THE ALBION NATION: Communes on the Mendocino Coastby Cal Winslow
“It is still in so many places a beautiful country, and many of us can work, in different ways, to keep and enhance it. I have had the luck to thin a wood and watch the cowslips and bluebells and foxgloves come back”
—Raymond Williams, The Country and the City
The ’60s communards came to Albion Ridge as settlers looking for land. The ranch at Table Mountain was seen first from the air; Walter Schneider, formerly a Navy pilot, more recently of Timothy Leary’s Millbrook Estate in upstate New York, found it. Together with his friend Duncan Ray, also of Millbrook, they bought it—120 acres for $50,000, paid for with Ray family money. They invited friends up from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, including Zo Abell and her young daughter and Allen Cohen, poet and editor of the San Francisco Oracle. In 1968, the commune at Table Mountain Ranch became the first of many on Albion Ridge. In the decade following, hundreds of young people would join them on the Ridge, sometimes permanently, more often not; thousands would pass through. This is the story of the Albion “nation”—a community of communards and back-to-the-landers, as well as a miscellany of antinomians who made their homes here. It begins a little known but important chapter in the history of utopia in Northern California, one that focuses neither on media stars, nor on the most bizarre and outlandish but on the experience of groups of ordinary young people who came to the Mendocino coast in the ’60s and ’70s, many of whom continue to reside here. The Albion story is significant in its own right but also because it raises important questions about communal life as well as the values widely shared in the counterculture of these years. Just what was the experience? More work needs to be done, though it is already clear that there is much to be learned from this history. What, if anything, can this experience contribute to the discussion of what we would like for the future? What constitutes a genuine alternative to our own patterns of work, consumption, and life, and our 21st-century afflictions, primarily permanent war, driven in an era of austerity and imperial decline by neoliberalism and its armies? This implies reflection on the nature and purpose of alternative visions and the tension between realism, desire, and imagination. Is such a conversation wanted? Can it be useful, even possible, in view of contracting timelines and approaching ecological disaster? This remains to be seen. What follows is intended as a contribution. It examines the experience of some hundreds of people, who “dropped out” in the language of the times, and “left it all behind” for Mendocino, to live a life in common. It examines this “from the bottom up” and suggests elements of their legacies.
We begin with what we have already lost. The ’60s settlers were not the first to migrate to the Mendocino coast. Albion Ridge sits above the village of Albion, where the Albion River, south of Mendocino, empties into the sea. This land was home to Northern Pomo people, inheritors of thousands of years of habitation. The site of the village had been claimed by the Spanish, seeking souls; raided by Russian fur traders; then, in 1822, taken by Mexico until 1850, when it was passed on to an English sea captain who, in the imperial spirit of that age, gave the site and its river the ancient name of England—Albion. Settlers followed, first Americans, both citizens and soldiers. Anglos overwhelmed the Pomo homelands. In a pattern typical of the American West, these newcomers came as conquerors and colonizers. In cruel campaigns, they made “a bad situation worse.” In 1850 alone, 200 Pomo were murdered, their villages ransacked, their lands stolen. In 1856, they were imprisoned in Mendocino, 11 years later, turned out, “homeless, landless, and with no legal rights.” The horrors of these wars stain memory here; the Anglos succeeded in driving out the Pomo, though not entirely. Survivors regrouped, then regrouped again; they continued summer treks through the coastal mountains to the sea to harvest and dry abalone, mussels, clams, seaweed, and salt. They still do. The Anglo settlers failed as miners and agriculturalists; timber was another story. Albion sits at the coastal edge of the once great Redwood forest—two million acres of giant, ancient trees, a forest that stretched from the Oregon border to Big Sur. The first mill on the Mendocino coast was built on the Albion estuary in 1853. The onslaught unleashed was unforgiving: nature was spared no more than her peoples, each victims of civilization. The California Indian Wars of the 1850s, then, coincided with the beginnings of the ravaging of Mendocino’s coastal mountain ranges and the destruction of this forest. The timber men came along with investors, speculators, thieves, and swindlers, wheeling and dealing; they gathered up the land, consolidated it into massive tracts, then lured in the loggers and itinerant laborers—mostly men, though some with families. They came from Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota, as well as from much farther: Sweden, Finland, Italy, Portugal, and China. The workers felled the giant trees, often 300 feet and more in height, trees impossible to move in one piece. The loggers cut the huge logs into sections, forced them down streams and rivers, and then hauled one section at a time first by mules, then by rail, to Albion and the mill—one of dozens built along the Mendocino coast. The mouth of just about every river and creek became a center of heavy industry. This came with a cost. The loggers took down every tree within reach. A mass of rubble was left behind: slash that was burned, limbs, bark, other trees, undergrowth, birds and animals, beds of Redwood Sorrel, the ferns and flowers, everything that could not escape. Entire (mini) ecosystems were destroyed, leaving the ridges charred, streams unrecognizable. The loggers themselves often emerged from these fires blackened as coal miners, lungs ravished, bodies bent, sometimes broken. Conditions were dangerous in the hills and brutal in the mills. The mill sites festered like open sores along this wild shoreline, producing deafening noise, fire and smoke; they were surrounded by a bleak hodgepodge of outbuildings and wooden shacks—instant, temporary slums, together forming a coastal necklace of distress stretching the length of the County and beyond. This was no “golden age.”
