East Wind is now publishing weekly video interviews with current and former members. I will republish them on Wednesdays, the day we have often posted videos. You can see the first interview, with ex-member Zan, here.
Jim Adams is also an ex-member, who lived at East Wind from 1977 to 1987 and this interview is a deep history of East Wind, including the history of East Wind Nut Butters and the building of Rock Bottom, East Wind’s dining hall. Jim Adams also lived at Twin Oaks and talks about differences and similarities between the two communities.
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.
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.
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)
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.”
In early August, Theresa wrote a Facebook post wondering about how we could make the communes more accessible to more people–and also mentioned that the communes filter out people. That’s not a bad thing, but maybe we need to change the filters:
You can see that it got a lot of comments. The first few are personal responses, mostly pretty much on target.
Then Allen Butcher (at first responding as ‘The Fellowship of Intentioneers’) joined the discussion and it soon became a three way triolog between him, Zamin Danty, and me, Raven (sometimes posting as Commune Life). The following thread quickly becomes very long, technical, ideological, and perhaps nitpicking, as we focus on the differences between ‘communalism’, communism, and anarchism and which are best, and even appropriate, for describing what we do in egalitarian communities. If you are bored by long-winded political discussions, you may want to end reading here. On the other hand, if you are a commune theory buff and the nitty gritty of how income sharing relates to political movements, read on.
(Keenan is a long time member of Twin Oaks. We have published him before here. He sent us this piece.)
4 July 2020
My take on the history of significant cultural change at Twin Oaks
As has been pointed out many, many times, it is going to take a lot of work to make Twin Oaks a multi-cultural community, or, at least it will take many, many small changes in lots of different parts of the community and in the hearts of members. However, we have done it before; we can do it again.
Women’s equality at Twin Oaks has required significant and steady effort. For decades Twin Oaks has hosted a women’s gathering. Some years the women’s gathering has earned some money, some years it hasn’t, but the community has never wavered in being supportive of putting resources toward hosting this gathering. The community has built and maintains women-only living space. Twin Oaks has supported and encouraged women taking on non-traditional roles like, for instance, working with machines, constructing buildings, working with big animals and taking on managerial and leadership roles. When women have not arrived at Twin Oaks with training, training has been provided.
Twin Oaks has women only rituals. Twin Oaks makes sure that there is a woman at membership interviews, and that there is a woman as part of the visitor liaison team. The CMT tries to be at least half women. The new member liaisons are typically a man and a woman. Twin Oaks got a handful of women members from an article in the feminist magazine, “Bust.” Women’s space in Oneida has an extensive women’s library.
Women and men have taken on the arduous task of teaching incoming men about what feminism means in practice. We all have come to recognize that the community is better for these efforts because we rise together.
Many years ago, Twin Oaks had few elders living here. At that time, the discussion in the community included the sentiment that the community couldn’t afford to make the changes necessary to support elders. So what happened was that good members left; seeing no possibility of staying here into their old age, members in their late forties and early fifties left the community in order to save money for retirement elsewhere.
But saner voices prevailed and Twin Oaks built Nashoba for elders. Twin Oaks created a pension policy. An elder advocate position was created and funded. Later, Twin Oaks built Appletree. Consequently, members started making a lifetime commitment to Twin Oaks. These days, far from being a drain on the community, elders like McCune, Carrol, Pam, Hildegard, Shal and many, many others are essential, valuable and contributing members of the community. The community is now happy to care for elders because we now recognize that we rise together.
At another point in Twin Oaks history, children and families were also controversial. Some members harassed women who wanted to get pregnant. Children were banned from ZK’s main dining room and the ZK lounge. Children were forbidden to enter many other areas of the community. The role of the Child Board was seen as protecting some members of the community from the noise and mess of children. Children were seen by some members as solely an expensive hobby of people who wanted to be parents.
