Susan said that her commune was “the best kind of anarchism, for a short time.” It functioned as an artists’ retreat, collective, and farm; although it now functions solely as a land collective, the colony’s hand-built houses still dotting the hill that leads to Haystack Mountain. A new bridge runs across the brook, whose banks are overgrown with wild raspberries. Upstream, a giant waterfall flows, where the commune members bathed every day, surrounded by rock sculptures. The construction along the brook is destroying their woods, and mountaintop tree removal is visible from the pastures and dirt roads.
This now-disbanded artists’ collective in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom occupied my life this summer, as a rotating cast of hippies told me stories of the quick dissolution of utopian dreams and harmonious anarchism into destructive drug and alcohol addiction—a physical manifestation of 1960s idealism morphing into 1970s excess.
With philosophers and scientists warning us that humans cannot continue on their path of destruction, young people, myself included, are flocking to organic farms and homesteads once again. Gardening and self-sufficiency are part and parcel of both lifestyle anarchism and liberalism, an uneasy partnership aggravated by class and race. I left New York to live deliberately, both to learn how to grow my own food and to enact my own utopian vision. I did not expect to find a place at Susan’s farm, but she took me in after a last-minute cold call from a website, her intuition as her guide.
Susan bought her fifty acres down the road from, but separate from the commune, in the early 1990s, and invites young interns to live with her, teaching them about herbal medicine, cooking, and farm work. In my three months living in her house, I hand-scythed hay, learned to milk a goat and care for chickens, made tinctures and dried herbs, cared for a garden, and fell in love with a barefoot anarchist boy who never stopped laughing. I frolicked in fields, swam naked in lakes, knitted scarves, read books. I never had enough time in a day and collapsed into my lover’s arms every night in our tent across the field dotted with fireflies.
Looking back on my summer, I recall critical theorist Simon Critchley’s claim that we are living in an “anti-1960s.” He says that while that generation built communes and dropped out of society, we are political realists. We recognize and reject the naïveté of the past . But to lose the utopian impulse in radical politics would be a fatal mistake. It would mean giving in to the Obama vision of liberal democracy, accept that capitalism is an inevitability, and stop imagining that another world is possible.
For us, the collapsed collective remained a vision of what could have been–Susan’s neighbors and friends were mostly connected to the collective, either as neighbors or former members. For her, their collapse was a symbol of the difficulties of communal vision in a capitalist society, marred by the hard reality of addiction. It was a specter that lived with us all summer; it lived in the barn from which transient hippies were recently evicted and in the furniture in Susan’s house, built by a friend killed by cirrhosis.
While the 1960s vision of utopia was based on romantic visions of land and transparency, now radical action must live in secrecy, on the fringes, in squats, in mutual aid, in rejecting the septic systems that poison the land and the pesticides and GMO crops that poison our food. It means creating new uses for trash, avoiding surveillance culture, and creating beauty out of the often destructive and scary world.
To believe, as many of our predecessors did, that dropping out is the only solution is problematic; these opportunities are available to a small, usually white, educated, middle class, and able bodied sector. The back-to-the-land movement was not equipped to deal with this reality, and thus failed, quashed by government intervention. For me, the most important task is to make these utopian projects inclusive to all, to transition into the future with trepidation, but also hope.
By the time my three months were over, I was ready to leave Susan’s, though the world my parents called “real” loomed forebodingly. The farm felt more real to me than the smog, trash, and surveillance of New York, or the rarefied, academic environment of Columbia. The first few weeks back I felt lost and alone, a mindless cog in a system I could not control.
I realize the limitations of my individual actions in an inherently destructive system, but each piece of trash, each thoughtless comment in class, each homeless person rankled me in a new way. Still, it was disconcertingly easy to fall back into the pattern of school, cell phones, and city life.
Dropping out permanently may not be sustainable, but I am learning how to balance my two communities, returning both physically when I can and also in memory whenever I like to the farm, in order to live as freely as possible in both places.