I am not certain just when this vast section of Northern California came to be called the “Redwood Empire,” but the name is apt. This empire of timber and mills became a source of great wealth, extracting profits and power, in this case for the San Francisco robber barons who operated them. But empires seem inclined to dig their own graves: they come and go; they kill the goose; the robbers move on. The Albion Mill was shut down in 1929; Fort Bragg and Southeastern Railroad ceased operations two years later, leaving behind a savagely wounded earth. By 1937, a San Francisco News reporter produced a series on Mendocino coastal “ghost” towns, where “no trace of earlier habitations remained … except … some blackened ruin, a few rusty chains hanging from a rocky coast … weather beaten and lichen covered shacks stand gaping open.” No mention of surviving Pomo. No mention of ghostly stumps and barren hills. There was “recovery” in the 1950s: chainsaws, bulldozers, ribbons of roads, and trucks took the industry into each and every last enclave of standing timber, but, by the end of the century, little more than 100 years on, only the giant Union Lumber Company mill in Fort Bragg remained on Mendocino’s coast. It, too, is now closed. Perhaps 3 percent of old growth survives, probably less. The new settlers were not, strictly speaking, environmentalists, though few were unaware of this movement. The first Earth Day was celebrated in San Francisco in March 1970. They were quickly converted, however, by the discovery that big trees were few and far between; by the sight of sparkling streams turned chocolate brown following the first autumn rain; and by the muddy plumes of the Navarro, Albion, and Big Rivers carrying the soil of clear-cut canyons far out into the sea. Salmon, since time immemorial the direct and indirect staple of almost all coastal creatures and peoples from Alaska to the Monterey Bay, were already few and rapidly disappearing.
The settlers came, rather, as revolutionaries eager to live free and in common, while enlarging these spaces, countercultural zones built in defiance of industrial capital; capitalism remained, even in the best of times, transparently cruel and destructive, even when only young eyes could see this. And they were almost entirely youth; some were “small-c” communists, others refugees, escapees fleeing an embattled nation, war in Vietnam, rebellion at home, bitter battles in the mean streets of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. In the Haight, homelessness, hunger, drug problems, and crime had become endemic; “Lil’” Bobby Hutton, the youngest Panther, was gunned down by Oakland police. In Berkeley, at People’s Park, snipers and armored vehicles were deployed. James Rector was shot and killed. “The mood of the movement was heavy, violent” (Helen). Others were simply desirous of a life with nature. All were in search of freedom and a garden in which they might find it. They discovered, incredibly, that the land remained beautiful. Not entirely, to be sure: huge stumps endure, standing sometimes in formation, reminders of past forests, testaments to what can never completely be restored. But it was recovering. Property on the steep hillsides of Albion Ridge, Middle Ridge, and Navarro Ridge was cheap, very cheap: $50,000 seems like a lot; it was, nevertheless, within the range of a modest inheritance, the latter not so unusual in a largely white, middle-class movement. It was also, apparently, in keeping with budgets of new “hip” entrepreneurs, as well as successful dealers. So were abandoned homesteads. Inhabitants were few: “only a handful of residents, ‘old timers,’ could be counted along the entire Middle Ridge” (Moonlight). Some were friendly, others not. More than a few rescued stranded visitors, picked up hitchhikers, and shared rides to town. The Hamm brothers, two old men who lived in a barn, were the most welcoming. Their home, once their mother’s house, had burned down. They were old leftists, probably Wobblies; they shared country skills and a library of tattered volumes and pamphlets, the stories of earlier generations of revolutionaries. They owned one of the few TVs on the Ridge and so hosted Saturday morning cartoons for the communes’ kids.
The climate was mild: fog along the sea, a long rainy winter, cool, dry summers; the panoramic prospect that opens as one descends the Albion Ridge is as glorious as any on this spectacular coast—the sea seems as vast and inexhaustible as the forests once must have. Up the coast, Mendocino then housed a small art colony. Fort Bragg, 10 miles farther North, a lumber mill town, seemed quite far; it was blue collar, redneck, but in its own way. There had been Finnish collectives in the woods just to the East; there were still communists in the mills. Fort Bragg was another world; nevertheless, it was the only source within reach of all those things that towns can provide.
