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Every so often, for a Facebook post (because we are still on Facebook, every day), I ask a question. Sometimes, the question gets lots of views and lots of comments; sometimes there are very few views and very few comments. Of course, I try for the former and often try to figure out what went wrong when I get the latter.
And sometimes we get a decent number of views but few comments. I honestly don’t know why. Maybe it seemed intriguing at first glance, but not worth putting comments on. I really don’t know.
Here’s one that reached 252 people and got two comments–one of which was from us. I thought that it was a good question but apparently it didn’t provoke folks enough to comment–other than Dan Parelius. Here’s what I put on Facebook:
Is that such a confusing question? Here is the only real comment, plus Theresa’s response.
It’s true. We do want to understand better what people are looking for in community. I guess that sometimes they don’t want to tell us.
I often refer to Living Energy Farm as the research arm of the Virginia communes. They have had some difficulty becoming a commune themselves (although they seem to be making some progress lately) but they know more than anyplace else that I know of about alternative technologies and ways to deal with climate realities. They periodically publish a newsletter about all that they are up to and it is almost always worth reading from beginning to end.
A Biogas Digester from the August, September, October 2020 LEF Newsletter
Their most recent newsletter contained a section that I would like to reprint in full:
Living Energy Farm will be deleting our Facebook accounts shortly. Please communicate with us through other means.
I never wanted to be on Facebook. I was persuaded to help out with the Commune Life Facebook page, especially when I realized it was reaching many more folks than this blog. This blog averages around 150 views per day, which doesn’t sound too bad, but the vast majority of them, day after day, are the same three posts: “How to Start a Commune”, “Four Steps to Building a Commune”, and “So You Want to Start a Community”. I get that people are interested in creating communities, but it’s frustrating to write stuff three times a week and see interest in the single digits–if that. (Of course, I had forgotten that this blog has 110 ‘followers’, so there’s 110 people that see new material each day.)
On Facebook it’s different. The statistics can fluctuate wildly, from fifty folks to over five hundred, depending on how the piece is written and how controversial the subject is–and whether there are animals in the pictures or, perhaps, dumpstered food, both of which get a lot of interest.
One of my goals has been to reach folks that have never heard of income-sharing communities and may not have even realized that it’s something that’s possible, and Facebook is a way to do that. Plus, there are other useful features (our community uses Facebook messenger to communicate with one another and we have to make a special effort to reach the one person that doesn’t use Facebook) and Facebook also owns Instagram which makes it easy to post in both places.
I don’t like Facebook. I don’t like that we use a big corporate entity for our communication. I don’t like their politics or their policies. (I can see why Living Energy Farm would want to leave them.) I don’t like that they own Instagram and WhatsApp (which international visitors have used to communicate with me–and even one of my old communards used it when we discovered that for some reason our phones would often not be able to text each other).
But, right now, I am using Facebook (and I plan to reference this post on Facebook tomorrow) because I do want to reach people that I couldn’t otherwise reach. I hate it but it’s useful and my priority is communication. I want the world to know about communes, so I use Facebook, day after day after day.
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I said that I wanted to review stuff other than books this week. So far I’ve reviewed an academic article and a deck of cards. Today I want to look at a website: ic.org, the website of the Foundation for Intentional Communities (aka the FIC). If you are interested in any type of community, from communes to cohousing, or any aspect of community living, this is an incredible resource.
The first and perhaps most important aspect of the website is the online Communities Directory. (There is also a print version of The Communities Directory, published by the FIC.) This is the best known and probably most utilized part of the website, but it is so important to know about, particularly if you are looking to join a community. You can look up communities by location of country and state or province or you can look up communities by type (including ecovillages, cohousing, communes, co-ops–including student co-ops, and spiritual communities–including Jewish communities and Christian communities). This is also an important resource if you already have a community and want to list it–particularly if you are looking for folks.
But I also want to point out some of the other resources that they offer–that even frequent users of ic.org (particularly for the Communities Directory) might not know about or think of.
First of all, since I was reviewing books here a few weeks ago, the website has what used to be called the Communities Bookstore. They offer all sorts of useful books including two sets of books culled from some of the best articles in Communities magazine: The Wisdom of Communities and The Best of Communities. (The FIC used to publish Communities magazine until last year. Unfortunately, they lost a lot of money. Now the magazine is published by GEN-US –the Global Ecovillage Network – United States.) Three of the books that I reviewed (the two by Diana Leafe Christian and The Token by Crystal Byrd Farmer) are featured–by links, because they are better purchased directly from the authors and the ic.org folks assist you in doing that. But they also offer books on ecovillages, group facilitation, a book called The Encyclopedic Guide to American Intentional Communities, and, of course, The Communities Directory.
Plus, beyond books, they have a section devoted to videos and virtual events. And, perhaps best of all, they have a couple of pages listing ‘free resources’ that they offer.
