THE FARM TIMELINE
1966 (March): Stephen Gaskin offered classes, including courses entitled “North American White Witchcraft” and “Metaphysical Education (Meta PE),” as part of San Francisco State Free University.
1967 (February): Gaskin initiated the Monday Night Class, an open meeting spaced designed to explore psychedelic consciousness within the frames of (mystical) religiosity, in the Gallery Lounge at San Francisco State College .
1969: Attracting more than 1,000 participants per week, the Monday Night Class relocated to the Family Dog, a rock hall; the class is visited by a group of theologians and ministers from the American Academy of Religion who convinced Gaskin to take the class “on the road” the following year.
1970: Along with his “students,” Gaskin adjourned the Monday Night Class to travel across the United States as part of the Caravan.
1970 (October 12) to 1971 (September): Gaskin and a group of approximately 200 Monday Night Class regulars conducted The Caravan, bringing the psychedelic crucible to American cities, while experiencing its own growth from twenty-thirty buses to more than sixty buses and dozens of other vehicles.
1971: After returning to California, Gaskin and members of The Caravan committed to pooling their resources in order to purchase land in Tennessee to establish a community.
1971: Gaskin and The Caravan arrived at Martin Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, a 650-acre plot of land the group used to establish initial residency.
1971: The Farm was officially founded with the first down payment on the 1,050 acre Black Swan Ranch south of Nashville, Tennessee.
1971: The Dry Goods Store opened.
1972: The Farm’s homegrown rock n’ roll band toured coast-to-coast with Gaskin, promoting membership though free shows at parks and student centers.
1972: The Farm Clinic and The Farm School were founded.
1973: The Farm was raided for growing marijuana, a moment that led to an (unsuccessful) effort by The Farm to have marijuana validated as a religious sacrament; Gaskin, along with three others was arrested.
1974: The Farm established Plenty International, a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization created to help protect and share the world’s abundance and knowledge for the benefit of all.
1974: The Book Publishing Company published Hey Beatnik! This is the Farm Book, a text that captured the organizational and spiritual orientation of The Farm.
1974: Gaskin and three “Farmies” were jailed for one year for growing marijuana on The Farm property.
1975: The Farm community continued to expand, with more than 750 calling The Farm home. Plenty centers begin to emerge, with notable examples in the South Bronx, Miami, St. Louis, Washington DC, Chicago, the Caribbean, Guatemala, Central America, Africa, and Bangladesh.
1976: Ina May Gaskin published Spiritual Midwifery, which introduced a generation of women to the concept of natural childbirth and earned Gaskin national and international fame.
1977: Peter Jenkins, chronicling his visit to The Farm, published “Walk Across America” in National Geographic, garnering national attention for The Farm community.
1978: Plenty founded the Bronx Center and commenced the Plenty Ambulance Service, which operated in the South Bronx from 1978 until 1984, performing emergency response and transport as well as training South Bronx residents as Emergency Medical Technicians so they could secure jobs with the city.
1978: The Farm opened its first swimming hole; a hepatitis outbreak temporarily closed The Farm gate to new members, causing populations to rise at several satellite farms.
1979: The Ham radio crew developed the “Nuke Buster,” a handheld Geiger counter now called Radiation Alert that continues to sell internationally. Peter Jenkins published Walk Across America in book form.
1980: Plenty, with its founder Stephen Gaskin, received the first Right Livelihood Prize, which is annually awarded in Stockholm, Sweden to honor and support those “offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.”
1980: The seventeen existing satellite farms sold off their property, with many of those residents moving to the Tennessee Farm.
1980: State police raided The Farm at night on July 11 looking for marijuana plants, converging on a field of ragweed instead. This raid began the Annual Ragweed Day Festival on July 11.
1981-1982: The New York Farm initiated Kids to the Country program, bringing at-risk and urban youth to The Farm to enjoy nature and study peace education.
1982: The Farm population swelled to over 1,200 members, with more than half children; annual visitors increased to over 20,000.
1983: Due to population growth and mounting economic concerns, “The Changeover” occurred, modifying The Farm’s structure from being totally collective, with all things held common, to a cooperative. Land remained in common, but monthly dues were levied to account for community expenses. The Farm population decreased dramatically.
1984: The Farm founded Rocinante, designed to be a birth center with a midwifery training facility and a complete senior community living center. Services ranged from assisted living and adult daycare to a hospice for the dying.
1984: The Farm business, Solar Electronics, became S.E. International, Inc., a developer, manufacturer, and distributor of Geiger counters, radiation detectors, and more.
1987: The last payment made on The Farm property, which was initially purchased in 1971 at seventy dollars per acre.
1990: The Farm hosted its first Alternative Energy Fair.
1992: Swan Conservation Trust was created as a means of protecting headwater forests and streams in the Big Swan and Big Bigby watersheds.
1992: The Alternative Energy Fair became the Harvest Festival.
1993: The first Farm website (www.thefarm.org) was created, with links to all the current business ventures and programs.
1994: Swan Conservation Trust purchased 100 acres near Summertown in the headwaters of the Big Bigby Creek, now known as “The Highland Woods Preserve.”
1994: The Farm Community opened the Ecovillage Training Center, an immersion school on sustainable living committed to restoring the earth through cultural transformation by exploring creative solutions to contemporary challenges.
1997: The first UnityFest was held on The Farm.
2000: The Swan Conservation Trust received the Natural Heritage Conservation Award from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The Farm Yoga Studio and The Farm Recycling center both opened.
2002: Former and current members of The Farm founded the Peaceroots Alliance, a network of people from around the world who sought to create a peaceful, just, and sustainable world for future generations by emphasizing common humanity, promoting non-violence, and working to remove the root causes of war.
2002: The Farm School established More Than Warmth, an educational 501(c)3 project to help students of all ages foster understanding, knowledge, and compassion among world cultures through nonviolent, nonpolitical, and nonreligious means. To date, More Than Warmth has reached almost 10,000 students who have created and sent more than 1,000 quilts around the world.
2005: Following landfall of Hurricane Katrina, more than fifty Plenty volunteers took part in emergency relief activities along the Gulf Coast, arriving August 30, 2005 and staying for the next three years.
2006: The Farm reached thirty-five years of existence.
2006: Visitors could now enjoy all the features of The Farm, including the newly opened disc golf course, through The Farm Experience Program.
2010: Plenty responded to the earthquake that ravaged Haiti on January 12 by sending relief supplies and supporting medical volunteers.
2010: The fortieth anniversary of the Caravan leaving San Francisco took place.
2011: The fortieth anniversary of the founding of The Farm Community took place.
2014 (July 1): Stephen Gaskin passed away at his home.
In order to fully understand The Farm, a still-thriving community set in southern Tennessee, we must initially look elsewhere andto another time, to 2,300 miles away in sixties-era San Francisco when a group of hippies coalesced around the psychedelically inspired spiritual teachings of Stephen Gaskin. Described by Farm resident Albert Bates as “a charismatic eclectic philosopher, a proto-hippie in the Gary Snyder/Albert Hoffman/Lou Gottlieb vein” (Bates 1993), Gaskin’s story often begins with the initiation of his Monday Night Class, a time dedicated to exploring the “astral plane,” realms of consciousness made possible, at least initially, through experimentation with psychedelics. [Image at right] Yet as the class grew, what became most apparent for those involved was the growing sense that the group not only uncovered a powerful tool for deconstructing the frames of postwar American culture, but more importantly discovered a base religious truth (through what the group called telepathic awareness) regarding the absolute interconnection between all beings, as well as between humans and nature. Bates’ assessment, which invokes the Buddhist activism of Snyder, the justice-laden political theatrics of Hoffman, and the unabashed communal openness signified by Gottlieb’s sixties-era commune Morning Star Ranch (also known as Morningstar commune or The Digger Farm), positions Gaskin’s teachings religiously and practically, as a spiritual project to transform society from relationships predicated on modes of consumption, to models of responsibility. With time, this religious dedication to compassion and activism would congeal with The Farm, a commune devoted to cultivating the resources and energy to “change the world” (Gaskin 1976:165).
Born 1935 in Denver, Colorado, Gaskin experienced a relatively traditional American upbringing, culminating with his decision, like many American youth of his time, to join the Marine Corps at age seventeen. Deployed to Korea in 1953, Gaskin experienced first hand the horrors of war, recounting how he was forced to carry “dead and wounded friends back from no-man’s land” (Gaskin 2005:8). Such experiences fortified his dedication to pacifism and the conviction that violence leads only to greater violence, setting the stage for the foundational beliefs that would eventually emerge in his teachings fifteen years later. After being discharged from the Marine Corps in 1955, Gaskin returned to the United States a broken soul, drifting and drinking while he sought to discern his future role within what he felt to be a suffocating postwar American society. Finally making his way into education, Gaskin received a BA in 1962 and an MA in 1964 from San Francisco State College (Gaskin 1990). Between 1964 and 1966, he taught first year English, creative writing, and general semantics at the college, an experience that ultimately propelled Gaskin out of the hallways of institutional education and into the experimental zones of learning being actively uncovered and explored by the burgeoning hippie counterculture.
