In Other Words We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New Amer­ica by Kate Daloz

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Molly Boyle

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.”

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