Commune (ists) in Tennessee

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shiver when I think of how proud I am we saved all the land we did, but it’s just a drop of water in a bucket,” says Lisa Harris as she surveys the grassy plain out of her car window. Lisa is a tour guide for The Farm, an intentional community in Summertown, Tennessee. She shares the same feelings about this place as its other 200 members: pride and hope for the future. The Farm was founded in 1971 by Steven Gaskin, a former English professor at San Francisco State University. He quit his job and went to join the Haight-Ashbury movement, named after two streets that meet in San Francisco. This intersection served as a gathering place for hundreds of college dropouts who experimented with alternate consciousness and psychedelic drugs. From here, Gaskin began traveling and speaking on college campuses and churches across the country about the life force, magic, and other spiritual teachings. He had a growing band of followers, who dubbed themselves the Caravan. When Gaskin returned to Haight-Ashbury in 1970, however, he found that the scene had changed: the inhabitants had turned to the use of hard drugs strictly for purposes of pleasure and escape rather than what Gaskin considered expanding consciousness. To reclaim the movement’s innocence, Gaskin and his nearly 350 followers bought land in Summertown and decided to start their own community. Gaskin’s utopia, The Farm, was founded.

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There are two types of communes: an anarchistic retreat commune and an intentional commune. The former is when the members agree to reject establishment. Everyone is welcome and there is no social structure; everything is shared. The problem with this type of community is that with no set structure, power struggles often occur. People who make a commitment to these communities frequently leave due to internecine strife; consequently, the community suffers or dies out. The intentional commune, on the other hand, is a community where there is a set power structure with administrators and other leaders capable of making rules and decrees; the application process to such a place is generally more rigorous as well.

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The Farm is an intentional commune turned intentional community. (The switch was made in 1983 due to overcrowding and member poverty.) Becoming a working member is a process that lasts approximately a year and includes application forms; after acceptance, a monthly bill of $100 is due. An intentional community differs from a commune in that the individual members of the community have possession over their own “belongings.” The community retains its uniqueness, however, because there is a certain level of trust between members as well as a shared purpose: to save land and create a place where people are freed spiritually from the demands of capitalism (or, to put it simply, everything that goes with making a living). When this switch to intentional community occurred in 1983, so many disputes broke out that the Farm’s population was almost cut in half.

Harris and Louise McMahon, who work at The Farm Store, both left at this point in its history, only to return a short time later. They say they missed the simple life here—not to mention the fact that The Farm is a beautiful, expansive piece of land.  The houses, which look like they’ve been plucked from a subdivision in Williamson County, are organized like one big neighborhood. There’s a graveyard with colorfully decorated plots that convey more of a message of peace rather than sadness. Behind the community center is a big field; inside, a huge dining room. On the table next to the entrance sits the conch shell (think Lord of the Flies without the strife) that members blow every time they have a meeting. The Farm Store, a small purple building, is like the community’s Circle K. The stairs at the entrance lead you by a large bulletin board with advertisements for free puppies and yoga classes. Once inside, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the amount of homemade and organic foods the store stocks, all of which are vegetarian. (Vegetarianism on The Farm was originally established out of economic and practical necessity; so many people needed to be fed that feeding cows was untenable. However, vegetarianism developed into an integral part of the Farm’s humanitarian and sustainable resource philosophy.) There are even shelves full of books and albums produced on The Farm by its members.

Louise’s quaint organic store is tucked away next to the meeting gazebo and one of the many small playgrounds scattered everywhere; it has a certain charm that is absent from the commercialized Whole Foods enterprises, and while we talk, Louise and Lisa poke fun at the city folks who manage to navigate the aisles lined with bottled water and “millions of salad bars” to shop there. Their conversation is cut short when a young man walks in the store and takes a Coke. “Just put it on my tab!” he says. After he walks out, Louise doesn’t even write anything down; she knows she’ll be reimbursed.

The young man, Andy, is the youngest member of the Farm spotted all day. When Harris gets back on the road to continue her tour she explains this by starting out with her own story. “The reason I moved here? Horses. I love horses. Everyone was shocked when I moved to a commune, especially my parents. They still are.” Her love of horses becomes evident when she stops the tour and gets out of the car to pet Bobbin, the small lion-maned pony who has lived here for all 35 years of his life. As Bobbin bites at Harris’s hand she explains that yes, her motivation was horses, but the reason she stayed and even came back after the paradigm shift from commune to community was her daughter. Louise said the same thing back in the store: “This way of life is for the children.”

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Farm members want their kids to grow up in a green community, one dedicated to environmental awareness and sustainability. They also want to live in a place where all the neighbors are close. The parenting philosophy here is to give children the freedom to make their own decisions and not stifle them in the least. Ironically, both Louise and Harris’s children hated it here so much they left. Louise’s children moved as soon as they were able but still visit on occasion. Harris’s daughter, Shayna, attended Hillsboro High School and during her junior year was given the freedom to live outside the Farm on her own. The responsibilities proved overwhelming; she’s currently back on the Farm living with her parents.

