Sex, Drugs, and Soybeans
In 1970, pot-smoking guru Stephen Gaskin, a former U.S. Marine, led his band of acolytes on a mystic trip out of San Francisco and into the American heartland. But a funny thing happened on the way to enlightenment: Gaskin’s hippies learned the ancient virtues of hard work, good hygiene, and crop rotation. Deep in the Tennessee woods, they formed a spiritual commune called The Farm, which has morphed over its 36 years into a high-tech eco–think tank.
The cultural cliché has it that the flower children danced at Woodstock, crashed at Altamont, and gradually shed their naïve ideals as they made themselves into ice-cream moguls, media magnates, and triangulating politicians. But the 200 people who live at the Farm—a 1,750-acre spread in the heart of Tennessee—have managed to hang on to the hippie spirit. It isn’t like they sit around talking about peace and love all the time, and hugging one another, and meditating, and eating tofu, and drinking soy coffee, and smoking weed, and criticizing the government, and making hopelessly earnest remarks—well, actually, it is like that, come to think of it. Farm residents do all that stuff, as I learned only too well during my four-day visit, this past January. But the Farm isn’t where you go to dream your life away in a 1960s-besotted haze. The place is active, fully engaged with the world. And it has a strong backbone in the form of 10 nonprofit companies and 20 private businesses.
Unlike the rest of us slobs, who sleepwalk through the workweek only to collapse at Friday’s finish line, the people at the Farm haven’t given up on the half-forgotten, laughable-seeming notion of making the world a better place. They have energy and enthusiasm. They take long hikes, they chop wood, and they actually bother to take part in marches against the war. They build their own photovoltaic solar panels, they grow tomatoes in backyard gardens, and they try not to be grouchy with one another. After dinner, when it’s time to wash the pots and pans, they don’t make a huge deal out of it by running the water full blast while listening to loud music, the way I do at home. For Farmies (as they sometimes call themselves), doing the dishes can be a meditative act involving a few inches of hot water at the bottom of the sink basin and some light splashing with a squirt or two of a non-petroleum-derived soap. They’re making a constant and conscious effort, in other words, to live without harming other people, animals, or the planet. So it’s not just some goofy lifestyle thing.
The Farm started out, in 1971, as a religious commune, a back-to-the-land refuge. Because of the original residents’ tie-dyed clothes and old-time agrarianism, the press called them “the Technicolor Amish.” “We were a special kind of hippie that worked,” says founding member Ina May Gaskin, “and so the TV cameras loved that.” To join, you had to sign a vow of poverty, accept charming guru Stephen Gaskin as your teacher, and turn over your cash and other possessions to the group.
The long-haired Farmies adhered to vegan diets and worked the land. For protein, they ate soybeans in countless permutations. For enlightenment, they smoked pot, which they considered a holy sacrament. Nobody carried any money. You just picked up your household rations at the Farm Store. If you needed pocket cash for an errand to nearby Summertown or Hohenwald, you applied for it and got some from the bank ladies. If you needed a vehicle for some group-approved purpose, you went to the Motor Pool and signed it out.
“We had a charismatic leader, Stephen, who laid down some of the founding principles, but we weren’t a democratic society,” says longtime resident Alan Graf, who left the Farm after the changeover, only to move back last year. “Most of the authority went through him. Now he’s become a citizen, like everybody else. It’s changed, and Stephen’s cool with it.”
The Farm has morphed into something like a hands-on environmental think tank. Its self-reliant residents are comfortable with the long-lost country skills of natural home building and midwifery, but they’re also adept at the newer arts of biodiesel mechanics and nuclear-radiation detection. Of the roughly 200 full-time residents, approximately 125 are members who typically pay between $85 and $110 in monthly dues. The Farm’s main population belongs to the hippie generation, baby-boomers now in their late 50s and early 60s, but in the last few years younger folks have been coming aboard. Now, roughly 40 of the adult members are under 40 years old, with 10 other young adults going through the membership process (and 20 more seemingly close to making the leap). It looks like this community will continue thriving long after its founders have joined old friends and loved ones in the Farm’s own graveyard.
As greenhouse gases thicken overhead, many Farm residents say the way the rest of us live now—in an oil-dependent culture of cars, cubicles, and highway-side subdivisions—is not only soul deadening, but doomed. The future of the industrialized world, they say, may end up looking like the distant past: a landscape of self-sufficient communities not unlike the Farm itself. Either that or we’ll be living in a Mad Max movie, with roving gangs of alpha males keeping the rest of us in line.