The late ’60s were “gypsy years” in California—kids in cars, hitchhikers, draft-dodgers, runaways, outlaws, wanderers; the communards and back-to-the-landers sought property. Historians of immigration have revealed the creation of chains of migration—chains composed of humans and their settlements, colonies, and networks. The first to appear are the “pioneers,” followed by the “birds of passage,” itinerants going back and forth, and then the settlers. This pattern fits Northern California migrants who disregarded boundaries, spatial as well mental and cultural, migrating north, creating an archipelago of communal settlements, most of them in the coastal counties north of the Bay Area.
Berkeley and San Francisco were both destinations and points of departure, sometimes just stop-over spots. The counterculture traveled north through Marin, then Sonoma, then Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, and on to Oregon and back again. Communards found outposts along the way: Morningstar at Occidental and nearby Wheeler’s Ranch; Olompali in Sonoma; Rainbow near Philo; Table Mountain, Big Foot on the Noyo; and Black Bear in Humboldt. In these years, the ’60s and ’70s, Timothy Miller has identified scores of such places, “a wave of new communes … of tsunami proportions.” Of the “thousands upon thousands” of new communes founded, Miller suggests, “the largest number” were found in the coastal counties north from San Francisco to the Canadian border. In contrast to Morningstar, Table Mountain Ranch was remote, seven and a half miles up the ridge on a county road, then a mile of unpaved road. This was easily three or four hours from the Golden Gate Bridge, including two hours on the narrow, winding road from Highway 101 at Cloverdale to the coast. By the end of the first winter, there were perhaps a dozen or so settlers at Table Mountain, including a child. But this figure is misleading. It was clear from the start that the commune was not for everyone; there were people who made it obvious they didn’t want to be there. They left, though this seems to have strengthened a core group. More problematically, the visitors were relentless, “in just January 1970 alone, more than a hundred passed through the Ranch” (Bill). The land at Table Mountain was cut over—it may once have been a dude ranch, or perhaps a hunting lodge. There was a ramshackle ranch house left behind, a “dump” built on stumps with lots of small rooms and a central patio. There were sheep on the grounds, kept by an elderly couple. The first summer, many camped out, some in teepees. Chicken shacks were converted into bedrooms. In 1971, Robert Greenway, a Sonoma State professor and Sally Shook, formerly a suburban Washington, D.C., housewife, and their collective seven children settled at nearby Salmon Creek Farm on Middle Ridge and invited others to join them. Closer to Albion, Carmen Goodyear and her partner Jeannie Tetrault established Thai Farm, a “women’s land” and a small collective/commune. Trillium, also a women’s commune, was settled just down the road. It was not so intentional. “We were just trying to get to more of a country scene. I didn’t move up here to be a commune. I didn’t move up here because of the women. I just saw the beauty, the Mendocino coast” (Weed). Sabina’s Land was on the Navarro Ridge—later it became Lord’s Land. Bo’s Land was not really a commune; it was closer to “open land,” purchased by Bo Romes, a San Francisco artist. “Bo bought 20 acres on Albion ridge … an old house, outbuildings, big plans, little money … people started asking if they could stay the night, then the week, the month, the year … all anarchists, life in the moment” (Janferie). Bo offered Peter Matlin room and board in exchange for building a sauna. Bo’s land is still shared, today called Spring Grove. Azalea Acres hosted fairs. In between, there were rusticators of all sorts, back-to-the-landers as well young people who “just wanted to share some land”—four such simply called their place “The Mune.” Big River Ranch was established near Mendocino; just up the coast there was the Compound at Caspar and Big Foot. Visitors camped in Little River Park and Jackson State Forest—to the dismay, of course, of the authorities. One estimate is that by the mid-’70s, the communards/back-to-the-landers, that is, “‘permanent’ settlers on Albion Ridge may have numbered 500 or more” (Moonlight).
In its first year, the Ranch was all but overrun: the elementary projects of settling in, physically constructing the commune, establishing an economy, the very basics of survival were all overwhelmed by the scale of visitation. “Things just got out of hand. So many people were coming and going in the spring of 1970 that we had to do something” (Bill). Half the original settlers had left. So Bill, Marshall, and Zo met and essentially closed the gate—“anyone who wasn’t here at the last Thanksgiving had to leave” (Bill). This was the end of free land and the beginning of rules—others would follow. At Salmon Creek Farm, later on, a six-week trial period was established for membership.
