In the spring of 1968, Verandah Porche, born Linda Jacobs and then Queen of the Bay State Poets for Peace, hitchhiked from New York to
rural Guilford, Vermont, clad in candy-stripped bell bottoms, a shoulder length
fur cape and bubble sunglasses. Her
intent: to hasten the dawn of a new age
by starting a commune. Looking like a
very hip cross between Edie Sedgwick and the Red Baron, she posed for an
American Gothic-Gone-Hippie-Freak photo commemorating the founding of the Total
It’s approaching forty years since the founding of Total
Loss, and its sister commune, the Montague Farm in Montague,
Massachusetts. Forty years ago is
history, right? It’s time to start
doing what humanist do--analyzing, comparing/contrasting, figuring out if these
sixties experiments in collective living and the counterculture they epitomized
meant something in the long run.
This year, the wave of 1960s historicizing is rising with
the Whitney’s retrospective on “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era,” PBS’s “Baby Boomer” series and
articles like the one in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “1967: The Stuff That Myths are Made Of.”
Yet, I note hesitation in the analysis. It is as if this era stubbornly refuses to
become past at all. Forever pop
culture, the 1960s counterculture in particular simply will not go forward into
that good night of history.
As a co-producer of a documentary on Total Loss and
Montague, I have thought about why we have such a hard time viewing these
communes, and other aspects of 1960s counterculture, through the lens of
history rather than, at best, the lens of caricature or nostalgia. I’ve got no answers but a few possibilities.
First, a little more whining about Baby Boomers. There are an awful lot of folks (about 25%
of the American populace to be exact) who were adults in 1968 and may have a
hard time seeing a treasured point in their youth as history. If 1968 is history, then, well, people who
experienced it are, well, old. In my
high school AP history class, we interviewed WWII veterans. It was 1982, 41 years since Pearl Harbor. The veterans relished giving us insight into
a distant past. While the members of Total
Loss report they are starting to get emails from high school students doing
papers on the 1960s, they don’t seem to jump at the same opportunity to be a
wise old sage.
Second, perhaps the problem is the visuals. The sepia-toned 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is
definitely “history.” But is the
technicolor Summer of Love just five years later? The mid to late 1960s are the first era recorded (and broadcast)
in living color. Does so much visual
documentation of the era, all in color, make it seem all the more “present”
rather than past?
Third, the 1960s counterculture may validate Faulkner’s
remark that the past isn’t even past.
Many people continue living the ethos of that moment as the accompanying
entry on contemporary communes demonstrates. A San Francisco Chronicle piece on
the Summer of Love summed it up saying it was “just a season, but it lives.”
Finally, is it just hard to take the 1960s counterculture
seriously enough to place it into the context of history? Heck, I started this blog entry comically
describing one of the central figures in my documentary as a cross between Andy
Warhol’s femme fatale and a “Peanuts” character! The Total Loss and Montague members themselves equivocate. At times, they see themselves as a step in
the proud American utopian tradition stretching back to Emerson and Alcott’s
attempt at communal living at Fruitlands.
At other moments, they were just a bunch of city and suburban kids who
wanted to play in the woods during an era when not making much of a living was
A few weeks ago, I made a first-time visit to
Fruitlands. As I approached the red
farmhouse, beautifully framed in the midst of orange, red and yellow fall
trees, I thought to myself “My God, it looks just like the house at
Montague!” Fruitlands holds a hallowed
place as perhaps the American utopian
experiment. Yet, the Transcendentalists
indulged in some behaviors that made the hippie communes look mainstreamrigid
diets of fruit, barley, beans and potatoes, eschewing wool as “stolen” from
sheep and flax clothing. They also
lasted all of seven months and nearly starved.
Touring the rooms, I wondered how anyone took the
Transcendentalists seriously. I also wondered if Verandah Porche, still living
in the Total Loss farmhouse twenty years after the commune disbanded, might
raise money for repairing the roof by offering guided tours. But, whatever the reason, I just don’t
think we will ever be ready for a national historic landmark in the woods of
Guilford or Montague?.
--Jennifer Gilbert, Co-Producer of Far Out, an
in-process documentary directed by Chuck Light about Total Loss Farm in
Guilford, VT, and its sister commune, the Montague Farm in Montague, MA.