They also have a store resource directory that organizes the resources by category, starting with Finding Community, Creating Community, and Living in Community, with several subcategories under each.
Plus,they have a list of classified ads (including from communities actively looking for folks), a list of events, and a section with ways to get more involved. The Foundation for Intentional Communities that manages all this is still struggling financially, so (particularly if you are a frequent user) perhaps you should become a member and put in a little cash that way, or at least buy some of the books through their online store.
This website is an amazing resource so if you are even slightly interested in communes or other communities, I think you should take advantage of it–and support the folks who are doing it.
Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to https://www.patreon.com/communelife to join us!
I said that I would be reviewing things other than books this week and today I want to review a deck of cards.
It sounds like this would have little to do with communes and communities, but this is not a deck of playing cards or tarot cards, this is a deck of what they call ‘pattern cards’. Essentially, the Group Pattern Language Project compiled a workbook (which they call group works) for analyzing group processes (they describe it as “A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings”) but instead of putting it in book form, they published it as a deck of cards!
The deck is partly based (as is referenced in their description) of the idea of developing ‘pattern languages’, first popularized by Christopher Alexander and his cohorts in the book, A Pattern Language. Each card describes what they see as a pattern that is useful to groups–what they refer to as “…the seeds of a more dynamic and effective group experience.” An example is the card on ‘Commitment’, which reads: “A group dedicated to its work persists through obstacles, distractions, and lulls. Remind yourself of your larger purpose and what you really care about. As the group moves toward action, support effectiveness by getting clear on who will do what by when and how to ensure it really happens.” Each card also has a list of the patterns (other cards) that it is related to, in this case: “Closing ~ Purpose ~ Courageous Modeling ~ Honour Each Person ~ Setting Intention ~ Taking Responsibility ~ Shared Leadership and Roles”.
Putting these patterns on cards rather than pages actually has several advantages. You don’t have to flip through pages and there is no particular order to the cards, so that you can organize them in whatever order you like. You can group stuff together or just take out and look at the cards that you are particularly interested in or seem relevant to what you are doing. You can use the list of related patterns to create something focused on your particular needs. (I did actually try using the deck once for a tarot reading but that didn’t work out very well–of course, that wasn’t what the deck was designed to do!)
The deck also comes with two booklets, one on what the deck is all about and how to use it effectively, as well as a bit about each of the authors. This serves as what would be an introduction if this was a standard work book. The other booklet organizes the patterns into “Pattern Categories” showing which card goes in which category, gives a list of all 91 patterns (cards), and gives a “Key to the Cards”–looking at all the parts using an example. The parts they list consist of the Pattern Title, the Pattern Image, a Photo Credit, the Pattern “Heart” (the description I listed above), a Category Icon which reflects which of the Pattern Categories the card belongs to, and Related Patterns (again, the list I cited above–also see the picture below).
There is more information available online, including pictures of the cards, a free pdf of all the cards, and information on how to order a deck for yourself. (It’s $35 to buy a deck.) I’m not sure that this is the most important thing you could get for your community, but if you are really interested in group process–or thinking about how to have better meetings, a real need in many communes–you might well benefit from having a deck of these cards to consult with.
This week on the blog I want to review a bunch of things that are not books. (I hope to have at least one more week of book reviews in the future.)
This review will focus on a very academic article that I had the privilege to read. Everything but the abstract is behind a paywall at the Wiley Online Library. I strongly suspect that you might only be interested in reading the original paper if you were really interested in understanding how Elinor Ostrum’s commons framework applies to income sharing communities or you yourself were writing an academic paper about the communes.
Basically, Elinor Ostrum challenged Garrett Hardin’s influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons”. He said he thought that with any common shared thing among many people, everyone had the incentive to get as much of a scarce resource as possible and thus shared resources will be used up rapidly. Elinor Ostrum did ethnographic research and showed how in traditional cultures this is not true, that communities found ways to make resource sharing or the sharing of the commons, relatively fair–and they had the incentive to maintain this fairness in a way that was sustainable.
Nazli Azergun at the University of Virginia has written a paper about how Ostrum’s framework could be applied to the Twin Oaks community: “Resource allocation at an income-sharing community: An application of Elinor Ostrom’s commons framework”, which was published in the journal Economic Affairs–a journal published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, which describes itself as “the UK’s original free-market think-tank”. This explains the British spellings in the article.