The house at Table Mountain had to be rebuilt, sleeping quarters constructed—they were scattered around the house in woods connected by paths. Gardens were begun, animals—goats, sheep, geese, a pony, and chickens—gathered and tended in a process that became the norm and was followed at Salmon Creek Farm and at the women’s communes down the ridge. The sleeping houses were built sometimes from the rag-tag outbuildings that abounded on such homesteads, sometimes from scratch by hand. The “big” house was communal, with a kitchen and a place for important gatherings; the sleeping houses were more or less private. The communards sought to avoid “the economic system,” favoring barter; they helped demolish an abandoned hotel in Fort Bragg in exchange for the scrap. The owner of a Philo mill “paid” for labor with lumber. They sought out salvageable, recyclable, building materials—finding a trove of these in the legendary radical chicken farms of Petaluma. The harvest of gardens was supplemented by traveling as far as to the Central Valley to glean in orchards and fields, then pickle and can.
Conditions on the communes were primitive; they remained so for years. There was no electricity, no phone, no indoor plumbing; the winters were wet, sometimes cold. There was one vehicle at Table Mountain, shared, and, at first, one chainsaw. There was a little store in Albion, the site of the nearest pay phone. There were doctors in Mendocino, but the nearest emergency room was in Fort Bragg. If life was good, it was also difficult; there were obstacles, beginning with staying dry, keeping warm, staying fed. “Everything was pretty loose at first. Everyone had to eat, they needed shelter, and sanitation was a big issue” (Zo). Very few were experienced, let alone skilled in the tasks they set themselves; they were ill prepared for the realities of “living off the land.” Soon enough, Country Women, the magazine produced by a collective of Albion women, set out to rectify this, at least for women: in each issue, articles on women’s liberation were accompanied by practical material—“how-to-do-its” on “country survival skills,” carpentry, husbandry, mechanics, gardening, childbirth, and child rearing.
From the beginning, there was the problem of “boundaries”—of the world of barriers, rules, and restrictions a whole generation had seemed intent on demolishing. Now there were new questions. How do you stay open hearted and still have boundaries? Rules began to come back, now as new necessities. “We had to make some rules. It wasn’t ever clear just who was and who was not part of the commune. Guests policies were developed. Who can stay and who can’t and why?” (Bill). This issue was especially perplexing when it came to lovers, central as this was in the lives of young people seeking sexual freedom, avoiding marriage, and monogamist fidelities. It was well known that the open communes were already failing. The issues of responsibility and trust were made all the more intense by belief in consensus.
“We basically had love affairs, raised food, and raised kids” (Anon.). The Albion communards, so unlike other utopians, past and contemporary, shared no grand vision, no religion, no structures; they were not the followers of a particular leader, there were no gurus. “It’s not that we were willfully ignorant; we knew the history of the communal movement. We wanted something different” (Moonlight), “We did not kowtow to / any / authority … we were non-religious, in terms of formal religion, so there were no religious leaders, and we had to develop these systems as gently as we could, without using the techniques that are usually used—the authority of religion and the authority of politics and the authority of money, the power of money” (Allen). No plans, no high ideals, living one day at a time.
They held, however, some very basic ideas—they wanted to share, to work cooperatively, to live in common, and to raise children in common, in a community—equally, no laws, no rules, not at first anyway. They believed in experimentation and spontaneity, rejected the idea of limits, and sought life without inhibitions. The question was “how far can we go?” and inevitably this involved risks and tensions, but these were turbulent times. They argued that “no one owns the earth”; they were interested in alternative education and philosophies. They became deep environmentalists, quickly turned to organic gardening, and made tofu from scratch. At Table Mountain and Trillium, they shared money. Meals were communal in the big house. A day might begin with nursing the baby, going up to big house, building the fire, cooking breakfast, then “who’s going to town, who’s taking the kids to school?” Work in the garden, get the kids, care for the animals. Cooking and kitchen chores were shared: making granola, baking bread, cooking pots of beans, preparing evening meals. “Walks in the country, lots of visiting, smoking pot, it was totally nice a lot of the time” (Helen).
They spent much time getting and keeping the sleeping houses together. In general, building was utilitarian, do-it-as-you-go work in progress. Dawn “built a small cabin with plans from a U.S. government pamphlet called ‘low-cost building.’” There would be few domes on Albion Ridge—instead, the “imperfected pragmatism,” as Simon Sadler suggests, of “self-built ex-urban shacks.” There were stump houses (dwellings built into the burnt-out hollows of giant redwood stumps, near nature to be sure), fantasy houses, stained glass and flowers, quaint outhouses, compost toilets and pits, as well as very crude shelters. At Salmon Creek Farm, communards constructed a sweat lodge.
