Life in an Intentional Community

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“Out to Change the World,” by Douglas Stevenson, is a first-person chronicle of The Farm, a massive intentional community in Tennessee.
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While many young Americans were moving from the farm to the city, several hundred hippies left their cities to move to The Farm in the summer of 1971.

Out to Change the World(Book Publishing Company, 2014), by Douglas Stevenson, tells the story of how more than 300 hippie idealists landed on abandoned property in central Tennessee to establish and maintain The Farm, one of the largest and longest-lasting intentional communities in the country. In the following excerpt from Chapter 4, “Three Days or the Rest of Your Life,” Stevenson recalls his and his wife’s first experiences on The Farm.

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The 1970s saw a cultural shift away from farm life in America. When Stephen Gaskin and his followers landed in Summertown, Tennessee, in the summer of 1971, young people who had been born and raised in the rural areas of the country were leaving the family farms to find work in the city. The Farm’s neighbors, who represented perhaps the last generation of their kind, were thrilled to see a group of young people leaving the cities and earnestly seeking their knowledge of farming. Many of these neighbors took the hippies of The Farm under their wings, becoming teachers and mentors.

In retrospect, the mid-1970s were in many ways the peak period of hippie culture. Thanks in part to the mass media, the ideals of the counterculture were broadcast across the nation. Baby boomers were in their twenties and early thirties, still young enough not to have put down roots. Millions of boomers hit the road in search of something, even if they were not quite sure what they were seeking. The Farm became a mecca and for many a required stop on their journey. Up to ten thousand people a year would come by for a visit to see for themselves this most visible example of the counterculture alternative to the capitalist status quo.

Attracting New Folks

For many young people, The Farm was an alternative to college. Often those attracted to it were university dropouts, individuals who could not see the relevance of pursuing higher education and a career path leading to the corporate world. The pool of people arriving at The Farm tended to be highly educated, which fostered a forum for discussions on philosophy, world affairs, existential literature, and humanity’s relationship to the universe. It was a stimulating environment that gave those making a commitment to stay the feeling that they were active participants in the creation of a new structure for society. They were fashioning a reality from the Aquarian vision—the Sixties’ ethos of a boundary-breaking, uninhibited, revolutionary take on life.

In the spring of 1973, Stephen went out on the road with The Farm Band, traveling to cities all across the country. After playing music for about an hour, the band would take a break and Stephen would talk about The Farm, displaying a slide show to illustrate what was taking place in the backwoods of Tennessee. Our hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, was the first stop on that first tour.

I will never forget seeing Stephen and the band at that concert. Deborah and I had learned about The Farm just about a year before while reading an article in Mother Earth News, a brand-new magazine about homesteading. There was a full page of pictures describing life on The Farm, and we weren’t overly impressed. Everyone looked very serious. Still, when we heard that Stephen and the band were coming to town, we decided to check them out. Although we were not necessarily searching for a spiritual guide, like many of our generation, we were seeking a greater understanding of the meaning of life. We had been to see a couple of other spiritual teachers who had come from or were influenced by the culture of India, and each fit our impression of what “spiritual” was supposed to be. This, however, was quite different.

The band rocked hard. Then, when Stephen began to talk, he told the audience that our town was not very hip, that it had been dumbed down by the dominance of the tobacco and whiskey industries. I understood where he was coming from and grew more interested.

Next, he started getting on this guy’s case, an audience member who was wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt with that well-known logo: big lips and a tongue sticking out. Stephen confronted him: “If you’re wearing a Mick Jagger T-shirt, and you buy all Mick Jagger’s albums, and you go to his concerts, and you think Mick Jagger is really cool, then Mick Jagger is your spiritual teacher. You have to question if he is really worthy of so much of your attention. I mean, what is he really saying or doing?”

This impressed me, because I had been reluctant to follow the guidance of a so-called spiritual teacher. But Stephen’s reasoning gave me a new perspective, and as we watched the slide show about life on The Farm, I began to weigh the significance of Stephen’s words. Here was a community of fellow hippies working together for a common purpose. It was incredible. Deborah and I immediately made plans to see The Farm for ourselves.