The author points out that: “As an income-sharing community, Twin Oaks meets all needs of its members in kind, through various communal resource-sharing/pooling mechanisms. Relatedly, resources that are not usually considered as commons outside Twin Oaks, such as labour, utilities, or food, are transformed into commons through members’ willing participation in community structures and norms.” And further, “…Twin Oaks aims to provide for its members’ every need through egalitarian communal resource-sharing structures. This, most members believe, provides for a more sustainable and equitable livelihood than they experienced in ‘the mainstream’ United States, where free health care and education and many other welfare provisions are considered inaccessible luxuries.” A quote that I really like is “Members usually appreciate the community structure as an ‘anti-capitalist bubble within the capitalist economy’, acting as ‘communal and egalitarian within, and profit-driven and capitalistic without’, which ensures benefits and comforts that they would not be able to enjoy were they participating in the market economy on their own.”
In this paper, Nazli Azergun discusses Elinor Ostrum’s basic premises as well as looking at the many different ways that the ‘commons’ framework is applied. She states that “By centring my analysis on the resource-sharing and labour-pooling mechanisms at Twin Oaks, I aim to shed light on the actual processes through which human-made commons are generated and allocated as such…” She then gives a history and description of Twin Oaks before diving into a discussion on Resource Sharing and Labour [sic] Pooling at Twin Oaks. She uses Elinor Ostrum’s definition of common-pool resources as “natural or humanly created systems that generate a finite flow of benefits where it is costly to exclude beneficiaries and one person’s consumption subtracts from the amount of benefits available to others” and points out that once you are a member at Twin Oaks, you are able freely share in the community’s resources with “little oversight or restriction of access”.
The author talks a lot about the TO labor system and how it incentivizes sharing and collaboration. But she also notes that the system is vulnerable to abuse and quotes several Oakers who fear that there are people that are abusing the system, and thus making other folks work harder.
Nazli Azergun doesn’t hesitate to look at the downside of all this. She has a section in the paper called “Twin Oaks: ‘Not Classist or Racist but Clueless’” where she looks at how some of the rigid egalitarian structures at TO support middle class folks and work against folks that are working class and/or people of color. She states “Those who oppose strict egalitarianism in labouring point out that the members who have appropriate educational and social backgrounds pursue physical labour-light areas such as office jobs or childcare, without granting others the opportunity to rotate between labour-light and labour-heavy areas. And, they emphasise, those who do not have the appropriate educational and social background are mostly the non-middle-class individuals and/or persons of colour. To correct for this reproduction of mainstream racial and class hierarchies at Twin Oaks and make the community more accessible to minorities, this group proposes that the community drops strict egalitarianism in labouring processes in favour of an equitable treatment that takes into account the imbalance of physical labour in different areas.”
Her conclusion is “…income-sharing communities such as Twin Oaks seem to work decently enough in practice, as most members claim to be contented with the ways of life that they offer. What is problematic, according to some members, are implicit instances of classism and racism which become visible when communal frameworks fail to address the overlapping system failures and problems of people of colour and non-middle-class members. While the opposing groups within income-sharing communities connect the resolution of these issues to a prioritisation of equity over equality in resource-sharing and resource-pooling, I would also argue that Ostrom’s permission for dynamism and pragmatism in relationalities across individuals and institutions allows for a better adjustment of institutional frameworks, rules, and values to ensure greater benefits for all. Despite the differences in commitment levels and practicality issues, I believe income-sharing communities constitute promising models of equitable and sustainable commons management, similar to the way Ostrom had imagined.”
As I said, this is a fairly academic paper published in an economic ‘free-market’ journal. I don’t recommend that readers rush out to purchase access to it unless, as I said, they really want to see in detail how Twin Oaks fits within the ‘commons’ framework or they are also academics wanting to add references to their work. Rather, I am excited that a group of folks who have probably never thought about these issues, now needs to confront them. Ironically, this paper describes a very viable alternative to the free-market system in a journal which describes itself as a think tank for that very system. If it gets one or two of those folks to realize that there are more useful possibilities beyond that system, maybe it will have accomplished its purpose. Who knows, maybe it will encourage someone to think twice about the free-market system and maybe even consider leaving it.
So, I thought that this was a super simple question, but I got a bunch of interesting responses to it. The question:
As you can see, I got twenty comments (although a couple of them were mine–Raven’s). What’s more important is that many of them were thoughtful responses to this relatively simple question. I will start with my response, which Facebook seems to have shuffled to the top.
I got a response from someone with similar aspirations and I responded using (unintentionally) the Commune Life handle.
Here are a bunch of the other responses:
Here’s one from Dan Parelius, former Twin Oaker and avid Commune Life follower, which I had to respond to:
And then more stories of the ups and downs of communal living:
Finally, someone had to send one of those meme pics, and indeed, someone did:
You read the title right. I’ve often talked about how Twin Oaks offers public/private options. You can take something out of ‘commie clothes’ and make it yours if you want to. Of course, then you have to wash it yourself.
Apparently this also applies to food and when goodies are dumpstered and there isn’t enough to go around, privatization can be a problem. Jules from Twin Oaks published this post on our Facebook feed.
