Monday, February 22, 2016

My Review of Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune

Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune by Margaret Grundstein. Oregon State University Press, 224 p.

Born in 1961, I became a teenager just as the hippie and counter culture movement was peaking. It was barely hanging on when I entered college in 1979, but the scent of patchouli and marijuana was still strong in the record stores and dormitories of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh where I majored in geology. Long hair for men was "in" and most of us listened to Neil Young, Yes, and Pink Floyd as we studied minerals, stratigraphy, and plate tectonics. Our very major put us in touch with the environmental movement that was linked via hemp rope to the remaining hippie movement that was fading out as the Reagan and Madonna era was heating up. My classmates and I lived simply. We shared houses, went camping, and studied the earth. We were not living in a commune, but we were certainly a close knit group. In these early years as an adult, I felt like I could keep on living like that forever. I loved school, the companionship of my friends, and the study of geology. I could go outside and learn about the earth any time. I had an excuse to hike and camp with friends. It was a wonderful time.

In 1982 (or was it 1981?) I was faced with an important decision in Banff, Canada. I was on a geologic field school for the summer and was topping off the tank of our van at a gas station as I gazed at the most beautiful mountains this Wisconsin flat lander had ever seen. I didn't want to stop looking. I realized that I had it in my power to walk away from my classmates and stay in Banff forever. Although I was a semester away from finishing, I didn't care. I could find work in the forests. I could get a job in a mine or in the tourist industry. Like Muir, I found the mountains calling.

I got back in the van and I finished field school. Which led to graduation, which led to graduate school, which led to a full professorship, which led to this blog.

When we are young, we all have these kinds of choices in our lives. Do we drop off the conveyor belt of success and walk away from what is expected or do we follow a path of expected normality, finding our way to jobs, mortgages, and families in the suburbs?  We also find ourselves looking for options when we are at odds with mainstream society. In our present era, some have said that they will move out of the U.S. if Donald Trump wins the presidency, which prompted Breton Island, Canada to release a statement welcoming Americans to try to bolster their population. During the Vietnam War, many moved to Canada and others found ways to disappear into the U.S. Some others during this era formed intentional utopian communities or communes.

Of course utopian communities are not a new thing. The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were utopians. For centuries, individuals have been seeking ways to gather together with like minded individuals in intentional communities. I wrote about this phenomenon recently here. Individuals who find comfort in sharing their lives with others separate from the mainstream world  are drawn to these experiences.

As Margaret Grundstein writes in her new book, Naked in the Woods:  My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune, living in these communities can be a wonderful, but difficult, experience. One forms strong bonds not just with a partner, but with everyone living in the community. Altruism requires one to think less of the self and more of the collective. One sets aside preferences in order to form a whole.

Grundstein's book is a memoir about her 5-year experience in a commune she helped form in the coastal mountains of Oregon in the late 1960's. Over 224 pages divided into 29 chapters and with many of her photos from the time, the book highlights how Grundstein left her promising graduate career in urban planning at Yale University for subsistence living (with the help of food stamps and government cheese) with many of her college friends and an array of other like minded individuals they met on their path.

The book focuses on the relationships in the community, which is not unexpected since Grundstein is now a marriage and family counselor. In the first half of the book, the tension is largely between Grundstein and her husband Hakim, a radical from a wealthy elite family in Indonesia. In the second half of the book, the tension is between the author and other members of the commune, particularly two members who owned the property. Alas, the realities of land ownership invaded the altruistic community and the commune folded. At the close of the book, Grundstein starts a new life on her own.

The commune had few rules. The members dropped out of mainstream society to escape rules and eschewed things like giving people specific duties. As we all know, in any society there are those who step in and get things done and those who don't. In Grundstein's commune, the women of the community found themselves fulfilling traditional gender roles--cooking and cleaning, while the men did heavier work and smoked dope. The lack of rules and the absence of clarity of ownership doomed the commune from the outset.

One also has to question whether drugs had anything to do with the failure of the commune. At the start of the book, we find Grundstein's future husband snorting heroine and smoking pot. At the commune, the men tended their marijuana patches and spent a considerable amount of time stoned. They had little money and the group had a hard time making significant contributions to their long-term success. With time, the charm of living without power, running water, electricity, decent housing, or regular food (they were dumpster diving near the end) faded.

The challenges were particularly apparent when children came. How does a new mother repair her body and take care of her newborn child in such primitive conditions? When one needs a new pair of glasses, or a tank of gas, or ingredients for bread, what does one do? How does one deal with individuals who don't pull their weight, or cause conflict, or make unwanted advances in a community without rules?

Because it is a memoir, the book focuses more on Grundstein's memories of key events and experiences and less on her contemporary assessment of the experience. This is unfortunate. I found myself over and over again wanting to know how she now interpreted important events. What does she think about communes now? Does she think drug use destroyed the group? What does she think about drug use today? Does she have advice for others who are seeking to join or develop a utopian society? Does she have any regrets?

Strangely, but perhaps because I know an archaeologists who specializes on the archaeology of hippie communes, I wanted more details about their material culture. Where did she get the ax that she carries in the photo of the book's cover? What happened to her jewelry? What did they use for plates, forks, and knives? Did they have music? What did she and the others leave behind when they left? What happened to the cabin that she built? I also wanted to know more about her typical day. The book highlights important moments or themes, but leaves out some of the more mundane day to day experiences. Did she have books? Once it got dark, what did they do? In the cold days of winter, how did she spend her time?

In the commune, Grundstein was heavily influenced by others, particularly her husband Hakim, in making some questionable decisions. She does take responsibility for her actions, but overall comes off as an altruistic worker bee earth mother who passively enters the commune as a good wife following her husband into the hippie experience. She is the one who plants a garden while her husband is planting marijuana. She daily cleans out the sleeping platform she shares with her husband. Momentous things seem to happen around her and to her but not because of her. I kept wondering how the story might be told from the perspective of one of the other members of the commune. Was she as neutral and bland as she made herself out to be? I kept wondering what was being edited about her own behavior. It is her book and her story to tell, but I kept wanting more. When she and her friend left the commune to find a Ms. magazine in a distant library, it felt like a prison escape. Yet she was one of the founders of the commune. While many of the other members were described in Peter Max colors, I never felt that I fully understood, or that she fully disclosed, her role in the community.

Nevertheless, Naked in the Woods is a wonderful read. For those of you of a certain age, it will bring back memories of a time that is scented in amber oil and lit with black lights. The writing is crisp and  the book reads quickly. Anyone interested in the workings of communes or intentional communities, or the history of the late 1960's and early 1970's will enjoy the book. For my part, I hope that Grundstein continues writing so that we can all learn more about her experiences in Oregon and her transition into a more mainstream life.

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