 

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t the beginning of the tour, Harris is trying to get Shayna home. She and some friends have just pulled up, and Shayna stumbles out of the car covered in mud and smudged mascara. She introduces herself and talks to the tour group while her mother is busy inside the guest building. A high school dropout who has moved back in with mom and dad, she is perhaps more of an average teenager than her upbringing should have produced.

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Unlike Lisa’s daughter, most children on the Farm attend Farm School. Housed in one of the largest buildings in the community, its ceiling is solar paneled and nearly self-sufficient. The school houses grades K-12, with all of the teachers in residence here. Like many of The Farm’s programs, it is funded by private donations. Other programs include the summer program, Kids to the Country, which is a camp for low-income children and refugees. Camp runs four weeks every summer. Mary Ellen Bowen, the camp director, states in the brochure, “Many of the children we receive have never walked on a forest path or encountered wild butterflies and sassafras trees and have not had the pleasure of swimming in a real pond or picking wild blackberries. We are planting seeds so that they will have memories of what walking through a cool forest on a hot day and wading through the creek with tadpoles feels like; so perhaps when they grow up and become decision makers, they will remember to plant trees and gardens and leave some wild places on Earth and in their hearts.”

These children are not the only outsiders to be brought to The Farm. Local teens ride their ATVs through the property’s fields every year, often escorted off by police. “They’re very annoying,” Harris says. “The good part is the police are generally on our side.” There are the tours, of course, along with a plethora of scheduled events. For example, in September, Farm Experience Weekend invites people to come to camp and live on the property. The weekend starts in the community center with an overview of The Farm’s history and its early struggles back in the ’70s. Participants learn how the community has adapted and continued to function over time. Saturday starts out with yoga and a tour through the businesses and residential areas, followed by the workshops in topics ranging from things such as alternative education to midwifery to mushroom growing. Saturday night features a bonfire and drum circle under the stars. Hopefully, visitors leave this week in a better and more peaceful place. It is said to be an eye-opening experience for people who have never taken life on an intentional community seriously.

Among many things these visitors get to see are the numerous occupations that The Farm offers its inhabitants. Most members are employed within the community, but the most popular occupation is production line work at the handheld radiation detector factory. Village Media Service, The Farm’s own television and music production studio, is based out of a house located next to the horse field (where several former police horses have been retired). The company shoots weddings and other events, as well as records music by Farm members. The CDs it produces are on sale at the Farm Store and the Gift Shop in the Welcome Center. The adjacent mushroom farm sports a variety of home grown mushrooms. Shitake mushrooms are the primary crop; they are sold at local farmers markets in Summertown and surrounding areas. Mushroom farmers are known fondly as the Mushroompeople.

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Ina Mae Gaskin, wife of founder Steven, started the midwife program here; to this day, the program remains one of the community’s most vital aspects of life. The Farm website says Ina Mae believes firmly in the idea that “childbirth should be something that is fully experienced, not something that a woman should be doped up for.” Another very important aspect of community life is its intense dedication to non-profit organizations, like its Plenty organization. Founded in 1974, this program oversees the Kids to the Country Camp, now in its twenty-second year. Plenty also oversees projects in Belize designed to improve schools by sending books, supplies, and volunteers. Its more local projects include Books for Kids, a book drive, and a garden project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that is designed to improve the quality of crop production. Plenty is a program that has been growing steadily since its inception.

While the charity and non-profit work that comes out of The Farm is considered by its members to be its most respectable aspect, the least would be its reputation for drug use, a subject Lisa deflects. However, The Farm website states that Steven Gaskin founded this community on the belief that marijuana is “the green herb of understanding that lets people who don’t speak the same language laugh at the same jokes.” An early resident of The Farm, Michael Traugot, says that the place was a “grass church” in its early years. Members of the commune used the drug to increase their insight, for ceremonial value, and to enhance lovemaking. Not surprisingly, three months after The Farm was founded, there was a major drug bust. While Gaskin fully supported marijuana use, he realized that it could easily be the downfall of his community, so growing cannabis was banned. It was a smart move. In July 1980, two police helicopters, 50 squad cars, and over 100 officers and their dogs raided The Farm in the middle of the night, trailed by news camera crews. They surrounded a huge field where marijuana was suspected to be grown, only to discover that the suspicious plant was ragweed. The anniversary of this failed raid by the local police force is known as Ragweed Day.

Even a daylong visit to this place can offer a tranquility and peace of mind unlike anything else. The place’s unspoiled nature, the all-encompassing religious beliefs, and the strict vegetarian philosophy are hard to find nowadays. The Farm is one of the only remaining successful communities of its kind in the country. As Harris likes to remind people, the world can be a scary place. “You really have to start thinking green,” she says. “It’s serious, serious bad.” Hopefully The Farm’s values will spread into society, so that its goals of creating a stable environment and sustainable living conditions for the new age will be fulfilled.

 

--Joanna McCall