But policies changed. Hearts changed. Children became welcome in all parts of the community. The Child Board changed its focus to being an advocate for children. Twin Oaks puts lots of labor resources into creating a quality child program. Children were assumed to be part of the community and expected to contribute to the work here. The children who grew up after this culture shift are the children who have chosen to continue to live in community as adults. Additionally, visitors see children in the community and choose to live at Twin Oaks rather than elsewhere precisely because children are embraced and loved here. Parents tend to make a long-term commitment to the community. Rather than being a drain on the community, families are an integral part of the strength of the community. Because we rise together.
It seems that Twin Oaks is on the cusp of making a similar commitment to finally becoming more diverse and multi-cultural. There is no good reason not to. There are not terrible trade-offs to be made. This is not a direction that drains or weakens the community—far from it—becoming a more diverse community will make Twin Oaks stronger, because…
Delbert Africa was a member of the Philadelphia black commune, MOVE. This was a radical group of activists who lived together and believed that all living beings were interdependent. They annoyed their neighbors and were targeted by the Philadelphia police who raided their home in a violent eviction proceeding in 1978 that ended in a gun fight. A policeman was killed (the police claim it was from gunfire from the house, some witnesses believe it may have been from an accidental shot from another police officer). Nine MOVE members were arrested, charged with third-degree murder, and sentenced to a hundred years in prison each. Delbert was one of the last to be released. Later, in 1985, the mayor and the police decided that the best way to rid the neighborhood of these activists was to bomb the house–which they did, killing eleven people and destroying the entire block.
There weren’t a lot of comments, but here are the four that we got, including my memories of Philadelphia that were related to these incidents. Bizarrely, while Frank Rizzo was the mayor during the 1978 shootout, the mayor who okayed the 1985 was Wilson Goode, a black man, who together with the police chief at the time, classified MOVE as a “terrorist organization.”
If you are interested in seeing Mike Africa Jr’s performance, here is that part of the video:
Tomorrow, part four of our diversity series, Julia’s piece on Whiteness in Community.
Recently the Twin Oaks Facebook page featured this video about BF Skinner (the author of the book Walden Two, which was a major influence on the founding of Twin Oaks) and his visit to the community. Here’s what they had to say:
“In 1978 the Nova TV program documented Skinner’s visit and in 2016 the complete program was posted to YouTube. It’s an amazing look at a moment in the past of Twin Oaks, showing many people and scenes from that era.
“Many things portrayed are the same, and of course many things have changed.
“Start watching at 10:41 to see Twin Oaks content.”
It turns out my uncle Dan Thaler used to live in a branch of The Farm (Tennessee) in Franklin NY, less than a 15 minute drive from where I currently live at East Brook Farm. They sold vegetables in the same farmers market that we do, decades apart. Here are some old pictures of the community he sent me. There’s plenty more where these came from, so leave a comment if you would like to see more from this archive.
(This is the fifth and final part of a series. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here, and part four is here.)
This post should bring us up to date on the History of the FEC and its Assemblies, concluding with last year’s Assembly.
This decade began with two Assemblies, one in March of 2010, and one in November. Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, and the Emma Goldman Finishing School attended both of them. Twin Oaks reported a population of 92, East Wind 50, and Acorn 30. These are close to their current populations. The March Assembly was also attended by a community named Patchwork. The only other note was that “Villages in the Sky” was discussed.
The November Assembly brought two new communities, both of which had something different to offer. The Midden was an urban community, in Columbus, Ohio, very much on the model of Emma Goldman. Living Energy Farm was a rural commune in Louisa, Virginia (home to Twin Oaks) but was focused on being off the grid and a demonstration of fossil fuel free living. Both communities were exciting to the FEC and both have, in their own way, ended up moving away from income-sharing.
The 2011 Assemblies followed the same March and November pattern as the previous year. Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, and the Emma Goldman Finishing School again attended both Assemblies, along with Living Energy Farm (LEF). I have nothing else on the March Assembly, but the November Assembly brought back The Midden, along with Skyhouse and two new communities, the Possibility Alliance and Camp Pleasant.
