Book Excerpt: Out to Change The World

Living Together

Because most members at this time were in their 20’s and 30’s, there was still plenty of incentive to have an active social life, in other words, to party, which in essence just meant, hanging out and laughing a lot, listening to or making music, having a good time. In the outside world, circles of young people often have one friend who accepts the role of party house, the place where everyone gathers on weekends (or more) to get down. When the chemistry was right, every house on The Farm felt like a party house, with large groups of young people drawn together, celebrating life by living on the edge, in a way mom and dad just didn’t understand. It was a blast.

Ch 5 wedding reception - Deborah far right

A wedding reception. My wife Deborah is on the far right, anxiously awaiting the cake with a spoon in her mouth.

Working It Out

This mass experiment in communal living came to define life on The Farm in the mid to late 70’s and early 80’s. Living in such close quarters meant people got to know each other real fast, discovering both someone’s good side as well as their character flaws or “ego.” Because each person (supposedly) came to the community with the intention to grow spiritually, it was expected that those closest would inform you about personal shortcomings, be it unkind words, getting uptight, self-serving, or any number of less than desirable human traits.

Rosa defined it this way, “Working It Out” means to sit down and a non-angry or emotional way and talk about something, a situation which made you feel uncomfortable that involves them. It helps you remain more honest and open, enabling you to stay friends.”

Talking to someone and processing in order to gain clarity on where changes were needed did not necessarily mean the person was open or receptive to the information. They were just as likely to become defensive, even argumentative. As often as not, the dispute might be between two people, with each one having a role in the situation. These conversations became known as the “sort out,” referring to the task of hearing out both sides in order to determine the truth. When it worked, great personal growth and change could take place.

The communal households were referred to a “group head,” a description of the group mind and subsequent gestalt personality that was reflection of the people who were living together. Most people understand the concept of chemistry between two people, but this same reference to human energy relationships was evident in communal living arrangements. When a group head had good chemistry, the people living within it enjoyed being together and had a good time. It could just as easily go the other way, with constant friction, bickering, and an uptight scene.

One way to determine the mental health of a household was to look at how general tasks were performed. One of the best references was one we all face every day, doing the dishes! Of course since there was no electricity, all dishes were washed by hand, and a house of 20-40 people could generate a lot of dirty dishes. Ideally, if the group had really good agreement, everyone would simply pitch in together every night to do clean up until it was all done. However you couldn’t always count on everything to work out so smoothly. Those carrying large responsibilities, such as the midwives, might have erratic schedules. Large families with a lot of kids may feel they needed to take care of getting the kids to bed and excuse themselves. Or it could simply come down to some folks are go getters who take care of business and others are more laid back or “low juice,” oblivious to the needs of the home. There was also the issue of “standards,” people unbothered by a dirty kitchen and those who cannot rest until cleanup has been taken care of.

Often the best solution was simply to devise a schedule and assign tasks. That way each person had their turn and would know what was expected of them, as well as have other times when they were free to do something else. With a schedule there was no “blame” (“Why aren’t they helping?”), roles were defined, allowing everyone to relax and know that things were covered.

“It was interesting, because we argued over the dishes and would haggle over what it meant to be a spiritual community,” Judy said as she described what it was like to live with a couple dozen people you really did not know. “It was a monastery, a family monastery, and I had to learn how to be a monk.” She went on to say, “There were so many people here, wonderful people.”

Even the kids learned the process of “working it out,” both by watching the adults, and by being taught how to work out their problems. “There was a lot of working it out on the old Farm,” remembers Mark Hubbard, who was born on The Farm in 1975, but now lives there as an adult. “We saw it through example by our parents and other folks in the community working it out with each other and whenever we get into problems, we had to talk through them with her parents and whoever we had transgressed against. I see that skill now with me and my friends, being able to communicate, and when we are out in society it is a great strengths we all bring to the table.”

Child Care

Ch 6 Satellite Farms Green River group shotChild care was another part of everyday life that benefited from scheduling. Because Farm families were just going through their childbearing years, many of the kids were small and still in diapers. New moms would be nursing and it was generally accepted that men went off to work and mothers stayed home with their kids. However, most women were also actively engaged in some type of career or job out on The Farm. By sharing child care, each woman was able to combine staying at home and going out to work. Similar to life on the outside, those with older kids were able to send them off to The Farm School and spend even more hours on the job.

