Live Through This

The Simple Life

What it’s like to live on a commune.

I informed him that his tag was stupid. He informed me that most people are dupes, and that this whole money-jobs-society-thing was a joke. That once you start living for freedom and you realize that love is real and money is not—not if you don’t want it to be—the world becomes your holy playground. He plucked a passage from The Book of the Secrets, by the spiritual leader Osho:

When one surrenders, one becomes like a valley. One becomes depth, not height. Then the whole existence begins to pour into him from everywhere…. The whole existence begins to pour!

Now I felt the muscles of my carefully maintained face clench; I felt my book learning resist his carefree ethic. Every part of me resisted his message, save for that gnawing ache that was sick of the world I knew.

We spooned, and he regaled me with stories about sleeping in the hollows of redwoods, about traveling kids who have nothing, but who band together, forming new families, taking care of one another and sharing what they’ve got. He told me about a commune called Wolf House, hidden in the desolate mountains of Northern California.

Wolf House has been around since the 1960s; it’s anarchist, and operates on the assumption that people are good and can manage themselves. There are no work schedules and no rules, and anyone can show up at any time. The Wolves only ask that you try to give at least as much as you take. So travelers pass through—some stay days, some years—scavenging, living off the land and pulling power from the wheel that spins in the stream. Its slogan is “Free land for free people.” In the garden a sign reads “GROW FOOD OR DIE.”

So, I told my boss that I had to jet because I felt my soul turning to sludge, and I could no longer force a smile. I sublet my room, and I set off with Nigh.

III. THE HEART POTATO.

I kept a journal during my time on the commune, written evidence that I use to remind me what it was really like, so I can neither romanticize it nor write it off as a dream, even now. These are bits and scraps, pieces of memories I wanted to keep.

April, 2012.

The silence of Nigh whhppppp whhhhhhypppppinng sucking in twice, hitting the pipe. We thread our ascent up the perilous mountain: the road to the Wolf. My ears pop.

***

“I’ll meet you by the meadow to dig beds for some motherfuckin’ corn, man, and once we get that rototiller out we’ll be eaten’ all SORTS of corn corn chowder canned corn corn bread corn pudding yo I want to break out the barbecue this summer we gotta get our work done so we can be really sustainable I want us to be sustainable yo we were supposed to have bees last summer and wouldn’t it be great if we could make our own honey, but if we all threw down we could do so MUCH with this farm. We could make honey. We could have bees, man.” —Barnaby, who has wise eyes and a serious voice, a thick beard like from another ancient time piled on top his child-sized body, and two silvery hoops hooped around his nipples…

***

There is a turquoise American Spirit canister nailed to the white wall by the kitchen door. I had put that canister with that random assortment of things that I knew not what to do with. And I had forgotten it, but then earlier today El shuffled around peering into the ashtrays that are scattered around the porch and he said (jovially but, you know, a bit irritated): “Y’all kids been smoking ’em down to the very ends, not saving much for a trash shuffler like me.” And Nigh, always the giver, said, “You can roll some from mine,” to which El replied, “Nah, no thanks. I’m a trash collector, anyhow. But I’ll put these”—and he lays out his palm, showing us the many butts he has scrounged with a big I-gotcha grin—“here, right here. Always leave ’em here,” and he points to the canister nailed to the wall.

El. At first I brushed him off as one of those garrulous old men that communes attract, but his face is beginning to haunt me in one of those higher-being ways, those higher beings that eat your soul with their eyes. He is old and soily and milks the goats at seven and starts the fire and makes oats every morning for everyone. “El’s living out his dream here,” we heard Rachel hiss to Marshall one morning as they spoke in their shouts-lowered-to-whispers. “His dream.” And then we heard Marshall follow Rachel around the kitchen as she made breakfast for everyone with their baby, Chakra, strapped to her back, and when the shout-whispers ceased we tiptoed downstairs and found that Rachel had once again whipped up something out of nothing, making gravy with cilantro from the garden plus flour, and it was goo-oood, gravy on bread fresh outta the oven. Rachel does this all with her seven-month-old swaddled tight to her back with one long strip of white cotton, and she bends over at the hip and lets the baby dangle down her back and fidgets with the cloth till it is centered again and she swings the cloth ends over and around each shoulder and into an elegant knot, and she blows the conch shell, announcing breakfast.

***

“Yeah dude, sounds like we don’t have as many food stamps as we thought.”

“Trade ya.”

“I have some vodka I don’t want to fuck with. You can fuck with it.”