There were code wars in Mendocino County but nothing as brutish as in Sonoma. In Mendocino County, a disgruntled developer attacked the communes (as well as other sites where there was group living) for violations of the housing codes, a conflict that lasted into the 1980s, when, with new friends on the Board of Supervisors, the authorities allowed for a “clean slate.” Various cabins, outbuildings, and houses were then grandfathered in under “Class K,” a relaxed construction standard available for owner-built rural dwellings. In this, the back-to-the-landers were joined by “old-timers” who themselves had built without permits. There seems not to have been, as Felicity Scott argues in the case of Morningstar and Wheeler’s Ranch, “symptomatic attempts to loosen the grip of, or even to sponsor a mass exit from the regulatory and administrative functioning” of the authorities. “Many of us didn’t even know such codes existed. We were just living our lives” (Weed). This common cause produced, interestingly, a peculiar convergence, counterculture and rural anarchism, which is still widespread here.
What money the communards had often came from welfare. There was also occasional working for money plus sometimes a gift from home. Some took jobs in town: waitressing, gardening, carpentry, mostly part-time and temporary. There would be one or two trips to Fort Bragg each week to do laundry and similar tasks, but these were shared so that an individual might pass months without being in town in a self-imposed separation from the city. There was a lot of free time, idle time—time valued and seen in sharp contrast to schedule-driven cultural norms. At the dinner table, all first joined hands and chanted; a hippy religiosity developed, sometimes with “an Indian flavor like using the Indian method of circle readings, one person talking at a time … things we picked up from the American Indian culture” (Allen). There was also spirituality with an Eastern edge and a Jewish tint, but this was never universal or particularly deep. After dinner, there was hanging out, playing music, smoking dope, drifting in and out. On special occasions, there were drug rituals, sometimes peyote circles. Today, the attraction of hippy spirituality seems elusive; nevertheless, at the time, it was near universally seen then as the “glue” that held these bands together. The “business” of the commune was conducted at Sunday morning circles. All this seemed the antithesis of the celebrated loneliness of rural life; on the contrary, communards remember the intimacy of life on the commune and the power of the group identity.
There were implicit if not intentional social structures in Albion—hence “the Albion Nation.” It was an informal structure that tied inhabitants of the Ridge together, with links, tenuous to be sure, to communes and back-to-the-landers as near as Rainbow in Philo and as far as Black Bear in the Trinity Siskiyou’s. A Community Center was established in Albion; it hosted events, offered meals, and was a sort of way station. “You could get a good meal for a dollar” (Weed). There was a natural food store, now “Corners of the Mouth” (a “workers” collective since 1975) in Mendocino; also Down Home Foods and Thanksgiving Coffee in Fort Bragg. They continue. There was a weaving co-op. There was music; there were routine festivals, including the “Albion People’s Fair,” though some felt that it “got too big, too many drugs” (Helen). There were craft fairs and outdoor dances on Navarro Ridge. The Country Women collective engaged in national/international feminist movements; the magazine was widely read, and its staff participated in national and regional conferences and hosted women’s retreats and festivals at the Woodlands, a nearby lodge and campgrounds built in the 1930s by the WPA. Times Change Press at Salmon Creek Farm published accounts of communal life (January Thaw), as well as, among other things, Emma Goldman’s feminist writings.
In many ways, Albion’s crowning achievement was the establishment of the Whale School at Table Mountain in 1971. Created first for the commune’s children, it soon opened its doors to other nearby children, becoming an alternative community school up to high school grades. Ultimately as many as 50 children attended, taught usually by four or five full-time teachers and an array of volunteers. Zo Abell managed the Whale School. A sexual division of labor prevailed: men contributed to building the schoolhouse and the bus driver was a man, but most (though not all) teaching was done by women. The Whale School practiced methods of progressive education popular at the time when public education was under fire from the Left, not the Right. “The IRS saw us as a private school, they wanted taxes. I just told them we weren’t private, we were just a school. In the end, we affiliated with the Mendocino Unified School District as a center of ‘Independent Study.’ In that way we were accredited.” (Zo)
There were sex, drugs, and rock and roll. “Yes, it was your mother’s worst nightmare” (RW). On one hand, it all seems rather innocent in light of later developments. Partners were often shared. There was promiscuity and experimentation, though more at first than later. There were couples, some longstanding. There were indeed times when the hippies would stream into town and line up at the clinic in Fort Bragg for penicillin shots. Was there more sex here? Was sex better than elsewhere—on college campuses, during political campaigns, in the collectives, cults and sects, in the suburban bedroom? It was, after all, an era of contradictions, of the sexual revolution, the pill, the porn craze; it was a time before HIV. For better or worse, we live with its results today. Compared to the 1950s, there seem to have been advances, yet there was so much room for improvement. There were frustrations and there were predators, though the latter not always in guru form. There was exploitation, people were taken advantage of; there was one well-known case of pedophilia. There were real dangers—including the perils of country lanes, archetypically in the form of young rednecks in a pick-up. Some deny this: “It was never dangerous—or stressful” (Peter). But others remember “tales of rape, near rape, and then bodies … a girl from Toronto on Big River beach … then there were the Azalea Acres bad boys” (Janferie). These were young locals rumored to be terrorizing hippie newcomers.
