Saturday, April 3, 2010

Growing Up

In last week's post I shared the first part of a conversation that I recorded with Frank Michael. He is the proprietor of a mail order business here on the Farm, and he lived on the Farm in it's glory days prior to the Changeover in 1983, when the Farm switched from operating as an economic collective into a something more in tune with the economic realities of the larger culture. Before the Changeover, those who worked outside the Farm surrendered their paycheck to the collective. Now, people make and keep their own money and pay membership dues to support the community. Even non-members visiting the Farm pay a per-night bed tax, even if they are staying with friends.

Though the land is still held in common, a fundamental determinant of whether Farm residence is even a viable consideration is one's ability to generate an income in rural Tennessee. Some people make the 140 mile round-trip commute to Nashville. This option works best for Farm residents who can earn sufficient income working in town a couple of days a week. There are a handful of profitable businesses operating on the Farm which create employment for some residents, but not enough to offer ready-made economic niches for prospective new residents who come without a grubstake.

The official story of the Farm presented to visitors holds that the Changeover was a necessary economic adjustment to mounting debts and that it allowed the Farm to avoid the loss of the land to foreclosure and prevent the dissolution of the community. This narrative makes sense to me, and I hadn't questioned its fundamentals when I asked Frank for his perspective on the Changeover. I listened as he gave his answers, but each time I asked Frank a question, I tried to get him to address the Changeover in the economic terms in which it had been presented to me. While I still suspect that there's a meaningful story along those lines to be explored, Frank has convinced me that the official story omits a very real dynamic; one that doesn't fit comfortably with the communitarian narrative of the Old Farm.

KMO: What caused such a dramatic depopulation of the Farm after the Changeover? 

Frank: Okay. A little background. We were extremely different individuals to begin with. You know, there were people from all walks of life here, and what brought us together and kept us together for ten years or so was the strong glue provided by the philosophy of the Farm and by Stephen Gaskin and Ina Mae's real charisma, and good sense, intelligence, and loving personalities. You know, they're some of the most loving people I ever met. And also some of the smartest and funniest people I ever talked to. 

So, I think the philosophy; non-violence and vegetarianism, and the practical idealism that we practiced on the Farm was the glue that held such a disparate group of people together when we were living in tents and buses and in impoverished situations. But we had fun. We enjoyed it. We had rock-n-roll; we had great parties; the food was fantastic. We were healthy because we got a lot of exercise. You had to really work here to make it.

I would say that there were two main reasons for the Changeover and the sudden population drop. One of them is psychological, and that is that, willy nilly... I mean, I don't think I ever did this. I was one of the older people on the Farm. I was 32 when I first came to the Farm, and I've been here ever since, but a lot of young people took Stephen and Ina Mae to be like their parents. They would actually call them up in the middle of the night, and say things like, “My old lady's not giving me any. What's wrong? Why can't we work it out?” Or, “The kids are crying, and I don't know what to do for them.” Or, you know, “My grandmother sent me some money, but she doesn't want me to spend it on anybody else.” All kinds of crazy things.

Well, not crazy things, but they were using Stephen and Ina Mae as their gurus, or parents, or councilors, instead of trying to figure things out for themselves. They were in a parent/child relationship with those people, and then what happened was they all grew up at about the same time. And why do teenagers rebel and dis their parents before they split? Well, some psychologists say that it makes it less painful to leave that way. Others say it's because they've been so dependent and so de facto slavish towards their parents all these years, and now they want freedom, and they just explode with it.

Whatever the theoretical explanation is, that happened on the Farm, and some of the people leaving held strong animosities against Stephen. They called him a guru or a cult leader, and in many cases they made up a long list of wrong-doings for Stephen, and they were not true at all. Not that Stephen was a perfect person at all. He screwed up enough, but a lot of the charges were ridiculous.

In my opinion, the philosophy we had [on the Farm before the Changeover] was the best ever. I mean, I cannot fault anything [about it]. We did make a few technical mistakes. For example, we used to say that anger is optional and that you should take that energy and do something useful like wash the dishes or chop wood with it. You were not supposed to express it. That's a hard one to follow, but it was well-intentioned. It was all inspired by the acid vision of a bunch of idealistic young people.

