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Anuran, n. an amphibian of the order Salientia (formerly Anura or Batrachia), which includes the frogs and toads

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Rattlesnakes, Orgies, & Moonshine

­­Rattlesnakes, Orgies, & Moonshine:
some reflections on the first ten years of a Tennessee commune

Living at the end of the gravel road, as comfortably as we can this far from civilization, we love to rejoice in the seasons & cycles of the moon. Last Sunday night, we celebrated the full moon in the top meadow with family & friends. With a bottle of brandy, a surreally majestic lunar lobe hanging above, & Shiloh trading Simon & Garfunkel licks with a Norwegian sailor who showed up with Marti, we had a proper summertime bacchanalia.

And actually, it was a rather mellow event in the top meadow compared to some we’ve hosted.

On last year’s full moon, we were blasting trance music to the county line in all night reverie. (We weren’t intentionally encouraging a loud, neighborhood-wide, insomniac-entertaining annoyance. I went to the edge of the property to check the sound & anticipate any problems with volume. Down in our valley it was quite quiet; one had to drive a few miles to hear the deejay.)

We’ll be back on top of the knoll for summer solstice in seven days, our tenth annual devotion to the shortest night & longest day. On the occasion of living rurally & communally for ten years, I felt it timely to transpose some reflections on this initial tenure at the back of the hollow, a decade that began when I was still in my twenties & my preteen was a toddler. I arrived in this lovely valley with its epic hilltop a jobless writer with a recent bachelor’s degree in English.

Today, I still write for free, but I have a more-than-decent day job as a writing teacher. Working for the university helps pay the bills & keeps me comfortably clothed in thrifted finery while I listen to good music & sip fair-trade organic coffee.

Although I’m the only founding member still here, I’m definitely not doing this alone. The “bolo bonobo” pod of Pumpkin Hollow Community has five core members, ages ranging from 25 to 52. Living with my partner Viva & three others who share in keeping the core expenses low & doing the loving labor (playbor, we like to call it) has made a dynamically unpredictable project that could easily become terrifying & tedious mostly joyful & fulfilling.

Having planted a small garden in soil enriched by fully “cooked” humanure, having recently devoured the soon-to-be-published manuscript for Sandy Katz’s next radical food book The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved (confession: we have a previously-owned, donated microwave hidden in our pantry, and folks do use it), I considered writing my entire pre-solstice anniversary blog about food: the tiny patch of food we grow; the food we wish we grew; and the wild food that grows all around us; foraged food we can eat.

For years, the wild food for me was all blackberries. But as the once naked hillsides grazed by cattle move slowly towards forest, the blackberry brambles are replaced by trees. Last year, I saw our once overabundant berry crop dwindle significantly; we’ll see how it is this year. Lately, I’ve been all about the lambs quarters that Viva knew as pigweed when growing up in Canada. We have a field of it that I been harvesting. I cook it in oil with garlic—similar to spinach, but better. As a devotee of a mixed greens pesto, I’ve been combining cultivated greens with wild greens & a healthy quantity of walnuts, olive oil, parmesan cheese, & more garlic.

But of course, living on a commune hasn’t only been about growing, harvesting, purchasing, preparing, & sharing food—although this tantalizing aspect cannot be overstated.

A friend just sent me a very interesting though disturbing article from the New York Times called “Extreme Makeover, Commune Edition.”

The piece begins like this: “ ‘DIPPY Hippie Bang Bang.’ That was the front-page headline in The Daily News, gleefully reporting the shooting of a commune leader on Staten Island by a disgruntled former member. Other newspapers described the recent incident with a mix of curiosity and condescension, likening it to the 1978 mass suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, or reminding readers that Charles Manson's mayhem was born on a free-love commune in California.

The message was clear: Communal living is a dangerous petri dish of sex, rampant drug use and occasional spurts of violence.”

Stories like this were a media staple in the 1960s and 1970s—but today? While regurgitating the old-school Manson Family stereotype to dig up headlines can get tiresome, what follows is what really bothered me. Because this actually tries to be a sweet little piece about how appealing & awesome communal life can be for the middle class masses. Why should that bother me? Because when people talk about communal life publicly, they love to purge any prurient details & write press releases about ecological building techniques & member investments instead (or: “budgets, bylaws and background checks are a good idea; banning cars and personal possessions, maybe not” as this article frames it.)

The well-meaning writer Andrew Jacobs clearly wanted to help us out. So his article does what almost every human-interest story on the new wave of communal living has done in recent years. The article diluted our message, painting a pretty conformist face on a much messier picture. And actually, he let his interview subjects—leaders and spokespeople for the communal movement—do it for him. Despite one of my colleagues more-than-valid critiques about how Tennessee communes have gentrified the rural backwoods, this is not the suburbs or the city. Just ask any urban or suburban guest who went home moaning about bug bites or got uncomfortably constipated out of sheer fear of the composting outhouse.

