Down on "The Farm"
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Let me tell you another story about Stephen Gaskin's farm.

It was summer of 1973. I was 18 years old, and my friend Barb and I hitched a ride down to The Farm where many friends had gone to stay. We wanted to see how they were doing and to check The Farm out.

When we got to the outskirts of the land owned by the farm, we found a gatehouse. The guards there -- despite their long hair and blue jeans, these guys were every bit as martially-minded as any uniformed guard -- interrogated all visitors. We would not be allowed to just go in to visit our friends. They were in the fields working, and if we expected to visit The Farm, we were expected to work in the fields or the kitchens as well.

We also were instructed that we had to remove our bras because wearing bras was "unnatural". I was told that my T-shirt's slogan was inappropriate (it said "Rockin' Rochester" and was from one of my hometown radio stations) and if I wanted to be allowed in, I had to change my shirt. We were not permitted to wear jewelry of any kind, so the earrings and necklaces had to come off. We were also told that we had to use our "God-given names", so instead of Chesha or even Cat, my favored nicknames, I would be called by the adopted name on birth certificate, Catherine, because that was the name "God" had given me. Any argument with any of these restrictions would mean we would not be allowed in.

At the end of this interrogation I had little desire to step foot onto the property, but we were both concerned about our friends who were staying there as well as the fate of other friends who were also making the journey to visit them, so we complied and went on to work in the kitchens. A truck passed us by on the long walk in, and my resentment grew when it didn't even slow to see if we'd like a ride in.

When we finally made it to the kitchen, we worked there preparing the noon meal. All Farm residents and visitors would gather together to partake of it, with exception of Stephen Gaskin and his wives and husbands, who lived in an air-conditioned home with a full kitchen complete with dishwasher. We washed dishes, pots, and pans by hand. The majority of meals, we were told, were made of soybeans and soy products and vegetables grown on the farm. Farm residents were vegetarians, even the children, who received soy milk instead of cow's milk.

When everyone gathered together at noon, I had expected a happy reunion. Instead, I was alarmed by the condition I found my friends in, even those who had only arrived the day before as visitors.
 
After working since dawn in the hot Tennessee sun pulling stumps, my friends were exhausted, hungry, and thirsty. Their eyes had the glassy stare I had seen in before in cult members, like the "Children of God". "Stephen says" were the buzzwords I heard over and over again.
 
These people behaved as if Stephen Gaskin had some special wisdom that elevated him to the position of a holy man over themselves, people who I knew as well-educated, smart, talented, and formerly free-thinking individuals.

My friend Barb and I spent a little time in the Farm's laundry facilities with other women who were washing clothes. I noticed that, though Farm residents were forbidden to wear jewelry, many of the women were sewing beautiful embroidery on their men's clothing. I asked about that, why that kind of ornamentation would be acceptable when worn by their men, but no ornamentation like jewelry could be worn by the women. I also asked how it was that a name given to a person by their parents and put on a birth certificate was called "God-given".

The responses of the women were the parroted responses of people who had been brainwashed. Among Farm residents, any inch of progress made by the feminist movement by the mid-1970s had been lost through giant steps backwards into the belief that women should be subservient to men and that "God" spoke through Stephen Gaskin. He didn't approve of using the false self-adornment of jewelry and nicknames.

I learned that residents not only worked hard at manual labor every day and had to give up private ownership of personal belongings for the greater good of the Farm collective, but they also had to contribute as much money as possible to the Farm before they would be accepted as members and "allowed" to stay there.

My friend Mary stayed in a tent. Another of my friends, Dean, was having difficulty subjugating himself to Stephen's code and was staying in what Farm folk called "the tumbler". Dean told us that "Stephen said" that men like himself should all stay together in this kind of bachelor's quarters living arrangement so that their rough edges would rub off on each other, like rocks in a rock tumbler.