I was never much of a hippie-phile. The Grateful Dead annoyed me. In high school, my heroes were Joe Strummer and Steve Martin. When I watched Family Ties, I sided with Michael J. Fox against his parents. But I was curious that a place like the Farm had managed to survive.
So here I am, hailing a cab on Broadway at four in the morning. The driver is awake enough to get me to La Guardia, and I am on a Nashville runway at a little after seven a.m. Fearing that there will be nothing but greaseless vegan fare at the Farm, I hit the city in search of eggs, bacon, and a side of buttered grits, and find them at a little cafeteria downtown, where my fellow diners look like refugees from Jerry Springer. Fully loaded, I point my rented Sebring south and drive for about 60 miles. I exit off the highway—brick churches, farmland, hawks overhead. The driveways I pass are filled with squat all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks.
The Farm has a funny location, lying close to a series of scattered Amish settlements and about 35 miles from the Ku Klux Klan’s birthplace. A brick gatehouse separates it from the outer world. I drive by expansive fields once crowded with horses and hippies. In the near distance blackjack oak, poplar, and pine fill the hillside woods. Down the hill is the swimming hole, where the Farm’s 25 kids cool off in the summer. It’s also where Farm alumni gather, each July, for a reunion festival.
There are roughly 75 structures in all; 20 for businesses, the rest private residences. Some of the houses would fit in on any suburban street; others are old trailers with funky additions, or overgrown, split-level shacks with tin roofs. The homes used to be overloaded—50 people crammed into a given house—but now each is for one family.
At the main intersection, called Head of the Roads, lies the Farm Store, an octagonal structure, painted purple. I drive onward, past the Farm School. It’s state-recognized, K through 12, made of brick and glass, heated solar-fashion by four south-facing walls of thick glass. The pavement gives way to dirt roads, green bamboo growing everywhere. Husks of school buses and Volkswagen vans, rusted relics, sit in the shady woods. I reach the inn. Jennifer Albanese, 29, lives there with her family and seems to run the place. She has black hair, short, parted straight down the middle. Her vegetarian kids, ages three and six, seem happy to have a visitor. I show them an avuncular trick I have, where I make my eye socket squeak, and we’re off to the races.
There is hot water for tea. I brew up some Earl Grey. The inn’s foundation is two 16-by-32-feet U.S. Army tents, Korean War vintage, laid over with wood and various additions, so that it looks like a jumbled house. There is a Sony TV in the corner, larger than the one in my apartment, and a few laptops lying on the dining room table. The kids take me through a rectangular space filled with bunk beds and show me to my room, called “Siberia” because the heat doesn’t quite reach it. The bulb in the bedside lamp is one of those non-carbon-emitting fluorescent deals.
Soon enough I’m walking toward the house of the Farm’s founder, Stephen Gaskin. For some reason I have a cup of tea in my hand as I make the hike. There it is, an old brick house. Nothing about it screams hippie, except maybe the ancient Volvo parked out front. Gaskin, now a 72-year-old pot-smoking grandpa with a gravelly laugh, greets me at the door. He has a scraggly mustache and a small white beard growing off the bottom of his chin. He’s incredibly skinny. If he’s an egomaniac, he’s the fun kind, more Barnum than Stalin, and he masks it well, beneath an easygoing, Zen-trickster exterior. His wife, author and midwife Ina May Gaskin, a hippie grandma in granny glasses, is at his side. To the more than 500,000 people who have relied on her groundbreaking books Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, she is the better known of the two. Her hair is a mass of gray frizz.
Gaskin himself is the author of 10 books. A few titles will give you the basics: Amazing Dope Tales and Haight Ashbury Flashbacks; Cannabis Spirituality; Rendered Infamous. He hands me a copy of a recent volume, An Outlaw in My Heart: A Political Activist’s User’s Manual, the publication of which was timed to his 2000 bid for the presidency, as a Green Party candidate. He inscribes it for me: “From one outlaw to another.” The man is a charmer, which is not a bad thing to be if you’re going to have the audacity to lead hundreds of hippies into the Tennessee woods. Members of the Farm no longer have to accept him as their teacher, but those living or working there must agree to uphold the principles laid out in a statement titled “Basic Beliefs and Agreements.” A sampling: “We agree to be honest and compassionate in our relationships with each other. We believe that the Earth is sacred. We believe that humanity must change to survive.”