Sexual tensions could be pervasive in morning meetings, as could sexual jealousies, leading to excruciating feuding that eroded the collective. The results, then, of sexual experimentation, remain mixed. These will, in the negative, be said to reveal a fixed “human nature” and youthful naiveté, but this seems unlikely to be true. “Conventional wisdom” continues to inform us that male/female conflict—the “battle of the sexes”—is a given. The communards at Albion rejected this; their inability to achieve sexual freedom in any lasting sense speaks as much to the weight of the past, culture, and tradition, as it does to their “failures.” Moreover, visions of “free love” persist, while acceptable 21st-century practices seem to have little positive to offer.
The drugs of choice at Albion appear to have been marijuana above all, followed by hallucinogens including peyote. Interestingly, none of the communes I know turned to the commercial production of marijuana even as so many neighbors, including back-to-the-landers, did, often at great profit. The communes were, after all, anticapitalist; by and large they were nonviolent. Hence, they managed to get by the ultimately destructive developments in the marijuana industry—the industry, involving another curious convergence, the children of both the counterculture and the rednecks that dominates the Mendocino economy to this day. There seem to have been people who smoked too much, but that is not so unusual or remarkable.
In regards to music, the story is much the same: what seemed so radical then and what was shocking to many, is ordinary now; alas, it can all too often be heard riding elevators. There was plenty of music on the communes: there were regular festivals, a tradition that persists though more commercially. Acid rock came and went, but music was and remains a vital part of Mendocino life and culture; importantly, local people compose, play, sing, and dance seemingly more than in most places. But tastes now seem rather frozen: white rock persists, though it has lost its edge with the passing years; country music has its limitations, if we want to consider music as liberating. The fare here invariably strikes one as rather tame, all the more so in comparison to the music revolution that was so much a part of the ’60s. On radio stations there is nostalgia, but not for the Southern blues, Motown, or rhythm-and-blues. Hip-hop seems to be enjoyed privately, if at all.
How, then, are we to assess this experience and what went wrong? This is often the first question—failure is taken as given. True, these communes did not last forever. Yet, it’s not so clear to me that the communes failed, except insofar as they were part of the more general defeat of the ’60s movements and the retreat of the remnants. Critical analysis is, of course, essential—this report, after all, is not intended as one more chapter of the “greatest generation.” And it is not the end of the story. History proceeds; we can learn from what has passed.
In 1980 the counterrevolution was enthroned, and the results of Reagan’s election began to weigh heavily upon us, far more than we would have suspected at the time. Beneath this, on the ground level, severe difficulties rose inside the communes themselves. First and foremost, the internal relations were intense and ultimately paradoxical—these were, after all, very small societies. Survival, the tasks of day-to-day life were difficult enough. Whatever structural weaknesses underlay communal existence, interpersonal conflict persisted, thwarting consensus and threatening the entire project. It is indisputable that the ’60s “movement” was badly in need of behavioral remediation and attending to the personal, surely in gender relations. But elevating the personal brought its own difficulties; there were limits to individual improvement. The gap between external change and inner spiritual transformation seems never to have been truly bridged.
Sexual issues, jealousies, concerns of exclusion, conflicts over parenting, conflicts concerning whether to have children at all, participation—these never went away. They were not the only sources of tension; for some, the Sunday morning meetings became endless sessions of disputes and conflicts. Over rights and rules—should we hunt deer? No, we can’t have guns. And chores, was everyone involved? There seems always to have been those who were not, those who didn’t do their share. But it is widely believed that male/female tensions exacerbated conflicts; the question “what’s really happening here?” lurked behind every dispute. This was perhaps inevitable, given the age of the participants. It was a widespread phenomenon throughout the ’60s movements. But it may well have been ubiquitous on the communes. It was “as if there were an area where everything was peachy and wonderful and spiritual, getting high, and in tune with nature, and then this other area of whenever crunch came to crunch, there were these tremendous internal turmoils. There was a male-female split, there was an inability for the males to cooperate in the way the females were learning how to do, the women were learning” (Allen). Concurrently, it seems that personal relations were less strained on the women’s communes.