This post got quite a few comments–ranging from serious questions to humorous responses.
You can live in a commune, but folks were still raised in a capitalist culture, and sometimes a scarcity mentality prevails.
I (Raven) was curious how the pandemic was influencing people in terms of community, so I asked this question on Facebook:
As you can see, we only got three folks to comment, but I thought that the comments were sweet and on target.
I know that inquiries about community have gone up during the pandemic–we’ve gotten a bunch at Glomus–but we also are more reluctant to take on folks, especially short term folks, given all the precautions we need to take to take on someone.
Even now, in November, the pandemic is raging. Be safe out there.
This is Part Three (the final part) of the story of Merion, the early and unsuccessful offshoot experiment in Twin Oaks history. If you haven’t already, check out Part One and Part Two–this piece will make more sense if you do.
from MERION 1972 -1978 A cooperative account by former members
Up the road from Merion lived an elderly free spirit named Wilma Burroughs. She owned a small farm with a horse, goats, and chickens. Linda and Judy became especially friendly as she helped them get the Merion goat project going. Linda also greatly enjoyed riding her stallion, Mike. Wilma was a freethinker and supported women’s liberation although she had not been active in the movement, having lived a fairly traditional life.
On one of their visits, Wilma advised Linda and Judy that state police had found (or been advised) of a small planting of marijuana, not too far from Merion, and of course the “hippie camp” was the main suspect. The cops were conducting surveillance to catch the culprit. Judy and Linda returned to Merion and advised the group; one of the two growers confessed, the other being away for a few weeks. It was decided that a large meeting at Juniper, with the whole community, was appropriate, and it was held fairly soon. The result was that everyone unanimously agreed in the future to follow the letter and not just the spirit of the community rule that stipulated “No drugs on the property.” So whereas previously recreational drugs were hidden and sometimes consumed on the properties, in the future all had to make a long trek to the boundaries of the properties and find places to hide their products in holes in the trees or in the ground.
When Damia was one year old, new members joined with a daughter close to her age. Rob was tall, funny, and energetic; he and David were the two black-bearded, long-haired giants of the group. Karen, his wife, was short and vivacious, enjoying the homesteading types of work at Merion.
Damia was glad to have a companion her age, Moriah.
Also that summer, Daniel (GH) and Linda decided to get married. No one had ever had a public wedding at Twin Oaks, where marriage was considered generally of dubious value. Linda had to attend a meeting at Juniper to explain and defend her action. Daniel’s father was an ordained minister, but didn’t have a license for Virginia. So the local Episcopalian minister in Louisa, a Rev. Williams, came to sign the papers, while Daniel’s father actually presided over most of the ceremony. Both sets of parents and a large crowd of friends and neighbors were there for the wedding, held just north of the farmhouse under a huge white oak tree.
(Above: Linda & Daniel, some of the guests at their wedding. Below that: Merion folks in 1975.)
To create more individual living spaces, both Will and Holly built new cabins. Will’s cabin was later moved to Twin Oaks as a meditation and getaway space.
The influence of Gaskin’s Farm’s view of group marriages was intensified by the new members, Rob and Karen, who advocated strongly for multiple relationships. Daniel, who had been raised with fundamentalist Christian values (though he mostly rejected them) had difficulty accepting the new cultural norms as he saw his friends adopting the new ways. He also strongly wanted children (though Linda was ambivalent) and knew he could not accept the authority of Twin Oaks’ Child Board, which at that time tended to be discouraging of biological parents’ involvement. Over the course of the year, he became more and more disillusioned with Merion and eventually persuaded Linda to leave with him, which they did in June of 1976.
Gardner had been in love with Donna, a Juniper member, for some time, and he also left Merion to go live at Juniper. They later moved to the Pacific Northwest, driving good old Bullfrog across the country.
In August 1977, Will and Kristine decided to leave as well. They became caretakers of “Oakley, a nice house west of Louisa, and after three weeks, David joined them there.
In 1977, a member of Juniper, Phoenix and her son Noah, and moved up to Merion, as did one of the “metas”, Casey. A young man named Jeffrey joined briefly, and also Carolyn and Joe (or Woody). In 1978, Holly decided to strike out on her own. She moved first to a Sikh community near Shipman, then to Cedarwood with Mary for a while, before moving to an old farmhouse owned by Twin Oaks’ neighbors, George and Gordon Badgett. Cedarwood came to an end as a community, but Mary kept renting the farmhouse for a couple of years, and it served as a halfway house for many Twin Oakers when they left; Daniel and Linda, Sara and Warn, Phoenix, Holly, and others. When Blue River Ashram folded, Steve and Laura stayed with Mary for quite a while before moving to Washington DC to study with Swami Muktananda.
