s i x

To come to an understanding of Dreamtime Village, it is important to look at its forebears in the 60's and 70's. Most intentional communities that exist today owe some debt that era, when thousands of hippies--many of them teenagers from suburbia--looked for a more meaningful life in communes.

The commune phenomenon itself was perhaps the purest expression of the counterculture of the time. While America was "policing" southeast Asia, large numbers of young students were beginning to articulate anti-war, anti-authoritarian ideals. At the same time, psychedelic drugs and oriental mysticism were introducing different ways of looking at the world. In an era of extremes, "the mood was one of preparing for Armageddon and of ambivalence between no longer giving a damn about anything but personal release and hoping to demonstrate to America that a better answer could be found" (Gardner, 241).

Taking a psychological approach, Keith Melville found that most of the hippies were raised by liberal, idealistic parents, but that they were much more likely to act on their principles than their parents (89). For a few years, then, values were not only abstractions to pay lip service to. The hippies actively reinterpreted them and made them goals to be sought in everyday life.

To borrow a concept from historian Samuel P. Huntington, there is a mutable but pervasive set of values that can be called the American Creed: freedom, equality, prosperity, peace, and so on. Social change often happens when a group puts a radically different emphasis on these established values. Several observers (Keith Melville, Theodore Rozsack) have pointed out that the hippies were merely claiming all of the prizes that America had offered, but claiming them for here-and-now, rather than for retirement after forty years of office drudgery.

Many attempts have already been made to explain the countercultural explosion of the 1960's. The important question here is not so much how or why it came about, but how its tendencies were expressed in intentional communities. Like all radical social movements, the counterculture wanted to both destroy society and rebuild it. Gardner tells us that, in other circumstances, these two impulses "might have gone their separate ways, and perhaps for the most part they did. But where they met, an interest in communal retreat was born" (ibid). On the commune, people who had already won their personal wars with the status quo could go about creating new forms and resurrecting old ones.

One of the more interesting communes was the Heathcote School of Living in Baltimore County, Maryland. It was founded by World War II-era dropouts, and thus served as one of the important links between generations of communalists. Heathcote's land was held in common, and provided most of the residents' food. Like Dreamtime Village, Heathcote found its population swelling in the summer and shrinking in the winter.

The administration of daily life at Heathcote is accomplished by its 15 or so residents according to anarchist principles. There are no leaders, no procedures for making decisions, and no plans for a division of labor. Members build their own dwellings and are usually involved in their own projects for the community. Everyone 'does his own thing' occupationally, and people accept responsibilities for the newspaper, the garden, building projects, and housekeeping 'spontaneously.' Meetings of the membership are held frequently, generally once a week for business and once a week for personal relations. When decisions are called for, they are reached by consensus... Heathcote functions as a haven as well as a school of living. Once refreshed and with a new awareness of their goals, Heathcoters move on, either to form communities of their own or to seek a community in which they can settle. Most leave with a knowledge of the fundamentals of gardening and related skills" (Bouvard, 97).

Heathcote seems to have been neither too structured nor too unstructured. Some intentional communities have always been rigid and demanding, with their own beliefs and practices to distinguish them from the outside world. Others, especially in the 60's and 70's, were completely without structure. Communes like Wheeler's Ranch, Drop City and Morningstar consisted entirely of a piece of land that was simply opened to all squatters.

Morningstar was opened in 1966 by its owner, Lou Gottlieb, who two years later deeded the land to "God." Many of those who showed up were escaping from the steep decline of the hippie scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Because of rampant drug use and lack of sanitary facilities, Morningstar was raided many times by the Sonoma County authorities.

Proposing its own kind of dialectic theory of culture, a mimeographed tract from Morningstar stated:

Voluntary primitivism could only evolve within an economy of abundance, such as the United States today. It proposes a synthesis of the technologically sophisticated life style with a voluntary return to the ancient tested ways--living close to God's Nature and in harmony with the elements (Roberts, 51).

The "open land" communes inherited the anarcho-aesthetic of earlier utopias, the faith that problems--and people--work themselves out if given total freedom. Another man who opened his land to all settlers, Bill Wheeler, said:

Open land is when you never tell anyone to leave. The difference between never telling anyone to leave and telling one or two people to leave now and then is enormous. The difference between life and death. Never tell anyone to leave. Even these guys that rip people off. When we find out who it is, we don't tell them they have to go, but they usually do. Because the vibes get too heavy for them. (Katz, 183)

In one sense, these more recent experiments were more successful than their anarcho-utopian ancestors; there couldn't have been much disappointment when Morningstar or Wheeler's Ranch dissolved. Few who passed through could have developed any expectations of longevity. The goals of these communities had nothing to do with permanence. The goals were more intangible, caught up in the relentless pursuit of happiness.

