Tribal in Mind
In a world where civilization is in decline, a new generation discovers the joys of communal living. By Alan Rifkin
"IN COLLEGE I DIDN'T KNOW this culture still existed," Moondance says over the phone. She's on a commune with six other people in a sun-strobed forest in the northern Sierras. She's only twenty, humming out her answers matter-of-factly.
Is it pretty there? I ask.
Dazed laughter. It's an untranslatable joke, all this beauty I can't see.
She tells about her day, sewing at a workbench, hats stitched from hemp, naked walks in the garden--a reference that pushes all its potent buttons: buzzing bees, innocence and sin, memories of paradise that fly back and strike against the Garden itself, or the Garden within, or the cover of an album by Joni Mitchell.
So I drive to the center of the mind's eye, way north of Sacramento. A crushed pastel road hurtles into a mine shaft of leaves, tires happily grinding up sage and mesquite and a compost of ancient figs; farther down and darker the road bumps and turns and, in a bit of ludicrous staging, skids right up to the naked Moondance, sitting on a blanket with a naked bearded teenage boy named Dylan. I'm thinking: Here we are, where we began. They regard the rented Taurus.
THERE'D BEEN SIGNS FOR A COUPLE OF years that something might be up. People who'd never dream of talking about communes--people who laughed at hippie culture till the beer shot out their noses--were talking about potlucks, e-mail, Lollapalooza: topics that were about community all along. There were young anarchist collectives and co-ops and musicians’ crashpads in cities like Minneapolis and San Diego. I'd seen photos of eco-villages in horrible neighborhoods, communal garden parties encamped on city streets, inaugurating something or toasting the end.
I'd been through San Francisco, where the last exodus began. "The context," someone told me, "is a generation that knows every time you say the word ‘civilization' nowadays you've got to put a question mark next to it." To his mind this would give '9Os commune-forming a new, saving urgency.
Word that youthful longing was approaching critical mass had some elder communes shuffling to react. Zendik Farm in Austin, Texas, started a political party for youth. Vibey astrology wafted from the woods. The millennium was coming, I kept hearing--not just any millennium, but the millennial Sabbath, the seventh thousand-year "day" in Creation's week.
WHERE TO STASH MY KEYS. WHETHER TO use the outhouse to piss. How naked they are. Not indoor naked or nude-beach naked but feral, tribal naked. Dylan introduces himself in a hippie register of uneventfulness and mental health and the annoying trace of vague concern. "Hullo?" he says, almost inaudibly. "Piece of ginger?"
The ground hums with bugs. Moondance pulls a skirt around her hips and offers a tour. She's long, with thin barbed lips and twists of pioneer hair gathered back, striding down a pine-needle path. A fifty-foot trailer is perched nearby. "We have no power lines," she says. "We use solar power and a generator. We have a blender. No television. We listen to tapes and the radio."
The trailer came with Peter and Janie, the founders-- older, fortyish, with a nine-year old daughter named Cory. Moondance and partner Rob share one of three separate, secluded cabins: condolike, with cinderblock bookshelves and strewn blankets. Rob is away for the week. I don't ask where Dylan fits in, but he and Moondance kiss in a lazy way that looks like they occasionally just discover themselves kissing.
We drift through cloisters of trees to a sandal-making shack. Maybe a hundred pairs made of welded rope dangle from the wall. In the garden, Moondance latches a gate against unseen foraging deer. "Yeah," she says, laughing at the luxury of the problem. "There're deer!"
In school, Moondance was Kristen. She had dropped out in wonderment, pressing a secret panel in a library wall. At a pivotal moment she acquired a Volkswagen bus. She read, in High Times magazine, about Rainbow Gatherings--the annual 15,000-strong hippie homecomings in national forests--though she could just as well have seen it in Time. A 1991 article led off with a photo of feathered, painted, aging sunchildren, kneeling in the dirt like hostages, arms stretched to heaven.
She developed a critique of the nuclear family. City couples seemed alienated and afraid (she grew up in suburbia). Long-term monogamy “seems unrealistic to us,” Moondance says. "There's a lot of abuse and dysfunction out there." Not that everyone was just a tribalist deep down--but she knew a woman who started a tribal drum circle at a rave, and afterward a crowd had gathered, ready to go anywhere: "Where do you live? Where do you come together?"