To help facilitate child care and work a step further, some operations were able to incorporate day care. The canning and freezing operation had a space set up for the “kid herd,” with beds for naps and a fenced in play area. Moms could take turns processing food or watching kids. Even new mothers with nursing babies could be included, with someone to watch over their child when it was sleeping while remaining readily available for feedings, changing diapers and whatever else they might need.

Household Entertainment and TV

Naturally there was a desire for entertainment of some kind in the evenings. With the essence of rock and roll deeply embedded in the culture, most households had one or two people who could play guitar and lead a sing along or get people dancing.

In the early years there were no TV’s on The Farm and as might be expected, they were considered evil and taboo. Then The Farm was featured in a 1 hour show about intentional communities hosted by comedian Jonathan Winters. A TV was purchased and set up in the Farm Store. It was pretty exciting to see the community portrayed on the screen.

One of the big three broadcast TV networks started airing a show starring Keith Karadine as a monk that knew martial art of “Kung Fu.” He would only use his skills for self-defense or to save another, and no one was ever killed, so it was deemed slightly OK. Each show had a scene where the young monk would receive a teaching from the old master, “Oh grasshopper,” basically lifted from the Buddhist teacher Lao Tsu. Stephen declared this to be cool and a TV was set up in the canning and freezing tent so that folks could watch.

By the late 70’s, car batteries were providing power for lights in virtually all homes and this same power source could be used to operate small, portable black and white TV’s. At a cost of just over $100, as the idea caught on, more and more households figured out some way to acquire a TV. The show “Saturday Night Live” went on the air in 1978 with the original cast, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, and the rest of the ensemble. It was an immediate hit on The Farm, one of the first programs to resonate with the humor and sensibilities of the boomer generation. Soon everyone was exclaiming the buzz words of Steve Martin, the “wild and crazy guy.” It gave The Farm a way to loosen up and have fun.

Moms at home with the kids could catch a break by turning on a new show called “Sesame Street.” But because battery power was limited and that we really didn’t want to overly indulge in mainstream culture, there were no Saturday morning cartoon marathons full of commercials and violent humor.

Another benefit to the home battery power was the addition of automotive care stereos, giving each house a sound system. Some loud rock, reggae or blues made doing the dishes fun. It also allowed The Farm to stay in sync with contemporary music, provided a way to feel more connected to the outside world and hip culture.

Saturday Money

Pretty early on it was apparent that the collective economy was not satisfying all the financial needs of the community, especially when it came to the construction of and improvements to homes. There was never really much of a black market system as in the eastern bloc communist economies, but The Farm did develop release valves to help satisfy the needs of the people.

At some point in the mid-70’s it was deemed permissible for individuals and households to earn money on Saturday that did not have to be turned in to the central bank. For example, if someone needed money to go on a long trip to visit their family, they would look for some way to earn money by working outside The Farm on Saturday, usually performing some type of labor or construction for a neighbor.

People who worked on the construction crew had an advantage. They were outside The Farm every day where they would run into people with small construction projects that could be completed on a couple of Saturdays. They would also have access to a crew van and tools. If a household had the good fortune to include a few people who worked on the construction crew, then the household’s potential income could be substantial, enough to purchase building materials for an addition, linoleum for the kitchen floor, windows, all items that were never going to come through or purchased the regular budget.

It was not a fair or equitable system, but it did give people with the incentive and willingness to take on extra work, a way to directly benefit from their efforts. It also helped improve the quality of live for people in the short term, making it possible for them to tolerate the shortcomings of the collective income. Stephen used another Bible quote to bring a sense of logic to this exception to the rules, “Don not bind the mouths of those that tread the grain.”


Ch 1 Government - Stephen at Sunday ServicesOne of the essential components that held The Farm together during those early years was Sunday Services. Every Sunday morning, an hour before sunrise, echoing through the ridges and valleys you could hear the sound of conch shells blown like bugles announcing that it was time to gather for Sunday mediation. The gentle tones had an earthy resonance that called up a primal essence, adding to the sense that the weekly ritual was connecting with the essential core of spirituality.

In the dim light of early morning the hundreds would file down to an open meadow that stretched from far up on a hillside all the way down to the creek, providing a grand vista of the valley below. Across the creek the ridge lines rose up again in forest stretching across the horizon. The multitudes sat in silence, listening to the cacophony of birds also rising to greet the day.

