Merion–Part One

Here is an important piece of communal history.  In the early days of the Twin Oaks community there was an offshoot of the group that lasted six years.  Recently there was an effort to document it.  I was fortunate to be in communication with Dan Parelius who sent me this.  It’s a long piece and we will be publishing it in three parts.  Here’s the beginning:

MERION      1972 -1978           A cooperative account by former members

    After five years of slow but steady growth, the Walden Two experiment of Twin Oaks in Louisa County, central Virginia, had reached a membership of about 40, with a waiting list, in 1972.    Personal space had always been the main factor limiting growth, as the community grew from one farmhouse and a couple of barns, to add three dormitories. Kat Kinkade (then Kathleen Griebe), a founder and influential member, conceived the idea of expanding more rapidly by buying land nearby to house more members.

    A piece of land with suitable old farmhouse and barns that was for sale got the process going. Previously owned by John Arnette and his family, it was now owned by their relatives (named Whitaker) in Richmond. As Kat and others looked into buying the property, a group of friends at Twin Oaks began considering the idea of forming a “branch” to live there. They were not thrilled with the idea, popular with the founders, of a community of 1000, as envisioned in “Walden Two.” Rather, they wanted a small community of friends who knew each other well, with less “bureaucratic” organization, and the discussion of the formation of a branch of Twin Oaks interested them. Over the summer of 1972  they met occasionally and sought others of their friends to join them.

    For the first few months, this project was referred to as “Acorn”, but as the group coalesced,  Karl suggested the name Merion, which he said was a type of bluegrass, and the group adopted the name. The original settlement on the Jones land was called Juniper.

 1972 Prospectus                                                                                                                            “Merion is the first offshoot from the original Twin Oaks settlement. Merion and our sister branch, Juniper, together comprise Twin Oaks – a community whose branches are united by similar cultures, a joint economy, and a common government.

   “Many of the same values which have been basic to Twin Oaks are a central part of the Merion idea – among them equality of all members, use of rational planning and innovative engineering to create the environment we desire, and obtaining happiness from our daily activities together rather than from  material possessions.

    “Yet in other ways Merion is distinctive. To begin with, we plan to limit our size to fifteen, twenty, or perhaps twenty-five members. Partly because of this, we will make major domestic decisions by consensus rather than by a board of planners, and will place less reliance on a labor credit system to structure our day and organize our work.

    “It is our hope that a smaller family will make possible a more tranquil atmosphere and honest, intimate relationships between members – both of which we feel to be important for our personal growth.

    “We anticipate doing a great deal of hard work together; eating a diet which places less reliance on meat and emphasizes natural, wholesome foods; building structures which allow us to take advantage of natural sources of heat and light; making judicious use of  technology; and relying heavily on honest encounter between members to establish the warm relationships we seek in our family.

    “The present ten members have lived together at the Juniper branch for some time and we selected ourselves through long discussions and a process of mutual- and self-analysis. For this reason we are not strangers and we hope to avoid some of the pitfalls that usually threaten new communities.

    “Physically, Merion is situated three miles away from Juniper on 86 acres of land, where at least one additional branch will later be located. The land is mostly wooded, but there are a few fields suitable for cultivation. There is an old three-bedroom house with electricity, but no plumbing or central heating, plus a barn and sheds. We plan to build a wing on the existing house to provide shelter the first winter, then begin construction of our own buildings.”

    There was, as one might imagine, a little controversy about this move on the part of the community.  Twin Oaks had always seen itself as belonging to a larger movement of people trying to change American society into a kinder, gentler, and more egalitarian nation, and early articles in the Leaves reflect a strong concern with the question whether we were a waste of time, or  were as valid an effort as the leftist revolutionaries who were  “organizing the masses.”

    For example, in the March 1968 issue (#5), founder Rudy wrote an article “Twin Oaks and the Larger Movement”  in which he stated, “The distinction is between the approach of trying to tear down the present power structure and THEN figuring out what to do and doing it on a large scale, and the approach of building small-scale alternatives now, and simply growing.” Likewise, in an April 1971 issue (#14), Erik wrote “The idea of the community movement as opposed to the revolutionary movement is to change the existing social structure through positive reinforcement, as opposed to punishment. It is to make people join because ours is a better way of life and not to spend hours trying to convince factory workers that communism will improve their lot in life.”

     Merion was initially conceived as a “waiting list hotel”, to prevent “losing potential members of the movement.” Karl and Judy Elliott volunteered to live at the new place. When the group evolved into Merion, Karl joined and Judy did not.

     Some felt that the planner decision to “divert funds to Merion was the end of the dream of 1000 communes.”  Nevertheless, that is what the planners decided, and the self-selected group of ten loaded their meager possessions and themselves onto Twin Oaks’ big flatbed truck (“Higher Yellow”), and unloaded at the Arnette place on September 11, 1972.

ORIGINAL MEMBERS

    Will – was the ripe old age of 27,  compared to the group average age in the early 20’s. He had an insightful, thoughtful presence and kind heart. Will loved eating apples and cutting them into slices with his pocket knife, and the others all teased him about it. Will had graduated from Yale, served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, and brought that experience to us all. He had learned a lot about farming and growing food during his first two summers at Twin Oaks.

    Rachael – With beautiful long auburn hair and an infectious laugh, Rachael was a grounding presence in the group. She was artistically inclined and made their home pleasant with little touches, as well as many drawings, some of which are in this account. She had dropped out after 3 years of college, to join Twin Oaks and seek a more satisfying way of life. Her caring, easy-going nature and love of homesteading skills helped them adjust to their new life together.