We were both nineteen and had already been married for two years. I had graduated high school a year early, and Deborah had left school before entering her senior year. To our parents’ dismay, we had no interest in college. Our general plan was to buy some land where we could grow our own food and live close to nature. We also felt a responsibility to continue working as political activists and were drawn to get involved in the current movement for cultural change, to do what we could to bring about a more just society in a world that seemed headed toward calamity. The Farm clicked with us on so many levels: the members championed getting back to the land, were socially and politically active, and followed a vegetarian diet. Of special importance to Deborah, The Farm promoted natural childbirth and midwifery. The Farm seemed to be the perfect fit for us.

On our way down to Summertown, we picked up a couple of hitchhikers just outside of Nashville, and it turned out they were also headed to The Farm. We pulled into The Farm entrance and were instructed to park, and then to sit with a large group gathered under the shade of a tree. I think we were taken aback when we observed Farm members passing around a can of 7-Up. White sugar? Junk food? What’s up with that? The people in charge seemed to be focused on one fellow in particular, and he didn’t appear to be very happy about it. It had something to do with how he was treating his girlfriend or wife.

After about an hour, we were sent down to stay with a couple living in a school bus. They did not hold back and openly challenged what we intended to do with the rest of our lives. It made us question our direction and goals, and it became clear to us that the ethics here dovetailed with ours. This community, we felt, embodied a vision for the future that we hoped would change the world. We knew this was what we wanted to do. A month later, Deborah and I came back to ask Stephen if we could join The Farm, and after a few days we caught up with him driving down the road. He stopped to talk to us and we made our request. Stephen said, “Well, have you got all your stuff with you?” We had not presumed it would be possible to move there without asking first, and answered no. “Find me when you get back,” he said and drove away. Deborah and I went back home, tied up loose ends, gathered up our stuff, and moved to The Farm in late summer, ready to live in our VW van.

After we had been living on The Farm for several months, one of our friends brought up the fact that we had never actually made our agreement with Stephen. Deborah and I went up to Stephen after the next Sunday Service in the meadow. At first no one said anything; we just looked at each other and “vibed.” Finally I mumbled something like, “I guess we’re living here now.” We were all smiling, then we hugged, and that was it. Nothing more needed to be said. The connection was telepathic.

Besides the concerts, another step The Farm took that attracted hundreds of new members was the publication of its first book, Hey Beatnik! This title was a tongue-in-cheek rejection of the hippie label used by the press to marginalize the ideas of the counterculture. But the book itself was meant to shine a light on The Farm lifestyle, its success, and its spiritual values.

Hey Beatnik! provided the perfect overview of virtually every aspect of Farm life, including growing our own food, managing our medical needs, raising our kids, getting along with our neighbors, and much more. Sprinkled throughout were essays by Stephen on the nature of a spiritual path and the moral values that established the framework that held the community together. The book sold well and became a popular manual, laying out a blueprint that could be used by anyone wanting to start an intentional community.

The volume of visitors arriving on a daily basis required The Farm to become organized lest it be overrun. Having experienced the shortcomings of crash pads and the “anything goes” anarchy of San Francisco and the West Coast, Stephen recognized that The Farm’s survival depended on establishing boundaries as well as a way to efficiently integrate newcomers.

The Gate

The Gate was the first stop for anyone and everyone who came to The Farm. It could be said that without The Gate, The Farm would not have survived. This was the portal through which all passed, and its keepers maintained a firm handle on who was coming in and how long they were allowed to stay. Their function, also, was to determine which people were serious and viable candidates for membership. The rest would be sent on their way.