This, too, perhaps was/is to be expected. Communal life was overwhelmingly a domestic life. John Gillis, a historian of the family, suggests that women do better in small societies which they enter better equipped to deal with the rhythms, routines, challenges, and rewards of the new life and with some training and skills in domesticity, most notably childbearing and raising, and in cooperation. Were these new societies families? It remains unclear. While the stereotypical suburban nuclear family was often rejected, it was not clear what was being put in its place. Was it the “family we never had?” (Weed).
The idea that one could live simply and ecologically itself became troublesome—where was the line between simplicity and poverty? Between necessity and desire? “I didn’t come to Mendocino to live in a chicken shack” (Weed). Scarcity, both material and cultural, compromised the communal project. As the years passed, then as children grew, individuals’ desires were transformed (though rarely, it should be said, entirely). And, as this happened, the communes, so small to begin with, came to feel increasingly confining and inflexible, restricting rather than facilitating personal growth and development. The communes, in fact, became isolated in a way that had not existed at first, and just at the time when the social terrain was becoming increasingly inhospitable following the decisive political shift against radical activity in the ’80s. What had once been seen as a world to win, now seemed more a wilderness into which the flock had been scattered. The communes rather than “the wave of the future” (River) were more likely a haven, toiling in defensive isolation in a hostile world. Survival now demanded rules and fences, all self-imposed. And it demanded accommodation. Then, too, sources of new blood disappeared, precipitously in the sudden crash and death of the youth and student rebellion, and there seemed little in place for the next generation. There were other problems, of course, but continuing this laundry list is of limited use, certainly in the face of the Herculean tasks that the communards had set for themselves.
Consensus, as a method, has its limitations, indeed its own tyrannies, all the more so, it seems, when the issues are personal. The personal issues, of course, were often political; this made solutions, however, no less deceptive, no less intractable, and no less problematic as keys to sorting out behaviors and perspectives. Majorities can be oppressive. So can endless debate. There are times when consensus cannot be reached. Talk cannot continue when things need to be done, when structurelessness implies the “the last man standing” rule and is not useful. This seems self-evident. “I just didn’t want to sit for four hours every Sunday” (Peter). In the stories of the communes, this sentiment often echoes in every discussion of the experience. “I had this feeling of relief whenever I left for any length of time” (River).
Those who wished to change the world had not succeeded, while those who wanted only escape had not been able to do so either. In fact, as years passed, things steadily became rather worse. The communards were not indifferent to all this. Their intention had not been to confront authority, but they did so whenever they were forced to and fared not so badly as critics might think. The counterculture survives in a variety of forms today; Albion remains a center of feminism and this is all the more impressive in light of the chauvinisms of country culture. There was little support here for war and empire, nor for Reagan’s Central American adventures in the 1980s, nor the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama crusades in the Middle East. In terms of issues of race and racism, the legacy of slavery, the despoliation of conquest, the persistence of segregation and race hatred have been undoubtedly simultaneously both an engine of social change in the United States and its greatest stumbling block. The communards did often flee before confronting such issues, or failed to relate to them, or at best felt themselves helpless in face of it all. “The problem of the 20th century” continues to be the problem of the 21st, as historian and Pan-Africanist W. E. B. Du Bois stated in The Souls of Black Folk. The American “color line” is as complex as ever today and the United States is more segregated than ever. This includes Mendocino County, where, as in the rest of California, two worlds exist: one “white” or Anglo, the other Latino, the latter rapidly outpacing the former. Moreover, the Latino population is young, growing, and energetic, but unrepresented in government, in law enforcement, in education, and in the providers of healthcare—this 21st-century reincarnation of segregation by definition undermines whatever visions of community have guided coastal inhabitations, including those of the counterculture. This, in turn, is connected to the communards either ignoring or being confounded by both the problem of race and the issues of agency. In this, they were, and are, not alone.
The history of communes thus needs to be seen in the larger context of the generational exhaustion of the social movements and the implosion of the New Left. The demographic sources of these movements were all but the same; indeed some timelines are virtually identical. It is also striking to me that there seems to be a common trajectory in individual lives as the life patterns of communards fit so easily with those of the entire rebellious generation: the explosion of the movement in 1967 and its collapse; the dispersal into communes, collectives, sects, and cults in a diaspora of sorts; “digging in” in the 1970s, industrial colonizing, community organizing, back-to-the-land. Some of these projects evaporated immediately; some lasted just a year or two. But others carried on in cities, in communities, in the country. Salmon Creek Farm lasted 10 years, Trillium 12, Table Mountain nearly 20, and the latter’s land continues to be owned in common.