The Farm has its roots in San Francisco, where Gaskin landed in the late 50s after seeing combat in Korea as part of the Fifth Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps. With the help of acid and much smoking of the doobie, this veteran turned Beatnik experienced what he called “revelations” during the years he wended his way through San Francisco State College on the G.I. Bill and various scholarships. “My mother said, ‘The hippies got your mind,'” Gaskin tells me in the dining area. “She was right!”
After earning a master’s, in 1964, he spent two years teaching English, creative writing, and general semantics at his alma mater. In 1967 he kicked off an informal philosophy seminar that would become known as Monday Night Class. Gaskin’s preachings drew from the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the Christian gospels, Tantric thought, and the writings of Aldous Huxley. He would sit cross-legged before his throng. “We should all notice that being here is like being stoned,” he said at the beginning of a session preserved in his book Monday Night Class, “and that the Karma’s very fast, and any little idea you take off on will go farther than maybe you think it will.” He believed in telepathy, loving your enemy, and saying “om” to defuse bad vibes. It was a heavy scene. An estimated 1,500 people went to each session.
A group called the American Academy of Religion caught his act and liked it enough to send him on a speaking tour of churches, in 42 states. Some 300 of his acolytes followed him in a parade of roughly 80 buses, trucks, and vans. They painted the vehicles white on top—a puritan touch that distinguished Gaskin’s group from Ken Kesey’s more mischievous Merry Pranksters, which terrorized the land, pirate-style, in a psychedelically decked-out 1939 International Harvester school bus. While the Pranksters’ rig carried a sign in front bearing the word furthur, Gaskin’s bus had an earnest slogan above its windshield: out to save the world. In state after state, police greeted the convoy, which called itself “the Caravan.” Rural folks gawked from front porches. Walter Cronkite noted the hippie pilgrimage from his CBS pulpit.
“We found out a lot of stuff,” Gaskin says. “We found out the country was not as crazy in the middle as it was on the edges.”
For those taking part, largely upper-middle-class English majors with little practical experience, what had begun as a spiritual lark quickly turned into a crash course on life’s fundamentals. Metaphysical musings gave way to nuts-and-bolts talk—how to get water, food, heat; how to fix engines; how to deal with bodily excretions.
“None of the buses I knew of had proper waste disposal or even private toilets,” writes Cliff Figalo, a Caravan rider and former Farm resident, in his memoir,Farmie, available online. “Ours and most of the others had five-gallon plastic buckets with lids, serving as commodes. Peeing and shitting was a public activity, with all the smells and sounds shared. When the growing collection of buses and vans pulled into a gas station to fuel up, one member of each bus’s crew would be assigned to dump the shit bucket into a restroom toilet.… Imagine flushing hundreds of gallons of poop down a remote service-station toilet in the space of an hour.… That alone was a miracle of the Caravan.”
When you’ve got hundreds of young and vibrant, if noisome, people huddled together, you’re going to get babies. In a parking lot on the campus of Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, a Caravaner boarded the lead bus, saying his wife had gone into labor. Gaskin’s partner Ina May volunteered for duty. The baby came out easily. But soon Ina May faced a tougher challenge as a woman went into a labor that lasted three days. They were in Wyoming—a severe winter day. Ina May asked the right questions and discovered that the mother-to-be had concerns about her marriage: she and her husband had omitted the “till death do us part” bit from their ceremony.
“My hair stood up, when she said that,” Ina May says. “I left the school bus. It was 25 below zero. I asked Stephen, and he said, ‘Well, I know the vows.'”
The dilated woman and reluctant man played bride and groom a second time. In place of “till death do us part,” Gaskin went with “as long as we both shall live.” The baby emerged soon afterward, Ina May says. The next day Gaskin called a meeting and issued a decree: “If you’re sleeping together, you’re engaged. If you’re pregnant, you’re married.” Six or seven men who had joined the Caravan for the free love split.