In Haight Ashbury Flashbacks, Gaskin recounts his initial awakening to a burgeoning counterculture that (he believed) held the keyfor self and communal discovery. By 1967, San Francisco had emerged as the home for the hippie flower power scene, a loose countercultural assemblage of tribes, gurus, and activist souls who descended upon the Haight district with “Flowers in Your Hair” in search of spiritual solutions and cultural alternatives to a postwar American society defined by conformist materialism, apathetic consumption, and broadly accepted inequalities (racial, gendered, class). Following the actions of various students, Gaskin chose to dropout culturally by embracing the hippie lifestyle. As he later notes in The Caravan, this process led not away from education, but to the search for a new educational structure with Gaskin emerging as the teacher: “I felt somebody needed to do that, and I went looking for somebody to do that, and I looked for somebody to do that for years, and I couldn’t find anybody to do that, and I felt somebody ought to be” (Gaskin 2007:66). In March 1966, Gaskin began offering informal classes in San Francisco State’s Free University that combined literature on mysticism, magic, popular philosophy, and psychology. These classes, combined with his full (and aesthetic) embrace of the hippie lifestyle, led to the termination of his contract with the college. Yet more significantly, these courses (with titles ranging from “Experiments in Unified Field Theory,” “Einstein, Magic and God,” “North American White Witchcraft,” and “Metaphysical Education (Meta PE)”) evolved into the structure that would define Gaskin’s Monday Night Class and set the stage for a religious culture that culminates with The Farm’s founding.
Gaskin commenced the first Monday Night Class in February 1967 at the Gallery Lounge at San Francisco State College, seeking, inhis own words, to take “counsel with my fellow trippers…the idea was to compare notes with other trippers about tripping and the whole psychic and psychedelic world” (Gaskin 2005:9). As Timothy Hodgdon punctuates further, “Gaskin conceived of the Monday Night Class as a vehicle for serious trippers to get high and stay high, with or without the assistance of drugs, in order to perform the vital work of counteracting the entropic tendencies of industrial civilization” (2008:117). What began as a relatively small, open meeting to discuss how psychedelic experiences relate to world religions, eventually developed into a weekly hippie pilgrimage for those seeking a safe space to explore levels of consciousness and new modes of wisdom. In combining psychedelic experimentation with topics ranging from “hermetic geometry, Masonic-Rosicrucian mysticism, ECKANKAR…” (Bates and Miller 1995:373) to “magic, telepathy, superstition, psychology, extra-sensory perception, fairy tales, [and] collective unconscious…” (Gaskin 2005:25), the class provided space to cultivate the growing religious awareness that psychedelic consciousness does more than “manifest the mind” (the etymological meaning of the term). Ultimately, as captured in the recorded discussions collectively published as the Monday Night Class, [Image at right] psychedelics disclosed “your responsibility for this chunk of the universe” (Gaskin 2005:25).
By the end of 1967, this small group of students and seekers had blossomed into a psychedelic community predicated on “a loveand trust basis and being peaceful and pretty happy and pretty healthy and pretty sane” (Gaskin 2005:6). Within its first year, Gaskin moved the class to the basement of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church to account for new members. Gaskin and his students “focused on putting the group’s shared psychedelic experiences into the perspective of the world’s religions” (Gaskin 2005:9) in order to “quiet the mind, and nourish the spirit” (Fike 2012:10). Guided informally by Gaskin through a question-and-answer format, the Monday Night Class functioned as a living church, helping push those in attendance to ride the waves of the astral plane in order to grasp the religious “awareness of the interconnectedness of all life” (Gaskin 2005:13). As “aficionados of Spirit,” the Monday Night Class embraced personal awakening and interpersonal enlightenment, replacing technical understanding and functional awareness with an archaic journey into the individual (and collective) soul. The Class, and Gaskin’s amalgam of psychedelic revelations, Western occultism, Vedanta, and Zen Buddhism, provided a new outlet for challenging the calamities, violence, and alienation facing the individual and the community in late-1960s America. Fully enmeshed within a cultural movement of transformative possibilities, Gaskin’s religions teachings spoke to the spiritual abandonment of a lost generation, an abandonment eventually overcome through the founding of a religious commune.
By March 1969, the Class drew more than 500 people; within nine weeks the class reached its pinnacle of 1,500 people, leadingGaskin to relocate again to the dance hall on the Pacific Coast Highway operated by the Family Dog. [Image at right] With the doors of perception blown fully open, Gaskin and his students sought to actualize the lessons of telepathically accessing a shared reality of interdependence. This sense of purpose is exemplified best during a meeting following the massacre at Kent State in which the class transitioned from thinking a certain way, to acting according to certain key principles. This meeting, which also captured the growing divide between sixties politicos (for example, Students for a Democratic Society or the Black Panther Party) and hippies (positioned as cultural and religious, but not political), pushed the group to consider the implications of a psychedelic-induced spiritual vision that, in making life absolutely valuable, compelled the individual into a sacred space of living on behalf of and for all others. By the end of a contentious meeting, the group, based primarily on the recognition that psychedelic consciousness reinforced religious honesty, compassion, and social justice, realized that “more violence was not the answer” (Stevenson 2014a:10; Gaskin 2007:134-36).
In the winter of 1969, the American Academy of Religion and the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature held their annual meeting in San Francisco; a small group of ministers and theologians attended a Monday Night Class. Believing that Gaskin’s spiritual philosophy and religious teachings “could help heal the rift growing between generations” (Fike 2012:10), the group “set me [Gaskin] up on a speaking tour in all of their churches” (Gaskin 2007:6). Mirroring the informal discussion format of the Monday Night Class, the Caravan literally took Gaskin and his class of spiritual seekers on the road. More than 200 people followed Gaskin in a hodgepodge of vans and buses as he crisscrossed the United States, turning people on to the core insight that “what goes on inside of you is the same as what you make go on outside of you, and that everything that we manifest at the level of us here on the Caravan…is a microcosm of all of mankind. So we’re out here working it out for everybody as we’re passing through” (Gaskin 2007:11).
Made up of approximately thirty-two school buses, forty other vehicles, including converted bread vans and delivery trucks, and as many as 250-300 hippies, the Caravan crisscrossed the country from October 12, 1970 to September 1971 “turning on” the inhabitants of forty-two states to the group’s shared revelations and recovered spiritual truths. As chronicled in The Caravan,Gaskin and his tribe of spiritual seekers took the Monday Night Class on the road, an experience that would become “the staging ground for The Farm community…those on board [the Caravan] began to recognize that they were not mere passengers, but crew on a sailing shop” (Stevenson 2014a:14). [Image at right] Structurally and spiritually, these roaming classes “offered a comprehensive analysis of the ills of American society and a utopian vision of how human beings ought to live together” (Hodgdon 2008:xxxv). This is to say, the class aimed not only at revitalizing religious values, but sought to do so within the frames of a utopian outlook dedicated to selfless action, compassionate engagement, and altruistic projects of social justice. After traveling thousands of miles, the Caravan returned to San Francisco on February 1, 1971 a transformed group. Having grown in size (upwards of over 100 vehicles now accompanied the group) and spiritual dedication, “by their shared experiences on the road, the Caravaners had become a community—a church” (Fike 2012:12); at this point, there was no returning to traditional society.
On February 10, 1971, Gaskin held one final meeting of the Caravan. Describing modern society and the urban landscape as corrosive and destructive to spiritual consciousness and communal responsibility, the group decided to pool their resources to find permanent space to actualize and maintain their sacred sense of absolute interconnection (Gaskin 2007:252). Based on Gaskin’s perception that “the most important thing to come out of the Monday Night Class meetings, and the glue that held us together, was a belief in the moral imperative toward altruism that was implied by the telepathic spiritual communion we experienced together” (Gaskin 2005:11), the Caravan demonstrated “Gaskin’s credo that if you are taking care of someone other than yourself, your own needs will be met” (Bates 1993). The post-industrial city did not, nor could not, construct and maintain the space necessary to establish a community around principles of altruism, compassion, communalism, and social justice.