It wasn’t uncommon for visitors arriving at The Gate to show up anxious, even a bit pushy, a common symptom of life on the road. They were often shocked when asked to slow down and sit a spell, sometimes for up to several hours, before being allowed to enter The Farm. The people working The Gate became expert at spotting new arrivals who had bad vibes, something to hide, criminal intent, or simply a bit of a temper. This didn’t necessarily mean such a person couldn’t come in for a visit. It was The Gate Crew’s job to poke around a bit and find out what was below the surface. Could this person relax and let go or was this someone determined to cling to an uptight attitude? The Gate Crew found that when people were faced with the truth about themselves in a way that allowed them space to change, they would usually adjust their attitudes and the process could move forward.

Of course most folks who came through were like us: sweet, young hippie types seeking to make a better world, whether it was on The Farm or in some other way they’d yet to find. For many, The Farm was a way station on their personal journey, and it offered an opportunity to see that there were alternatives to joining the suburban rat race.

At The Gate, visitors made a verbal agreement about how long they would stay: one, two, or three days. Then they would be sent down on The Farm. For the first several years, single people would be sent to a single men’s or women’s tent, and couples would be placed with a family.

As the number of visitors grew from hundreds to thousands of people a year, the community built a large Visitors’ Tent, capable of housing and feeding thirty to forty people at a time. Couples in the community would take turns living in the Visitors Tent for a week or two, integrating the flow of newcomers. They worked closely with the folks at The Gate, monitoring the situation, sending most people back out the door when their time was up, but also helping those who wanted to stay take the next steps to become part of the community.

Stephen came up with the catch phrase “Three days or the rest of your life.” Visitors to The Farm were allowed to stay for up to three days. During that time they would be assigned to a work crew, share meals, and get an up-close and personal view of Farm life. After three days they had to make a choice: they could leave or request an extended stay in hopes of becoming a permanent member.

“The rest of your life” defined the commitment that was expected, and in truth required, for The Farm to be a strong and cohesive community. The Farm would not last if it was only a short-term home to people passing through. The community had been around long enough for its members to realize that the stakes were high and that anything less than a sincere commitment sold short those who were giving it their all.

Deborah and I took several turns working the Visitors’ Tent, and it was something we really enjoyed. It gave us a break from our regular jobs, and it provided more time for me to spend with our two kids and for us to be together as a family. There was an intense energy in the Visitors’ Tent that I liked. Here we were at the crossroads, with people passing through who were curious and full of questions. One fellow, a doctor just out of medical school, ended up staying and became one of my lifelong friends. Decisions people made in the Visitors’ Tent could forever change their lives.

Of the thousands who visited The Farm each year, between one hundred and two hundred people would stay and give it a go. After about five years, the population had grown from the original three hundred Caravaners to a bustling one thousand members.

Although most of the buses and tents where we lived were outfitted with some type of small kitchen, for the first several years it was deemed more efficient to have a central kitchen prepare meals for everyone in the community three times a day. Each meal had a different crew of cooks. In our first months on The Farm, Deborah and I took on a breakfast shift, arriving at three or four in the morning to be ready for the work crews heading out into the fields or getting started with other tasks.

In summer months we usually had plenty of vegetables, but it was a different story in the winter, when The Farm’s fields were fallow and little money was coming in from outside work. Winter meals could be very bleak. The second year was especially hard and came to be known as Wheat Berry Winter, because wheat berries were often the only thing on the menu. These kernels of grain were served up like brown rice, but they are much tougher to chew and digest.

Lunchtime could be especially chaotic and was almost humorous in its degree of inefficiency. It could take up to three hours to get through the extremely long lines. No one seemed to mind, as it was just another time to socialize and get to know each other.

Over the course of several years, the community developed multiple kitchens in different locations to decentralize the task of serving breakfast and lunch to work crews. Eventually evening meals were prepared and served primarily at home, which coincided with the shift from people residing in single-family buses to the multifamily communal living arrangements that ultimately provided housing for most of The Farm’s members.

Reprinted with permission from Out to Change the World: The Evolution of the Farm Community, by Douglas Stevenson, and published by Book Publishing Company, 2014.

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