At the time Ina May was still married to her first husband, with whom she had earlier served in the Peace Corps in Malaysia—but she was also involved with Stephen and his then partner in what was called a “four-marriage.” It was not a secret arrangement. While suburbanites of the day sneaked around in furtive rebellion against drab monogamy, the ideals of the Caravan hippies demanded that they be open about their … openness. Figalo writes in his memoir that the Caravan’s eight four-marriage couples (that he knew of) seemed to rank higher than others in the hierarchy: “For to be married to three partners instead of only one demonstrated a level of buy-in that we mere single people, or even those who were actually married to a spouse, could not claim. Four marriage was a deep mystery.” When I ask the Gaskins about the former setup, Stephen says, “That was something that happened spontaneously when couples took acid with other couples.” Then he adds, rather cryptically, “What part about being a hippie don’t you understand?” Stephen and Ina May tied the knot, in a formal, state-recognized ceremony in Tennessee, in 1976. They say they have been monogamous since the early 80s.
On March 19, 1971, after the convoy had pushed through a Nebraska blizzard, Ina May herself gave birth. He was a boy, Christian, born two months premature. He died March 20, after 12 hours in his mother’s arms. “I was filled with grief,” Ina May writes in Spiritual Midwifery. “At the same time.… I was also relieved that if we had to lose a baby that it was mine and not somebody else’s.” Ina May recalls “men in uniform, police officers or state troopers” getting involved, telling them they could not take the body with them. The baby was buried there in Nebraska, with no service, and the Caravan rolled on. “I knew I was having to learn things that would be good for me to know as a midwife,” Ina May says. She has since been back to visit the gravesite.
The Caravan wound down after five months. By then mere talk was no longer enough to satisfy its metaphysical aspirations. “A bunch of hippies were sitting around a kitchen table,” Gaskin says, “and somebody said, ‘We got to go get some land. We’re not really doing anything.'” After weeks of scouting they came upon a backwoods tract in Lewis County, Tennessee, about 60 miles southwest of Nashville. “Seventy dollars an acre!” Gaskin says. “For 70 dollars you could buy a kilo of pot in San Francisco and you thought that was a good deal. You could buy an acre of ground for that.”
The astral talk of Monday Night Class had led the group to the tactility of cross-country travel, which now introduced them to something even more elemental: the rich Tennessee dirt. Those who agreed to make the transition from the Caravan to the Farm would now be, in Gaskin’s phrase, “voluntary peasants.”
At first the locals didn’t welcome the hirsute newcomers. “People really did think we were the Manson family,” Ina May says. But the Tennesseans soon came around. “Amazingly,” writes Figalo, “we found several of the local men helping to cut an opening in the barbed wire and leading a group of longhairs into the trees.”
The hippies slapped scrap-wood additions onto the buses and vans, transforming them into stationary homes. They fashioned kerosene lamps out of glass jars. They captured rattlesnakes and, refusing to kill them, turned them over to wildlife-management rangers. They dug outhouses. They salvaged a junked water tower and put it up. They hitched horses to ploughs—like their Amish neighbors—and laid in crops. After feasting on watercress growing downstream from an outhouse, Figalo notes in his memoir, many people came down with hepatitis. Their eyes turned yellow, their urine orange. Then came flu, staph infection, pneumonia, head lice, body lice, giardia, shigella. To bring in money for the group, men worked as day laborers in Nashville.
The neighbors laughed at the hippies’ 80-acre sorghum crop, given that chopping cane is ridiculously labor-intensive. But the Farmies needed something to sweeten their plain fare and they weren’t willing, at first, to exploit their six-legged friends, the bees, in order to make honey. “I was out there with a machete, man,” Gaskin says. “We got up in teams—a guy with a machete and a lady who’d catch it once he’d cut it.” They boiled the harvest to molasses, which they sold as Old Beatnik Pure Lewis County Sorghum.
The Farm had its cooks, millers, mechanics, canners, plumbers, electricians. It also had the Farm Band, which favored long jams. Gaskin played drums—with more passion than skill—and the group went on tour, putting on free shows and picking up new recruits. While Gaskin was gone, Farm workers constructed a big house for him and his unconventional family. Upon his return, he scolded them for having built such a grand residence for his benefit and refused to live in it, which only enhanced his guru status. Figalo recalls “a vivid image of Stephen in his chair” with “an attractive woman sitting on either side at his feet, leaning against his legs. The air would be filled with the smoke of our sacramental herb and the anticipation of his profound teachings.”
