I've been writing an article for the Applegater, a quarterly newsmagazine in the Applegate, about the hippy communes in the Applegate during the seventies. It's been terrific fun, reminiscing with the people I interviewed about life in communes because I, too, lived in a commune during those years – for two years at China Grade, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then for two years at Houkola, in the Siskiyou Mountains just south of Ashland. With all that experience behind me, it occurred to me that I should answer my own questions, the ones I asked my interviewees in the Applegate.
The first question was about the vision of the commune. Like the communes in the Applegate, China Grade and Houkola touted a vision of self-sufficiency, but in my communes we never came any closer than keeping large gardens and grinding our own wheat, which we bought in large bags, whereas the folks at Molto Bene, in the Applegate, butchered their own goats and grew the grapes they turned into wine. The vision at China Grade focused more on interpersonal relations: becoming close, acting as a family, becoming brothers and sisters as more than just mouthed concepts. We had encounter group sessions to help us understand each other and to air personal grievances. They were sometimes vicious and sometimes provoked tears, but they were also compassionate and achieved their purpose of helping us work consciously on relationships and our character flaws. Our policy was openness in all matters, sexual, personal, and otherwise.
|I am on the stump, next to Sun's tipi. With chickens.|
When I asked my interviewees to name the best thing about living in community, answers ranged from "learning tolerance" to "learning what it's like to live in nature" and "conversation, singing, songs, music, love-making, sharing the work." (I like the way "love-making" was slid so nonchalantly into the list.) I already knew what it was like to live in nature; the best thing for me was probably the friendship with the women. We formed a tight group at China Grade, and the appreciation I learned for women's strengths and support was invaluable.
|A women's gathering at Houkola|
Beyond that, the full-moon festivals were absolutely magical, in the clearing in the redwoods by the A-frame that served as our communal building.
I asked about the difficulties, too. For me, it was that living in community wasn't a deep aspiration. I was doing it because it was the vision of the man I loved. By personality, I am a less gregarious person. Sharing my family in a communal situation didn't come naturally to me, as it does to some people. Just look at the difference between the way I live now and the way one of the people I interviewed lives, these decades after the commune experience. Bryan says he carries with him even today the idea of welcoming people into his life, while I live alone on a mountain, where I can retreat to the peace of my own soul after a day that might have included any amount of interaction with people.
|At China Grade with Dan and my goat|
What lasting benefit, I asked, did the experience of living in a commune have? Two people answered, "Tolerance," and I suppose that's true for me, too. Living together necessitates an acceptance of our differences, a lesson that tends to stick. When I joined Houkola, I had just come from the mental institution. One woman told me later that when I arrived she thought I was the strangest person she had ever met. I understood. I was strange, even to myself. Yet the people in the commune welcomed me unquestioningly. I said I had lived in a commune before and I knew that each person had to pull his or her own weight, to help with the work, but that I also knew I wasn't capable at the moment of doing my share. I had to find my center again first. Everyone just nodded or shrugged. I would do what I could, they said, and that would be enough.
If communal living results in such tolerance and acceptance, perhaps we should all experience it for a year or two, and maybe the world is a slightly better place for the communes of the hippie era, after all.
|Me at China Grade, 1970|