As Merion membership dwindled, many must have seen “ the handwriting on the wall.” It must be imagined that the Twin Oaks planners pondered pulling the plug on this experiment! When Phoenix, with her son Noah, moved near Cedarwood, the planners decided to sell the property, as Twin Oaks had been able in the meantime to buy many hundreds of acres of land contiguous to the original Jones property.
This account is meant to be as factual and thorough as possible, but any perceptive reader will be aware that negative or controversial personal issues have not been discussed. Merion had interpersonal conflict, as any group of humans will… Although no doubt of interest, all of that will be left for others to discuss… or forget!
WHAT BECAME OF SOME MEMBERS…
In 1979, five former members of Merion (Will, Kristine, David, Daniel/Green Heels, Linda) and another friend, Mary, who had lived at Twin Oaks and Cedarwood, bought property together. The group sub-divided the land and formed Baker Branch, a cooperative neighborhood five miles from Twin Oaks. Over four decades, ownership of the individual lots at Baker Branch has changed, but all eight households are still ex-Twin Oakers.
Daniel/Green Heels still lives at Baker Branch. He retired in 2011 after being a mail carrier in Mineral for 29 years. He maintains a 20 acre wildlife sanctuary, several fairy crossings and one fairy village at Baker Branch.
David became a computer programer and Tai Chi teacher, and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife, Virginia.
Will and Kristine stayed in Louisa County until they moved to Oregon in 1993. In Louisa, Will co-founded Hale and White Construction company. In Oregon, he worked in affordable housing and in local and federal government.
Kristine helped found Moonbeams, a community elementary school in Louisa with Leah. She was a nurse and midwife in Charlottesville and Oregon.
Linda became a massage therapist and rescued many dogs from the local dog shelter. She died of cancer in 2005.
Argon got his Ph.D. in tropical diseases, and lived and studied in southeast Asia many years. He is married and currently living in Hawaii.
Damia married her high school sweetheart, Jason. She is a special education teacher, has a son Logan, and lives and works in Louisa.
Gardner married Donna. They moved to Oregon, and he became a house painter and was deeply involved in Shambala meditation practice.
Holly became a counsellor and Sufi dance teacher and lives in Florida.
Judy became a carpenter and lives in central Virginia.
Leah became a school teacher and lives in central Virginia.
Marijke lived at Celo Community in North Carolina and then rejoined the Bruderhof.
Rachael/Christine became an artist, author, and counsellor and lives in Santa Fe, NM.
Rob owned and operated a local construction company, Hale and White, and helped found a successful local restaurant, Obrigado. He lives near Twin Oaks.
Karen became a nurse, now retired, and lives in central Virginia.
This is Part Two of the story of Merion, the early and unsuccessful offshoot experiment in Twin Oaks history. If you haven’t already, check out Part One–this will make more sense if you do.
from MERION 1972 -1978 A cooperative account by former members
The old farmhouse was picturesque and had huge White Oak trees on the east, north, and west sides that provided shade. Hammocks were quickly put up! The two-story house with a standing-seam metal hip roof had four rooms below and four rooms above with a stairway joining them. Very old electric wiring but no plumbing; the first major job was to send Will down the old well in back (west) of the house to clear out stagnant water and years of trash by bucket, which others carried away. After some effort, the well filled in with potable water, which they pulled up bucket by bucket to fill containers in the house for cooking and cleaning. To be sure there was enough water, they filled a big green plastic trash can, which eventually lived by the corner of the addition.
Leah’s partner Jimy came up from Juniper with the community’s back-hoe to dig a new outhouse hole, which was soon covered with a small typical outhouse building. It was a two-seater, with one seat reserved for “squatters”. A large can of lime and scoop were provided to reduce the odor, and of course there was reading material.
The first nights, sleeping arrangements were changeable and haphazard, until they agreed on which spaces would go to which members. Winter was approaching fast, and those who ended up with places outside the house had to work quickly to improve them. There was a large two-story barn with lots of floor space for sleeping. They also began the obligatory “commie clothes” of shared outfits in the upstairs of the barn.
The shed nearest to the house, across the westward lying lane from the barn, was a corn crib. Will cleaned it out, added insulation to the walls, and used old barn boards for interior siding. He bought a small tin wood stove to heat it.
The next shed, smaller and less solid, had been a chicken coop, but Marijke cleaned it out and also put a stove in so it could be warm on cold winter nights. She named it “Pooderville”, after her stuffed dog, on Karl’s suggestion.
High school friends Linda and Judy joined the group next, and fixed up rooms in the upstairs of the barn with small wood stoves. Others lived in rooms of the old house, which had one downstairs wood stove which they called “Ashley”, but no insulation in the walls. The kitchen had a gas stove and electric refrigerator, but no sink. Whoever got up first in the morning would make a fire in the stove, and everyone got their own coffee or tea and breakfast. Green Heels and Rachael, the only committed couple in the original group, shared an upstairs room – and an electric blanket Rachael’s mother had mailed her!