This was unexpected glamour. When Moondance left San Diego State, she took for granted that she was jumping generations. She embraced the role of disciple, studying massage in Portland, living on an old hippie's farm with Rob and a guy friend named Water. She worked for Greenpeace and slept in a yurt. She learned the language and the group process, a kind of Robert's Rules of the Left. In a weird way she was going through channels. Established communes were networking, federating now--ratifying mutual principles and publishing their P.O. boxes and their nonviolent, nonageist, ecofeminist credos ("hiking, caring, coping") in big glossy directories. The threesome applied for a spot.
They got in near ground zero. Peter was a lefty mechanic, a veteran of collective households in San Francisco who used to daydream of starting a rural "tribal village" (separate buildings, common purse). Then his parents left him $300,000. Half this fortune was spent already, starting up. The rest could dwindle easily (the garden supplied only 20 percent of their food), but worrying was postponable: Sandal sales were brisk on the Deadhead circuit.
To Moondance the big hurdle was going to be commitment--along with joint ownership, income-sharing, and an agreement to make major decisions by consensus. Commitment could turn the dream into a prison, or it could turn the tedium of cooperative living into just the sort of frontier that made dreaming unnecessary. She gazed daily at Water's car, parked near the trailer like a possible getaway sedan. A month later the premonition came true and Water was leaving.
Moondance meanwhile was staying--a decision she assumed would reverberate nowhere, strand her in generational limbo, cut off from any network of peers. "I didn't know then," she says, "about the tribe up on the ridge."
SHE FIRST SAW THEM BATHING IN THE Yuba River. Some were rich kids pitching tents on local farms; others were hippie offspring, visiting on weekends from as far as Berkeley. This latter group had seemed to configure itself from the tea leaves of '60s history. Their parents were Berkeley flower children, 270 of whom followed professor Stephen Gaskin in 1971 to the hills of southern Tennessee. There they purchased 1,764 acres and called it The Farm, soon to become the largest settlement of the thriving hippie nation. There was midwifery, coparenting, soy ice cream, an open-arms policy to transient families, and a school for five hundred kids, who arrived each day through strawberry fields planted just for them to devour. Raised to find exuberance in responsibility, and vice versa (current and former Farm residents turn up on projects like the Solar Car Corporation, planning a hybrid solar sports car that will hit 150 miles per hour), the offspring approached adulthood with the markings of a countercultural patrician class. "They were born," one elder member told me, "knowing what we struggled to learn."
In '83, though, the Farm went broke. Failed crops and fiscal inexperience were blamed. For the first time, Farm members began handling their own finances, a development their children monitored from college dorms across the country, wondering if the parents hadn't brought this bad karma on themselves. ("They should never have taken jobs off the land," concludes one. "If you're coming home from work to garden, gardening becomes a chore.") The parents feared they'd raised a bunch of sheltered idealists. History came full circle, as a new wave of children and a few honored elders chose exile over conformity. More than a hundred of them, as it happened, chose northern California, where they were now discussing acquiring land to start a commune of their own.
Sixty-one-year-old Sylvia Anderson, who used to read children's books over Farm radio, had arrived ahead of them, hosting tribal circles for local kids and supplying, in a newsletter, the prophecy of the moment. From The Sacred Path Cards by Jamie Sams, she quoted how two Native American grandmothers foresaw all this unfolding: The "generation following the flower children would see the dawning of a “Fifth World of Peace"--a "wobbly pony" that "would try to use its legs."
"Your parents' lives were strongly touched," Anderson wrote, "by the wave of Light that came through in the '60s, and a big part of their work was to provide bodies for as many of you as possible to be born into the early stages of this new consciousness on Earth.
"From a spiritual perspective, I believe that we all choose the circumstances of our birth. And I believe that you Farm kids chose the circumstances you were born into because you wanted a strong foundation in the new consciousness in order to participate more fully in the coming changes . . .
"So, you guys--keep your heads together during the wobble, stay tuned in to nature, invite more light into your lives, and ride that wave into the dawning of a new consciousness for planet Earth.
“I love you all,
Around here it's just called The Prophecy. "Have you heard about the Prophecy?" Moondance's friend Xochi asks me later. I say that I have, and I ask if she thinks it's the sequel to hippie history.
“I think we have to take it very seriously," she says.
GOD KNOWS OUR LIVES ARE OUT OF BALANCE. Almost anyone can write a list of dreams he's taught himself to forego: to smash the TV, to live in a tree house, to know that he’ll survive or die happy. "I hope you're well and doing what you want,” says a letter I get from Sacramento. "If not, STOP, dammit." Moondance says: "If my friends aren't someplace they love, I tell them they're crazy.”
