Building Utopia: The Role of Money in Communes

1 / 2
The hippie movement was a time of convulsive social change and raised timeless questions about human nature.
2 / 2
In 1970, Margaret Grundstein left Yale and followed her husband to a commune in the backwoods of Oregon. “Naked in the Woods” is her story of building their version of utopia alongside friends and strangers.

Hippie communes of the 60s and 70s represent a significant chapter of American cultural and political history, with very few “survivor” memoirs. InNaked in the Woods(Oregon State University Press, 2015) Margaret Grundstein chronicles her shift form reluctant hippie to committed utopian. The following excerpt from Chapter 11, “Money Honey,” discusses the role that money played in life on the farm.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Money was easy, at first. A bit of cash, some unemployment checks, and a few lingering tax refunds maintained the flow, bounty from the past that made our present possible. We shared as we saw fit, openly proud of our collective life, quietly protective of our personal needs. There was no plan. We didn’t talk about it. Instead, in the low thrum at the threshold of consciousness, we, like the rest of the world, made endless calculations. Who has money, who doesn’t, who pays, who can’t, what’s mine, what isn’t—strivings, comparisons, and resentments, so ever-present they were invisible. All this was embedded in us. We brought it along, packed right in with our paisley bedspreads and ten-pound blocks of government surplus cheese. The universal laws of capital still held sway; if you had cash you had say, over your life as well as the lives of others. This was a frontier that begged to be crossed.

Our initial attempts were informal, easing the balance but not tipping it. Roggie needed help. His real destination was Indonesia, not the farm, but we were welcoming and a plane ticket to Southeast Asia cost more than he could muster. After a few months Roggie had an epiphany. If he couldn’t fly, he would sail across the Pacific, not on a freighter, not as crew, but in his own, handcrafted, Polynesian-style catamaran. No one questioned the wisdom of this approach. After all, who among us could say the emperor had no clothes? Weren’t we all living the impossible dream? Roggie’s plan merely reinforced our collective vision right at that delicate spot where idealism flirts with delusion.

As a scholar, his first step was the library, where he researched his topic. Next he cleared out space in the barn and built two pontoon frames raised on sawhorses, elegant pieces of south sea sculpture. The boat was taking shape. Roggie spent hours delicately tap-tap-tapping with a narrow-headed hammer, wrapping the curved hulls in long, elegant strips of wood. This was cedar, cut to fit. Money was involved. Someone was backing Roggie, but who? Nothing had been decided as a group. Instead, unknowingly, we had reverted to an age-old system, patronage, though very loosely applied. A trip to town, stoned musings, and the next thing you know, Hakim was delivering a load of fresh lathing for the skin of the pontoons. Guy helped by providing nautical glue and nails. Bit by unplanned bit, backing appeared, and the boat took form. Not everyone participated. Clint offered technical advice instead of cash, choosing to invest in a lathe for turning bowls instead, a tempting toy that everyone, or at least everyone who was male, got to use.

Things bumbled along in this manner, until the inevitable happened. Hakim, our ideologue in residence, always ready to push a bit further, laid down a challenge. We had driven into town that morning to pick up his unemployment check, the only source of cash for the two of us. Everyone was in the dining room when we returned home, relaxing around the remains of a meal, chatting, and lighting up the obligatory postprandial joint. Fairchild, nursing Shine, scooted over to make room. Hak and I sat down on the rough wood bench and helped ourselves to bowls of brown rice and fresh tomato salad. We bobbed along with the flow, catching up with the group. Guy mentioned the need to buy another fifty-pound sack of wheat berries. With the Tassajara Bread Book at their side, he and Janet did most of our baking, and they were running low, a fact that would affect us all.

“Can anyone chip in to help with the cost?” Guy requested reasonably.

“I’m broke,” said Rocky, rolling his eyes balefully.

Clint, without saying anything, tossed a few dollars across the table. Then Hakim stood up, silent, waiting. His very stance put him at center stage. While everyone watched, he deliberately reached into the right front pocket of his jeans. His delicate brown fingers emerged with a pile of twenties, neatly folded in half. This was some serious change being brought into the light of day. Cash was in short supply and discretely hidden if you had it. Everyone waited. We knew Hak was up to something. And then, there it was. Hak slammed the money down on the table, his entire unemployment check, the one we had just cashed. He stood erect and looked around.