***

This morning as we snuggled in our makeshift home, a pile of quilts on top of some wood planks, Nigh said, “I dreamed about us homesteading. Every night I dream about us homesteading.” We’ve met a lot of kids here who dream of homesteading: living off the land and off the grid, leading a self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle. “I’m still anxious about what Rachel said,” I replied. Because last night she said she’d read a really great book that was floating around and someone said, “Well, what was it about?” and Rachel looked blankly at them and paused. “Well,” she said, “I should start by saying, you’re asking someone who has a hard time remembering things,” and she paused again as she looked up at the expectant faces and they waited, so she continued: “And also I should say that when I read, I don’t read things front to back, I skip around.” And still the faces looked up at her from the shadowy porch, the big moon, and then she said that the book was something about gardening with the moon, and planting your beds in spiraling patterns to align with the moon, somehow. And later she turned to Marshall, saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to worry, not to have to bust your ass when you’re older just for some cucumber? Just to be able to eat?” and Marshall looked at her defensively and like she was a complete idiot and said, “Yeah, that’s what we’re DOING, that’s what you DO, you work hard when you’re young and strong so you can enjoy it when you’re older. That’s what my grandfather did—he built his house when he was young so he could sit in it when he was old.” And Rachel looked at him imploringly and said, “But…that’s not what we’re doing.”

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33 Comments

  • Flower November 21st, 2012 3:29 PM

    I’ve always had a vague idea that I want to live in a commune one day because I hate the whole idea of 9 to 5 and schedule and stuff is scarier than not having much structure. This is brilliantly written <3

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Hannah November 21st, 2012 3:34 PM

    The link at the bottom of page is wrong, I think it’s supposed to be wwoof.org

  • caro nation November 21st, 2012 3:35 PM

    Oh how I love this.

  • Hannah November 21st, 2012 3:38 PM

    I loved this article. It makes me want to reevaluate my whole life and what I’m working towards in my future. It’s intriguing and awesome.

  • ometembe November 21st, 2012 3:50 PM

    I enjoyed the way this piece was written and appreciate it’s point of view. I really like how it made me reflect on how the idea of “a simple life” is radically different depending on your personal history.
    For me, it has a lot to do with family. My parents grew up in a developing nation, with one-bedroom apartments for their whole family, in a country that has widespread poverty. They worked hard to be able to immigrate, work, and have a life that yes, is riddled with commodities and suburbs and cars, but is an enormous comfort for their parents and relatives in their home country, to know how well they are doing and how different of a life their children (me!) can have.

    I feel like to forsake what my parents worked so hard to give me would be insulting, or to take it for granted to an incredible degree. But I think I just don’t have the privilege of being able to do that – I kind of have this guilt as a first-generation child to get a job and be really successful so my parents know it wasn’t all in vain. I try to remember that living “simply” in much of the world is just plain living.

    • jenaimarley November 21st, 2012 4:53 PM

      This is really interesting point!
      I really get what you mean about privilege and guilt. I think for a lot of hippies, they truly want to escape our consumerist/capitalist culture and their often white and/or well-off background (for which they feel guilt and spite) but they have the privelege to fall back upon it if need be.

    • wd37 November 22nd, 2012 2:27 AM

      “I try to remember that living “simply” in much of the world is just plain living.”

      this is so true.

    • a-anti-anticapitalista November 22nd, 2012 9:47 AM

      I am also an immigrant and my parents also struggled before coming here and while being here, but the way I see it is that most immigrants (all except the wealthy ones pretty much) come to this country BECAUSE of things this country or the system it protects so strongly have done -even the ones coming because of political asylum, like my parents. We lose our lives and we struggle, and people who are born here struggle too, all because of that, and yet we are encouraged to be blind to this and to work hard to become the same as those who once oppressed us. My parents may not approve of it, but my conscience is not clean if I do not work to abolish the system that has ruined our lives and made us struggle so hard.

  • anoziram November 21st, 2012 3:52 PM

    This was really impressive. I’ve been really curious about living on communes ever since I knew what they were (and had my parents thinking I was a legit hippie for quite a while too), and the idea fascinates me.
    Thanks so much for writing this in such an interesting way, Anna.
    Rookie, thank YOU for being so splendid.

  • Mary the freak November 21st, 2012 4:05 PM

    The collage at the top. I am dying.
    Anyways, I have always planned and wanted to live in a commune. I am really exited..
    amazing and helpful article! :))

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

    Ps: so exited for this gangnam style article…!

  • ♡ reba ♡ November 21st, 2012 4:30 PM

    this was just really well written, lovely and thought provoking, i loved it :-) :-) xxxx

  • ROAD KAT November 21st, 2012 4:32 PM

    This was written in a brilliant way. I’m a drifter / wanderer / traveller of sorts and seeing this kind of stuff on Rookie makes me so incredibly happy. Thank you for being so lovely!

    http://roadkat.blogspot.com/

  • Tangerine November 21st, 2012 4:36 PM

    Love this article. It’s so beautiful. And only serves to confirm what I already know- I could never enjoy living on a commune. (Showers! Time to read books! Thai food! All better than living “simply”) Growing my own food is fun, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t have to grow ALL of it.
    The speech at the end, by the way, made me cry at my desk.

  • jenaimarley November 21st, 2012 4:47 PM

    This is really rad.
    My mom grew up in VW vans in Woodstock and Morocco and my family has been on the edge of hippie-ism and communes ever since. So I acknowledge and am very thankful for the raw and honest but respectful portrayal of these things.
    Thank you!
    Also I want to do WWOOF!!!!