A moral imperative led Gaskin and the Caravan to establish The Farm in 1971, a still functioning community in Summerton, Tennessee that interpreted the oneness of mystical consciousness as a catalyst for local and global engaged activism. The transition from the libertine scene of late sixties San Francisco to the idyllic remoteness of Summertown, Tennessee was, then, not about going to “get a place to be, it wasn’t to go get a farm, it was,” Gaskin stresses, “to make a difference. After all, we’re just working toward that old hippie dream: Peace and love for the whole world” (cited in “A Good Look at the Farm” March/April 1980:141). What began as 250 individuals searching for sanity and possibility grew roughly 600 percent between 1971 (250 members) and 1982 (1,500 members). According to current and former members, the common thread connecting The Farm to its members was “a deeply understood commitment to creating a spiritual community and taking care of each other” (Fike 2012:vii). On The Farm itself, this commitment found various expressions: from vegan living to midwifery services; from the production of the first individual Geiger counter to the establishment of Plenty International, the not-for-profit organization of The Farm which seeks, “with no apologies,” to “Save the World” (Fike 2012:14-15). As Gaskin recollected in 1987, Plenty represents “a response to a Farm need…when I went on the road people would ask if we were in danger of becoming a ‘quiet’ community. I replied no, we’re involved in the world, and your problems are our problems. Count us in the force. And we had to move to make that real—not just something we said from here in the woods” (Gaskin April 1987:10).
For example, in 1978, spurred by growing awareness of what was described as a “Third World country in the middle of the richest city on the planet,” thirty-five members of The Farm traveled over 950 miles to New York City’s South Bronx with the singular desire to help ameliorate the neglected medical conditions of a forgotten people and place (Fike 2012:194). A “20-square-mile area of urban devastation teeming with 600,000 people,” the South Bronx existed at the very periphery of New York’s social services,known incredibly for having the “slowest ambulance response time in the country” (one ambulance per 100,000 residents led to an average response time of fifteen minutes citywide, and thirty to forty-five minutes for the South Bronx (Waldholz April 1981:1). Consisting of twelve men, eight women, and fifteen children, this group of Farm members operated as a social justice relief program of Plenty International. Based upon the belief that “if the world’s resources were shared equitably, there would be plenty for everyone,” the Plenty Ambulance Service provided free emergency care and transport for South Bronx residents from 1978-1984 (Fike 2012:14). [Image at right] The group left the area only after their “Emergency Medical Technician” program had graduated over 200 New York state-licensed EMTs who in turn took over emergency care as city employees. A Jefferson Award-winning service that reduced response time from “45 minutes to 7 minutes,” the Plenty Ambulance Service epitomizes the engaged praxis that grew out of The Farm’s guiding religious beliefs.
The Farm was founded as a true commune, with individuals pooling resources and sharing collectively in the harvests, projects, and work based on the Book of Acts 2:44-45: And all that believed were together and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all as every man has had need. Such a perspective not only fortified the “primary goal” ofThe Farm, which was to “instigate change…to influence society by being a living example for others to use as a model,” but made outreach (both on The Farm property and within the broader global sphere) the way of life for Farmies (Stevenson 2014a:16). By 1975, more than 750 people called The Farm home, including 160 married couples and 250 children. In addition to delivering children for community residents, The Farm midwives, led by Ina May Gaskin, revolutionized natural home birthing, while at the same time advocating for the sanctity of life. [Image at right] These beliefs culminated with the decision to place an invitation in Hey, Beatnik! (a text about the burgeoning Farm community) to any woman considering an abortion to have their baby delivered on The Farm for free, or for any unwanted children to find homes with Farm families (Fike 2012:15-16).
This foundational belief (that The Farm could provide sanctuary for those in need) captured the essential openness and compassion common to the hippies generally, and Farmies more specifically: “hippies tended to have a naive optimism about human nature, a belief that if one could simply be rescued from the nightmare of American culture and placed in a supportive setting, one would respond in kind and contribute to group harmony. Anyone willing to reject mainstream culture—to drop out, as the argot had it—was welcome” (Bates and Miller 1995:373). However, as the years went by, and membership swelled while job-options never fully panned out, The Farm was forced to look at its own structure in order to make real “a supportive setting” that would contribute to “group harmony” both within the walls of The Farm and for all those outside The Farm itself. By 1977, compounded by growing media coverage, permanent Farm residents had swelled to more than 1,100, with 6,000 out of the 14,000 yearly visitors staying for extended time by using The Farm as a sanctuary. Because The Farm supported itself through on-The-Farm-businesses, such as a publishing house (The Book Publishing Company) and Solar Energy Works, a company dedicated to designing solar homes, as well as construction crews that worked throughout the Nashville area, such expansive growth, and the desire to remain open to those in need, pushed The Farm to its financial and structural limits. The population peaked in 1982, with The Farm now counting approximately 1,500 permanent residents, over half of whom were children. In addition, The Farm received more than 20,000 visitors in 1982 alone, with as many as 200 staying over on any given night.
As the group found itself sliding deeper into debt, it also struggled to provide an adequate livelihood on The Farm, with “ailments related to sanitation…[becoming] a fact of life” (Fike 2012:20). According to Kathleen Platz, a former Farmie critical of The Farm’s structure, “we were voluntary peasants. We weren’t supposed to complain. Gaskin would say on Sundays that we had it better than peasants in Guatemala and Bangladesh. Sanitation and health care are not priorities on The Farm” (cited in Liberatore 1981:3). By 1983, as member Douglas Stevenson reflects, “the dream had lost its luster. Deep in debt, its members disillusioned, frustrated and no longer willing to endure a self-imposed vow of poverty, The Farm made a radical shift that will be forever known as The Changeover” (Stevenson 2014b:viii). In order to prevent full dissolution of the community, The Farm shifted its basic economic structure; while land would remain in common, dues would now be levied on all adult members. Through this specific decision, the Changeover, rather than becoming a mark of declension and failure, proved to be more prophetic in naming, capturing how a profound shift in organizational/economic structure allowed The Farm (and its dedication to making a difference) to continue. Although the transition led to “power struggles over Farm businesses,” which were attended by “bad feelings,” the Changeover helped The Farm survive by retiring “a debt of hundreds of thousands of dollars” by “shifting to individual responsibility for personal finances” (Fike 2012:20).
Although the communal dream ended in 1983, The Farm continues today in much the same way as its founding intent. By offering a “new-age hybrid, a blend of rural and high-tech lifestyles, classic individualism and the power of collectivity,” The Farm presents “a model of how we as planetary citizens may choose to live…The Farm is an ongoing experiment on how human beings can be together in a meaningful and personal way, connected to the natural world” (Stevenson 2014b:viii). Never designed to be an isolated bubble (a utopia closed off from the rest of the world), The Farm continues to be a space to cultivate, support, and share in sustainable and compassion-based ways of living and sharing space together. The Farm may now only count 200 or so permanent residents, with homes now single-family as opposed to overflowing, but its “vision and voice are not finished” (Fike 2012: 20) as The Farm and its members continue to find expression in midwifery services, The Farm Ecovillage Training Center, Plenty projects, and within “some two dozen small businesses, from printing vegetarian cookbooks to making tie-dyed t-shirts” (Bates and Miller 1995:375).
Unlike the majority of other Sixties-inspired communes, The Farm continues to function according to the basic tenet that all are one. This underlying precept derived originally from the guiding directive dictating The Farm’s internal structure and external orientation: “Gaskin urged the Farmies to conceive of their community as a sanctuary for all those in need” (Hodgdon 2008:144). As former Farmie Erika Anderson writes in a recent op-ed piece for Vanity Fair, “the legacy of The Farm reaches far beyond the guru who built it: the thousands who lived there, were born there, its visitors, its neighbors, the relatives, and the communities that received those who left, the midwives and mothers who followed Ina May, and anyone whose read a Farm book or watched a Farm documentary” (Anderson 2014). A community in the true sense of establishing space for communion with others, Gaskin notes that to make The Farm work, and what allowed The Farm to survive its own internal tumult, is accepting the spiritual proposition that “each one of us has a non-shirkable obligation to figure out the world on our own as best we can. The way we behave as a result of that investigation is our real and practiced Religion” (Gaskin 1992).
