It cost $140 dollars a month to live at Dreamtime, plus about another $50 for food. It wasn't much to pay, but there was still the question of how to raise the money. Liz and Miekal had Xexoxial Endarchy. Morgan, a drum-maker from Madison, was in the process of moving his business into Dreamtime. There was some work available sanding and heading drums, but not enough for everybody. Many had to find what work they could, either by periodically driving to Madison (Jen and Dana did this once a month, working as domestics) or by finding agricultural work close by. Sandi Ford always knew where the work was. I went to work with Sandi a few times, picking flowers for friends of hers.
It wasn't backbreaking work, but it was hot and fairly dull. There was no protection from the midsummer sun. The rows upon rows of beautiful, scented flowers became objects of resentment after a day among them. But working one or two days out of the week seemed to be a small price to pay. Sandi would have preferred to spend all of her time and energy at Dreamtime, but she did what needed to be done. Early on, I noticed a certain quality about Sandi: she acted as if she belonged at Dreamtime. Even in her rare sarcasm, there was a deeper commitment that you could see and hear.
Sandi's path had passed through feminism and anarchism before it had led her to Dreamtime Village:
Then I went back to school and got involved in womens' issues. At the end of that year, I decided that I wanted to move to the West Coast. So I got a car and drove with a queer friend across the country to the Bay area. I lived in this kind of aging hippie town about 45 minutes north of San Francisco.
I moved to Washington state to go to Evergreen. The first year there I hung out almost entirely with women, working on womens' issues. My second year there I started doing a radio show on the campus station called "Monkeywrench Radio." It was considered a public affairs show. Through the radio station, I got involved with a core group of community activists who also had radio shows. Even though they were an involved activist group, they were also mostly anarchists. I lived in a farmhouse with these two older lesbian women, who considered themselves anarchists. Olympia's got a varied community, with college students as well as a lot of long term people, state workers, lumberjacks. I was also involved with Earth First!, and there were a lot of younger anarchists in that group. Bobby and Rachel were two people who had teatime anarchist coffeehouses, these social events. I found out about Dreamtime through Bobby and Rachel. Both of them had come through during the Corroboree. They had two or three different issues of Talkingmail.
My friend Lee and I decided that we would travel around the country visiting different cities and communities and groups of people. We came through Dreamtime in early October and stayed for about a week. I especially remember hanging out with Liz. She hadn't lived in the country for very long, and the whole world of gardens and plants was opening up to her. It seemed that she was becoming the kind of person who could look at a flower and be amazed. That excited me. People were expanding themselves.
Lee and I moved on and visited more places. The whole time I was trying to decide where I wanted to be in the spring. I knew I wanted a garden, and that I wanted to work with people. I decided that I'd come here in the spring and see how it went, and at least stay for the summer. I ended coming here in early April. I've traveled since then, but I haven't lived anywhere else.
Since moving in, Sandi had become a central figure at Dreamtime. This was not only because of the sheer length of time she had stuck around. It was also because she was one of the few people besides Liz and Miekal who seemed to be committed to the community for the long term. In and out of meetings, she had opinions and expressed them.
Sandi: I feel like I'm one of the main people here, not just responsibility-wise, but involvement-wise. Most people come here either for the gardens or the art. I'm here for the whole range of things--I have some grasp on just about everything that's going on. I think I'm a pragmatic type of person. And in the past, there hasn't been that much practical stuff going on at Dreamtime.
Dreamtime--Liz and Miekal in the beginning--inherited way more than it could handle, and I never would have done it that way. So much energy goes into maintaining these buildings. It's easy to get depressed by huge amount of work that needs to go into these things. If we had money coming in through grants, then people--like me and Mark Ludwig for example--could actually get paid to work full time on fixing up the Mansion. Not in the sense of cash in our pockets, but to free us up from having to worry about how we're going to pay rent. Because, when I go away to work for a couple of days, it takes me a day just to reorient myself when I get back. It's vital to have a local economy, like the drum shop, but having three or four different things like that. We could have someone baking for a living.
