural birth movement and author of the popular “Spiritual Midwifery.” Their children were raised in one of The Farm’s radical lifestyle experiments, a “group marriage” in which the Gaskins and two other couples cohabited, sleeping with each other’s spouses and raising their children together — something 8% of The Farm adults practiced in the early 1970s, according to official Farm history.

Today, however, they seem the picture of bohemian domestic normalcy, as Ina May, peering out sternly from granny glasses and upswept gray hair, serves fresh-baked scones and talks about why she discouraged Farm couples from giving children such noms de boheme as Sunshine and Blossom.

“I didn’t think naming your child ‘Orgasm’ was the best way to maintain a good relationship with their grandparents,” she said crisply.

Not to mention the neighbors.

The Farm sits on the Barrens, a highland plateau off the Natchez Trace that was once favored by moonshiners and highway robbers. The Ku Klux Klan was founded 20 miles away. When the hippies arrived in this wild heart of the Bible Belt, Lewis County banned the sale of alcohol, but land was cheap and zoning liberal — a fact that lured the commune movement from 1960s meccas like California to the American Heartland and heavily rural states like Vermont, Virginia and Oregon.

Gaskin banned abortion and artificial birth control. He spread the word that single mothers could deliver and leave their unwanted babies at The Farm. Other couples came to experience natural childbirth, and Farm midwives delivered 2,300 babies here.

In those days, 10,000 people visited The Farm a year. Most crashed for a few days, but about 1,500 stayed on to create a self-contained counterculture universe, complete with clinic, an ambulance service and a commune-wide phone system dubbed “Beatnik Bell.” All money earned outside was handed over to The Farm.

By 1982, many of these norms were being challenged. People got tired of being poor and wanted to keep their wages.

In those days, 10,000 people visited The Farm a year. Most crashed for a few days, but about 1,500 stayed on to create a self-contained counterculture universe, complete with clinic, an ambulance service and a commune-wide phone system dubbed “Beatnik Bell.” All money earned outside was handed over to The Farm.

By 1982, many of these norms were being challenged. People got tired of being poor and wanted to keep their wages.

“People said, ‘Why should he have that much authority?’ ” said Phil Schweitzer, co-director of The Farm’s Media Village, a video production business. “We were now in our 30s, and we didn’t want a charismatic leader.”

Gaskin was fired and the new trustees demanded cash dues. Hundreds left. Those who stayed after “the Changeover” began creating private businesses. When Carter-era subsidies for solar energy dried up, high-tech Farmies turned instead to the radiation detectors.

Today, SE International, now a private company, is among the most lucrative businesses on The Farm. Its modular office park, decorated with soft blues and modern art, hums with activity. Men with long graying ponytails sit on large, ergonomic balls, meticulously wiring board circuitry.

In contrast from the old days, the owner and president of the company is a woman and so are most administrators.

Some back-to-the-land settlements still exist communally. One is East Wind, in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks, a day’s drive from The Farm. East Wind began 30 years ago with an exodus from Boston. The 1,000-acre settlement, atop a stunning 800-foot ridge where deer and cougars roam, was just paid off in January. It is now collectively owned by its 75 members. It is prosperous, with a 100% medical and dental plan for full members that has covered everything from eyeglasses to colon cancer.

East Wind is home to many in their 30s and 40s. But as at other such settlements, the typical new applicant tends to be male and older than 40, like Chris Ward, a San Fernando Valley native who moved there nearly a year ago.

“I decided to retire here,” explained Ward, a mechanic with long gray hair, whose unfettered alternative lifestyle suddenly seemed less attractive at 60. “I don’t have a 401(k) and I haven’t paid enough Social Security to collect from it. You need those things now in order to survive.”

Communal living can be a lot of work at a place like East Wind, which has become a major national player in the natural nut butter business. The commune grosses $2.3 million a year producing a million pounds of the butters. Its hammocks, also sold to Pier One, gross $223,000 a year. This means clients, shipping deadlines, spread- sheets. Big rigs and overnight de- livery trucks regularly groan over the rutted, unpaved country road into East Wind.

“A lot of people think communes and think group sex and everything,” said Cara Austin, 35, the Paris-raised daughter of American expatriates who runs the East Wind hammock factory. “It must be a big disappointment when they come here and find everyone in a committed relationship.”

East Wind enjoys a cordial coexistence with its Ozark neighbors. For one thing, most of its annual domestic spending budget, $500,000, is spent locally at mom-and-pop businesses, cementing acceptance in the quaint fieldstone-built Ozark town of Gainesville.

East Wind also helped lead a successful drive to defeat an aggressive attempt to open a Wal-Mart nearby. East Wind maintains a local stretch of highway, and the local sheriff manages to overlook the perennial dispute over commune skinny-dipping when he comes for dinner at election time.

East Wind has its own mythology, with buildings named for references to “Star Trek” and the Chinese revolution. A communal outhouse sports two toilet seats side by side, and there are communal (and some private) showers. People live in shared houses and check out one of the 10 cars for trips. There are strictly observed traditions, such as calling people by their first names to encourage intimacy.

At The Farm, intimacy is a fact, not an option. Old grudges dating from the Changeover resurface. Former spouses work side by side. For Holzapfel, the deep kinship is a contrast to the alienation and anonymity that dogs some of her friends in mainstream America.

“We have preserved a lot of old-fashioned values,” she said. “People today feel so disposable. We don’t feel that way here. If you face hard times, you’re more likely to cut your own paycheck than lay people off.”

Yet the future still poses a question. Farm leadership wants to attract young families, but banks will not extend loans for single-family homes without individual property titles. The Farm is considering building rental housing; otherwise, “I can imagine The Farm becoming an old hippie retirement home,” Schweitzer said. “I’d hate to see that happen.”

Gaskin has his own solution: He is building retirement cabins for an elder village he calls Rosinante, the name of the bony, aging horse of Don Quixote, who was famed for tilting at windmills and embracing lost causes.

The Farm may have lost a few causes along the way, but perhaps its most enduring legacy is already deeply manifest in the American mainstream. Many of the ideas nurtured at The Farm and other communes are now widely accepted.

Ina May Gaskin’s “Spiritual Midwifery” has sold 540,000 copies, and tofu is served at shopping mall food courts. The ethos of ecological sustainability is embodied by the state of Tennessee adding seed money for the spring purchase, by a Farm-based foundation, of an adjoining 1,168-acre parcel to protect the headwaters of the lush Big Swan Creek. The new parcel cradles the Farm in a 4,000-acre haven of protected native hardwood forest, crucial to birds, wildlife and the local water supply.

The Farm may have relinquished the free-floating exuberance of youth, but perhaps it has acquired an equally valuable idealism of another vintage.

“Now The Farm has the wisdom of older people,” said Douglas Stevenson, the 30-year Farm veteran who steered the Swan Creek project to fruition. “That kind of experience helps guide you to success. It’s one thing we didn’t have in the old days.”

 

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