The 1980s were a fundamentally different time. The world did change, but for the worse. I think the communards, like the counterculture and most of the Left, retreated in the face of this; they had run out of steam, things were just too hard, the rewards were not so great, and so individuals looked for alternatives. They returned to school, took jobs, started families, found new homes, and tended private gardens. “What seemed appropriate at 28 didn’t work at 45” (Peter). Yet, the radical spirit persists here in Albion, however eccentric: nonconformist, contentious, prone to conspiracy theory and catastrophism, aging, permanently dissatisfied, peaceful, intolerant of rules and regulations. Few say they wouldn’t do it all again (mostly).
The most interesting and most revolutionary aspect of this all, it seems to me, was not so much the drugs, the sex, and the rock and roll, or any particulars of life on the commune (though all important in their own right), but the whole notion of creating another world—of turning the world upside down, of creating a world outside slavish devotion to the market and the shopping mall, free from economic and culturally imposed patterns of personal oppression and economic exploitation.
There are some who will deny this characterization as romantic, an exaggeration; others will contend that it imposes the political on projects that were not intended as such. There is some truth in this, though it is also true that the unconscious precedes the conscious. What stands out to me is how thoroughly these young people—and the much wider movement with which they were associated (like it or not)—rejected bourgeois life in industrial capitalism and attempted to a live a life that was its antithesis. Consciously or not, they rejected the materialism of postwar United States at the height of its prosperity; they rejected its consumerism. They rejected war and refused to fight in Vietnam. They despised the empire; they opposed organized religion. They abandoned the family. “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists”: that’s Marx and Engels in 1848. They attempted to do all this through practice: “I left Brown University. I wanted to move beyond the talk of revolution; I wanted to live it” (RW).
Many of us are already familiar with the critique of this project, “the realist” response to the utopians, particularly severe in the language of Marx and Engels: What about the state? What about the working class? What about power? Still the founders of modern socialism themselves were not without some very kind words for the utopians; after all, they “attack every principle of existing society … they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class. The practical measures proposed … such as abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the state into a mere superintendence of production.” All this was recognized as invaluable by Marx and Engels. But a critique from the Left persists, characterizing the counterculture as apolitical if not reactionary, and communes as “islands in a sea of capitalism” or worse, “little workshops of capitalism.” Certainly some were all of the above. But compared to what? Albion was never a true utopia. How could it have been? But it was also not so apolitical as might be imagined. They battled with the county in the Code Wards and won. In 1975, there was a campaign against offshore drilling, followed by confrontations with Japanese whalers in 1976. A successful campaign was waged to elect a progressive candidate for county supervisor to represent the coast. The Abalone Alliance opposed nuclear power. In 2006, Albion residents voted by a margin of four to one in favor of a county resolution, Measure Y, calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. In Bear Gulch, a remote hippie enclave that persists in Northern Mendocino County, the vote was 100 percent against the war. There have been continuous battles with the timber companies in attempts to protect old growth redwoods in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. Communards anticipated the current environmental crisis as well as positive trends in health and food politics, though they never reached self-sufficiency or food security in the 1970s and ’80s.
In conclusion, I would like to follow up on Kate Soper’s highly germane contribution to the Socialist Register volume, Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias (2000), in which she proposes a “defense of the emancipatory role of utopian visions,” the need for “an ongoing and democratic ‘conversation’ on the quality of the good life,” and assurances that life’s “pleasures” will not come “only at the cost of human misery and ecological degradation.” “Socialists,” she writes, “may diverge considerably on the details for what makes for pleasure and right living, but they will agree that all the more subtle, refined, and complex pleasures will be grounded in the simpler satisfaction that comes through the elimination of suffering and exploitation.” The idea that such thinking is elitist, that it involves imposing our values on the future seems trivial in contrast to the presumptuousness of asking others to follow us “who knows where?” So does the idea that it is unnecessary: “I do not write cookbooks for the kitchens of the future,” claimed Marx. In refusing to offer us a vision of the future, Marx and Engels “left open a dangerous vacuum in the theory of communism that in the event came to be filled by a totalitarian form of politics.” More, as Iain Boal writes in the prologue to this volume, “In the United States, antiutopianism is linked to fear and contempt of anything that smacks … of communism.” We live in turbulent times again. All the more important, then, that conversations within Marxism and anarchism proceed; they are, as Soper suggests, entirely appropriate, even necessary. And such conversations can surely be enriched by recognition of the actual “utopian” experiences of the 1960s and ’70s, by the dreams and desires of the communards as well as their illusions. If the past is like a foreign country, the future is unknown territory, a new world. Surely, some speculation, then, is justified; the “what would you put in its place” question still haunts us, and we need some answers.
Excerpted from West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, edited by Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow (PM Press, 2012). For more details, go to www.pmpress.org.
More Articles by the AuthorCal Winslow