As summarized in The Mother Earth News, the “glue” that holds The Farm together is a belief in “SPIRITUALITY…the Farm is areligious community, and—without the shadow of a doubt—the group’s common spiritual unity provides its overall guiding purpose” (“A Good Look at the Farm” 1980:138). [Image at right] As a living church, the hallmark of The Farm, which Timothy Miller and Albert Bates summarize as a “service to others” (Bates and Miller 1995:375), upheld a world defined by the Golden Rule, a religious principle found within the framework of the world’s religions and expressed most clearly for The Farm by the mantra “as ye sow so shall ye reap” (Gaskin 2005:117). Located initially through the cleansed perception offered by psychedelics, what Gaskin and The Farm called “sacraments” (see section below), the beliefs of The Farm cannot be easily categorized, but rather signal the evolution of a syncretic religiosity defined by a desire to wade through the surface-level differences that divide traditional systems of faith in order to discover a unitive core, a belief in universal oneness “not limited to the human family, nor was it [belief in oneness] some abstract sense of Christian love” (Bates and Miller 1995:374). In the end, experiencing, at least momentary, the absolute harmony and unity offered through psychedelic perception directed The Farm to live by a basic religious tenet: “we won’t make it unless everybody makes it” (Gaskin 2005:188).
According to The Farm’s religious ethos, because “we are all One” (Fike 2012:23), “we must consider that everybody we have is necessary and that nobody is expendable” (Gaskin 2007:23). Gaskin’s religious teachings and The Farm’s projects follow this essential narrative, detailing how religiosity is expressed in assuming full responsibility for the daily realities and contingencies facing all others. In this very specific sense, by choosing to live a religious life shaped by an unconditional belief in interdependent mutuality, The Farm modeled the oneness of mystical consciousness not as a point of and for individual salvation, but as a catalyst for local and global engaged activism. Gaskin understood mystical consciousness communally and socially, as an ethics of absolute altruism revealed most clearly in the perennial truth “we belong to everybody” (Gaskin 1977:55). Fortified through religious tenets that made telepathy “real” and anger and fear “optional,” accepting and adhering to the foundational belief that “we are all parts of the whole” produces the ethical imperative, as Gaskin teaches, that “whatever harms any of us harms all of us…we can’t have folks we like and folks we don’t like, and friends and enemies—we can’t have that at all” (Gaskin 1996:1, 29).
Inspired by the Zen writings of Shunryu Suzuki, specifically as it relates to the ethical and compassion-based implications of “Right Livelihood,” emptiness (sunyata), and dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), the personal divinity found with the writings of Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, and the perennial unity established in the religious essays and texts of Aldous Huxley, who Gaskin labels a “saint,” Gaskin and the Farmies embodied the religious belief that begins with a recognition of unitive oneness and leads to the acceptance that “we are our brother’s keeper. And our brother is the population of the planet” (Gaskin 1977:55). The “experience of the One” is “not some once-in-a-lifetime revelation,” but, as Gaskin proposes, is “the daily bread—it’s what makes it possible for us to make it on the planet” by supplying the political juice to assume “responsibility for the whole of mankind” (Gaskin 1996:31). Established through the group’s original acceptance of the communal basis outlined in the Book of Acts, The Farm’s religious beliefs produced a community of voluntary peasants, a collective “family ‘multistery’ (as compared to a monastery) in the East Indian tradition of ‘householder yogis,’ where spiritual discovery and family life went hand in hand” (Fike 2012: 13). For example, such belief manifested in the spurning of “the hippie icon of free love” (Bates and Miller 1995:374) and the banning of stimulants (coffee) and hard drugs; however, these specific agreements reflect the conviction that changing the world begins with consistent self-discipline and constant self-sacrifice. These latter ideals, while manifesting in what visitors, critics, and members have described as “traditional” ways of being, ultimately express the altruistic nature of The Farm’s religious tenets.
The teachings presented by Gaskin combined common-sense virtues and applied values filtered through traditional religious systems and Native American traditions, as well as various mystical, occult, and esoteric belief systems (for example, Gaskin cites the Hermetic dictum “as above, so below” during the Monday Night Class, the Caravan, and during Sunday Morning Services on The Farm). Gaskin’s religious vision, as Arthur Versluis summarizes, “ranged across Western esoteric traditions, Asian religions, Russian, British, and American parapsychological experiments, philosophy, occultism, magic, Tantra—a dizzying gamut of esoteric subjects addressed in a folksy, appealing, very straightforward way” (Versluis 2014:190). In reflecting back on the Monday Night Class, Gaskin stressed that while he “loves the ethical teachings of almost all the religions,” he does “not believe in any of their dogmas” (Gaskin 2005:12). He later clarifies in an addendum that “my karma ran over my dogma” (Gaskin 2005:122), signaling the way in which morally responsible action defined the nature of Gaskin’s (and The Farm’s) religious orientation. In fact, in 1996 Gaskin mused about the true nature of religion and spirituality, writing how “religion is like water…[if it] quenches your thirst, then it’s water. If religion is compassionate and if it excludes nobody and if it doesn’t cost money and if it really helps you out in the here and now, then it’s real religion” (Gaskin 1996:10). Meaning, religion on The Farm is found not within canon or dogma, but within the contingency of being in this world with others; it emerges from the spiritual fact that “we are all one, and we can share one soul, and we can communicate telepathically and vibrationally” (Gaskin 1996:30).
For Gaskin and The Farm, this moral exigency mirrored the path of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, revealing how religious enlightenment is ultimately found by sacrificing the individual quest in order to enhance everyone’s “happiness” in the here-and-now. Over time, these religious principles evolved into what Farmies call “the agreements,” both explicitly stated and tacit beliefs, doctrines, and practices designed to make real the social justice ethos that defined Gaskin’s teachings and dictated The Farm’s spirituality: “nobody can consider themselves enlightened or permanently stoned until everybody is” (Gaskin 2007: 150). Derivative of the basic religious tenet that “we are all One,” the foundational agreement of The Farm (“if you live on the Farm you give the Farm everything, because the Farm is going to take care of your needs”) (Stephen and The Farm 1974), speaks directly to this dynamic. Functioning as “Tripping Instructions” to help community members remove “what we might personally want…[in order to] pay some attention to what’s necessary to keep the thing going” (Stephen and The Farm 1974), the agreements kept The Farm dynamically open and interpersonally honest. Recognizing that “as a culture we’re uncompassionate with ourselves, and we give some of us a hard time and let some of us get very fancy and rich” (Stephen and The Farm 1974), the agreements embodied the disciplined belief that “we all ought to be very kind and compassionate with each other about how we give each other our attention. What you really do with folks is you love the best in them” (Stephen and The Farm 1974). This led the Farmies to take a voluntary vow of absolute poverty. The vow rejected, in other words, the very nature of modern society’s capitalistic underpinnings by structuring their lives according to the communal imperative found in the Book of Acts, 2:44-45: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common” (Stephen and The Farm Legal Crew 1974:8).
On a more practical level, “the community continuously refined its agreements to be compassionate, nonviolent, and vegan…to avoid tobacco, alcohol, and hard drugs; to shun consumerism, and to be a good planetary citizen, a ‘voluntary peasant’” (Fike 2012: 14). The Farm’s agreements thus actively counteracted the potential for psychedelic consciousness to slide into nihilistic megalomania, or for religious tradition to reify authoritarian and isolationist tendencies, by situating mystical awareness as an ethical demand set squarely against both the ideological expectations of modern consumption-based capitalism and group or individual aggrandizement. To experience “Spirit” meant to receive the call to share with “all men, as every man had need.” Rather than deferring responsibility or relinquishing external care, Gaskin’s emphasis on the bodhisattva (who as an enlightened being vows to “save all sentient beings in all worlds and universes”) (Gaskin 2005:25) emerges as the real model of life on The Farm. Understanding themselves as a community of bodhisattvas, The Farm’s 1978 report captures this religious sentiment of living compassionately for others: “we are more than just a community…we’ve shared a vision of a world full of love, and we know that Spirit is real. The way we know we can make a difference is to…feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to heal the sick, and to share what we’ve learned” (Farm Report 1978: The Year of the Soybean). This means, Gaskin and the Farmies stress, “we are not just a religion. We are a living spiritual village/church…we try to be spiritual in everything we do.” What this ultimately highlights, as the 1978 report concludes, “is the idea that we are not doing this for ourselves” (Farm Report 1978: The Year of the Soybean).
With its political and justice-laden roots in shared religious experiences, members of The Farm thus began from the essential fact of oneness, accepting a religious reality in which the felt connection among people transcends any political boundaries or exclusive systems. Recognizing a world in which there truly is enough to go around, The Farm’s theme of spiritual unity and interpersonal mutuality captures their belief that “Spirit is the only way to change people” (Stephen and The Farm 1974) . According to Gaskin, by accepting that “God is us and the building and the grass and the trees, the total All of everything…the resultant thing is us. It is not outside. We are part of the All. There is no outside entity” (Gaskin 2007: 129, 145), members of The Farm community made individual salvation a project of communal empowerment. Informed by the psychedelically-inspired vision that “religion is re-legion: people coming together again” (Gaskin 2007:128), and sustained through the agreements, this experience of oneness (of being “part of the All”) inspired Gaskin and the Farmies to act in order to make altruism the expression of spirituality and religion a project of social justice.