I think it's important to form a housing co-op within Dreamtime. Most people who live together have some decision-making process, about membership and other things. I don't want it to be totally rigid--I don't want to live with people who are exactly like me, but I do want to have some ability to decide who I live with. At a restaurant where I worked, we had a group hiring process, and we'd have hours of deliberation.
The most important reason for that is to have the feeling that this is a group which has decided to come together. It's important to have a cohesive group of people, and to have a common vision. A lot of people show up who don't know what they're getting involved in. There needs to be some way of letting people know about the totality of what's going on here. When I came here, I felt like I knew what I was getting into--this totally crazy, overwhelming financial burden.
There were always temporary escapes to be found when Dreamtime became too much of a burden. Sandi and Janet asked me if I wanted to come work at Acorn Farms, Martin Jelenc's permaculture farm about 45 minutes away. The timing was just right; I felt that I was becoming mired in the unspoken routines and invisible conflicts at Dreamtime.
Martin's farm was a permaculture utopia, with beautiful rows of edibles, a passive solar house and cavernous barn being constructed out of salvaged materials. The place glittered in the sun; the gardens and fields were balanced between symmetry and asymmetry, between culture and nature. The word "Eden" was not far from my mind. We all came out to work for free, or rather in exchange for the information that we were soaking up every minute there.
Martin's was not a community in and of itself; it was an open-ended space with one person, and one person's intentions at its heart. Yet I felt that it was part of a broader community that also included Dreamtime. In exchanging ideas, labor and companionship, we were fostering a nascent network. Martin had put ten years of drudgery and sweat into his farm, and I could feel it beginning to pay off; the permaculture aim of least amount of work for maximum effect looked to be a tangible possibility.
Our second and last night there, slouching beside a bonfire, I gazed up at the clear sky and listened to endless talk of agriculture techniques, details of occultist Rudolf Steiner's "biodynamic agriculture." It struck me that farmers are and always have been like a secret group of alchemists, their relationship to the land rich in personal and spiritual metaphor. I could see how gardening had come to appeal to two avant-garde artists from Madison.
There was a big room upstairs in the School that most people just called "the big room upstairs in the School." I liked to call it the Ballroom. It was lined with big, beautiful windows that faced west, looking out over the main garden at Dreamtime. It had a large stage at one end, ideal for concerts and lectures. It was being used as a store-room for books, moldering magazines and old art projects. I was sorting through all of this one afternoon when I heard unfamiliar footsteps. A tall young man with red hair walked into the room, large pack on his back, looking tired and worn.
This was Tommy, a visitor from Minneapolis who had gotten to Dreamtime by a combination of bike, backpack, and thumb. In New Orleans months before, he had met a Dreamtime resident who was on the road. While traveling, Tommy had been to rural communities in the Northwest and was interested in seeing how and if they work. Like many people who came through Dreamtime, his travels were both a means and an ends, and he seemed to have no fixed destination.
I was the first person at Dreamtime Tommy talked to, and so I sponsored him in a way. He seemed a little intimidated by the idea of being subjected to the formality of meeting everyone. Not having seen any of Dreamtime's newsletters, he seemed to fear that we were a cult of brainwashers. I sympathized; some of the transients showed up on blind faith and could only hope that we wouldn't lock them in a closet for 57 days and recruit them for the Dreamtime Liberation Front.
Tommy took to Dreamtime and stayed for over a week. A few days into his visit, I was in the School and heard the strangest sound, a kind of solemn, nasal singing. I followed it the the music room and found Tommy there, playing a kind of jig on a violin, his eyes closed in rapt concentration. The tattoos on his arms shone darkly, and I imagined Tommy as a pirate sailing under the skull and crossbones, taking his violin with him everywhere. I tiptoed away, unseen.