    Orin – was tall, quiet and thoughtful. He played the French horn in the upper story of the barn, and the melody would waft out over the fields and garden to the woods. He was the first one to leave, and  all were saddened by it.

    Marijke – came from the Bruderhof community, where she had been raised by her parents. She loved everything earthy and natural and folksy that they all did together. She wore overalls, had a blonde pageboy and sparkling brown eyes. She loved to work on the farm and do everything outdoors.

Luke – was a musician and a builder, and played harmonica in the “Empty Bottle Band”, Twin Oaks bluegrass band. He always wore an old brown fedora over his dark brown curls. Luke was a sweet and gentle presence, even though he could be very strong in his opinions and thoughts. Sadly, he was murdered after leaving Merion and relocating to New Orleans in 1973, while working on a tree-trimming crew and arguing with another man over how to trim a tree. 

Leah – or Freddie – was a deep devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda and did the Self-Realization Fellowship lessons faithfully. She had dark brown hair and electric blue eyes and her ready smile lit up the room. She had a great laugh and sense of humor. With her partner Jimy, the auto garage manager at Juniper she had Twin Oak’s first child who was born in the community, a son Maya, whom they all adored.

Karl – tall, lanky, with long dark curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses, he was a super-intelligent high school drop-out and math whiz. He was funny in a wry, “aw, shucks” sort of way and artistically gifted. Karl was interested in architecture  and learning to plan buildings, and he designed the addition that was added to the original Arnette house. He gave a talk on Twin Oaks at Hofstra University, where Holly was going to graduate school, and invited her to spend the entire summer of 1971 at Twin Oaks, as his guest. Merion was forming in meetings in the upstairs of the gray barn, in the spring of 1972.

Holly – came from New York City and was an extrovert, a loving joyful woman with beautiful wild brown hair, an infectious laugh and warm, big smile. She had the best hugs and was a cheerful ray of sunshine among them. She always paid close attention to how others were feeling, especially the quieter ones, and many others learned to do that from her. Holly was in New York doing “outside work” when the others moved onto the land.

Green Heels – was the name Gardner bestowed on Daniel, after the Native American fashion, due to the fact that he went barefoot always, and was deeply connected to the woods, plants, trees and wildlife.  All of them took walks in their woods and meadows and enjoyed learning to identify new plants, including teas and medicinal herbs. GH grew up in Cote d’Ivoire, son of missionaries, spoke fluent French, and was an amateur ornithologist with a West African flycatcher named for him. He knew almost every kind of bird, and its songs and calls. He had long blond hair usually braided, and was always chewing on a sassafras “chaw-stick”, as Native Americans had done.

Gardner – was the resident Buddhist. He was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, the spiritual leader of Tail of the Tiger Meditation Center in Vermont, where he often went to do zazen. They all remember him sitting peacefully on his zafu at the top of the stairs, meditating daily in front of the window.

(Below, Karl and Marijke on the front porch; Luke; Gardner; Holly; Green Heels; Will)

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Leah                           Rachael/Christine               Orin

The Twin Oaks planners had agreed to fund an addition for the old farm  house as soon as they were settled.  It was designed by Karl, and comprised a small kitchen with a loft, bathroom, fairly large living room, and one small bedroom in the southwest corner, and many members from both Merion and Juniper worked on it. Louisa County had recently adopted building codes, so the new wing had to meet the county standards. It was all on one floor, on the south side of the old farmhouse, heated with a central furnace.

    In their excitement and idealism, Merion intended to eat their shared meals in the kitchen loft! They built a dumbwaiter for hauling food, dishes, utensils, and whatever else was needed. In the reality of life, however, after doing this for a while, they decided to eat on the floor of the living room, and the inspired creation grew dusty and unused (except for food storage- a large sweet potato crop was cured there every fall.)

    In the living room they had shelves for a moderate collection of books, a stereo for music, but no large furniture except one big chair that Marijke upholstered. They ate evening meals together in that room, sitting on the floor. They also held weekly meetings to make decisions there. The living room was where the “Merion Book” was kept; this was a hard-cover medium-sized book of blank pages that Karl gave the group for remarks and artwork. It became a group journal and contains very honest and emotional comments, as well as numerous sketches and cartoons.

      Merion members often enjoyed singing together, with Green Heels playing guitar, Luke on harmonica, Judy on dulcimer, and Linda on autoharp. They had group circles of singing in the living room when it was cold outside, or around fires outside on occasion.   

           

    An early source of tension between the two branches involved the rejection by Merion of the first application for membership by someone from Juniper. Birdie was a quiet, sweet young woman who had recently broken up with Luke. Because Luke did not want her to join, Merion decided not to accept her.     

    Twin Oaks was a secular commune and neither encouraged nor discouraged spiritual inclinations on the part of members, but all of the original founders had spiritual leanings of one sort or another. Two (Leah and Gardner) had chosen specific paths and teachers. All the others tended to support the practice of meditation and were interested in a variety of spiritual teachers, especially Baba Ram Dass, Stephen Gaskin, and Suzuki Roshi. They read such books as “Black Elk Speaks”, “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions”,  “Seven Arrows”, “Monday Night Class”, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, and “Be Here Now”. They often listened to tape recordings of various teachers, together. They sang songs from the “Love, Serve, Remember” album such as “You are the grey sea, in a dress of broken lace; you are inside me, and I know your place”, “My mind is always floating on the thoughts of my lord Krishna playing his flute on the banks of the Blue River”, “Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song; I will never forget you, I will never forsake you” and from the Incredible String Band “May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way home.”

Merion–Part One

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