At the level of ritual and practice, The Farm engaged religion not through “intellectual processes,” but rather as an immediate experience of the divine spark responsible for the world’s varied religious traditions. “What you do,” Gaskin advises, “is you telepathically tap into the one great world religion, which is only one, which has no name, and all of the other religions are merelymaps of it” (Gaskin 2007:122). Appearing at the height of psychedelic consciousness, this syncretic and perennialist vision “looked like Christianity, and it looked just like Buddhism, and it looked just like every religion, because that’s what religion is” (Gaskin 2007:128). In other words, religion is about unity, not division. To help return religion to its etymological meaning (religio-, to bind) as opposed to its institutional manifestations, Gaskin and The Farm relied on a combination of psychedelic sacraments [Image at right] and group meditative sessions to cultivate their broader vision that religious practice is found not only in ritual, but in and through “right vocation,” in working on behalf of and for The Farm and all others.
As realized on The Farm, the value of psychedelics as a way of/for accessing the religious realm resides in a dual capacity to decondition the individual from the modern traps and games of the ego (to free the individual), while simultaneously situating this freedom within a spiritual way of being and being-together. Within psychedelic consciousness, the divides that propel the modern period forward (between individual and society, between producers and consumers, between the haves and the have-nots) prove to be mere illusions, faulty discourses trapped within a defective understanding that constructs freedom around the capacity to control and manipulate for one’s own self-interest. Against this structured vision of modern society, psychedelic consciousness unveiled a mystical realm of wisdom, exposing for The Farm how being free means to be connected to the All. In other words, psychedelics provided the means to reside in a position of spiritual, metaphysical, and physical interdependence in order to realize the social justice “fruits” of collective action.
Where orthodox religions establish boundaries of belief, and often prioritize spiritual power over and against civil institutions, psychedelics (and the telepathic awareness of being together) disclosed a subterranean religion predicated on a radical politics of universal social responsibility. In relying on psychedelics as their sacrament, The Farm explored how religion begins “heart to heart, mind to mind, eye to eye, between real people…if religion is compassionate and if it excludes nobody and if it doesn’t cost money and if it really helps you out in the here and now, then it’s real religion” (Gaskin 1996: 10). In a modern world defined increasingly by ideologies of competition, consumption, and division, psychedelics offered a means to re-enchant religiously. It revealed the religious insight that “if you really want to change the world, you have to change your soul—you have to change,” specifies Gaskin, “things from the spiritual level” (Stephen and The Farm Legal Crew 1974:11). Once accomplished, this belief offers “an inexpensive and livable and graceful lifestyle,” making religious practice, as Gaskin consistently declared, a model of practical compassion, which is, on the spiritual level, “one of the most important things that we can pass on to humankind” (Gaskin cited in “A Good Look at the Farm” 1980:139) . As Gaskin and The Farm demonstrate, religious wisdom, and the rituals turned to, become valuable when actualized in worldly projects of empathy, care, and altruism. To borrow from William James’s understanding of the existential nature of religious living, Gaskin and The Farm capture how spiritual significance is located not in the “roots” of religious inspiration, but in the “fruits” of living religiously: “by their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots…the roots of a man’s virtue are inaccessible to us. No appearances whatever are infallible proofs of grace. Our practice is the only sure evidence, even to ourselves” (James 1902:20).
In this sense, Gaskin and The Farm illustrate how the ingestion of psychedelics opened more than a door to one’s mind. In producing an experience of oneness, these substances, as played out in the daily lives of Gaskin and the Farmies, became a catalyst to radically transform how individuals, groups, and societies interact. As a catalyst, psychedelics taught Farmies “how the universe works,” a perspective that religiously bound members of The Farm to the ethical imperative “as you sow, so you shall reap” (Gaskin 2007:60). To cultivate this imperative for unrestricted care and total responsibility, The Farm maintained the structures initiated originally within the frames of the Monday Night Class, rituals designed to produce change at the spiritual level in order to manifest transformation on what Gaskin referred to as the “material plane.” By relying on a combination of group meditation (meetings from the Monday Night Class to The Farm often began by chanting Om) and psychedelics to actualize a sense of telepathic togetherness, Gaskin and his students sought out rituals to solidify their dedication to service and one another. Through the telepathic awareness made possible by being collectively turned on (communally “stoned” in Gaskin’s language), Gaskin and his students came to believe that “there can be no ultimate discord within a system that starts from one, because everything in it goes back to that” (Gaskin 2005:79). The only resulting condition, continues Gaskin, is to “love all sentient beings” (Gaskin 2005:151); no one, or no thing, can be made expendable when everything is seen, engaged, and understood as an expression of the One.
This does not mean, however, that Gaskin and The Farm pursued psychedelics as a “panacea” or believed “that they’re necessarily going to get you enlightened. That’s why,” Gaskin continues, “we don’t say they’re the way. But we have to say that they’re a way” (Stephen and The Farm Legal Crew 1974:16). The telepathic awareness (the direct experience of interdependence) made possible at the height of psychedelic ecstasy proved to be vastly more significant than the ingestion of psychoactive substances as it was this sense of interpersonal harmony that resulted in a spiritualized community where human relationships, and the pain or happiness of the other, matter more than material possessions. For members of The Farm, psychedelics revealed an infinite understanding of reality in which a spirit of immanent love for all sentient beings validated how Farm members, without restrictions, were always already their “brother’s keeper” (Gaskin 1976:106).
On The Farm, designating life as “right vocation” solidified this sentiment by pushing sacred ritual into daily practice. This process,while instituting a community seemingly turned back on the individualized values often associated with American freedom and the hippie counterculture, highlights how the immanent relationship between psychedelic consciousness and a mystical sense of unity required self-sacrifice in order to make real a life of empathy and social justice. According to David Shi, who charts projects of “simple living” in the United States, working toward a vision of total responsibility often required a shift away from both the progressive radicalism of the New Left as well as the decadence associated with the countercultural ethos of dropping-out. “No haven for the indolent, the libertine, or the indifferent, The Farm placed a high premium on work, marriage, and social service. [Image at right] atTraditional family life,” Shi stresses, “was sanctified and personal morality regulated” (Shi 2007:260). Such regulations emerged in the form of cultural norms (for example, a vegan diet was required, which expressed The Farm’s commitment to protecting all forms of life) and concrete behavioral prohibitions (for example, stimulants like coffee, alcohol, and artificial drugs, including LSD, were discouraged or outright banned).
Behavior itself was modified further (or, at the very least, held in check) by “working it out,” an agreement to explicitly and directly “tell each other where it’s at. It’s a good thing to do. It’s a good practice…you’re supposed to be neat, and your friends will hassle you if you ain’t groovy” (Stephen and The Farm 1974). To be groovy (to be “turned on” or enlightened) became a direct expression of one’s dedication to selfless work. Fortified through spiritual expectations, and therefore reminiscent less of radical revolutionaries and more of an ancient religious perspective captured, for example, in the Shakers ethics of “hands to work, hearts to God,” Gaskin “preached the need to spiritualize labor” (Shi 2007:260), to, in the words of a Farmie, “make work a meditation” (“A Good Look at the Farm” 1980:139). As members of The Farm recollect, “one of the ways members expedited personal growth was to agree to engage in nonstop interpersonal interventions, sort of a never-ending encounter group. Your inner business was everybody’s business. Each person had the responsibility to suggest changes for others while gracefully (in theory) accepting input about themselves, in order to elevate their consciousness” (Fike 2012:13). On a practical level, working it out should not be read strictly as confrontational, but rather as an expression of The Farm’s insistence on remaining interconnected, honest, and open. Through direct communication, The Farm sought to counteract moments and conflicts that disrupt (or might disrupt) the sense of harmony Farm members felt “telepathically” and “vibrationally” with one another. In moments when anger arises or hurt feelings emerge, “we go off and do the thing that we do to get cool: meditate, smoke cannabis, go for a walk in the woods, and get our peace back. That way we take anger out of the system, and no one has to suffer from it again” (Gaskin 1996:30-31). These practices affirm The Farm’s commitment to a natural form of spiritual communion, a religious system, as Arthur Versluis summarizes, in which “cannabis can be sacramental, and so can psychedelics, but ultimately, what matters is one’s compassion for and unity with others” (Versluis 2014:195).