As August progressed, the number of visitors steadily increased. Not all of them came for the Corroboree, which began in the middle of the month, but the event seemed to have some kind of gravity that pulled people towards it. They ranged from teenaged hitchhikers to retired travelers, from unchurched Christians to liberals to anarchists to people who despised being labeled with an "ism."
There was Wade, a college freshman from a small town near Green Bay. The first day of his visit, we chatted in the garden over weeding. It sounded like Wade had been the black sheep of his town. He was attracted to the idea of anarchism, but seemed to have made his own personal discovery of its tenets, without the kind of intellectual faddishness I saw elsewhere. Wade liked the idea of an intentional community mostly because he wanted to live someplace where he wasn't stigmatized for his ideas. He was very interested in catching a meeting--which didn't happen while he was there--and reading zines.
Among other passers-through were Arrow and Stephanie, two squatters from New York's Lower East Side. Veteran visitors, they exuded something pagan and mythological. They had spearheaded the Nomadic Festival, a kind of Corroboree-on-the-road which several Dreamtime residents had participated in.
Stephanie was six months pregnant, walking around in shorts and bra with her big belly in front of her. Arrow breathed fire (literally, as performance to make money on the road), and acted like it: brash, energetic. While we were cooking squash soup together, he asked me how and why I came to be at Dreamtime. I told him about my project. "That's good," he said. "It's good to hear about someone who's doing something with college. Are you asking people how they wound up here?"
"That's one of the most important aspects of this whole thing. What about you? How did you wind up here?"
He said, "I don't really know how I got free. It's impossible to trace by now."
The Corroboree really began--or so it seemed to me--with the arrival of John and Brad from Colorado. Brad had come in summers past, and this time brought along John, who had volunteered to coordinate the festival's first workshop, on stone masonry. John explained to us that he was very self-conscious about telling people what to do, and so teaching should be a challenging experience. But they were both active, eager people, and their enthusiasm, the enthusiasm of all of the visitors, began to accumulate and spread.
There is a week-long period in mid-August when the summer leases in Madison expire, and all the college students who have been living in frat houses, co-ops or other medium-income housing move en masse, leaving the curbsides overflowing with everything they don't need, everything they can't take, and everything that's out of style. Most of it is just run-of-the-mill trash, but valuable and useful items like furniture are also abandoned. This was the season for dumpster diving. I volunteered to join Eric on a night-long sweep of promising spots in Madison.
The drive into Madison from West Lima is nearly two hours long, which gave us time for one-on-one conversation, a rarity at Dreamtime. This was one of the reasons I wanted to come along: with his gruff, comic persona, Eric is nearly impossible to get a handle on in a social environment. Few people at Dreamtime had a presence as powerful as Eric's. I've already mentioned his size; his straight blond hair was cut in such a way that it stuck up at crazy angles like a cockatiel's yellow crest. His eyes were large even in proportion to the rest of him, and he could widen them even more, for dramatic effect.
Eric's loud persona was obviously a mask; what it seemed to be hiding was a quiet, disciplined, maybe even bookish nature. To say that he had another side to his personality is not to pretend to have secret or privileged information: it was there for everyone to see. But there is enough distance between most people at Dreamtime to allow such things. The insistence on blistering honesty that has characterized many intentional communities is not to be found there; lives remain private to whatever degree wished.
As we drove past dozens of dairy farms, Eric told about his childhood in a large, conservative family in Minnesota. He said, "When I look back, I realize now that we were poor. We didn't have books around the house--none of that." Circumstances forced him to be independent, starting work at an early age. We slightly envied aspects of each other's backgrounds: he would have wanted more books, more culture; I would have wanted more struggle and independence.
Eric went to technical school and then to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, eventually dropping out to audit classes. He lived in co-ops and made friends with the strangest people he could find.