Stephen gave a kind of impromptu service after the Sunday meal while we were there. Marijuana was part of the service, but instead of enhancing his image as a mystical leader, Gaskin's ramblings and self-aggrandizement made me think more of Charles Manson than an entheogen-promoting Holy Man. These people were being subjected to classical cult-brainwashing techniques, and he was living high-on-the-hog off of their hard work.
 
After only a day and a half, I couldn't stand staying at the Farm for a single minute more. Reluctantly, we said goodbye to all our friends, the ones who were Farm members and the ones who were only visiting, and left.

I saw Mary again later that summer. She said "Stephen said" that she and other Farm singles should get married, and she and her fiancée, who nobody knew and Stephen had selected for her, came North to get what remained of her belongings to sell them. Mary sacrificed her stereo, her car, and everything else she could sell to give to Stephen Gaskin's Farm. That was the last time I ever heard from Mary.

The following year, I learned she and her husband had a baby. I'll never know why, but she took her baby and put it in a plastic bag, suffocating it. The state of Tennessee found her guilty of murder. Mary was 20 years old. I wrote to her in prison, but she never wrote me back. I heard that people from the Farm had been continuing to visit her and had probably succeeded in keeping her isolated from "ungodly" outside influences even while she was in prison. As far as I know, when she was finally released a decade or so later, she went right back to the Farm.

My friend Mary was a lovely girl when she went to the farm. She was smart, a talented artist, someone who was generous and always treating people to things she had baked. She was kind to everyone, not the kind of person who would kill a helpless baby.
 
When I see Stephen Gaskin, the great entheogenic philosopher, in the news, I think of him as many things: "Murderer." "Fraud." "User." "Manipulator." I don't think of him as a role model and wish no one ever had. If the use of entheogens can give answers to spiritual questions, his way is not the path to follow to look to for them. -- Editor

 

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--excerpts from an article originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle
 
Stephen Gaskin, founder of the largest hippie commune in America, had finished his tofu burger, eaten his stir-fried veggies and was digging into a bowl of soy milk ice cream.

The former San Francisco State lecturer and freelance philosopher then pushed back from the lunch table in his Tennessee home, glanced over at his wife, Ina May, and issued a bold prophecy:

Millions of '60s idealists who "sold out" in the 1980s and 1990s -- the ones who went out and got real jobs -- are poised to turn on, tune in and drop out once again.

And they're all going to need some place to live. Gaskin has a dream, and knows that if he builds it, they will come.

Get ready for Rosinante, a retirement village for aging hippies.

"When they write the '60s history centuries from now, the hippies will have a name like the Renaissance or the Reformation," said Gaskin, who named his latest dream after Don Quixote's horse. "We did change the world, and we're not finished changing the world."

To understand the dream, one must understand the quixotic journey.

Those of you who were hanging around in the late 1960s and early 1970s may recall Gaskin, who led hundreds of hippies on an infamous 1971 bus caravan across America.

Hippiedom had blossomed in the cool gray city of love, and Gaskin's eclectic lectures on mysticism, politics, alternative lifestyles and LSD took on a life of their own.

It was called the Monday Night Class, or "tripping instructions," and as many as 2,000 stoned seekers followed Gaskin as he took his show to the Straight Theater on Haight Street, the Oddfellows Hall and finally out to Playland by the Beach.

The tribe eventually landed in the green rolling hills of southern Tennessee, a magical place where the rednecks learned to love those shaggy survivors of the '60s.

Dubbed the tie-dyed Amish, Gaskin and flock wound up in one of the poorest counties in Tennessee, where it was easier to find cheap moonshine than Orange Sunshine, where hillbillies outnumbered hippies.

But the land was $70 an acre, and the locals didn't shoot them on sight. So they stayed and founded the Farm.

It didn't start out well. Gaskin and a couple cohorts got busted for growing pot and did a little time in the Tennessee state prison.

Meanwhile, back on the Farm, there were some very lean, very cold winters. But by 1977, the commune had grown in to a functioning experimental community of a thousand men, women and children.

They had their own school, flour mill, cannery, medical clinic, publishing business, and even their own telephone system -- "Beatnik Bell."

