Tuesday, August 18, 2009


for many years i made a serious investigation into communes. eventually i saw the biggest ones of that era; one was called the farm, in summerville, tennessee, and the other was twin oaks, in louisa virginia. but before i went to these, i visited a host of other, smaller ones. by the early seventies the new england countryside was dotted with them, so if i heard of one, i'd try to visit, if only for a weekend.

i would like to say it was a serious investigation into alternative family structure, but part of it was probably serious investigation into how a suburban kid, with no experience, could become a farmer and live in the country. and even that was a stretch; i wasn't absolutely sure that's what I wanted to do. it was quite beautiful out in the country; virtually every farm I saw, I fell in love with, and mostly with the wildflowers, the rough edges, the country roads, the fresh air. In some ways it was the possibility of living way out there that I was looking at. I had no way to imagine the complexities of living in a community, though I asked people about it. Would I be good at this? I had no idea, and don't even now.

In new england I visited a couple of them, though i only remember one clearly; it was frog run farm (though I may have the name wrong), and it was way up in the northwest kingdom of vermont. I remember it clearly mostly because, for some reason, my father was involved; he was there, and they explained to him what they did, and how they lived, just as they explained it to me. That part of vermont was rugged, beautiful, remote; it took hours to get there, and that was unusual for vermont. people were nice, understanding; they certainly didn't have to take in visitors, but they did. I found this most places; I would give them some money, if I could, and help with some work; I'd ask some questions; then, I'd go home.

In eastern tennessee I was given a ride by people who were the sunflower family; they had a farm in a hollow behind the highway, and clinch mountain rose up at their backs, as they made a fire to make breakfast, and tried to make a living. that was difficult; this was a dysfunctional family. we worked at an incense factory down the road for a while, said one member of it, but he implied that this wasn't a very permanent or successful arrangement. In other ways the area wasn't easy for them to integrate into; the land wasn't easy to grow anything on. This may have been true at most of the places; what did I know? here at least i was able to stay, for about a week, until news came down that one of the members, trusted with a large piece of money for supplies, had somehow lost the money. this was it, most thought; we'll all be off to some other place. one couple even mentioned a place, more in central tennessee, where they'd try; it was called short mountain, maybe. I myself was on to the farm. you'll get a taste of it there, they said.

in fact the farm was a kind of intentional town; rather than seven or eight people comprising a family, they had more like three or four hundred; whole families, who lived in the woods, some of whom I probably never saw or met. Here, everyone was busy; they had jobs; they worked the land; they worked hard and worked a lot. one thing that scared me about the place, though, was that to buy in, you had to buy into a whole philosophy. they agreed about certain things there, and everyone just agreed to agree to it. vegetarianism, for example, and a kind of hippie-era language. It wasn't that i had a hard time with these particular things; I didn't; I was rather amorphous in my beliefs about all kinds of things. it was more that I was worried; in a conformist kind of place, i'd definitely be a non-conformist; that was my natural tendency. was that a problem?

years later, i realized i wasn't quite done with my quest, and i had the chance to visit twin oaks, a commune in virginia. this was another big place in the world of communes, because they made a publication about it, and because their philosophy was closely tied to skinner and behaviorism. they made a point of saying, though, that people there had all kinds of religions, and philosophies; they agreed on certain tenets of living, but were free to read, philosophize, and explore as many ideas as they wanted, and did. one of the interesting tenets that they lived by was that everyone in the community should work equally; this should be measured, and quantified fairly, so that if someone did an unpleasant job, they would have more free time, whereas someone who did something desirable, would have less.

a final concern i had was, what became of children who grew up in places like this? i wasn't disappointed at what i saw; if kids come to expect a wide and loving family, close attention to their needs, etc., it would be kind of like growing up in any very small town, or, very large family. there would be good things, and bad things. and that's kind of how i remember the whole experience.

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