With all eyes focused on the upper edge of the tree line, the glowing edge of the sun eventually nudged its way into view and Stephen would begin the ‘om,” the sound of all voices joined together on a single note, the sound of the universe. It carried the deep resonance of male voices, the pure high notes of the women, with resonance and harmonic undertones so pure and open that the heart was filled with pure joy and the connection to oneness was at once felt and understood without the clutter of words or mental comprehension. The rising energy was pure magic as we watched the sun physically move before our eyes until it would finally hang suspended above the trees, and the om, which had rung like church bells for several minutes, gradually trailed off and disappeared, leaving your mind and spirit cleansed.

With the energy still high Stephen would rise and call forward any couples wishing to be married, so that we were honoring their bond with our most sacred attention, before it became mixed with earthly thoughts. In true Zen like form, the wedding vows were stripped down to their bare simplicity. There was no need for Stephen to ramble on about the sanctity of marriage, or the relevance of the ceremony. This was regarded as self-evident. Marriage was the essence of family and symbolized the union that made life itself possible for every person on the planet. Over the next decade dozens of couples would make the solemn commitment before their friends, before their community, and to the universe in the open expanse reaching up to the heavens.

With these important matters now complete, Stephen would give the signal to circle up and all would move in closer to hear him speak. Most of The Farm’s residents had been raised in Christian or Judeo traditions, and so the idea of listening to a spiritual figurehead of the community delivering a message of the week was familiar and fit into the order of things.

Douglas recalls, “My family attended a Southern Baptist church, so I regarded Stephen as our preacher delivering a Sunday sermon. It was important to me that I was not under the spell of a cult leader, but saw myself as someone committed to following a spiritual path, searching for knowledge and guidance to help me be a better person. This way of looking at things help me put Stephen’s role in perspective.”

Services in Winter

In winter months when it was too cold to sit outside, Sunday mediation was held in the Horse Barn, one of the original buildings across from The House. This time takes on almost legendary status as the location of discussions and philosophical debates between Stephen and local fundamentalist preachers who would come out in an attempt to save our souls. The conversations in general were kept friendly and humorous and while no minds were converted on either side, it did help introduce the community to local Tennesseans and spread the world that we were indeed a spiritual community.

As the group grew in size services moved to a larger barn built by the community, followed by and even larger and more open greenhouse, available when the plants growing inside.

Of course there were times when it was just too cold for the weather to nasty for people to be out and about. In order for the community to continue receiving its weekly address from Stephen, one of The Farm’s technical engineers came up with a system that modulated Stephen’s voice onto the phone lines that ran to each home and dwelling. By placing a transistor radio adjacent to the phone and tuning it to the right frequency Stephen’s voice could be heard, supplying the unifying connection that would help hold people together through the dark and bitter cold.


Taking this one step further, farm technicians discovered that a cable TV companies serving one of the local towns had brought miles of aluminum jacketed cable along with the amplifiers, connectors and other components for private TV system and left them at the county dump. These were immediately “scammed” and brought to the farm, then strung up on the telephone poles going down the main road and onion trees running down the side roads to about 60% of the households, right along with the phone lines. By the early 80s, The Farm had its own in-house cable system with Stephen appearing on camera every Sunday morning through the winter. The system could also be used for other programs, such as skits by the teenagers attending the farm school and reports by those in charge of various aspects of the community.

All Together

By the late 1970s the energy of The Farm was undeniable. Now with over 1000 people, there was a sense of being inside a beehive, with worker bees buzzing about in all directions. There were tractors, cars and trucks, constantly moving up and down the main road, but altogether there were only about 100 vehicles, use mostly by work crews, the midwives, and the few small companies. Most people walked or rode bicycle, which meant there was a steady stream of human traffic moving about all hours of the day.

Even the airwaves crackled from The Farm’s own FM broadcast station and the chatter from CB radios installed in just about every car or truck on the road. In addition, The Farm was actively engaged in amateur radio communication. “Ham” radios were used to communicate with Stephen and the band when they were on the road, as well as people stationed at the various affiliated, satellite communities in other states, small communes that were linked in a network under the umbrella of The Farm hippies and seekers who recognized Stephen as a spiritual teacher.

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