  • a-anti-anticapitalista November 21st, 2012 5:54 PM

    This is great and all, and a lot of people enjoy the squatter and/or hippiecommune lifestyle, and good for them if they go into it… BUT I think that everyone already has this idea that the only alternative to capitalist/state living is having a “bathing-optional” life away from technology or with a bunch of people packed into one squat house or living in a field and sleeping in hammocks, and while that lifestyle is just as good as any other, it’s not for everyone. I don’t think it does any good for humanity to make them think that there are so few alternatives to capitalism and that it’s either this or that, that you are either a consumer or a revolutionary, when it is not true. There are ways to live the way we live right now while leading truly free lives, and there are examples to draw from like anarchist spain or the worker-owned factories in argentina. It’s okey to want to live free right here and now, but if you want everyone to be free the best way is to work to show people that another world, with a million different options as far as their imagination can take them, is possible within this one, that they can have a freer and more meaningful version of the lifestyle they lead now, that everything we have now can be kept without capitalism/the state and that there is no limit.

  • angelsandlace November 21st, 2012 6:14 PM

    Wowowowowowow. This article is so good. So many people think of communes and hippies and everything associated with those words without really knowing what it’s like, so it’s really interesting to be able to read about it from someone who’s actually lived on a commune’s point of view. Wowza. I am blown away by this writing!

  • Ben November 21st, 2012 9:02 PM

    I often think about all the things society views as normal and expects everyone to do like brushing your teeth every morning and showering daily and shaving and having jobs where we earn money we can trade for other stuff we want and how this is not how it always was and this is not the only way. I’m really inspired by this and someday would like to live in nature/a commune and enjoy nature and not having too many restrictions but i do see myself going back to living more “normal” after a while, but also keeping with me the lessons i learn and still appreciating nature more and not caring what society thinks. I think it would definatly be a cool life changing experience tho.

    • a-anti-anticapitalista November 22nd, 2012 9:42 AM

      There is a way to live a “normal” life without having a 9 to 5 job and being enslaved to money and bosses and the state. It’s just that we have to work for that to happen.

  • LB November 21st, 2012 9:47 PM

    Great, awesome article. I really am interested in intentional communities. If others are interested a great book is “Children of the Counterculture” by John Rothchild and Susan Wolf. It was published in 1974 and describes in first person trips to communes all across America.

  • TinaRibena November 21st, 2012 11:02 PM

    Thank you yet again for a moving and beautiful article! This really resonated with me, as recently I’ve been feeling a lot like I don’t belong with this modern suburban lifestyle. I’d love to go to a place like Wolf, a place where people can be at one with the earth again! So thank you, Anna, you wrote my dreams :) xx

  • wd37 November 22nd, 2012 2:26 AM

    this is the best thing ever thanks

  • LilySew November 22nd, 2012 4:29 AM

    This article is so interesting, i feel like it offers a very real insight into this lifestyle. To be honest, I probably could’ve hardly told you what a commune was before reading this article. Thankyou :D

    http://sewoverdressed.blogspot.com.au/

  • Julia November 22nd, 2012 6:09 AM

    best EVER.

  • sweetvalleyhi November 22nd, 2012 6:38 AM

    nostalgic/dreamy/honest – amazing

  • Emma November 22nd, 2012 10:34 AM

    This is beautiful ♥

  • RockHatesMiriam November 22nd, 2012 11:37 AM

    LOVE this! <3
    I've always wanted to live in a commune and this was sooo beautifully :)

    http://www.pompandceremony.blogspot.com

  • 63me63 November 22nd, 2012 1:16 PM

    this is so reminiscent of the electric kool-aid acid test. similar styles of writing. people should read that book if they found this interesting

  • Elizabete November 23rd, 2012 10:51 AM

    This article really resonated with me! Lately i have been thinking about consumerism culture, capitalism, veganism, meaning of life ( cliche i know ) and such things quite a lot and kept thinking after reading this too.

    That was interesting to see an insiders point of view. It made me wonder if i would like to live like this too and came to conclusion that it wouldn’t be exactly what i’m looking for. I kind of feel like there wouldn’t be enough personal development for me ( no offense, might be perfect for others) and wouldn’t change much in the whole consumerist society, on the other hand though, everyone can make a difference :)

    http://melodyfairitale.wordpress.com/

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild November 23rd, 2012 4:56 PM

    My boyfriend and I plan on moving to a commune within the next few years. It’s been a dream of mine since I was younger.

    <3 Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • izbee November 28th, 2012 10:22 PM

    Do you guys know about any organic farming opportunities for under-18ers? I’d love to do some work on a farm this summer but all of the WWOOF programs are for people over 18. Thanks!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 24th, 2013 1:55 PM

    This is beautiful. Wow. Just… wow.

  • Lyla Maloney March 21st, 2013 11:03 AM

    This article was interesting and beautifully written, but as a Navajo, I wonder about the inclusion of the speech at the end. It’s context seems to be appropriated for the crisis of this article.