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.