One day on the radio I heard a call for people to participate in the Festival of the Swamps. I went to Liz and Miekal's place. They had a lot of art that was rather non-formal and wild--I was attracted to the scene, and I needed a change, and I kinda wanted to explore these areas I hadn't explored. Right away they were a vehicle for me to do that. I asked them if I could park my bus in their backyard, and to my surprise and amazement, they said yes. They were out there, probably like no other people in the area. And I really wanted to live in a bus: I never wanted to rent again. I lived there for five years before coming out here with Liz and Miekal. So, we've lived together for about eight or nine years.
"John," he said, taking his eyes off the road for a second, "I'm a genetic mutation. All my life I knew I was different. It was just a matter of time before I found other freaks."
"Eric, sure you're a freak, but I doubt it's genetic. Don't you think it's more about the different social scenes you found yourself in at different points in your life?" We argued our points for some time, and neither of us gave in. There was something undeniable about people who knew from an early age that they were different. I've heard the same story before, and sometimes I believe it.
Once in Madison, we cruised by the most likely spots for discarded treasure, taking stock of our options. On most blocks, the curbs were choked with trash bags, cases of empty beer bottles, and the occasional piece of furniture. In a few places, there were stacks of couches, most of them in good shape. We quickly began to fill the van. Driving through one residential area, we saw something that we couldn't pass up: an old dentist's chair. As we slowed, I remembered that Sandi had warned me to stop Eric from getting junk (Dreamtime certainly had enough). But this was irresistible.
The thing felt like it was made of solid cast iron, and it took about fifteen minutes of huffing, puffing and sweating to get it in the old Ford Econoline. When it was finally secure, it began leaking oil onto the floor of the van. "You know what we've got here, John?" Eric asked.
"No, what've we got?"
"A white elephant."
It was. It was a big crazy piece of junk that would soon be forgotten, taking up space and collecting dust. But there was an absurd pleasure in having it, so we kept it, installing it in the music room as a music appreciation chair.
A few days later, Eric, Janet and I were up late and got into a Dreamtime critique. Eric was saying that one of the essential problems was the maintenance of old buildings. He used the same term that he'd used to refer to the dentist's chair, "white elephant," to talk about the School, and I realized that the thrill we experienced in rescuing that old artifact off the street was more or less the same as the thrill in owning a dilapidated school built in 1920. The love of these hulking cultural leftovers clashed with Dreamtime's small budget and desire for harmony with the environment.
This was just one of the basic contradictions that pulled at Dreamtime, a community with more than its share of pack-rats with a collective obsession for the oversized detritus of American culture. Many people wished that Dreamtime could have started from scratch, so that efficient, low-impact buildings could have been built. There had even been suggestions, sometimes serious and sometimes not, of tearing down the School and the Mansion. As it was, Dreamtime was stuck with them, and they absorbed huge amounts of time, money and labor.
The Corroboree continued to grow. Dinners worked very well as group introduction sessions and planning meetings. Workshops were formed out of common interest: it was a lesson in spontaneous organization, the fruition of Dreamtime's ideals. At one Monday's dinner, a critical threshold was reached. There must have been nearly two dozen people all squeezed into the living room that I had grown accustomed to sprawling in comfortably. The price we paid for all this enthusiastic company was that there were, ironically, fewer opportunities for privacy and intimacy.
Dreamtime's main garden was between the Hotel and the School. It was an unruly maze of raised beds, the occasional rusting sculpture. It was a large, flat clearing, always warm and bright on sunny days. Sometimes I would be working or walking in the garden, and look up to see another person suddenly there, without warning, quietly going about their business. I would usually smile and wave in greeting, rather than shouting and breaking the silence.
Behind the gym was a collection of rusting vehicles: an old panel truck stuffed with discarded asbestos from the school, a sports car crashed by Stephen Freer, a decaying Volvo. Right along the property line were Ken's bookmobile and Eric's blue schoolbus. I'd wandered into both of these in March and found them haunted and magical. They were cluttered with trash and books, and were warm and soft with human occupation, like old jeans.