To drop out is to risk everything--Thomas More defined Utopia as "nowhere." Still you had to envy the dream's transcendent peaks. Dulcimers, love-ins, money-burnings on Wall Street, material fear dispelled. Wavy Gravy's Hog Farmers chanting "HOG! HOG! HOG!" in open fields, all rising and then collapsing like dominoes. In 1967, on Haight Street, a hippie stopped my teenage sister Shelley, vacationing in Bermuda shorts, to declare with timeless urgency "You're pretty"--a Utopian moment in context. But if the sun passed behind a cloud and the light changed color, he might have revealed himself to be a mental patient, and in a few years possibly he was.
People really did die of hepatitis. Acidheads burned the furniture for firewood. Newsweek declared 1969 the Year of the Commune in the same issue that reported the murder of Sharon Tate. Between 1965 and 1970, two thousand American communes were formed; by 1974 there were media postmortems. Those communes that lived to see the '80s did so by adopting a "new businesslike style" (U.S. News & World Report)--a goodbye to innocence possibly presaged by Ken Kesey, who searched for a crescent wrench one day on his eighty-acre dairy commune in Oregon only to discover that "everybody had a toolbox, but the farm didn't have no fuckin' toolbox."
In San Francisco, on Polk Street, nearly three decades after the Summer of Love, I saw an abandoned three-story building--a federally seized porn shop with two vacant flats upstairs--that was being squatted by sixteen homeless kids. There were slogans graffitied on the plasterboard (EVICTION MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO RESIDENTS). Drifters in scavenged jogging shorts held sidewalk sit-ins. "We're trying to create the perfect Utopian society," a guy named Nick told me. He was toting the house laundry, and I followed him to Hogwash Laundromat, where a housemate named Nikki was drenched in tears over worries that the police would soon evict them. Nick found out I was a writer and turned phony, apologizing for the word "shit," proclaiming that, really, the whole city was his family. Six hours later he disappeared from the house and we found him drunk in Hogwash, singing "Miss America" by the change machines. I went to a house meeting. "Obviously, at this point in the juncture," said a surrealistically superior eighteen-year-old girl named Tether, as if to a nest of microphones, "publicity is more important than anything." Someone was at the door, and that did it for the meeting--a half-dozen guys now barreling downstairs with hammers and bats while Tether cajoled from the landing, "Hey, man--no violence, remember?" The door opened to an unbathed punk girl with blue velvet tights, tapping a notepad against her wrist as if it were a warrant, and she only wanted information on how to squat government-owned buildings legally, but she couldn't say these words without barking commands. ("Hey, we got some questions to ask you.") Sixties-spooked as if by some absent father, everyone pretended to know what to do; no one could begin to get along.
I walked, depressed, to my hotel, where I'd gotten a return call from Wavy Gravy himself: celebrity radical (he guffawed onstage at Woodstock, "We're all feeding each other!"), the dropout you either had to hate or join, and all at once I didn't know which posture to choose--he was either a reminder that the hippies had abandoned the city's needy, or he was proof that all this urban poverty was self-imposed (as in, Why doesn't everyone just join the Rainbow?). He explained the Hog Farm's survival through the years: "We've just done our own pile. We've had a sense of humor and we cut each other some slack." He invited "the whole world" to attend his annual Labor Day “Pignic.” He seemed irritated by questions about whether hippie consciousness was still relevant to the young. "That's up to them," he said. "It's out here for who wants it. Look, have you read my book? Buy my book."
AT THE YUBA RIVER, MOONDANCE AND the tribe from the ridge sit naked on boulders.
STAR: My name is Star, and I'm going to be twenty- three. I'm into building Native American dwellings at the moment.
RUBY: My name is Ruby and I'm seventeen years old, and I've been riding my bicycle around for the last couple months, traveling and looking at communities and seeing what they're like.
Moondance plows into the water with a hefty holler. The river is ten feet deep and cool, and if you stay under for a few seconds it pounds you with its clarity. Every so often from the rocky banks comes some kind of birdcall, and somebody unseen answers it, and then the trees are goofy with hyena laughs and screams that gather, as a finale, into a great big collective shout. Then everyone giggles with relief. I don't belong, I don't belong. But I shake hands with Sylvia Anderson, under a tree with some Farm kids. She says, "Well, welcome to paradise."
I know some of the kids from pictures in Anderson's newsletter (Whirling Rainbow News). But I don't remember who's the holistic healer and who's majoring in peace and conflict studies and who's starting the organization of environmental missionaries. The newsletter is becoming my favorite thing to read, largely for the sign-offs from letter writers everywhere:
"Still vegetarian--still believe in the dream."