Merion was very dependent on the main branch, Juniper, for food, funds, laundry, and showers until the new wing was built. They participated in the labor credit system, with a reduced quota as they organized all domestic work separately and informally. Work that produced income, such as hammock weaving, or food, such as gardening, was given credit towards the group quota.
A small scale hammock factory allowed Merion members to earn credit by doing hammocks, and sometimes visiting friends from Juniper would also work on the two jigs set up in the front yard, underneath the huge white oak trees. Holly became the Retail Hammock Manager, filling hammock orders for individuals. Merion’s porch served as office and warehouse.
Twin Oaks started a magazine called “Communities” to introduce readers to the growing network of intentional communities around the country. When David joined Merion, he brought this project with him, and Merion took charge of the mailing list for the nascent magazine, still going today.
In February 1973, Will came back from a long trip after visiting Stephen Gaskin’s “The Farm”, a large (1000 member) commune near Summertown, TN. This bunch of hippies had transformed a large area in rural Tennessee into a thriving and influential village. They practiced a sort of New Age version of Zen meditation, with many contemporary variations such as extensive drug use (Gaskin himself spent time in jail for marijuana cultivation), group marriage, reverting to traditional roles for men and women, vegetarianism, and encounter-group techniques of total honesty, “group head” (complete agreement verging on mind-control), paying attention to “vibes”, and getting rid of “subconscious” (unspoken thoughts and feelings.)
Will’s reporting on this group prompted Rachael and Green Heels, as well as others, to visit “The Farm”. Green Heels found it a bit oppressive, perhaps because he did not value hard work as a goal in itself.
The old farm had weedy fields that needed bush-hogging and/or plowing. A spot near the house was plowed for a garden, and manure was needed to fertilize it. Gathering firewood for all the wood stoves took considerable time. Twin Oaks had recently started a construction company, which they called “GM” (for “glorious mud”), building houses around the county for money. Several members were involved in that.
Down the lane from Merion’s driveway was a second long dirt drive which Green Heels and Rachael followed one day to meet their neighbor, Alice Johnson, a black woman in her 70’s This initiated a long friendship between Alice and Merion. Alice had spent her life taking care of white people’s children, and now lived in retirement in the simplest conditions, alone. Her only heat was a woodstove, her water came from a well out back, and her arthritis made it difficult to haul up the bucket, so she’d ask Green Heels or Rachael to lend a hand when they visited. She had old newspapers on the wall for wallpaper. Alice was a member of a local black Christian church, Zion Travellers Baptist. Merion was very fond of her and Rachael baked her a birthday cake on her special day and she and Green Heels took it over to surprise her. (drawing from Rachael of this).
Alice was sweet and loving to us all. She asked permission to come “pick poke” on the Merion land, the pokeweed that grew wild in Merion’s fields, and which is delicious after being boiled down and the water changed a few times to remove the phytolaccatoxin. When Rachael moved to Kripalu in spring of 1974, she and Alice corresponded for a while.
On the other side of Merion from Alice Johnson lived a retired black couple, Willie and Susie Straughn. They had met when they were working in Englewood, New Jersey, on a rich white family’s estate – he had been chauffeur and gardener, she the cook. Willie had grown up in the neighborhood, his family’s house was next door; his parents had been slaves on “Roundabout”, Patrick Henry’s estate. Willie had enlisted and served in France in World War One; he had been marching to the front to fight in the Ardennes when the truce was declared.
On coming home, he had bought a new panama hat, which flew off his head as he was riding a train in New York. He jumped off the train to retrieve it and broke his arm, which he never had the full use of because it wasn’t set properly.
The Straughns had a small homestead, with garden, chickens, guinea hens, a hog, and previously a mule to work the garden. Will and Green Heels helped them process the slaughtered hog one winter, and got a lot of gardening tips from Willie, and other skills such as making a hickory ax handle and learning old songs Willie knew. Susie, who had grown up near Petersburg and gone to Virginia State University, had taught school when they first moved down from New Jersey, and was for decades the secretary of Zion Travelers Baptist Church.
(Below: William Jackson and Susie Johnson Straughn, Argon watching “Uncle” Willie making an axe handle with a drawblade)
Will organized a “Work For Neighbors” involving both branches, doing the many odd jobs for which neighbors were willing to pay . This led to many friendships and meeting interesting people. Some of the memorable neighbors they became friends with included Willy and Susie Straughn, Alice Johnson, Mrs. McGhee, and Wilma Burroughs. In their free time, members would stop by and hang out with these fascinating local people, enjoying the stories they would tell.
Gardner had brought with him a large canvas teepee. He found suitable trees to use for the poles and set it up in the field north of the main house. He was the main occupant, but others used it when he was not. Later, after Argon joined, and Gardner had left, Argon put it up in a different location, down the lane between barn and sheds, on the left.