“What you see is everything we have,” he announced, a fact that resonated deep inside me. He moved his hand away and stood tall, waiting. Then Hak played the high card.

“This,” he gestured with his head, “is no longer mine. Now it belongs to all of us.”

What a move. No one had even been betting and Hak trumped them all. He knew what he was doing. This was more than money, it was a line drawn in the sand, an in-your-face challenge. Who would have the nerve to match him?

I was shocked. That was our money. It belonged to both of us. Just a moment ago I had cash, and now I had nothing. My partner had given away every cent we owned. Inside my head I fumed. Hey Hak, what about ME! Last time I noticed we were married. That money you just slapped down on the table was ours, yours and MINE. You just gave it away without even a thought toward me. Nothing. Not one word. Not even a glance. Where’s the ‘we’ in that move, Hakim? Tell me! Where’s the goddamn ‘we’ in that move? These thoughts fired like flares in my mind.

“Hak?” I said quietly, tentatively trying to get his attention, knowing that this was not the time to initiate a full-out domestic dispute. 

There was no response. The drama was elsewhere. Everyone was quiet, waiting. The small pile of bills in front of Hak lay there, a challenge and a reproach. Then it hit me. He was right. This was why we were here. Ownership was the devil we needed to confront. Private property divided. We longed to join. There was no way I would complain or speak out. Questioning my husband or even suggesting that we table this discussion until the two of us consult privately faded in importance. I remained silent along with everyone else, eyes locked on Hakim. High Noon in Hippieville. Clint, across from Hak, slowly reached his rough hand deep into his own Levis, drew out some crumpled bills and added them to the ante. Mano a mano, the face-off was met.

“That’s it,” Clint said, a note of irritation in his voice. “That’s all I am putting in. I’m not giving away all my money.”

He was not going to be manipulated by Hakim and find himself at the mercy of the group. Clint, silent and strapping, was a leader, not a follower. He knew the subtle ways of power. At six foot three, Clint, with his long muscular torso and broad capable shoulders, stood tall and strong among men. I had seen him, in the presence of another big man, discreetly step up on a fallen log, retaking the edge, the height that crowned a king. Like Hak he made his own rules and set his own priorities.

There was a short silence and then Roggie broke in.

“I don’t have any money so it’s a moot point.” This loosened the mood. The show was over. Hakim sat down and the conversation picked up, everyone rambling on about money but without any plan coming to the fore. We were too many egos and too unorganized, both by choice and happenstance, to ever have any financial structure.

Later Clint approached me.

“My truck needs new valves and the two front tires are looking worn,” he said. “I want some welding tools. There’s a big fifty-gallon drum I’d like to turn into a smoker.”

I listened sympathetically, understanding his conflict.

“Let Hakim do it if he wants,” Clint said. “I’m holding onto my cash.”

That made sense to me. I also knew he had to consider Carol. She was back east trying to sublet her apartment. Giving it all up was not her style. Nor was it Clint’s. He was an alpha male. He needed to have money, his own money, right there in the pocket of his pants, nestled warmly in the curve of his groin.

Clint may have stood his ground that day, but Hakim spoke to our dreams and played on our emotions, shaking the precepts beneath our feet, setting off subterranean shifts that continued to build pressure. He was, as usual, on the moral high road, leading us out of the thicket of our old life. This very experiment would not have come into existence if we hadn’t broken barriers, prodded in part by his charismatic leadership.

“You know, Margaret, Hak is the linchpin of this whole deal,” Guy told me one day as we hung out in the kitchen, munching on thick slices of dense whole wheat bread smeared with commodity peanut butter. “He’s a big inspiration, so egalitarian, so willing to help anybody.”

I nodded, proud of my man, but not quite sure he was the saint Guy made him out to be. Clint, overhearing the conversation, joined us in the kitchen.

“Hakim has a talent. He can get all us crazy people to head in the same direction, at least some of the time, and think we’re okay with it. That’s his strength. He makes it happen.”

If these guys were swayed, what chance did I have?

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Communeby Margaret Grundstein and published by Oregon State University Press, 2015.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.