Expressed most deftly within the confines of Sunday Morning Services, one-hour religious meetings held every Sunday for the first ten years on The Farm, these weekly gatherings of Farm members produced the sacred space to cultivate and fortify the commune’s religiosity and dedication to spiritually-based altruism. As noted in Volume One: Sunday Morning Services on The Farm, “when you come up to this meditation on a Sunday morning, you should start being quiet and getting your head together for a Holy frame of mind from about a quarter of a mile out, so you can bring a together head up into it, in respect for the flame of Holiness that is created by several hundred people trying to get through” (Gaskin 1977:10). Through collective meditation, the chanting of Om, and Gaskin’s sermon-like teachings, The Farm ritualized belief through expressive practice, Sunday Morning Services helping members recover a “good stoned place” in order to help each individual “remember how we are supposed to be together, and do it again for a week…” (Gaskin 1977:21). The services, then, functioned as community-wide expressions of “working it out,” a moment at the beginning of each week to renew collective feelings, a ritualized process by which the individual enterprises of each Farm member are able to reconnect to and fortify the telepathic harmony that produced The Farm’s dedication to changing the world.
Within the daily lives of Farm members, the telepathic awareness produced by psychedelics, and the harmony and altruism refreshed through Sunday Morning Services or “working it out” sessions, developed into a praxis-oriented lifestyle that began with the base recognition that, in order to survive individually and communally, every sentient being must “quit gratifying the gross material sense so much, because it costs so much for all of mankind to gratify those senses, and we’re going to start learning to gratify our finer senses, which are spiritual, and there’s enough spiritual stuff to go around all the time” (Gaskin 2007:133). When it comes to praxis, what materializes as “truly revolutionary” for The Farm Is growing your own food instead of supporting the profit system. It’s revolutionary to deliver your own babies instead of paying thousands of dollars a head to profit-oriented hospitals and doctors. It’s revolutionary to get the knowledge out of college and make it so you don’t have to sell your soul to learn something. It’s revolutionary to learn how to fix stuff, rather than junk it or take it in to be replaced (Gaskin 1976:119).
Whether choosing to eat a vegan diet, providing all-natural healthcare through their world-famous midwifery clinic run by Gaskin’s wife Ina May Gaskin, or combatting nuclear proliferation, The Farm’s rituals and practices were “designed as a catalyst to save the planet” (Bates and Miller 1995: 375). Motivated “directly out of love and selfless devotion,” the “object,” Gaskin stresses, “is to make everything better…it cannot be for self. It cannot be to profit anybody” (Gaskin 2007:16-17).
By working actively, honestly, and lovingly, The Farm sought to manifest the sense of telepathic togetherness they shared in the midst of mystical consciousness as a condition of absolute responsibility in their own and the broader world’s everyday realities. This desire on the part of Gaskin and The Farm to “make a difference” demonstrates how, if religion has daily value, it resides in a universal call for selfless care. What psychedelics taught Gaskin is that “Spirit can only manifest itself on the material plane through the agency of compassionate human beings who will make themselves a reservoir for it” (Gaskin 2007:140). Understanding work as a spiritual imperative was not, therefore, about instituting authority, but rather exemplifies the immediate byproduct of the self-sacrifice intuited and expected within a religious experience of oneness. During a Sunday Morning Service, for instance, Gaskin condemned “bad feelings” as symptomatic of a disease overtaking Farm residents: “not enough people on the Farm personally in their own private heart of hearts [are] being good ‘yogis’ and with good integrity…keeping their minds together. The ship is all crew and no passengers” (Gaskin cited in Robinson 1977:46). The last phrase proves crucial, indicating how The Farm exists according to its collective “right vocation” and not self-centered projects of dropping-out; it exists, in other words, to help model a world “more cooperative, more spiritually and materially ecological,” as Plenty director Peter Schweitzer reflects (cited in Bates and Miller 1995:375).
Structuring life around a dedication to others did not occur, however, without sustained work and the implementation of often-traditional processes of and for communal organization. For the Farmies, an imperative of ceaseless responsibility necessitated the institutionalization of a value-laden way of life, to construct a community around principles of love and projects of altruistic compassion began by disciplining individual behavior and organizing social cohesion. In other words, to make their broader social justice aims realizable, The Farm had to first make dependent responsibility the ordering structure of The Farm and its members. As Gaskin stressed, “we have to begin to take responsibility for the whole of mankind, and we can’t do that if we can’t even take responsibility for ourselves” (Stephen and The Farm Legal Crew 1974:12). In its most basic formulation, as outlined on the copyright page of Volume One: Sunday Morning Services on The Farm, “The Farm is a spiritual community owned and operated by the people. Stephen is our teacher. PLENTY is our international non-profit charitable relief organization” (Gaskin 1977). Within this declaration we witness the core structure that drove The Farm from its initial founding in 1971 until the Changeover in 1983. As member Douglas Stevenson notes, from an organizational perspective, “The Farm’s greatest success, the one that has ensured its survival through multiple decades, was its ability to move beyond a central charismatic leader into a working system where each person has the opportunity and free will to control not only their own destiny, but also the direction of the community as it moves toward the future” (Stevenson 2014b:1).
For the first twelve years following its founding, The Farm was organized on a strictly communal basis, adhering to two core agreements. The first established how “anyone who became a member of the community took Stephen as a spiritual teacher”; and the second established The Farm’s dedication to following the communal imperative presented in the Book of Acts: “And all that believed were together and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all as every man had need” (Fike 2012:13). When combined, these agreements solidified the “spiritual discipline that might steer all humanity toward peace through spiritual enlightenment;” this did not mean, however, that only Gaskin held influence (Hodgdon 2008:102). On the one hand, as Timothy Miller and Farm resident Albert Bates stress, Gaskin consistently “disclaimed any belief in prophecy and argued that each individual had to see his or her own enlightenment” (Bates and Miller 1995:374). And on the other, as Farm residents reflect, Gaskin’s role as spiritual teacher “meant different things to different people. For some, the relationship between spiritual teacher and student was a formal one, like the relationship between abbot and novitiate, where the teacher was looked to for guidance in all aspects of life. For others, a spiritual teacher was a good friend with common sense and good judgment, someone you could go to when you were in a bind and needed advice, like a trusted aunt or uncle” (Fike 2012:13-14). While Gaskin did assume and maintain a leadership role, which is discussed below further, his position in day-to-day activities often served “as the voice of maturity and experience that helped guide all efforts” (Stevenson 2014b:5).
Beyond Gaskin’s immediate influence, organizational precedents including “the agreements,” a dedication to “right vocation,” and rituals such as “working it out” sacralized a religious vision founded upon the perennial principle that social health is determined not by the most well-off of a society, but by the lived conditions of the least advantaged. The Farm expressed a spiritualized way of life defined by a singular idea that cooperative love (and not competitive consumption) should direct and dictate personal, intrapersonal, and interpersonal relationships. On a very practical level, and based primarily on their ever-growing population, The Farm was organized into various crews led by “straw bosses,” with crews “representing a different aspect of community development…larger groups, such as those dedicated to farming and raising food, might have several straw bosses, each one working with a crew of four or five to take on a specific role or manage a particular crop” (Stevenson 2014b:5). [Image at right] Crew chiefs and straw bosses would then meet to coordinate their efforts, helping to overcome potential conflicts and divides by understanding The Farm’s disparate projects and specific elements as parts of the whole (Gaskin frequently discussed the value of Gestalt during the Monday Night Class). By bringing together the varied roles on The Farm (e.g. food, construction, health care, finances, and education), members unified their individualized functions, using discussion and collective governance to empower personal effort while fortifying group cohesion. Structured primarily through governing bodies to facilitate work, decisions, and conflict, it is important to reiterate that, while the early Farm structure allowed for individual decision-making and freedom (both personally and communally) through the crews and comparatively open governing bodies, Gaskin “would frequently step in and exert his authority to hire and fire, installing or removing someone in a position of power” (Stevenson 2014b:60). In an ideal sense, Gaskin was “regarded as the spiritual guide pointing the way, while the population of The Farm was expected to figure out how to manage the community’s growth and development” (Stevenson 2014b:9).
A central governing body (or board of directors) existed throughout Farm history to assume a management role and, while Gaskin originally chose the directors, The Farm broadly organized itself on a consensus model, expanding out from its communal basis to make decisions as a collective and equal whole. For example, households existed communally for the first decade, with as many as forty people sharing in and governing over individual home life. As The Farm’s population continued to grow throughout the 1970s, this consensus model became more formal through the election of community “elders,” individuals from “within the community that embodied integrity and credibility…people who could be sought out for spiritual guidance, to help resolve disputes and engage in determining the direction of the community” (Stevenson 2014b:13). In a true moment of democratic reckoning, residents were asked to simply list ten candidates they believed most adeptly exemplified these ideals and The Farm’s values. This was not about campaigning, but allowing members to freely and equally draw from their own lot to determine the future and growth of The Farm. While the idea provided a boost in energy, it did almost nothing to alter day-to-day activities as the group was never imagined as a governmental body, but rather as a spiritual support network. “Almost as quickly as it was conceived,” member Douglas Stevenson reflects, “the elders faded back into the fabric of The Farm” (Stevenson 2014b:13). As a result, throughout the first decade of The Farm’s existence, Gaskin consistently emerged as both the “spiritual guide pointing the way” and the final arbitrator, particularly when it came to ultimate decisions regarding increasingly scarce Farm resources.