"Keep the Love Flowing."
Plus there were new, updated prophecies; in the coming year, the first Infinite Soul in two thousand years would be born. "Christ and Buddha were Infinite Souls," writes Anderson. "Anybody pregnant?"
Jordana is pregnant, conjuring her belly with her palms. Her husband, Tom, attends law school at Boldt, an anomaly he justifies neatly. ("I think I can affect the larger society by acquiring and protecting resources.")
There's also a guy named Josiah, with blond curls and a nose ring, and someone named Hajji, who has a three-wheeled trailer hitched to his bicycle.
Together they are the round table that never argues, consensus as ritual: One Planet, One Opinion.
JOSIAH: Things are quickening up. Not only spiritual awareness but corruption, disharmony. What I think can be done about it is to realize that we're 100 percent responsible--each and every one of us--for all of the good and all of the bad in the world, because we create the world we live in, right down to the last quote-unquote sin. Once people are aware of that, I believe they'll want to live in a fairly beautiful world.
EMANUEL: We're a global community already. I think people just need to tap into that a little more.
JOSIAH: We don't need to heal the planet; we need to heal the people.
SAMANTHA: Just like you can't love someone else if you can't love yourself; you cannot heal the Earth if you're not healed. The Earth knows what's going on, and it was her choice to make such a dramatic display of the scenarios that are going to play out. But now she's calling back to her children to wake up and realize we're unhealthy. So we need to hear that call and heed it and heal ourselves, and then we can love her back.
MOONDANCE and KEVIN: (singing and swaying) What the world/ Needs now/ Is love! /Sweet love!
LOTS OF EXPERTS DON'T SEE A YOUTH wave forming. Utopianism is at a low right now,” says Dr. Donald Pitzer, director of communal studies at the University of Southern Indiana. "Things in nature go by jerks and starts, and you can't keep energy at a flash point very long."
On the other hand, Pitzer says, it may be that he's in Indiana and doesn't know. He's only half-joking. It stands to reason that the newest communes are the least publicized: not yet announcing themselves, for instance, to the Fellowship for Intentional Community, whose international gathering took place in Washington the previous summer--a cross between a Dead concert and a trade show, with a certain eerie, insular flavor (one night's listed entertainment was "comedian Swami Beyondananda").
What was getting publicized was "cohousing," a Scandinavian concept-it's the Ikea of communal visions-- wherein single moms, lonely couples, and other quietly desperate professionals formed limited partnerships to buy land, meet with architects, and draw up blueprints. Four such projects--village clusters with common kitchens and playrooms and elder care and pedestrian paths--had been completed in the U.S. Two are in California, one each in Washington and Colorado.
Cohousing proponents distance themselves from the hippie past. "I've seen it over and again, where there's some valid, responsible community being formed by upper-income professional people, and some editor kills it by calling it a commune," complains Ken Norwood, who heads the Shared Living Resource Center in Berkeley. A community planner hoping to head a federal program, Norwood was down to his last unemployment check in the early '70s when he was invited to join a group house in Mill Valley. These days he gives slide shows to help unfrivolous communitarians get started. The Farm kids and their friends have met with him.
The kids I met walked a fine line in all this. They wanted to get to the land before it was “all bought up by baby boomers"; simultaneously they feared knowing a little more about banking than simplicity would prescribe. One member in Berkeley was trying to make a fortune in telecommunications to help supply a down payment for land. He said he had tension headaches every day at five o'clock. On Moondance's commune, Peter and Janie were facing the home birth of their second child with a midwife, but if things got desperate, they'd visit a hospital, not a hippie healer. This was the Utopia that spared no tools.
“I admire the young people around here," Peter told me in the sandal shop. "When I was twenty-two or twenty-five, I wouldn't have been able to promise anyone: I'll stick it out here for a year." It was possible to think that history taught its offspring, that the new commune would be wiser than the old one, as B follows A.
SOON THE FARM KIDS BEGAN TO advertise their monthly meetings around the San Francisco Bay Area with handbills and e-mail, and the local lights responded. Ken Norwood gave a workshop. Jud Presmont, legendary founder of San Francisco's recently dissolved Kerista commune--ethical nonmonogamists/encounter groupies with a world plan--had to be gently prevented from monopolizing the format with his hard-ass Gestalt dynamics. ("In group dialogue," one organizer said, "there's a kind of painless dentistry that maybe there wasn't t in 1971.") An almost superstitious delicacy was prevailing--you kept the vision of the Garden alive precisely by not lunging at things. You were asking on paper how your heart would have you live. This was a radically scary question, but once you asked it you had the feeling you were on the right track, that your life was something more than a hobby. "If you don't like the news," Tom Dixon, the law student, had been taught on the Farm, "go out and make some."