The Farm attracted more than 10,000 visitors per year. Some were seeking a reasonable alternative to modern life. Others were whacked out of their minds. Those on gatehouse duty would tell them the rules, as summed up by Figalo in his memoir: “No animal products, no tobacco, no alcohol, no manmade psychedelics. No sex without commitment, no overt anger, no lying. No private money, no large pieces of private property. Accept Stephen as your teacher …”
Gaskin sponsored a theological debate with neighboring preachers. A cub reporter for the Nashville Tennessean named Albert Gore Jr. observed the event and wrote it up. The story made the Farm more acceptable to the locals—but then came the bust for a rogue crop that had been growing near the property’s deer paths.
“I was coming back from town one day,” Gaskin says, “and I got in the middle of a long string of cars, and when I got to our gate, I discovered the long string of cars was filled with cops. So they said, ‘Whose pot is it?’ And I said, ‘We’re a collective. What’s here is part mine.’ And so they took me and the two guys they’d actually captured in the fields, and they put us up at the Walls, in Nashville, which was built to be a penitentiary in the 1880s.” Gaskin appealed the case. By the time the courts were through with him, in 1974, he went to the Walls for a one-year stretch. “I tell you, the showers there were the foulest places,” he says. “I got an athlete’s foot—it caused my entire heel callus to come off in one piece. It about ate my leg!”
His indiscriminate charm worked even on T. C. Carroll, a good-old-boy county sheriff, who once drove the inmate home for an unapproved weekend visit. “One of the best drivers I ever rode with,” Gaskin recalls. “He could have been in nascar!”
The Farm was becoming a self-sufficient village. With the hippies pumping out babies, the Farm School went up. It ended up having a good track team: Farm kids were skinny and accustomed to running around, and the sport required no costly equipment. After a lightning bolt felled a resident, the Farm started another necessary institution—the graveyard.
Another tragedy occurred in 1976: a woman who lived in a crowded, two-story tent dwelling left a wick burning while she cleaned the glass shade of a kerosene lamp. The walls caught fire. People tossed babies through open windows to men holding bedsheets. One infant died after hitting the ground. Another died when the mother leaped from the second story, baby in her arms. A direct-current electrical system replaced kerosene lamps soon afterward.
The Farm developed businesses. The Book Publishing Company struck gold in 1976, capitalizing on the CB-radio craze with The Big Dummy’s Guide to CB Radio, a million-seller. “If only we had franchised ‘Big Dummy,'” says longtime Farm resident Douglas Stevenson. “We probably would have been able to pay for everything we needed.” A big hit in the 80s was The World of Satellite Television, which gave instructions on how to install satellite dishes just as they were springing up like giant wildflowers across the South. Another Farm business, Solar Electronics, produced the Nuke-Buster, a portable radiation detector invented by Farmies (and since renamed the Radiation Alert). It sells briskly to this day, helping Solar Electronics to an annual gross of roughly $1 million and earning a small profit. But another Farm business founded in the 70s, an ambitious agricultural concern called the Farming Crew, piled up huge losses.
Not long after Gaskin got out of prison, the Farm started Plenty, a nonprofit relief organization. Plenty shipped food to Haiti and Honduras and dispatched its own crew of trained Emergency Medical Technicians to run an ambulance service in the South Bronx. It went into full swing after a major earthquake struck Guatemala, killing 23,000. A few Farm residents, Gaskin among them, went there with toolboxes and discovered that their days spent building a town from scratch with practically no money had trained them perfectly for the task. Over time Farm volunteers—as many as 200 on a given day—built 3,000 private homes and 300 public buildings in Guatemala.
Ina May formed a midwife crew, which attended not only Farm women but expectant mothers from the outside world. The midwives also began making house calls to the Amish. Since 1971, Ina May says, Farm midwives have attended some 2,500 births. They encourage the husband to fondle and French-kiss his wife while she huffs and puffs. Pictures in Spiritual Midwifery show wildly glowing faces. Ina May’s informal research has led her to conclude that roughly 20 percent of women attended by Farm midwives have experienced orgasms while giving birth.
Ina May also encourages breast-feeding, which will be the subject of her next book. In the communal days, Farm women even allowed other women’s babies to latch on. “We shared,” Ina May says. “Everybody’s tits worked. We even had a man lactate. Not because he wanted to, but because his girlfriend moved down the road with the baby. That’s the sort of thing that can happen if you love the baby a lot and feel anxious about whether they’re getting enough to eat.”