The center of any garden is its hottest spot--I remembered that much from the passing gardening tips I'd picked up on. At the center of Dreamtime's main garden was a rock spiral ziggurat, the John Cage Memorial Cactus Garden. In mid-August, John Wright, Brad and I would be there nearly every day, hauling rocks around. There was a large scrap metal sculpture nearby, a monstrous, abstract skeletal thing made of rusting chains, gears, and metal rods, all hanging together miraculously. A week earlier, I'd made a project of stringing together dozens of beerbottle caps and hanging them on the sculpture, so that it now looked like a creature with a long mane that would rattle and tinkle and clank in the breeze. It was a calming, seaside kind of sound, and that was what we worked to most days. The first day, when the sweat really began to pour, I asked if anyone knew any work songs. And John launched into "haul 16 tons, and what do you get...." singing verses I'd never heard before.
It turned out that John knew a lot of songs. That week, we had a kind of talent show in the Ballroom, which we had cleaned up for the event. It was an evening that felt like some church social out in the mainstream. Performing at our talent show that week, John read a poem:
"all I play now is old time hillbilly
"because I saw the Sex Pistols live
"I saw the Sex Pistols kill rock and roll"
He then brought out his guitar and played us old Appalachian songs about moonshine, hoboes' songs about sweet revenge, bittersweet songs about unrequited love that might have been sung sweetly by Hank Williams, or bitterly by Johnny Cash.
Liz, Miekal and I played together. They played drums and saxophone respectively--I played bass. We each picked a word at random out of the dictionary and played our instruments accordingly. I was "host," Miekal, "porterhouse" (a kind of pub or a cut of beef), and Liz was "cow," as in "to submit." The music we made together was, like the music I had played with Bay, stripped of all the rules I had become accustomed to. Each instrument was like a voice engaged in a long, rambling monologue that would somehow comment on the other two monologues.
Now usable, the Ballroom was the scene of several interesting events. Workshops on digeridoo playing, freight-hopping and pirate radio were given there. Three dreadlocked visitors from San Francisco, DJs who had showed up in a van with turntables and a record collection, set up a dance there on the last Saturday night of the Corroboree. The day passed quietly, and it seemed as if we were all saving energy. After nightfall, the Ballroom had been transformed with lighting and decorations; the people had been transformed with costumes and a playful sense of ritual.
Dances were always an opportunity for people to dress up and act out, but this night seemed to be more extreme than most. There was a lot of cross-dressing. Lee was in purple tights, Eric Hiltner wore only some kind of diaper or sarong and danced by kind of jiggling up and down fervently. Brendan Flanagan, who had led the workshop on freight-hopping, was possessed for most of the night by one bizarre character or another, and was variously an amphibian, a janitor, a caveman.
Never before had I realized how complex, powerful and playful this kind of non-verbal communication could be. Late in the night, one visitor from a Chicago anarchist collective introduced a large rubber ball into the action and started dribbling it around the room. Everyone interacted with the ball differently--it reminded me of an idea of Lee's, the anarchist softball game. When I had an opportunity to steal the ball, I curled up with it like a petulant child. Unfazed by this change in the game, several people grabbed me by the arms and legs, dragging and spinning me around the room until my hold on the ball was released.
The floors sagged, the music boomed and warbled: we bounced ecstatically and made the records skip; the rhythms thus made erratic and jittery, we danced with even greater frenzy. After about five hours of dancing, my muscles burned and knotted as if I had run a marathon.
Even while the rave was going on, a large bonfire had been started outside in the garden. This had attracted a slightly different crowd, those more disposed to drumming, smoking and chatting. It felt like an ending. In the next few days, most of our visitors would be leaving, going home if they had homes, or simply shaking off stasis and moving to the next place and the next place. I sat outside by the fire until three in the morning, letting the sweat from my body evaporate into the late summer air.