“Purveyors of the new breed of intentional-living developments have learned to scale back on ideology and dogmatism,” reports Jacobs. What he really means is that we have no radical politics, no critique of capitalism beyond our willingness to make it part of the new communal paradigm, and no ostensible or visual signs that make us any different than anyone else in America. Sure, dogmatic ideology can be a dangerous drug, but to me, an apolitical sellout is an even bigger drag.

Diana Leafe Christian of Communities magazine provided Jacobs this pithy pull quote: “These days, you don't have to live in the boonies, chop wood, walk around nude, & pool all your money to live an alternative lifestyle.” Of course, those of us who started our latter-day communes for exactly those reasons are quaint reminders to these fifty-and-sixty-somethings of their eloquent nostalgia-trips, but we are bad PR for the yuppy-fueled movement or a magazine paid for in part by ads for condominium developments masquerading as co-ops. Just the other day, I leafed through an old copy & regretted letting my subscription to Communities magazine expire. But if it peddles anything like the tepid propaganda in the Times article, I’m glad I did.

Living on a commune is living in a laboratory of emotional intensity. People trained by mass society in gendered, traditional, role-based, and rigidly-authoritarian relational contexts learn to: love a family they are not related to by blood; do more-than-your share of chores that are scary (& unheard of for take-out eating city-slickers); balance privacy & socializing; listen a lot & communicate clearly without annoying your communards with lectures & monologues; argue without walking out or getting mean.

Without love, vision, & a commitment to radical values, I’m not sure how communal living could ever work or why we’d even want to make it work. But apparently, as Jacobs summarizes, “The new breed of cooperative living, however, is far from radical.”

To my most radical friends, to my anticivilization & rewilding peers who forage, trap, & cultivate most of their food & get by just fine without jobs or cars, my communal life probably seems like a rustic suburbia, a comfortable but securely middle-class alternative. But that does not mean that I want anything to do with the communalism-lite that Jacobs depicts & that some of my communal movement colleagues are too happy to promote.

Of course, I find living on land far more peaceful than living in a city, but I make some dramatically mainstream & ecologically unsavory compromises that support the society—such as driving many miles each way just to get to work.

As peacefully as we try to live, I’m not ready to make peace with the message the “Makeover” article promotes: “For the tens of thousands of Americans who make their homes in shared living arrangements, the lurid coverage obscured the recent surge in what promoters of cooperative housing call ‘intentional living.’ After decades of contraction, the American commune movement has been expanding since the mid-1990’s, spurred by the growth of settlements that seek to marry the utopian-minded commune of the 1960’s with the American predilection for privacy and capital appreciation.”

Lest I sway into the aforementioned dogmatism, I don’t advocate this life for everyone. In fact, we like being different, living with & against the grain of American culture. Some days, we do our radical activism or throw an all-night party or fly the freak flag high. Other days, we get clean & dressed & go to work & drive the kids to their practices & run errands & do other pretty average things.

I’d also be dishonest to hide all we’ve seen since we came to the hills of Tennessee. Without trying to be sensational, here’s a tiny taste of what I mean.

A while back, I watched a neighbor slay a rattlesnake, only to see another appear on our porch the next day; years later, one of our own trapped & successfully released a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are scary, & the snake is probably a perfect metaphor for how wild & pagan some people think we must be. But rollercoasters, horror movies, & rush hour traffic in Nashville can be even scarier.

Should I pretend to have never participated in an orgy only to counter the so-called “lurid” publicity that the official spokespeople only ever see as entirely stereotypical & negative? Should I suppress the memory of sipping moonshine while a traveling old-time band offered sizzling fiddle riffs on my neighbor’s land?

The book my parents owned that turned me onto communes years ago is called The Alternative. The so-called “new breed,” however, seems to offer no deep alternative to a society still based on war & greed. To be fair, the people who volunteered quotes for the New York Times are communitarians for the long haul who do lots of important work. Their lives are likely much more radical & visionary than the article lets on; this life can never be explained in a sound-byte, much less just a few hundred words.

When I moved here in ’96, I promised myself I’d marry the land & stay forever. So, to me, this anniversary is more than a passing occasion; it’s a special, significant, big, huge deal. The odds were against the commune surviving. But we are growing slowly. And we are approaching the twilight of our mortgage, thanks to favorable financing, convivial investors, generous donors, & all our members’ monthly dues. Two sister projects in the area that started at the same time did not make it. And two of my neighbor communes are thriving with much larger core populations than we’ve ever had.

In 2011, I hope to be writing a fifteenth anniversary reflection as vigorous & hopeful as this one. But the world outside isn’t getting any safer, thanks to endless war, ecological crises, a late capitalism that’s still alive & kicking the asses of the poor. I always saw the communal alternative as collective action against the miserable notion that war & waste were the way things had to be.

So let us honor our efforts without living in the past. Let me lift a toast to summer, to the sun, to my landmates, to always checking & sometimes counteracting the official version of utopian communal history, to the future, to love!

Pumpkin Hollow, TN
13 June 2006


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