Most books on the communes could be called "pop sociology." This kind of sociology is called in during those crises when Americans are baffled and frightened by cultural developments in their own backyards. Pop sociology rendered the commune movement sensible, even "useful to the broader society;" it made an ominous object on the horizon into part of a safe and scientific bourgeois world.

Owing to a brief flowering of true open-mindedness on many campuses around the country, some scholars wrote about communes with sympathy and hope, only slightly tempered by the fatherly (or motherly) criticism on some fine points. A handful expressed the hope that the communes, with their pied-piper effect, would gradually replace society as they knew it.

It is safe to assume that social conservatives loathed the communes, but few seem to have written about the phenomenon. Most books on the communes are a kind of sensationalistic socio-pop which dwells lasciviously on sex and drugs. These are nothing more than highbrow versions of the kind of pulp novels that were being published with names like LSD Orgy. They allowed the middle class to partake of hippies' lifestyle even as they condemned it.

Liberal academics complained that intentional communities were not strong on political and social engagement. One sociologist wearily complained, "[Communards'] absorption with baking whole wheat bread and clearing fields, 'discovering' nature, displays an inability to cope with the problems of our era and an ingenuity for escapism" (Bouvard, 129).

If alienation and environmental degradation are two of the main "problems of our era," then baking whole wheat bread, clearing fields and "discovering" nature might be some of the best means to confront these problems. The academic, condemning the communalists from behind her desk, may well be the one who shows a true ingenuity for escapism.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote that some criticisms of the communes

"...stem from the American ideology rooted in a Puritan conscience, which values pain over gratification and regards deprivation and suffering as prime human motivators; which prefers "progress" and linear movement forward to cyclical activity; which values change for its own sake; which considers movements that lack immediate or apparent social utility to the wider society as "escapist"; and which views the separateness and isolation of the individual as superior to close group relationships." (234-5).

Observers from within the liberal mainstream demanded that intentional communities either revolutionize society or disappear altogether. Perhaps these writers could not imagine a social program that did not engage in traditional activist politics. The communal project is personal; its content is on the level of the individual, of interpersonal relations and small-scale community. In its unwillingness to wield impersonal power, it takes a revolutionary form. The intentional community gets by without slogans and flashing lights, without sirens and speeches.

"Critics argue that communes do not last over long periods of time," Kanter tells us, "or that if they do survive, they immediately lose their vitality, institutionalizing static routines that become even less meaningful to later generations than they were to the first" (214). Very few intentional communities, at least in the United States, can claim to have achieved long-term stability; even those that have done so cannot possibly offer their residents a life without challenge. (If life in intentional communities were too easy then everyone would be doing it.)

Even from an anarchist perspective, there is nothing wrong with stability as long as it is dynamic. Any social order that is consensual must also be flexible if it is to last. The notion that stability yields to ossification, while not readily applicable to many communes, is an excellent critique of mainstream society. The communes of the 60's and 70's were a creative reaction against lost vitality and static routines. The few intentional communities that have become entrenched institutions may be static, but certainly to no greater degree than an average suburb. The very riskiness of the communal/utopian project may well be what makes it so attractive to the few who participate.

There is plenty of fair criticism to be made of these communes, and most of it has been said before by those sympathetic but exasperated academics. There was a sense of escapism about the communes--not only the justifiable escape from an inflexible social order, but an escape of people from themselves. If the communes were anything but a vacation for most of those who tried them out, then perhaps this country really would have been changed to the core. But communalism was another lifestyle to be consumed and discarded.

There is also something juvenile about many of the communes of the 60's and 70's, or at least so it seems, based on many of the accounts in print. It could be that intentional communities are perennially inhabited by the young because they provide a kind of rite of passage. If this is true, then they will survive as a kind of summer camp. If this is not true, then intentional communities are faced with the challenge of growing up.

In spite of this, or because of it, communes became a part of American life and the American experience. Communes got a minute in the spotlight because they were threatening; their minute has long since passed, but the commune is now a part of the cultural landscape. Since they are a part of our common memory in a way that, say, Fourierism isn't, the communes of the 60's and 70's offer themselves to us as a source of lessons and examples.

Near Dreamtime, all around the Driftless bioregion, are some of the survivors of the back-to-the-land movement, the few who stayed. They come across as quiet, wise country folk (distinguished only by dreadlocks, or a taste for sinsemilla). They must be all over the country, with little gardens, farms and cottage industries, living the lives they set out to live nearly thirty years ago. If having a sense of history means learning from the past, then they are living history.

On to Chapter 7.
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