So that’s why men have nipples.
Rena Mundo was born on the Farm in 1972. Her father was Motor-Pool mechanic (and Farm-School track coach) José Mundo, a Puerto Rican immigrant out of the Bronx. Her mother, Jan, was a Berkeley graduate from Beverly Hills, a nice Jewish daughter of a prosperous surgeon. Farm midwives attended Rena’s birth and also those of her brother, Miguel, and her sister, Nadine. In the past five years the Mundo sisters—now Brooklyn-based filmmakers who have worked at MTV’s news-and-documentaries division—have amassed 250 hours of footage; some archival, some from their own interviews with current and former Farmies. By summer’s end they hope to have a cut ready to submit to Sundance. The working title is Commune.
They used to live in a crowded Farm house called the Lower East Side. “We grew up having no idea there was a Lower East Side in New York, that it was a real neighborhood and not just a house in a meadow,” Rena says. The sisters have fond memories, but there were hard times. “We had to wait in long lines for shoes,” Rena says. “I was clothed but it was scrapped together from Goodwill. We had enough food, but it wasn’t like there was any extra. It becomes very personal: ‘I can’t buy new socks for my kids.’ It was like an awakening, and something had to change. We got really sick of eating so many soybeans in every form.”
“The treat would be, like, peanut butter and jelly,” says Nadine.
“No, no, no,” says Rena, asserting big-sister memory privilege. “We did not have peanut butter and jelly.”
“I remember getting it later on,” Nadine says.
“Like early 80s. The first time I had a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, I was nine. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life!'”
And the outhouses …
“It was really scary if you had to go at night,” Nadine says.
“But there was no comparison,” Rena says. “We never had indoor plumbing.”
The Mundo sisters left after the communal system dissolved. Like other couples joined in matrimony by Gaskin, who performed numerous ceremonies in the meadow, their parents divorced. The kids went to Santa Monica with their mother, moving into a luxury apartment building on the bay. “We felt like foreigners in our own country,” Rena says. “I couldn’t tell the difference between a Mercedes and a Corvette.” They were secretive about their past. “In the mid-80s, Madonna was cool,” Rena says. “Being from a hippie commune wasn’t cool. They were like, ‘Are you from a cult? Are you a Communist?’ So we completely buried it.”
In Voices from the Farm: Adventures in Community Living, an informal history of its early years, former Farm resident Henry Goodman writes that, circa 1980, he and a few other men took a Saturday carpentry job in Nashville. They hoped to raise money that would go toward improving their crowded home. “We’re talking about new linoleum instead of unfinished plywood,” he writes, “so you could keep it clean and the kids and babies who were crawling on it wouldn’t get grubby or sick.”
After working 10-hour shifts for seven Saturdays, the men had enough cash, only to hear Gaskin report that it had been earmarked for other purposes. “I remember feeling totally ripped off,” Goodman writes. “The kicker is that as soon as the Saturday work money got collectivized, guess what happened? People quit going out to work on Saturdays. This was a bitter pill for us to swallow, to see [that] there really was something to the capitalist, free-enterprise philosophy after all.”
The mood sank. On a rainy Sunday morning in 1981, Gaskin gave a sermon. Because of the weather, it was broadcast over the Farm’s own internal cable-TV system. He said the place had changed, mentioning that families were reluctant to take new people into their homes and that some teenagers even had their own rooms. “Generally, Stephen was telling us that we, the Farm, had become more selfish,” reports Farm resident Gary Rhine in Voices from the Farm.The teacher’s words didn’t go over well with the flock. People argued that they had funded Plenty’s charitable missions while getting by on puny rations. They also worried about their children, who had been living a Third World existence in the U.S.A. “In terms of the kids,” Rhine says, “it was like the adults were voluntary peasants, but the children had not volunteered.”
At the same time, because of failing businesses and the cost of social services that the Farm provided its members, the Council of Elders had to take out second mortgages on their land, which put them in debt. Some members suspected that others in the tribe were freeloading, living off the daily tofu without doing much to earn it. Another bad sign was the aggregate exodus of some 400 Farm residents, who just couldn’t take it anymore. The community’s problems were becoming too tangled for the Council of Elders, a group of elected officials that started out small but ended up comprising 70 members by the early 80s (some of them teenagers). To take on the nitty-gritty issues that were difficult to deal with in a large-group setting—sanitation, finance, labor management—the council appointed a new committee of business-minded Farmies. After making a detailed study, the committee recommended that the Farm’s best chance at survival was to give up the dream of a cashless communal existence and go back on the grid—to rejoin the U.S. economy and its dollar system.
