An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Promise Them Anything; Give ‘Em What They Get

Welcome to rural western Wisconsin : “Coulee Country”, taking its name from the jagged topography left over by an ancient receding glacier. Green, rather dry considering its' nearness to the Mississippi River . Water is available from deep wells through rock: expensive drilling. A hard place to make a living, now that the dairy industry has, like everything else, moved south. A few third- and fourth- generation farmers make an extremely marginal living raising animals for slaughter, and even most of them have “town jobs”. Want to buy a small landholding, say twenty to 100 acres? There are plenty of them available, and they are relatively cheap. Hippie communes welcome: this area is an equal opportunity ball-buster.

I had washed up on the brow of a hill in the mid-seventies, a refugee from the “Co-op Wars” in Minneapolis , about 135 miles away. Two friends had bought land on opposite sides of the road. One had a house, sauna, and chicken coop and rented out her fields at the bottom (“down in the coulee” in local speak). An old friend from early commune days, she had retired to lead a less frenetic life in the country, paint, and raise her son. When I showed up, she offered to let me use her chicken coop for a residence, and I agreed with alacrity. Thus I became known to people near and nearer, as “Mr. Chicken”.

Built in the 30s, this fine outbuilding had a doorway, two window holes, and walls and ceilings made from two layers of locally grown and milled golden oak, with tarpaper in between, on a frame of two-by-fours. A sturdy edifice, about 20 feet long and eight feet wide. By the time winter arrived, with the help of friends and neighbors, it had been transformed into an insulated, carpeted mini-gem, with all the mod cons, including a window in the back wall that provided a 7-mile view of the nearby hills, and a workshop where I made roach clips which I wholesaled to pay for my groceries and electricity. She and I lived happily in close proximity for a year and a half, until the boredom and pettiness of country life drove me back to the delights and hassles of urban existence.

Across the road, a couple with two children had a farmhouse and an auto repair garage (“shade tree mechanic” could have been invented for him). They had been among the original residents of CRO farm in Oregon . He was a professional scientist, and had found high-paying work in nearby Eugene to help keep the place afloat, but began to resent having to lead a “straight” life while most of the others got to stay home and “play” all day. After a year or so, they had headed for the coulees, and a “farm of their own”.

Joe (not his name) was sure that he knew how to run a commune, and that his farm would never fall into the anarchic sloth that he observed at CRO. His farm would be a society of equals. Equal food, equal work, equal share in the profits. Of course, since he had bought the property with his own money (a loan from his father), he would have to have the final say in case of dispute: the farm itself would remain indivisibly his. He put out the call to other ex-CRO people, to come and live in the new Eden .

And come they did: one of the founders of CRO, a dedicated shit-stirrer; a couple who had been operating as underground acid-freak clinical psychologists in California; a bar-fly salvage expert who had forgotten more about mechanics than Joe would ever know; a few cosmic hippie chicks who were into tofu and vegetables; and an on-again, off-again assortment of lifestylers, misfits and far-out philosophers.

Joe, meanwhile, was busting his ass trying to accomplish what third- and fourth-generation hard-scrabble farmers had gone belly-up trying to do: make the land pay. It took most of the new arrivals about two hours to size up the situation, and to face the choice of buying into Joe's fantasy – which would mean a lot of work for little or no reward – or pretending to, while enjoying a nice vacation in the groovy country. Sorry, Joe…

Not content with merely taking Joe's food and giving back bullshit excuses, some of the more cantankerous of our number set out to rattle Joe's cage on a philosophical level. “Why should we help you pay off your farm? Are you going to give us a share?” they would ask. “You can throw us off any time you want, but what can we do to you?” Joe didn't get it, but his wife did. She demanded that her name be added to the deed, a demand that was fully supported by all of us “troublemakers”, and to which, after a lot of squirming and some bluster, he acceded.

Meanwhile, a mile or so away, and in some bottom land, a long driveway divided two farmsteads. On one side, there were two brothers who had built an immense pole barn with living quarters in one corner. They were open, generous, and brooking of no “communalist” ideas. It was, by God, their land, and that was that. The original locals took to them in a big way. It was them and their friends that helped me most in getting my coop together.

Across the driveway was a branch of The Farm, founded in Tennessee by a self-styled guru named Steve Gaskin who had gathered his followers in a 75-bus caravan and set off from his San Francisco base to find their own Eden .

A cult-like formation with a relatively benign ruler, The Farm did some important work in civil rights, soybean vegetarianism, midwifery and pacifist action. Waxing and waning as all idealistic communities seem to do, it is still going – although as a co-op, not as a commune – and still involved in the politics and practices of its' community, and beyond. As near as we could tell, our branch had been started as a place to put over-eager and idealistic young pioneers, to give them a little seasoning before they could be integrated into the more mellow, veteran Tennessee mélange.

As old hands at the recruiting, integrating and waving bye-bye to countless would-be communards, we from the “left coast” couldn't help but see the contradictions of having a “commune of equals” where one person was more equal than others. We kept telling the Farm folks to stop relying so much on Steven, with whom they were in daily communication by short wave radio. They looked at us as if we had just spoken in Swahili. We were, we were told, just plain wrong. They didn't HAVE to do what Steve told them; they wanted to.

One day, the word came up the hill: Steven was arriving, in a three-bus caravan, complete with all three of his “wives”; and wished to palaver with our “elders”. Some of us duly traipsed down the hill to smoke some weed, drink some wine, and pontificate with one of the few really great successes at running the commune game. It was a fine evening. Nobody got confrontational: we actually liked all the earnest young folks that were gathered on that piece of land, even if we thought them a bit naïve; and nobody doubted that we would never become Steve's subjects, and nor would he ever care to ask us.

The Farm in Wisconsin came to the same end as all the rest of the farms in the area, victim of the iron economic laws of consolidation and recession. Eventually, all extensions of The Farm closed up. I ran into Steve at a wedding I attended at the original Tennessee location a couple of years ago. He turned out to be a pretty mellow old geezer, kind of like me.

A handful of people from that time are left now, hiding out in the coulees and eking out a subsistence living, but all the collectives have died away. Recently, there was a gathering of “old heads” for a weekend of story-swapping and catching-up. Everyone had good stories to tell. Not one of them lives in a commune.

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