Thursday, July 03, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments (1)

Harvesting the Communes

posted by Robert S. Cox

From the Shakers to Transcendentalists and hippies, communes spring up in the fields of Massachusetts history like so many unkempt weeds, and like weeds, they have an extraordinary ability to flourish in the most unexpected ways. While many of these communes might be thought of as some sort of experiment in "back to the land" living -- many even announce themselves as farms -- communards are not always so easy to pin down. The residents of Brook Farm or Fruitlands were as interested in making Hawthorne as making hay, and even at lesser known communes, farming ran side by side with art and political and social agitation. At Hopedale, for example, Adin Ballou grew an active printing press with a socialist bent, while the arts and crafts flowered at the short-lived New Clairvaux community in Montague.

At the Department of Special Collections at the UMass library, social change has emerged as one of the key areas for collecting, and communes are Exhibit A for why. We freely admit that social change is an odd focus for an archive, being so broad as to make it difficult to tell quite what we do. As an operational principle, our department has settled on thinking of social change as the product of persons or organizations who set about to remake a better world through social or political action, writing or art, or through any other means they may have at their disposal.

At first glance, this seems to do little to clarify the issue, but we have seduced ourselves into believing there is method to our madness. While a number of our peer institutions document individual movements (peace, civil rights, and organized labor are perpetually popular), at UMass we hoe a different row. Recognizing that there are few single-issue activists, our hope has been to use our collections to tell a larger story of how social movements cross-pollinate, how ideas and people influence one another, merge and diverge, wax and wane. Rather than focus on a single movement to the exclusion of others, we hope to capture the interfertility of thought and ideas, the experimentation, creativity, and contingency of social change. As a result, our collections, like the people they document, range from antiracism to the antinuclear movement, from economic justice to electoral reform, and from peace to environmentalism, labor activism, gay rights, sustainability, and organic agriculture.

Sitting squarely in the middle are the communes, no two of which are quite alike. On one end of the spectrum is the cluster of communes described so vividly by Ray Mungo and Steve Diamond. Like so many other things in the late 1960s, the Montague Farm developed in a shaggy way, effectively becoming a single extended community with the communes at Packer Corners, Johnson Pasture, Tree Frog Farm, and Wendell Farm. But as shaggy as the communes may have been, this was no simple group of wild-eyed long hairs traipsing around the woods spitting out the occasional line of Thoreau as the bona fides of a neo-rustic life. For all the back to the land sensibilities, the Farm was founded by veterans of one branch of the Liberation News Service, the countercultures answer to the Associated Press. From a ramshackle house near the Leverett line, the communards issued weekly news reports of the sort shunned by the mainstream press, mimeographed onto sheets of day-glo paper that fed hundreds of alternative newspapers and magazines, not to mention the fevered imaginations of hundreds of FBI agents. Their withdrawal into the woods was in fact a "withdrawal" into a deeper sort of engagement.

As Tom Fels (a former Farmer) writes in his new book, Farm Friends, the Farmers were an intensely creative bunch, never confining themselves to a single issue, mixing art and activism in ways that shaped entire lives. Farm members tried their hands at photography, novel writing, poetry, acting, and film production, as well as activism (the Farm was a seedbed for the early antinuclear movement). In Mungo's version of the story, the Farmers seem eminently human -- they look a whole lot like the rest of us, only smarter and funnier, more fractious, more creative, and more engaged, and a whole lot more accomplished.

With its social change collections, UMass has attempted to capture some of the anarchic spirit of the Farm by taking the broad perspective, following the connections wherever they go. The Famous Long Ago Archive here includes the papers of the writer Steve Diamond and the antiwar and environmental activists Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner; collections of photographs from Peter Simon and Dan and Nina Keller; and the records of the Liberation News Service and Musicians United for Safe Energy and other antinuclear groups. We are also documenting other communes in the area of a very different nature, including the Brotherhood of the Spirit, the topic of a recent, and brilliant, film by Bruce Geisler. Led by the supremely controversial Michael Metelica, the Brotherhood grew to become the largest commune in the eastern U.S., with its own business ventures, it s own problems, and (of course) its own rock band. Who would have thought that harvesting weeds would be so productive?

[NOTE FROM EDITOR: Check out the gallery of images culled from the UMass collection to the right of this entry!]

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Their withdrawal into the woods was in fact a "withdrawal" into a deeper sort of engagement. This really resonates with me. Providing some distance from the buzz and isolationist structure that can, and sadly is, the norm for our culture can clarify and intensify the focus on true work that can be done. Dropping out can actually allow the space to tune in more specifically on matters of greater importance. The lifestyle change that can be part of communal or shared living is just the economies of scale. Addtionally, I see that if one is sharing domestic chores with others, it can free up new time to devote to activism, study and engagement. Thanks for the perspective!
Posted by Ea on 7.7.08 at 8:43
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