I am reading Voices From the Farm, reminiscences of the founding and early years of the major persisting hippie commune. Founded in about 1970 by Stephen Gaskin and a couple hundred fellow refugees, and followers, of Haight Ashbury, the Farm persists to this day mainly because they made everybody get an outside job and tithe a serious proportion of their income to the Farm in the early 1980s. One refugee of what they call The Change Over was the Stanford graduate who returned penniless to San Francisco, and was appointed the first director of the WELL by Stewart Brand himself. The hippie toolie aspects of Hashbury, the Internet, Burning Man, are the important things to keep in mind — how important, I was recently reminded by the influence of the San Francisco Zen Center on the restaurant business, locavoreism and slow food, a topic to which I shall return when I’ve completed note taking.

Meanwhile, hundreds of hippies who literally turned all their worldly goods over to the Farm made a go of it in Tennessee.

It is very interesting and puzzling to think of — well, they’d have to be millenarians, I think — Americans voluntarily giving up running water, electricity, heat, sewers, and food other than soybeans and tortillas to live under Third World conditions in backwoods Tennessee. At least in the Third World there’s pineapples and stuff to eat growing wild.

They were regularly wracked with diseases of shit-contamination, including hepatitis. No one ever checked the oil on the communal vehicles, with the result that they frequently blew up when the one lawyer, for example, on the premises was due in Tennessee state supreme court to argue that their guru should not be cut from the eligible voter list on account of his serving time for growing marijuana. Whenever they got the chance to leave the farm in one of the vehicles, on farm business, the hippies would skim from the top of the petty cash they had been given for their business and binge on Coca Cola and candy bars. The vehicles would be returned to the motor pool with wrappers and cans ankle deep on the floor.

The Farm was a magnet for prisoners on parole, mental patients, runaways, and girls attracted by the anti-abortion midwives’ invitation to come have your baby free on the farm and leave it here with the hippies. Until you want it back. No provision was made for the care of these fragile and dangerous people, including the foster children whose merry-go-round lives, as their junkie slut mothers collected them and dropped them off at the farm, prevented their being sufficiently educated to work or to stay clean.

Mental patients regularly went off their medication — I can’t determine whether or not this was a policy of the Farm, which, as I understand it, grew marijuana but forbade alcohol and cigarettes — and were contained, barely, at the gate house with companion hippies called “trippers”. At least one was restrained by trippers and relieved, raving, of his large sharp knife. At what point, if any, these people graduated the gate house and penetrated to the visitors’ tent, where they were put to work and sheltered and fed, badly, but for free, is never quite made clear. Mental patients, male violence with impunity, “starry-eyed Germans”, and jobless, gigolo PhD. rockstars, if not parolees, also feature heavily in Roberta Price’s well-written and unflattering memoir, Huerfano. You can see in these memoirs how Manson was not an aberration, only a matter of degree.

Loners were taken in, people who could only get by in group homes or co-housing. When their caretakers left, the married couples they’d bonded with, or the dorm mates, the loners disintegrated. One sensitive and spacey man turned his inheritance over to the Farm, and when the couple which had taken him into their family departed, he departed too, without prospects. A blind woman committed suicide during the Change Over. Her mother told the hippies she’d always been depressed, washing her own hands and the hippies’, too, of the suicide.

Henry Goodman said they killed themselves taking care of the mentally ill, the prisoners, the hundreds of unwed mothers, without ever having their own infrastructure of decent living in place. For example, the one and only outhouse cleaner would take days off to be a tripper with the mentally ill at the gate house. One can hardly blame him.

Many of the Farm residents had come from San Francisco in the Whole Earth Catalogue, Stewart Brand, hippie toolie tradition to build sustainable infrastructures. Far from this vision, Goodman and his housemates needed linoleum for the kitchen floors so the kids wouldn’t get sewage-borne giardia from crawling around on uncleanable raw plywood. The men of that particular household undertook an outside job and worked overtime, outside the Farm, nearly two months of Saturdays to earn the money to get new linoleum and correct the fly-breeding swamp outside caused by their hippie ass plumbing. They got a “nice check”. Gaskin announced that it would be collectivized, explicitly from the anti-Marxist capitalists who had worked so hard to earn it  — for some such project of his as sending the band in which he played to tour Europe, or to install cable TV, the major production of which was Gaskin’s own Sunday sermons. Meanwhile, the children’s bill at the hospital mounted up and went unpaid.

In short, every medieval demon from cholera to schizophrenia bedevilled the Farm, in addition to the persisting belief that a completely unsuccessful, virtually gigless, rock and roll band was required, and privileged to financial support, to spread the message of the Farm.

Mind control on a slender thread of credentials — Gaskin was a kind of Buddhist, and (I have to check this) there is an ominous sentence quickly passed over about a financial connection to the San Francisco Zen Center of scandalous repute — was the ethos. Hints of how it turned into persecution are permitted in the memoir; and how it left the many very vulnerable people under its edict to fend for themselves. At the end of the book Cynthia Holzapfel says, “We had formerly preached a philosophy of self-reliance, pulling yourself up by your boot straps. What we learned is that there are people who have no boot straps.”

It sounds pretty ruthless, actually. With nothing to eat — no fruit or real vegetables, they write about how delicious were condiments to their soy bean diets — the bean sprouts, the kosher pickles, processed by somebody’s great uncle, an ancient deli counterman they’d sprung from a nursing home (for his money, I suspect).

What’s haunting is the squalor and the power hierarchies: mounds and mountains of shit, the parolees, the unmedicated mental patients, the privileged men who went touring with the band, and Gaskin’s sucking up to the local sheriff like the former Marine he was. The hippies thought it was genius.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.