Following a series of ill-advised financial decisions (which included Gaskin advocating for progressive farming instead of organic gardening, and expensive tours of Europe and Australia to support Farm activities and increase membership), The Farm’s finances proved to be too much of an internal strain (Holsinger 1991:60). With the population exceeding 1,400 by 1982 (more than half children), and with 15,000-20,000 yearly visitors, the aim to share everything in common began to fall apart; the desire, however, to preserve The Farm as a catalyst for change remained. The challenge for those who continued on The Farm was how to move from a communal society organized around a central voice to a true democracy; within Farm mythology, this moment has been immortalized as “The Changeover.” Throughout the 1970s, construction groups known as “basic budget boogies boys” provided principal financial support for Farm residents. By 1981, however, the combined effects of an international oil crisis, domestic economic tailspin, which resulted in a massive decrease in construction projects for Farm crews, and a series of poor decisions concerning resource allocation on The Farm, left the community hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. As a direct consequence, between 1982 and 1984 hundreds of residents left the community, a moment of depopulation that saw The Farm’s population fall from over 1,200 to about 700. By the mid-1980s, the population fell to around 250, or “approximately 100 adults and 150 children” (Stevenson 2014b:21).
Yet part of The Farm’s enduring success resides in its capacity to contend directly, openly, and honestly about its own internal successes and failures. In order to respond to this growing Farm crisis, in 1983 an informally organized Constitutional Committee was tasked with reexamining the rules and bylaws of The Foundation, the legal framework of The Farm. Founded as a 501(d), “a status established by the IRS for institutions, such as Christian monasteries,” The Farm was technically required to be governed by recognized officers, a requirement formalized through the newly established (and elected) Board of Directors, “individuals fully empowered to take whatever steps were necessary to save the community from financial collapse” (Stevenson 2014b:18). Following a full audit of Farm and Plenty finances, an “All Farm Meeting” was called in September 1983. From then forward, “The Farm Community would no longer pay for any living expenses” (Stevenson 2014b:18). Although The Farm’s general property would be held in common through a trust, members were now responsible for personal finances and their individual households, a process formalized in 1983 through “dues [which] were levied on all adult members who remained” (Fike 2012:20). This moment, while signaling that “the grand experiment of holding all things in common…was over,” ultimately saved “the land…for the next generation” (Fike 2012:20).
Eventually working to retire the entirety of The Farm’s outstanding debts, “The Changeover” also transformed the community into a functional democracy, including reorganizing The Farm from a 501(d) income-sharing entity to a non-profit membership corporation (without Federal tax exemption). Following “The Changeover,” the elected Board of Directors assumed full responsibility for operating, maintaining, and managing Farm activities and finances. As opposed to defining their membership status through accepting Gaskin as their spiritual teacher, permanent residents now “became members of The Foundation…regarded as shareholders, co-owners of the community’s assets” (Stevenson 2014b:20). As stakeholders in the revitalized community, members, while moving away from their communal organization, did not relinquish the reasons why they found The Farm originally. As Arthur Versluis reflects, “The Farm took Stephen as their spiritual teacher, but in what surely has to be an unusual turn of events, if not unique, there was a coup d’état, and Gaskin was subsequently a guiding member of the community, but not its guru…[this] represents something quite rare: a guru-figure who remains in the community, but who no longer holds on to the role of guru” (Versluis 2014:194). The result, members Rupert Fike, Cynthia Holzapfel, Albert Bates, and Michael Cook note in their introduction to Voices from The Farm, is that
Today The Farm looks much the same, only with several hundred people quietly taking care of business instead ofseveral thousand going in many different directions. Houses that formerly held dozens of people are now home to individual families. Plenty’s international projects continue as before, funded by outside donations. A land trust has been developed and supported by present and past members to preserve large tracts of adjacent Tennessee forest. The Ecovillage Training Center hosts visitors from around the world who can take short courses in alternative energy, buildings, health care, and permaculture…the core group who stayed and secured the land are being joined by newcomers and former members trickling back (Fike 2012:20).
In the end, The Farm survived its own internal tumult because members, then and now, share in a spiritual vision of the world in which justice, nonviolence, and peace, rather than exploitation, consumption, and indifference, determine the nature of relationships.
The Farm, like many back-to-the-land communes, experienced the fundamental challenge of organizing life differently than that presented by the postmodern, urban landscapes of 1960s America. The Farm suffered growing pains as it sought to establish both a true foothold in Tennessee, including finding adequate (and affordable) land, while also transitioning from the Caravan home of buses and vans to more permanent residences of collective living. Existing off relatively untamed land [Image at right] demanded discipline; it also required growth through trial and error, a reality exemplified best during the first winter on The Farm when the community’s water pipes froze after initially being installed above ground.
Such pragmatic concerns and complications were augmented by the very challenge of reorganizing life around a spiritual dedication to altruistic work (“right vocation”), and the communal exigencies this challenge produced. Issues of collective living forced The Farm to reassess their connection to the very countercultural values that spawned their existence. While natural psychedelics (e.g. cannabis or psilocybin) and the compassion such sacraments produced remained consistent, The Farm steadily moved away from harder substances and the decadent freedom associated with hippie life in order to maintain the religious tone and altruistic praxis of the community. Part of this was due to pure communal necessity; it was also a result of religious transformation.
In 1973, while The Farm was still attempting to gain traction and acceptance within its new home of Tennessee, the whole experiment almost crashed in on itself when local authorities raided a large marijuana garden on The Farm’s property (Stevenson 2014a:25). Gaskin, along with three others, were officially charged and found guilty of growing marijuana. Facing one to three years in prison, The Farm decided to appeal on the grounds of religion, arguing that marijuana represented a sacrament of The Farm’s “church.” Years later, Gaskin describes the spirituality of partaking in this sacrament, one that makes religion an expression of universal interconnection. Reflecting, Gaskin emphasizes how in collectively smoking cannabis, people “can find themselves coming together in communion. This is not a communion of words but a communion of minds and spirits and souls” (Gaskin 1996:59). Although the “Grass Case” would reach the United Stated Supreme Court, ultimately all the appellate courts (including the Supreme Court) refused to decide on the case, leading Gaskin and his three co-defendants to accept a one year jail sentence.
Such moments, coupled with the constantly adapting contingencies of living communally, produced a community many (especially from the outside) viewed as traditional and authoritarian. When it came to the sanctity of life, Gaskin stressed no limits or boundaries, a position that pushed back against the feminist and identity movement gains of the postwar period. Gaskin “was so opposed to abortion that for years the Farm had a standing offer: a pregnant woman could come to the Farm, receive room, board and health care, have the baby delivered, leave the baby at the Farm if she chose to, and still be free to reclaim the child at any future date—all without charge” (Miller 1991:65). As reporter James Robinson writes in a 1977 article, in order to realize these principles and practices,
The onetime ‘hippies’ of the Farm now adhere to old-fashioned values and strait-laced strictness. Traditional male-female roles are the norm, and women are always referred to as ‘the ladies.’ Work is an obsession…welfare stamps are not acceptable. Artificial means of birth control are out. The Farm is so opposed to abortions that it invites outsiders with unwanted pregnancies to have their babies at the Farm…hard drugs are out, too. Marriage is considered permanent commitment. Stimulants—tobacco, alcohol, and coffee—are discouraged (Robinson 1977:46).
For some, these prohibitions and rules (exemplified best in the turn away from the hippie ethos of free love and group marriages to a belief that “if you’re having sex, you’re engaged…[and] if you’re having babies, you’re married”) (cited in Bates and Miller 1995:374) [Image at right] demonstrate both the (perceived) failure of the sixties project, as well as an inability for The Farm to move beyond Gaskin. For example, as Kate Wenner writes in a 1977 op-ed piece on The Farm,
It appears that these ‘hippies’ have become more American than Americans…[Gaskin and Farmies] seem to have fulfilled their ideals of the ‘60s by turning dramatically away from the very freedoms that gave birth to those ideals. People who once promoted free love now ban adultery and insist upon marriage. Where they once lived off food stamps, they now work night and day (Wenner 1977:74).