A series of town-hall meetings took place in the community center, across from the school. This building had been the site of many happy potluck suppers, but now a crisis atmosphere pervaded. On the night of October 13, 1983, an estimated 300 Farm residents were packed inside for a show-of-hands vote on whether or not they should go private. Gaskin was on a Plenty mission in the Caribbean. “I don’t think I knew that was happening at the time,” he says. Ninety percent of those in attendance voted to decollectivize. The commune era was kaput.
Farm members liken the changeover to “a messy divorce,” but those voting with the majority felt relieved, even elated. A few days afterward, some of them scraped up some cash, wrangled a few vehicles, and drove up to Nashville to see a Talking Heads concert. It was the Stop Making Sense tour, and lead singer David Byrne wore the big white suit. Douglas Stevenson remembers it as a particularly good time. “It reflected the new freedom people had to enjoy themselves,” he says. But others were unnerved.
“It was scary,” says longtime Farm resident Albert Bates. “We didn’t know if the Farm would be around a year later, and we had invested our youth, our spent youth, in the Farm.” Asked whether or not he had been in favor of going private, Gaskin gives a politician’s answer: “I was in favor of making changes. Our collective is still in effect. It’s not just this piece of ground.”
A few hundred more residents left after the vote, but the Farm adapted and survived. Those who stayed on became dues-paying members who had to cough up $130 a month to pay down the debt. They took jobs nearby, which meant new clothes, haircuts, cars, insurance, income tax—the dreary stuff of mainstream life—or they just kept working at the Farm, which by now had hatched more than a dozen businesses and nonprofits.
Die-hard Farm resident Frank Michael, a white-bearded physicist who once worked in the aeronautics industry, was someone who voted to stick with communal life in 1983. He says he never felt the urge to leave.
He arrived at the Farm in 1975 with his mathematician wife and their two sons. He was searching for something different. Pulling up to the grounds, he asked the man at the gatehouse to describe the local religion. “He said, ‘We have our own. We don’t call it anything.’ I said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we believe in God, sure.’ I said, ‘What is your concept of God?’ And he said, ‘God is everything.’ And that just blew my mind.”
Next to the shelter lies an old house foundation. Jason has started working on it in earnest, to make it their eventual permanent home. When he’s through, it will have a low-flush vermiculture toilet: the waste will drop down to the soil, where batches of hungry worms will digest the odor-causing bacteria. I ask him if you’ll be able to see the worms through the hole in the commode. He laughs, aghast at my ignorance, and says, “No, it won’t look any different from a regular bathroom.”
Jason opens his Jetta’s trunk to show me the veggie-oil tank he installed—a red plastic container in a wood-and-Styrofoam box. He gets his fuel for free from Chinese restaurants. “Canola oil and soy oil work pretty well,” he says. “Peanut oil gels up a little bit sooner than the others in cold weather.”
His parents are all right with the way they live, he says, but his wife isn’t so lucky. When she was 16, her mother died of cancer; and her father doesn’t approve of the Farm. “My dad takes it as a personal insult, the whole peace thing,” Alayne says. “I can respect that. Growing up, I really supported my dad being in Vietnam. But he did what he was told—and I’m not doing what I’ve been told.”
A bonfire lights up Head of the Roads on a cold night. A Greyhound pulls in to take 50 residents to an anti-Iraq-war rally in Washington, D.C. I make my way back to the inn—to Siberia. There is an electric heater in the room, but when I click it on high, it starts making noise, which makes me feel like a conspicuously carbon-consuming criminal, so I just keep it on low and sleep with my hat on. It is one of those crazily deep sleeps that takes you through eight hours in what feels like three minutes. In the morning I decide not to attempt the nearby outhouse, opting for the inn’s bathroom. I grab breakfast in the kitchen: a few freshly baked vegan muffins (good) and a mug of soy coffee (ehh). My head pounds for caffeine as I do my patented “squeak-eye” for the kids once again. And again. And once more.