Camp Pleasant was another one time Assembly attendee, but the Possibility Alliance was something else. Also known as the Stillwater Sanctuary, they made low tech LEF look extravagant. LEF uses small scale electric power, but the Possibility Alliance didn’t use electricity at all. The Possibility Alliance had a telephone, but no computers (or TVs–they had a “no screen” policy) and, of course, no website. But it wasn’t hard to find them, with articles about them all over the web. Also, their method of income-sharing was operating under the “gift economy”, where they only took what was given to them and shared the excess.
Also for the November, 2011 Assembly, in addition to the populations staying the same at Twin Oaks, East Wind, and Acorn, Emma Goldman reported having 10 folks, Skyhouse 4, and The Midden 6. And the reported topic that Assembly was something called the “league of activist communities”.
There was only one Assembly in 2012, in March. It was attended by Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, the Emma Goldman Finishing School, The Midden, Red Earth Farms (for the last time at an Assembly), and CRIC House, a new community in California that wouldn’t last long, but actually lead to another community in Louisa. While most communities that reported their population stayed the same, Acorn dropped down to 27 and Emma Goldman down to 8. It’s also notable that Skyhouse, which had been a stable little sub-community in Dancing Rabbit ecovillage, was now gone, having lost three of their four folks and the remaining member decided not to start over again.
There was also only one Assembly in 2013, in April. Attendees were Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, the Emma Goldman Finishing School, The Midden, CRIC House, and the Possibility Alliance. Acorn now reported 28 folks, but The Midden dropped down to 3. It was also reported that the Emma Goldman Finishing School was not fully income-sharing, and this was their last Assembly.
And, again, there was but one Assembly in 2014, in March, but it was a packed and busy one and I was there. It was held at Acorn and attendees included Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, Living Energy Farm, Sapling (which was a short lived offspring of Acorn), the Baltimore Free Farm (a scruffy punk anarchist collective), The Midden, CRIC House, the Possibility Alliance, and Willow Vale Farm (the would-be community that I was representing). Willow Vale never got the land that they wanted and I soon left the project for complicated reasons, but they eventually bought land in another place with another name. This was the decade where several community attempts crashed and burned and new communities came out of them. (The transformations will become apparent as we go along.)
The 2015 Assembly was again in March. There was a good attendance: Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, The Mothership, Living Energy Farm, Sapling, the Baltimore Free Farm, The Midden, the Possibility Alliance, Living Tree Alliance (yet another one time Assembly attendee), and Oran Mor were all there. CRIC was gone (but wait). Living Energy Farm reported a population of 5, Sapling also 5, and Oran Mor 3.
By 2016, the communes movement seemed to be taking off. Attendees at the March Assembly were: Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, The Mothership, Living Energy Farm, Sapling, the Baltimore Free Farm, The Midden, Cambia (the new Louisa community founded by folks from CRIC), Ionia (a community in Alaska), Compersia (in Washington, DC), Oran Mor, Sycamore Farm (in southern Virginia, created by some folks from Twin Oaks), Open Circle (also in Virginia, but north of Louisa), Quercus (in Richmond, Virginia, founded by folks from Acorn), and Le Manoir (in rural Quebec). Cambia reported a population of 2, Ionia 30 (they had been around a long time before they discovered the FEC–or vice versa), Compersia 6, and Le Manoir 6. The movement appeared to be exploding, but some of these communities weren’t going to last long.
By the next year (2017), two of these communities were gone. For complicated reasons, neither Sycamore Farm nor Quercus made it. Living Energy Farm and the Baltimore Free Farm, while both continuing on, stopped trying to do income-sharing. In 2017, there were again two Assemblies.