“Perhaps most extraordinary of all,” laments Wenner, regards a reality in which “the same people who once stood firmly and loudly against any substantial authority, whether it be their parents or the state, now accept Stephen Gaskin as their unquestioned and unchallenged leader” (Wenner 1977:74). Robinson takes this further, stressing how “at first glance, there’s a mystery in what holds the Farm together,” but, with time, it becomes clear that “the real secret of the Farm’s stability is Stephen. He’s the boss. What he says is law. He’s the judge and the jury. And that’s what the Farmers want, that’s what they seem to like. Several days spent on the Farm revealed an unbending loyalty to Stephen in one conversation after another” (Robinson 1977:48).
For outsiders, the glue that held the community together was Gaskin himself; for Farmies, however, the glue extended beyond the individual by emphasizing the essence of his teachings. “We’re here in this Universe” and, because “we are that interrelated and that interconnected,” living “is not an individual thing; in that sense, The Farm belongs to everybody. We belong to everybody” (Gaskin 1980b:155-56, 172). Yet the need to manage the daily-lived experience on The Farm did work to reify Gaskin and other “elder” authority; this authority also extended to the almost mythical “Gate,” the main entry to The Farm property and the means by which The Farm sought to order and regulate their ever-expanding population and seemingly endless train of visitors. While observers like Wenner and Robinson stressed the manifestation of traditional power structures and authoritative dynamics, decisions to regulate group behavior or to outlaw certain activities and substances resulted directly from the internal (religious) recognition that community requires sustained work and, more significantly for Farm members, sacrifice. The basic challenge of housing thousands of residents and visitors placed the problem squarely in the face of Farm residents However, it was often during Gaskin’s Sunday Morning Services that members were directly reminded (and some say pressured) into maintaining their sacrifice for the benefit of the community and those outside the walls of The Farm itself.
According to Kathleen Platz, a former Farmie critical of The Farm’s structure, “we were voluntary peasants. We weren’t supposed to complain. Stephen would say on Sundays that we had it better than peasants in Guatemala and Bangladesh. Sanitation and health care are not priorities on The Farm” (cited in Liberatore 1981:3). As Platz’s commentary suggests, whereas the idealism of The Farm delineates “right vocation” as the only possible response to a belief that all is one, the actual implementation of work and daily standards of conduct reified often-traditional social arrangements predicated on a full relinquishing of selfhood/self-interest. Perhaps the role of money, and the decisions that attend, demonstrate this best. As all was to be held in common, money was to be pooled and allocated based on the varying structures that defined The Farm’s first decade, with Gaskin often being the final voice of mediation. For some, this asymmetrical power structure led The Farm slowly toward dissolution, leading to a reality by the early 1980s in which transforming The Farm’s internal structure, or giving up the project entirely, developed as the only conceivable solutions for saving the community. For Martin Holsinger, Gaskin bears the brunt of responsibility regarding the very quick economic downturn in the early 1980s by pushing “for progressive farming instead of organic gardening, a community decision that led to near-bankruptcy.” He is also deemed responsible for “abandoning construction trades, the only major source of income besides farming, because they competed with neighbors’ livelihoods” (cited in Bates and Miller 1995:376fnt16; see also Holsinger 1991:60).
This position of authority, however, emerged less from an overt exercise of politicized influence and power, and more from the specific religious structures, symbols, and mechanisms adopted by Gaskin and The Farm. In initially taking Gaskin as their spiritual teacher, The Farm structured itself along traditional religious lines, positioning itself less as a countercultural commune and more as a monastery, with Gaskin as the abbot. While the structure superficially mimicked communities or emergent religions beholden exclusively to a charismatic religious leader, for Gaskin and The Farm, the potential to abuse asymmetrical relationships resulted from a general confusion regarding the distinction between freedom, in which you remain “responsible for everything you do,” and license, in which “you think you can do anything” (Gaskin 1980b:39). Understanding the ease by which freedom can slide into license, Gaskin stressed the importance of teaching responsible engagement and altruistic liberty. Such lessons required that self-control originate from within each person and never the teacher.
Facing extensive debts and massive depopulation, The Farm recognized that its purpose extended beyond the voice of its founder and the maintenance of its internal structure; what mattered is that The Farm, and the projects that emerged out of Farm living, continue. In this sense, and as researchers of The Farm and scholars of communalism frequently point out, realities of de-radicalization and de-communalization, like that witnessed on The Farm, develop organically and necessarily from the confines and expectations facing collective communities. In turning away from the progressive demands of contemporary society in favor of a simpler lifestyle, communes must often replicate conservative boundaries in order to curb the subjective needs and demands of individual members. In his now classic edited volume on communal movements, Donald Pitzer outlines “developmental communalism” as a way to explain why communes must adapt to both internal and external conditions or face extinction. Such a stark trajectory helps explain The Farm’s decision to de-collectivize in 1983 as members faced the harsh economic reality of changing their internal structure or relinquishing their broader social-justice aim. As Pitzer writes, “anything but static…the communes of the most vital historic and current movements are creatively engaged in a developmental process that both precedes and may extend well after their communal phase” (Pitzer 1997:12). In regards to The Farm, as Pitzer contends, “what you’re finding at The Farm is developmental communalism. It’s the idea that many movements…in their early stages use communal living as a way to organize…and over time they may develop out of, or beyond the community. And yet,” as Pitzer importantly adds, “their movement may continue to have the very strong elements of ideology, the sharing and caring that were there from the beginning” (quoted in Wilson 1991). The Farm and Plenty exemplify this last proposition—even in the face of internal changes, the ideology of “sharing and caring” created the conditions to not only save The Farm, but to continue to use The Farm as a base from which to engage the world altruistically.
The Farm’s discipline and staying power is, then, neither coerced nor random. Rather, it reflects a key marker of difference between the psychedelically inspired, religious ethos of The Farm—to take “responsibility for everything you do”—and the capacity for psychedelic consciousness (or thinking more broadly, mysticism and countercultural thinking) to devolve into believing “you can do anything” (Gaskin 1980b:39). On The Farm, as within the safe space of the Monday Night Class and the Caravan, no one, especially Gaskin, was “at all interested in anybody being head-copped… I want people to take care of their gourds. Because it’s really out of my hands. From here it goes on to By their fruits you shall know them …the thing that is evident about the Farm, to businessmen especially, is that we all must want to do this real bad, or we wouldn’t have been able to do it” (Gaskin 1980b:38-9).
Today, as stated on the community’s official website, “The Farm continues to serve as a model for a way in which humans can livetogether in peace.” Through outreach and education, The Farm seeks to inspire, “pass[ing] on core ideals to a future generation that [will] define sustainability for the community,” while more distinctly helping both those within the community and without “jumpstart the fulfillment of their vision to create a better world” (thefarmcommunity.com).
Image #1: Black and white photograph of Stephen Gaskin speaking at The Farm’s Sunday Service. The photograph is copyrighted by David Frohman and used with permission by WRSP. All rights reserved.
Image #2: Color photograph of the book cover of Monday Night Class, authored by Stephen Gaskin.
Image #3: Color photograph of Stephen Gaskin Speaking at Monday Night Class, San Fransisco, 1969. The photograph is copyrighted by Gerald Wheeler and used with permission by WRSP. All Rights Reserved.
Image #4: Black and white photograph of Stephen Gaskin and the Caravan buses in1971. The photograph is copyrighted by Gerald Wheeler and used with permission by WRSP. All Rights Reserved.
Image #5: Black and white photograph of The Plenty Ambulance Crew in the South Bronx. Licensed to Plenty International.
Image #6: Black and white photograph of Ina May Gaskin and child. The photograph is copyrighted by David Frohman and used with permission by WRSP. All rights reserved.
Image #7: Color photograph of people meditating at a Sunday Service on The Farm. The photograph is copyrighted by David Frohman and used with permission by WRSP. All rights reserved.
Image #8: Color photograph of book cover of Cannabis Spirituality, authored by Stephen Gaskin.
Image #9: Black and white photograph of a large group of people working in the fields. The photograph is copyrighted by David Frohman and used with permission by WRSP. All rights reserved.
Image #10: Color photograph of people carrying Sorghum cane on The Farm in 1973. The photograph is copyrighted by Gerald Wheeler and used with permission by WRSP. All Rights Reserved.
Image #11: Color aerial photograph of The Farm. The photograph is copyrighted by David Frohman and used with permission by WRSP. All rights reserved.
Image #12: Color photograph of the marriage of a couple by Stephen Gaskin at a Sunday Service. The photograph is copyrighted by David Frohman and used with permission by WRSP. All rights reserved.
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18 January 2016