I would say that the second large reason is that we were getting older. Not only was there rebellion of the teenagers against the [surrogate] parents, but also, as we got older... To me, this is probably the most important thing, and this is just my opinion. I've never heard anybody else express this, but I feel like young people are full of energy and curiosity about all kinds of things, and they will dedicate long hours in the daytime to working on whatever it is, and then long hours at night to partying or having meetings and discussions and just hanging out with each other. And as you get older and start getting attached to a certain person – your girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever – some of the energy you spend in the group shunts over to your own personal affairs. And then if you get married, well, even more so. Now you have to manifest a house or a tent or whatever. Now your old lady gets pregnant and you have children. Wow. Now, even more or your energy has to be dedicated to your family.

Maybe at some point later on, you'll decide, “Well, you know, this is a great place, but I'd like to become a doctor, or I'd like to learn printing or something. Learn Japanese or whatever.” So that takes even more energy away from all the interminable meetings and community affairs.

So, that time and energy question, to me, is probably the most important one that caused the Changeover. It's surprising how little people realize that time and energy are strong determinants in your lifestyle and in your attitudes. The Changeover happened because people got older, and they didn't have the time and energy to be as communitarian as they were before.

I can imagine a proponent of an anti-immigration narrative holding Frank's story up as an illustration of why any community has to control it borders and favor the material well-being of existing residents over the needs of prospective newcomers. With fewer than 200 adult residents, the character of the Farm could easily be lost in a rapid influx of new people. And after a few weeks here, I'm just starting to get a feel for what a loss that would be.

Most of the young people I've met since my arrival – and at age 41 I'm a young face around here – either grew up on the Farm or came to it via the Ecovillage Training Center. Some of the folks in that second category made connections with non-ETC Farm residents, found an economic toehold and have started on the road to full Farm membership, but it's a long road, and the Farm thus far has struck me as a cross between a laid-back retirement community and an understaffed re-enactment of the Old Farm; like a Renaissance Festival in the days before the actual start of the fair, and as it gets warmer and as more people start to arrive or emerge from their winter dens, I'm starting to feel the festival atmosphere taking hold. The first of this season's ETC apprentices will arrive tomorrow, and it feels like the show is just about to begin.


  1. It sounds like the Changeover mirrored what happens in just about every "alternative" living arrangement. I went through much the same thing working for the electric bike shop.

    Originally it was structured as an anarchic collective, but the main guy -- who was big on the anarchy and maintaining complete equality of membership -- was also a control freak. Having been in collectives far longer than anyone else, he knew how to get his way simply by talking topics to death until the disagreement waned. Eventually, he and I had a disagreement that wouldn't go away, and he asked me to go simply because "he couldn't do it anymore."

    Based on the clarification of events that followed, he had his own changeover, turning the company into a standard small business model with himself as president. As it should have been all along; it was mostly his money and effort starting things, after all.

    Frank nailed one problem. Any group that lacks the generational depth has gaps that the members try to fill in the alternative model, much to the dismay of those that failed to anticipate the societal needs when they initially formed that model. People that rebel against their own parents may still need parents, perhaps more than ever.

    Changing from a societal super-group with undefined parameters to a business-ish collective effectively cuts and pastes known business parameters and attaches them to the group, including the businesslike interactions inherent in business groups and thus knowable to its members. Fewer late-night daddy calls.

  2. I visited the Farm for a day some years ago, and I've followed the story of the Gaskins and the Farm with great interest. It seems to occupy a pretty central place in my social identity. So I am delighted to see a self-examination like this. It shows courage and faith.

  3. I resonate with what Frank said and with your insight KMO. In my experience, there was some of that parent-replacement need, but more the idealism, since the Farm was where I ran away to when I left the life my parents had planned for me. My disillusion was not with Stephen per se, it was more a disagreement with the way I felt the ideal was carried forth. I liked the way Frank spelled out the nature of the social position issues. It clarified things for me, and it rang true. I have never been one to assert myself in any consistent way, nor was I part of the original group from the west coast. Neither was my husband. I remember trying to figure out how to fit in better, feeling alternately inadequate and rebellious, and ultimately having to admit that some of what my Dad had predicted about 'human nature' was correct. It took a long time for me to act on it, however, and by then I had a husband and a baby. I still long for the unity among community I was looking for then, and have even contemplated a return, but the realities of it are that we have community where we live right now, and have I realized that here is where I must begin to create that dream. That's where I converge with some of your thinking, KMO. I look forward to hearing more of your insights as you sojourn there on the Farm