The March Assembly still had a lot of communities at it: Twin Oaks, East Wind, Sandhill, Acorn, The Mothership, Sapling, the Baltimore Free Farm, The Midden, Cambia, the Possibility Alliance, Ionia, Compersia, Oran Mor, Rainforest Lab (a new community in rural Washington state), Open Circle, and Le Manoir were there. The notes list three things happening: minigrants were created (these are small amounts of money–$500 or less–given to communities to pay for things like workshops, travel, infrastructure, etc), “Commune Life blog begins” (they noticed!), and “conflict resolution team ideas” were discussed.
The November Assembly had much the same crew but with some significant changes. The Midden and the Possibility Alliance were gone. The Midden transformed itself into a cooperative house and the founders of the Possibility Alliance eventually moved to Maine. Sapling transformed itself into Mimosa. It was the same place but all the people who started it were gone and it was taken over by the folks who tried to start Sycamore Farm. There was also one new community, East Brook Community Farm in rural New York, started by the folks who tried to start Willow Vale Farm. (As I said, new communities were emerging from the wreckage of the old.)
There was again one Assembly in 2018,in November. It had basically the same crew as the November, 2017 Assembly. Populations reported on the chart were Twin Oaks 92, East Wind 50, Acorn 28, Mimosa 2, Cambia 2, Ionia 30, Compersia 6, Oran Mor 3, Rainforest Lab 2, and Le Manoir 6.
The chart ends there but there was an Assembly last December. Fortunately, I was there. It was filled with controversy (as I suspect many others were), and due to that, the site was changed at the last minute from East Wind to Oran Mor (although many of us stayed at East Wind and they provided strong support for the Assembly). Present were folks from Twin Oaks, East Wind, Acorn, The Mothership, Cambia, Ionia, Compersia, Rainforest Lab, Oran Mor, Le Manoir, East Brook Community Farm, and Cotyledon (the new community in New York City, which I was representing). Folks from Sandhill also tried to make it, but they had children with them and since there was a stomach virus which swept through many of the delegates, they decided not to risk it. In spite of the controversies (and there were a bunch of them), we passed a budget for the FEC (something that apparently didn’t happen the previous year) and began forming teams in the hope of expanding the leadership of the FEC.
The current status of the FEC communities (as far as I know and subject to change with little or no notice): Full member communities–Twin Oaks, East Wind, Acorn, and Compersia; Re-forming communities–Sandhill and Mimosa; Communities in Dialogue–Oran Mor, The Mothership, Ionia, Rainforest Lab, Open Circle, Cambia, Le Manoir, East Brook Community Farm, and Cotyledon.
Some takeaways from all this history.
Obviously, communities come and go. What’s more interesting is that the people who start communities often try again. Cambia was started by CRIC House folks. Sapling and Sycamore Farm both fell apart, but the folks who started Sycamore Farm took over Sapling and remade it as Mimosa. The folks who tried to start Willow Vale Farm eventually got East Brook Community Farm going. I have been to three different Assemblies representing three different communities: Common Threads (1996), Willow Vale (2014), and Cotyledon (2018). There are communitarians who are passionate and don’t give up easily.
Also, a bunch of the communities that look like they have left are actually still around, just no longer income-sharing or wanting to be part of the FEC. Or wanting a different status in the FEC. The Ally Communities status was created to keep a connection with communities like Ganas and Living Energy Farm. I also know of at least one community that most people thought was long gone which has recently approached the FEC, possibly wanting to return.
The FEC itself is an interesting organization. I have written a bit about what it is and isn’t and how difficult it is to keep all these communities connected. I know that in this series I have focused on the Assemblies, but that’s what I have the information about and that’s where most of the decisions were made. As always, if you have more information, feel free to share it in the comments.
I will probably write an addendum featuring the 2019 Assembly later this year, and maybe, if I am still around and Commune Life is still around, in another decade or so, I will write the FEC history of the Twenties. Meanwhile, for a shorter, more abbreviated and interactive version of FEC History, watch the video Maximus put together.
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