I saw an old friend, John, whom I hadn’t seen in about five years, at Co-op Power’s Sustainable Energy Summit at UMass Amherst last weekend. He and I had been Green Party members in 2000, and were among the handful of faithfuls who gathered monthly, usually at the Hitchcock Center in Amherst, to talk about how to proceed as a political party with Bush in office and Nader vilified for being a third party spoiler in that fateful election of 2000. One thing that had been accomplished, if only for a little while, was the ballot-status of the Green Party. In order to maintain party visibility and legitimacy on the state level, we needed to regularly nominate candidates for elections and maintain a certain percentage of registered Greens in the state. It seemed impossible at the time, and, in fact, it was. But the summer I started going to meetings, we decided to find a candidate for the then-vacant seat for the state representative for the First Hampshire District. Miraculously, someone came forward: Michael Aleo, a young teacher at a local high-school and long-time best buddy of friends and neighbors of mine. A campaign was born, and although he eventually lost to Kocot, Michael won a respectable percentage of the vote. His positive vibes, charisma and good looks attracted a group of dedicated campaign workers, and soon a throng of pretty well organized people were tabling for signatures, knocking on doors, and calling registered voters. Even Kocot’s campaign manager admitted that we "out-campaigned" them. I think they thought we might win.
Anyway–John and his girlfriend gave me a ride home from the summit, and we talked a little about activism and finding ways to fight the good fight. I admitted I’d gotten burned out by the campaign experience. That I had decided I had to find other ways besides electoral politics to participate in the revolution. John said something about his Green Party days bringing him into contact with people who were searching for families to belong to. "I already have a family," he noted.
If I had another opportunity to respond to that, I’d remind him that he hosted picnics, gave people rides, and did many things out of a sense of duty and responsibility. In short, he may not have been yearning for a family experience, but he definitely helped provide one. He was generous: he gave.
I too enjoy being the host and providing space and bounty for gatherings. The oldest sibling in my family, I am significantly older than both my brother and sister: ten years older than my brother and 17 years older than my sister. Both have lived with my husband and me, and both are welcome at any time. If they’re at our house at dinner time, they join us. It’s easy to do this, it costs nothing.
What I think costs more, on a personal level, is learning to take, to accept, to ask for help. This is harder, but I can do it. Just yesterday I asked a neighbor if I could put an old eyesore of chair in front of her house with a free sign on it. A couple days before that I borrowed my neighbor Ruth’s non-motorized push mower, and a few weeks before that I borrowed my friend’s chop saw. My coworker has agreed to give me a tutorial on using the saw, and I’ll happily take her up on it. I have some ambitious (for me) plans and lack the skills to carry them out. Will I brave asking my uber-skilled woodworker of a brother-in-law for help? I may.
This is not a litany of detail meant to suggest how evolved and community spirited I am. Rather, it’s meant to suggest that for folks who do want to engage more deeply with their neighbors and fellow activists, that some consideration of both giving and accepting are in order. I suspect that the accepting part of the equation could be troublesome for the rugged individualists and provider types in the crowd. The role of the self-sufficient pioneer is celebrated in America (in books and movies it’s OK to be poor as long as you don’t ask for help); the role of exhausted traveler by the side of the road waiting for a ride lacks the same stamp of cultural approval.
We rarely see hitchhikers any more. My mom tells stories of summer hitchhiking in her youth (in the 60s of course). My stepfather would regularly travel from Keene to Portsmouth, NH to visit his son. Our cars broke down regularly, and I remember well sitting on the side of the road, my stepfather walking a mile or more to the nearest person’s house to use a phone, and waiting for the nearest relative to pick us up. It was a drag, but it wasn’t tragic–a jolly aunt or uncle would always rescue us and have us over for dinner. Our car broke down en route to my accepting a scholarship in 1985. We arrived at the event in the tow truck.
It might be plain old nostalgia or even a childishly naive fascination that draws me these days to commune literature of the sixties, but I’m beginning to feel that this giving and taking I’m talking about touches upon R.W. Emerson’s "compensation," and I’m wondering if the 60s youth who decided to leave the cities and learn to farm with a houseful of like-minded friends were in on his secret, or found a way to magically tap the perpetual motion energy that’s suggested by his metaphysical law.
Do you want to read prose full of optimism and certainty about radical life choices (to say nothing of the recipes, poems, how-to descriptions, and drawings)? I recommend the literature that came from the households of Total Loss Farm in Guilford, VT and its sister commune in Montague, MA. Both farms were founded in part by the co-founders of the radical Liberation News Service: Raymond Mungo was among the early settlers of Total Loss Farm and Marshall Bloom was one of the original residents of the farm in Montague. Their journalism backgrounds gave them a unique consciousness of themselves and their social experiment, although "experiment" is not a word you’ll find in these books and their lifestyle is not regarded as something they are trying out; it’s the destination. Royalties from their books helped them survive on their farms, as well as informal resource pooling and a willingness to accept money from someone in the household who decided to hold a straight job in order to bring in some cash. And they wrote stories and drew pictures in the long dark winter months, when surviving the boredom and discomfort of a woodstove-only winter was a badge of honor. Here’s an incomplete list of some of their works:
Famous Long Ago: My Life and Hard Times with Liberation News Service, Beacon Press, 1970, Raymond Mungo
If you read this you may be as incredulous as I was at the self-important words of the just- out-of college Mungo, who believes, and seems to have good reason to, that the mainstream mass media is interested in the doings of radical fringe news media. Ahhh, different times, different times.
Total Loss Farm, Bantam Books, 1971, Raymond Mungo
An account of his second year affiliated with if not consistently on the farm, Mungo describes a canoe trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers with friend, poet, and co-founder of Total Loss Farm, Verandah Porche. These waterways, in 1969, were far from the "million crisped waves" described by Thoreau in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers over a hundred years earlier, but they do give rise to more deep thoughts about society and pastoral yearnings. The river journey gives way to a road trip to California, and the book concludes with rhapsodies of farm life in Vermont.
Home Comfort: Life on Total Loss Farm, Saturday Review Press, 1973, Edited by Richard Wizansky and including contributions by Hugh Beame, Pete Gould, Marty Jezer, et. al (Total Loss Farm residents)
By far my favorite of the commune literature I’ve sampled thus far, this compendium of fantastical tales, recipes, ink drawings, and descriptions of building a wheel barrow and slaughtering a pig, bewitched me last fall when I was hungry for a cozy read. Ridiculously positive descriptions of the life sit next to more confessional admissions of winter depression, resentment between "doers" and the "literary types," gender roles and chores (fairly conventional it seems), and leadership crises.
What the Trees Said: Life on a New Age Farm, Delacourte Press, 1971, Stephen Diamond (in the photo above)
A detailed account of life on the Montague farm, including a heart breaking chapter about the death and funeral of Marshall Bloom. Diamond’s style is similar to Mungo’s, with many anecdotes, meanderings, puns, and pronouncements about the meaning of life and the absurdity of mainstream values.
I must include a shout-out to the filmmakers of Green Mountain Post Films in Turners Falls, MA. It was their grant proposal to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities that introduced me to the topic of 60s communes in Western Mass. They are currently working on two related documentaries: Far Out, about life on Total Loss Farm and the farm in Montague, and No Success Like Failure, about the life of Marshall Bloom.
Stay tuned later this week when the head of the W.E.B. DuBois Library’s Special Collections, Robert Cox, writes about their commune-culture treasures.