In Other Words We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America by Kate Daloz
In 1971, when a young Bernie Sanders heard news of the first baby born at a recently established Vermont commune, he rushed over to interview the mother. In a simply designed outbuilding, with the help of the communards’ all-night chanting and a midwife, the woman had given birth to a daughter who claimed no father in particular but rather belonged to the commune as a whole. Kate Daloz’s fascinating, well-told exploration of the 1970s back-to-the-land movement,
We Are As Gods, details the encounter, as Sanders gathered information for an article he was writing about home births: “As Loraine nursed Rahula in the Star House, he gently peppered her with questions in his thick Brooklyn accent. Loraine was happy to oblige. She liked Bernie and appreciated his thoughtful interest in her experience.” It was the beginning of a lifelong connection — over the next several decades, whenever the two would meet, Sanders would ask after her daughter. Other members, however, were not so welcoming of the future presidential candidate, put off by Sanders’ “penchant for sitting around and talking about ideas when there was so much work to be done.”
Sanders’ early embrace of counterculture tenets reveals the long tail of the back-to-the-landers’ influence on present-day America. Thanks to hippie ideals, We Are As Gods reveals, we also have YouTube-disseminated DIY culture, easier access to unprocessed foods and organic produce, and a thriving alternative movement of home-birth and breastfeeding advocates.
Certainly, a rural, communal American sensibility dates back to the nation’s roots — among religious pilgrims and Natives, as well as in a flowering of utopian communities across the Northeast in the 1840s after the Second Great Awakening. Daloz dutifully recounts these origins but underlines the explosion of communal living that began in the late 1960s as “the largest and most widespread” of these movements, and one that played an indelible role in a generational, cultural shift. States like Vermont, Oregon, and New York saw population increases of more than 15 percent in the ’70s; New Mexico’s rose by 28 percent, with a proliferation of new communes around Taos, especially. Because of a widespread malaise among young people engaged in traditional society in the 1960s and ’70s, there was a general feeling of, as Joni Mitchell puts it, “I’m going to camp out on the land/I’m going to try an’ get my soul free ... We’ve got to get ourselves/ Back to the garden.” The movement was overwhelmingly white and middleclass, resulting in what Daloz calls “a particular, inherited confidence,” and what Tom Wolfe refers to as “very Superkids! Feeling immune, beyond calamity. One’s parents remembered the sloughing common order, War & Depression — but Superkids knew only the emotional surge of the great payoff.”
Searching for the payoff of self-sufficiency, Superkids put themselves to work building geodesic domes and other simple structures, armed with copies of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which Daloz pays wonderful tribute to, and its practical advice on the best tools to get the job done, along with exhortations toward simplicity and ecology. But greed and sloth often intervened, and communards faced situations that conflicted with their lofty principles. Colorado’s Drop City, an artists’ community of radical dome structures founded northeast of Trinidad in 1965, is often called the first hippie commune; by 1969, its original members had abandoned it to a revolving cadre of disease-ridden runaways and drug addicts. The 1971 events of violent conflict between Taos locals and the new settlers are commonly known as the “Hippie-Chicano War.” Daloz’s book details the lifespan of Loraine’s Vermont commune, as its female members came to realize that their voices were often not heard by the commune’s men and that their gender roles became as traditional as ever — the women spent hours not only farming, but also cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, while the men retired separately in the evenings to smoke innumerable joints and argue. Daloz, who grew up in a dome house with hippie parents near Loraine’s commune, describes the long dissolution of that community, as events in the 1980s brought on a bitter lawsuit between original members and friends.
Many back-to-landers rejoined society and got jobs, as priorities of freedom and self-sufficiency came to conflict with other, more untenable problems. As early communard Robert Houriet puts it, “Everywhere, a screaming need for privacy … Everywhere hassles and marathon encounter meetings that couldn’t resolve questions like whether to leave the dogs in or out. Everywhere, cars that wouldn’t run and pumps that wouldn’t pump because everybody knew about the occult history of tarot and nobody knew anything about mechanics.” But Daloz convincingly details the lasting impact of the communal revolution. “When they went back to Middle America, they changed it,” she writes, refining farming practices and developing massive distribution systems for organic products, paving the way for compost bins at Yankee Stadium, organic food at McDonald’s, and solar panels on the roof of Walmart. Essentially, though, change comes from within, one person at a time, Daloz reminds readers. At the end of the book, she gently takes note that almost everyone in her parents’ original community is still around, still true to their old hippie values, “living lives much closer to their ’70s incarnation than to the conventional American middle-class lives they’d left.”