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Aging of Aquarius

Graybeard capitalists keep hippie dreams alive as communes learn to adapt.

June 27, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

The Farm, Tennessee — Albert BATES grows nostalgic remembering the freewheeling days when hundreds of hippies left Haight-Ashbury in a caravan of psychedelic buses for a celebrated back-to-the-land pilgrimage. Bates was a law student when this electric circus rolled through New York in 1970, and he found it irresistible. Soon he followed, joining a young, affluent exodus to the American countryside that would be one of the most profound social experiments of its time.

His long hair and beard have grayed, but Bates still lives at The Farm, the storied American commune he helped build in backwoods Tennessee. Sipping Mystic Brew organic coffee at its eco-village, he chuckles at the memory of the trippy energy that once inspired some communards to boot up their "Marijuana Macintoshes" and design a Geiger counter they sold, for almost nothing, as a dashboard ornament for anti-nuke protesters.

"It was a novelty item, but it turned out to be very accurate," Bates says with a grin. "It was pretty funny."

The homegrown Nuke-Buster is no joke now.

Today, the computerized, satellite-accessible nuclear detectors are used worldwide by police, military, firefighters and federal disaster officials. They are used to stem nuclear contraband at the borders that Belarus and Kazakhstan share with Russia. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sales have risen 30%, to $2.5 million last year. The Farm-based manufacturer has been commended by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Not bad for a place that spent years under FBI surveillance.

"Homeland Security's been good to us. We're high-tech hippies now," says Stephen Gaskin, the charismatic former San Francisco State lecturer who was once The Farm's guru, preaching a long-abandoned doctrine of multiple-partner marriage and marijuana spiritualism. "We've had to find ways to survive," Bates echoed, "in the material world."

Hundreds of American utopian communities face the same challenge. A surprising number are thriving. But if American communes were once, in the eyes of Joan Didion, "slouching towards Bethlehem," many today lean closer to Merrill Lynch.

Tie-dye, wood-burning stoves and mandalas still abound. But so do multimillion-dollar industries and financial restructuring that residents earnestly liken to the transformation of the Communist world. They may have dropped out of mainstream society to live a utopian dream, but now they embrace capitalism as a tool of survival, on their own terms. Most, including The Farm, no longer define themselves as communes, describing themselves as collectives, cooperatives and egalitarian communities.

More than 600 such settlements in the United States are listed in the directory of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. The Fellowship's executive secretary, Laird Schaub, estimates that at least 10,000 Americans live in rural collectives.

That population could climb as high as 150,000 when religion-based cooperative communities -- such as the Hutterites, who do not believe in private property -- are factored in, according to University of Kansas religion professor Tim Miller, who studies communal life.

People in their 20s and 30s still join collectives, but now more of the newcomers than ever before are older than 50, Schaub said.

"There's a surge," said Schaub, 54, a member of the 30-year-old Sandhill commune in Rutledge, Mo. "We've been astounded at how easy it is to get summer interns who want to learn about organic farming. We have to turn them away."

The communities produce industrial strength quantities of organic nut butters, artisanal cheeses, vegetables, tofu, hammocks, commercial vegetable and flower seeds -- even a dessert wine endorsed by European wine snobs.

Virginia's Twin Oaks produces hammocks for Pier One. The nut butters produced by a Missouri commune, East Wind, supply such mainstream chains as Whole Foods and Wild Oats, whose stores also market Sandhill's organic sorghum.

In a region where family farms have become an endangered species in a single generation, organic farms such as Sandhill are lauded by the Missouri Department of Agriculture Web page as possible models for survival.

Some communities, like Harbin Hot Springs, in the Northern California town of Middletown, host paying tourists, with such amenities as hikes and shiatsu massage. Innisfree, in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, runs a boarding school for disabled children; another community has a summer camp for urban kids. Sunrise Ranch in Colorado runs a conference and retreat center, a growing source of income.

The communities have slick websites, marketing directors, federations, group health plans, hotlines, magazines, conventions and thick directories filled with romantic names -- Dancing Rabbit, Dancing Water, Abundant Dawn, Dawning Star -- that evoke an ocean of idyllic yearning.

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