Mission statements were solicited. Whatever vision emerged, the group decided, ought to be adopted publicly, so that seekers could enlist on the basis of beliefs (no cliques). Dating and mating were discussed. No values would be forced or frowned upon, but coparenting seemed the goal. "Maybe one year Dick and Jane decide to have a child," says George Gleason, the telepreneur, "maybe the next year Dick and Suzie, maybe the next year Suzie and Tom."
Land: Someone heard of a couple hundred acres near Laytonville for S200,000; if thirty people managed to save $1,000 each, a down payment was in range. Whereupon a variety of possible industries could be launched: EPA-funded toxic-cleanup machines. Al Gore-style data highways.
The millennial commune will be monstrously competent, high-minded yet humble, vaguely vice-presidential. "To the extent possible we're going to go for sustainable technology," Gleason tells me by phone. "But we're not going to make martyrs out of ourselves in order to prove the point. So we'll have our solar power, our wind power, probably our stream diversion for our water-turbine system, to have a multimode energy system that's robust and not dependent on anyone. We'll probably also be connected to the grid, because sometimes it's the most practical thing to do."
I ask Gleason what I'd see if I met him on the street, or on the river. Yuppie pig? Hippie freak?
"Average height, average weight, long brown hair in a ponytail--I don't know," he says. He adds: "With an idealistic twinkle in my eye."
SUNDAY MORNING IN THE SIERRAS. A cowbell rings for the morning circle. Moondance shares that she's grateful for everyone here, that she's jazzed about a peach pie she baked, that she's looking forward to another day at the river. We eat pancakes for breakfast in the trailer. Absolutely everyone helps clean up.
In spite of the fact that what they say is patently correct, or maybe because of it, I don't have much to say to Moondance's friends on the ridge. Their future asks nothing from mine, and vice versa. It takes me about three hours with the tribe to start fidgeting in paradise. The sun slides behind the riverbank, dusk lighting the water. I'm leaving wet prints on a rock that's a mash against my spine, wondering to the endless tuning of drums and the abstractions of flutes: When does the song start? It either never starts, or this is it: participatory art. The people who don't play music are draped over rocks, winging one leg comfortably to the beat.
There is a misty girl with a sprained foot, and she is sliding backward in a bed of boulders for fifty or one hundred yards asking for "Joel," who might have aspirin in his backpack. I offer to get Joel's aspirin, but she refuses and manages twenty more yards as cold air begins to take hold.
Finally in darkness the group treks to the road to divide into cars. Tonight's party is for Xochi's birthday, at the organic farm where she lives. It's the same as all their parties, Moondance assures me: The drumming moves indoors. Josiah labors over a millet pizza crust and tosses a salad with fresh goat cheese. He licks crumbs from his fingers and puts his fingers in Xochi's mouth, and then he munches Xochi's lips, humming. They lean away to drink down the kiss, then lean in and munch lips some more. Moondance hugs the two of them at once, and they stand there a long time with the floor swaying around them. "I think this generation will unite the planet--we have to," Xochi says to me, and I find I am shaking my head at her. I tell her that if people were perfectable we'd be someplace else, and she looks at me like the phantom that I am. She says, "Well, we have to try, right? And if we try, we have to believe we can do it, right?"
I agree but feel lonely, as if I'm home but not home, surrounded by substitute music and family, unwilling to do what it takes to bring a new place to life, renouncing everyplace else.
YET AS I PACK TO LEAVE, I FIND I'M EAGER to know where they'll all be in a year or two. For like any American, I'm curious about Utopia, and about whether it lies ahead of us or irretrievably behind us. I go to sleep picking star thistles from a pillow that smells like the earth and another person's hair--dreaming not colorfully but aware of someplace real and unchanging, life beneath the things that pass for life, a continent under a cloud. All the fundamental things our culture avoids and then periodically craves.
We crave togetherness, freedom, and self-discipline. But over time we lose our way. Then another generation makes its break from a culture of distraction back to the heart of the matter. They seem to have found a way to start everything over. The future is in the woods.
On the road to Xochi's party, sailing through a vortex of leaves, Hajji with the bike cart nearly outraced the caravan of cars, topping forty-five on a downgrade--howling Oooohhhhh mama! at Moondance, who laughed back illicitly through the passenger window, far from any American town that could hear her. From a city point of view, she was all the way gone.