Leah, who was partnered with Jimy (still a member of Juniper) was pregnant. Twin Oaks had not had children for quite a few years, and in anticipation of the arrival of children, had set up a Child Board to make decisions about them. The community had also built a new building specifically for children, named Degania, and designed by Henry Hammer, a resident architect. When son Maya was born as the first Twin Oaks child, he stayed at Merion for a few weeks (in an aircrib), but then moved into the new child building, and Leah re-joined Juniper. Of course, she often brought Maya up to Merion on her “meta” shift.
New members joined…
Linda was a vivacious and strong-willed blonde woman attracted by Twin Oaks’ culture of equality for women. She was feisty and energetic, always planning a new project, and learning construction with the GM construction company. She was very intelligent and hard-working, and led the initiative to raise goats and chickens.
Judy and Linda had been best friends since high school days in Michigan. Judy was dark-haired, wore wire-rimmed glasses, always had a twinkle in her eye, and loved crafts and music. She brought her hand-written notebook of songs (folk and rock) that she loved, and they inused it as a hymnal when they had group musical events.
Cathy joined soon after, with her blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses and strong work ethic. Carole, another strong charming woman, joined soon after that.
(Below, left to right: Linda, Judy, and Carole)
The goats and chickens naturally required a lot of fencing and shelter and general care. Four does were bought, named Rosie, Rita, Ramona,and Rama, and when needed a male goat was brought to breed them. That was a wild and smelly affair; the buck was borrowed from another farm for a short while, but eventually the does provided kids, and goat milk. The chickens were easier to care for and reliably gave eggs as well as meat. They enjoyed taking the goats out of their pen because the goats would stay together and near them, thus members could go anywhere into the woods and enjoy being with them. Goats and chickens were kept together in a fenced area in front of the old barn. The goats were milked twice a day, and goat milk was plentiful, and sometimes Holly made batches of “Product X” with it – always welcomed and eagerly consumed. Only Holly knows the recipe for goat milk “Product X”!
When others who cared for the goats left, Holly kept the program going for a while. Eventually she had to find humane homes for 17 goats – and still enjoys talking about this!
Merion tended to be vegetarian, but not strictly so. Meat was served occasionally, but care was taken that those who did prefer a completely vegetarian diet could have that.
After Will and others had bush-hogged the old fields around the house and barn, there remained two fields at some distance from the house. The larger of these, a visiting friend, member of Juniper, Judy Elliott called the “Pagan Rites” field. After it had been bush-hogged, they had a memorable evening meal around a bonfire in that field. Rachael sketched this event.
Green Heels was always interested in natural psychedelics, and was excited one day when he found six very large Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric, mushrooms. He had already experimented with small amounts of this fungus, with no effects. So he fried all six caps and ate them.
The primary hallucinogenic agents in fly agaric are ibotenic acid and muscimol. They are only mildly hallucinogenic, but cause confusion, loss of sensation, and sometimes nausea. Green Heels went to bed that night with his partner Rachael, and told her what he had done. She went to sleep, but he lay awake for a long time waiting for the mushrooms to have an effect.
Eventually, he realized he couldn’t feel his legs anymore, so he woke Rachael up and told her. He was confused and although there was no possibility of having misidentified the mushroom, he began fearing he had, and might have poisoned himself. This frightened Rachael of course, who ran to get Will and tell him. Consultation with Poison Control by phone followed, and after listening to the symptoms they advised drinking a lot of water and waiting for it to wear off. Which is what Green Heels did. It was a night many at Merion still remember…
Green Heels had issues with groups because of childhood trauma; he had been sent to an abusive “Christian” boarding school in Africa at an early age. Always a fringe-dweller, he could not commit to a genuine relationship with any person or group. So even though he did like belonging to Merion, he was drawn to a form of separation. His ceaseless wanderings in the woods around the property led him to discover an apparently abandoned old cabin near the South Anna River. It had been built by a well-known bootlegger during Prohibition named Wagoner. Green Heels looked up the owner in the county tax maps, and wrote to a retired Marine general, August Larson, who owned the property, asking permission to fix up the cabin to live in. The general came to Merion and met Green Heels and was probably amused but saw no harm in letting him live there.
Thereafter, Green Heels insulated the cabin and added a wood stove. It was a mile from Merion, down a long hardly-used lane through woods the group named “the Magic Forest”. He named it “Bag End” from “The Fellowship of the Ring” by Tolkien. He was still partnered with Rachael, but got permission from the group to do some amount of work in exchange for one meal a day. Over the next couple of years, he also did a fair amount of hitch-hiking and when he was gone, others from Merion were free to use this remote cabin.