Photograph by Gasper Tringale.
That night, in the living room, two Ecovillage Training Center apprentices, Jim Barmore, 25, and Jennifer Pinter, 23, sit down to watch a DVD of Idiocracy, the post-apocalyptic farce from director Mike Judge. They hope it will appeal to their mentor, Albert Bates, but soon after it starts he repairs to his straw-bale cabin. The couple laugh at Judge’s tale of environmental collapse and human stupidity while cuddling on the couch. After Luke Wilson becomes the new president, I take a shower, feeling like a water criminal.
Early the next morning I brave the 14-degree air. Destination: the outhouse. I open the door, revealing a two-seat facility with no wall between the commodes—a vestige of the Farm’s bygone days of sharing absolutely everything. The seat chills my ass cheeks. A sign above the toilet-paper roll says it’s a wet-dry compost toilet. A mesh screen fills the top half of the wooden door. I watch the first rays of sunshine spreading across the hillside woods. Birds chirp. I have to say—it isn’t bad.
Later that morning I sit down at a picnic table with Jim and Jennifer, the apprentices. Jim’s short hair and lack of fluffy beard give him a lean, hungry look. Jennifer has her brown mid-length hair neatly pulled back. Everything they say is charged with righteous heat. Jennifer, who grew up in Wales, arrived at the Farm after studying at eco-villages in India, Thailand, and Mexico. “I had my own personal reservations about going to those countries,” she says, “but I realized that was an impression left on me by the media or my parents. I find America a damned sight scarier, because there’s this assumption that you’re safe.” Her experiences left her out of step with her old school friends, who like going to pubs. “I wouldn’t mind the content of conversation being something other than Britney Spears or East Enders,” she says. “I’d sooner be doing something productive, like chopping wood to heat the house, than drink beer and smoke cigarettes and waffle about someone else’s life.”
Jim, who became an activist while majoring in engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, picks up the conversational thread: “Personally, I needed a break from American pop culture. It’s The Grand Distraction—capital T, capital G, capital D. I’m tired of being part of some millionaire’s game.” Unlike the first wave of Farm dwellers, Jennifer and Jim aren’t into weed as holy sacrament. “When I was exposed to drugs, let’s just say the really cool people weren’t smoking pot,” Jim says. The stoners he knew “weren’t interesting. They were losers.”
Nearby, Cliff Davis, the chief gardener, and Matthew English, who’s in charge of the Ecovillage Training Center curriculum, stand gazing at the plot of land where kale, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, bush cherries, herbs, and other edibles will sprout this spring. The garden, completely organic, is productive enough to help feed the training center’s guests and staff members; it also serves as a teaching ground for students. Cliff, 30, and Matthew, 35, say they combat the bugs by careful companion planting—garlic and basil beside tomato vines, for instance—and by encouraging the presence of birds and insects that like to munch on veggie-destroying beetles and aphids. Sometimes they resort to brewing up a pot of coffee, letting it cool, and giving the plants a good squirt.
“It wigs the bugs out,” Cliff says.
“Fixes their nervous systems,” adds Matthew.
Matthew has been working at the Farm five years. He is wearing a light-brown jumpsuit that matches his neatly trimmed beard. Cliff, who lives with his wife and the two kids at the inn, signed on recently. He wears a knit cap and thick black beard. The two of them, part of the next Farm generation, have big plans that smack of 1971: They want to bring back big-time agriculture, want to make the Farm a big working farm once again. “It takes a lot of drive and passion,” Cliff says. “You can’t just think it’s a good idea. It’s hard work.”
Tractors replaced horses on the Farm in the 70s, as hippie ideals gave way to hunger’s demands, but Cliff and Matthew think animal power may still be the way to go. “Looking at post-petroleum,” Cliff says, “Matthew and I question the use of tractors, even with biofuels. It makes sense to use horses even if you’re going to have a large-scale program. Oxen is another possibility. We’re really interested in them.”
Albert Bates, now a tribal elder, has to laugh when he hears the hot talk of the rising Farmies. “Those kids are bringing in a lot of energy,” he says. “As hippies of the 60s and 70s, we endowed our kids with this meta-program of peace, love, and ecology, and now they’re holding our feet to the fire and saying, ‘O.K., let’s see it.’ It’s like we sent a reminder to ourselves down through time.”