They all contributed to a communal treasury, giving them the same tax status as a Catholic monastery.

But the Farm was not just an economic and ecological experiment. It was a spiritual community, forged in many cases by the bond of shared psychedelic experiences.
 
He said the same connection inspired some of the "four-marriages" and other group living arrangements on the Farm.

"Some of the double couples were sort of a fallout from LSD. People who tripped together bonded. Then we'd say, 'Let's just get a house together.' "

Gaskin became a licensed Tennessee cleric, married many Farm couples and led Sunday morning services.

They'd meet in a meadow on the commune or inside the schoolhouse. Gaskin would draw from the mystical teachings of various world religions -- a synthesis he called "the psychedelic testimony of the saints" or the "totality of the manifestation."

The population peaked in the early 1980s with 1,500 commune members. And then it all collapsed.

Faced with too much debt, radical poverty and too many mouths to feed, the Farm stopped being a true commune where everything was jointly owned and all took from a common treasury.

It reorganized itself in 1983 into a collective, where members were forced to pay monthly dues and only the Farm's 1,700 acres were held in common.

Most people here call those bitter days "the changeover." Gaskin calls it "a coup d'etat followed by a downsizing."

Group homes and group marriages dissolved. Many members wandered off, unable to make it in a community where they suddenly needed real money to survive.

Those who remained paid off the debt. Today, there are only 80 to 90 voting members in this land-rich, cash-poor enterprise.

Gaskin, 67, is still here, but he's no longer seen as the leader of the tribe. But he's still got one vote, lots of energy and even more ideas -- including Rosinante, a kind of Sun City for the '60s set.

Yet even that master stroke had some quixotic detours. In 1996, he published a book titled "Cannabis Spirituality," an ode to wonders of getting high on pot. He said he hasn't taken LSD since before the caravan left San Francisco.

"We don't do acid on the Farm," he said. "Peyote and mushrooms are a matter of personal conscience."

A few years ago, Gaskin took the politics of pot national. He tried to become president of the United States, running against Ralph Nader in an unsuccessful bid for the Green Party nomination.

That didn't work, so it's back to Rosinante.

"When we first started talking about Rosinante, collectivity was not interesting to people. They were in their peak earning years," Gaskin said. "When they get a little older, collectivity will get interesting again."

Donnie Rainboat, an aging hippie, is building one of Rosinante's first homes.

For his retirement village, Gaskin bought 100 acres of land adjacent to the Farm. He has plans (but no money) to build an octagonal community center with a clinic, kitchen, Laundromat and media room with computers and Internet access.
 
Community residents -- like Rainboat -- build their own cabins on the property, and agree to turn them over to the community when they die.

Other longtime Farmies don't put much stock in Gaskin's latest project.

Three decades have gone by since Joel Kachinsky, a former Vista volunteer, came to San Francisco and stumbled on Gaskin and the Monday Night Class.

"There were a lot of gurus around, and he billed himself as the American guru," Kachinsky said. "He was saying heavy stuff that needed to be said."

"When we were communal, our level of trust put us in an extraordinary level of consciousness," he said. "There are about 4,000 members of our tribe, folks who took the vow of poverty and were seriously doing this thing. That body is our church, or group soul.

"Since the changeover, we've been in a dysfunctional state and back in ordinary consciousness. We originally came here to decondition ourselves from our capitalist conditioning and recondition ourselves for a better society."

Now that the Farm is no longer a commune, all kinds of questions arise about why it exists, who really "owns" it, and who can come back or join up.

Of the thousands of communes that formed in the 1960s and 1970s, the Farm is one of the relatively few that survived -- albeit in an altered economic arrangement.

And Rosinante, which may never be more than a collection of cabins built by a spaced-out band of aging, unrepentant hippies, is something of an inside joke to those who've watched the rise and fall of a quixotic rebel.

That's Stephen Gaskin. While he no longer calls the shots on the Farm, he's taking one more shot at the dream.

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