He and Will spent much of their free time exploring the land. They found a beautiful spot not too far from the house where a stream crossed over the middle of a large schist boulder, and named it “Split Rock”. They also found the remains of copper tubing and large vats used for distilling liquor, and learned from neighbor Willy Straughn that it had been Wagoner’s still. Willy Straughn remembered hearing the explosion when the “Feds” blew it up.
David and Kristine, members of Juniper, became attracted to the small group concept and decided to join Merion. David had graduated from Harvard, had served on a nuclear submarine, and then become involved in organizing in the Boston area. He was over six feet tall, with black hair and beard, an imposing figure but extremely gentle in his ways. Kristine had grown up in New Orleans, graduated from NYU, and lived in the country in Idaho before moving to Twin Oaks. Kristine and David were expecting a child, and this caused some controversy with the main branch and the Child Board, who wanted the new child to be raised with Maya, Thrush (now Lee Ann), and Seren in the children’s building, Degania.
(Below – David, Kristine)
The Child Board’s position was that all children at TO were to be raised as B. F. Skinner had described in Walden Two, and most importantly, that a child’s parents were to have no more of a connection than other adults. Most of the Merion group was excited by the idea of having a child live there and helping to raise the child in a sort of extended family. Most of the group felt that parents did have a special relationship with their children. This made Merion a good match for David and Kristine’s ideas. Eventually, after some fairly contentious meetings (one memorable one in Gardner’s teepee), it was agreed that the new child, Damia, could be raised at Merion.
Somewhere in this period, Carol, Luke and Karl left. Luke moved to New Orleans, Karl to San Francisco, and later to Israel, where people in the Twin Oaks circle lost touch with him.
Gaskin’s Farm decided to open a branch near Washington, D.C., and the farm they chose to settle on was only a few miles from Juniper and Merion. A group of perhaps 8 or 10 couples, with children, moved into the Frank Proffit place, filling the farmhouse, sheds, and barns. There was quite a bit of socializing between this group and Merion. After a couple years, though, most had left, leaving only a small group on the farm.
Another group that attempted a commune in the area was “Blue River Ashram”. This group formed after one of Twin Oaks’ annual community conferences, and several Twin Oaks members joined with several new communitarians who all desired a place with more of a spiritual focus. They too found an old farm, owned by Josephine Neal (descendant of Patrick Henry), moved in and built haphazard small dwellings over the summer of 1974. This farm was only a few miles from Merion, but on the other side of the South Anna River, and road access was down a five mile poorly-maintained lane, so it was very remote. They only lasted for the summer; as cold weather came on, all eventually moved out, but friendships were formed among quite a few of the members and Merion.
“Cedarwood” was another commune that formed in this period and had extensive dealings with Merion. It was led by Aaron Bussey, who had a great deal of experience as a builder; Aaron and Gabe had organized Twin Oaks’ construction company GM. He formed a construction company that was the main source of income for the group. Several members from Twin Oaks joined, and Cedarwood hired many workers from Twin Oaks and Merion for its construction company.
Two other communes that formed in this period were “Grey Gables” and “Hunter’s Lodge”. The people from Hunter’s Lodge later formed Shannon Farm in Nelson County, which is still thriving. Grey Gables morphed into “Strange Farm” for a while, until the member who owned the land got tired of having a commune and asked everyone to leave. They refused to do so, so he contrived to have cops find pot on the property and they quickly disappeared!
In the spring of 1974 Green Heels (who had reverted to his actual name of Daniel under the influence of the “total honesty” doctrine of Gaskin’s Farm) once more began his peripatetic ways, hitchhiking barefoot to Florida where he had a brother and a cousin and wanted to visit a Seminole reservation near where they lived. While there, he met a young fellow named Argon, who came to Merion and joined. After Daniel left Merion, Rachael, who had changed her name to her given name of Christine after visiting Stephen Gaskins’ Farm with Daniel that year, left to join the fledgling Kripalu Ashram in PA. Next, a young tall woman who shared Linda and Judy’s passion for goat-raising, Debbie, and who lived in a trailer on the lane leading to Blue River Ashram, also joined Merion.
David and Kristine’s baby, Damia Zara, was born on July 31, 1974 in the southwest corner upstairs bedroom of the Arnette farmhouse. Having a child at Merion was a major change! Damia was the apple of everyone’s eye and the subject of everyone’s opinions about children and how to raise them.
(Merion members and friends watching Damia’s birth; Kristine & David with Damia.)
According to the agreement with Juniper’s metas (the child care workers), Damia spent some shifts at Degania with her “meta” from Merion. Sometimes the kids from Juniper came to Merion. Child care arrangements between Juniper and Merion were never particularly smooth, although with time, most people, at both branches came to see that though there were wonderful advantages to having other adults in children’s lives, indeed parents did have a very different relationship with their children.