Friday, April 12, 2013

What's Missing...

This is a video about a different commune, but the principles, ideas and practices are very similar to that of New Buffalo and many others.

I'm still plowing through Arthur ('Arty') Kopecky's New Buffalo Commune journals. I approach them with a kind of fascinated awe because this is the kind of primary historical documentation I am enthralled with. You should have seen me with the historical journals (and letters and all sorts of other stuff) of the California Gold Rush and subsequent Railroad Era!

The material provides a picture of the reality of what was going on -- as it was happening -- that isn't much like the mythical overview that's called History. LIFE magazine and the other media of the time couldn't capture the reality of this or much of any other historical moment in part because they weren't set up to do that. They're set up to create the overview and the myth. They don't have space or time to tell the story, and they are incapable of documentation as it happens.

Television and radio couldn't do it, either, in part because of their requirement for "distance." There are certain establishing shots that have to be done, certain camera angles that have to be preserved, certain interactions to undertake. One says and does things in highly specific ways for radio and television that don't reflect what is done and said when the cameras and microphones aren't there. Movies have the same problem.

Journals are sketches. They aren't the whole story. But they outline the various things that are important to the journal writer at the time, and from the sketch, readers can often build a much more complete picture in their minds' eyes.

Blogging has some of the same characteristics, though some of us bloggers are far more prolix than most journal and letter writers. Livestreaming of events such as the demonstrations of the Occupy Movement is much closer to the reality of what's going on in real time, but the streamer's and the camera's point of view is always so narrow that it misses most of what's happening and who is involved. Ultimately, it's barely even a sketch.

I have yet to visit any of New Mexico's remaining communes and intentional communities (there are at least 70, perhaps more, though the link lists only 35), but I know some unreconstructed hippies as well as others who have been part of these movements and their consciousness raising from time to time over the years. People like to think that the Back to the Land Movement was a failure, and in some ways it most certainly was. Living off the land is not easy for one thing. In some ways, it's probably not possible to do it the way it was once imagined it could be done, "independently" of the larger society and economy. Even a bare subsistence off the land is probably not possible, partly because of the very existence of the larger society and economy.

I think about this in the context of asking why so many Native peoples succumb to the presence of another material culture or society. And asking why -- and how -- so many survive. Why aren't they strong enough to resist?

But then I realized that was the wrong question. They do what they can to resist, but as the more powerful material culture spreads and takes hold, it becomes less and less possible for the Natives to maintain their own way of life in its midst. Ultimately they can't hold on; it's too costly and there are no longer enough resources available and accessible for the Native culture and way of life to be sustained.

Back to the Land was intended to reverse the process. It works up to the point that it doesn't. And when it doesn't, things fall apart, often disastrously.

New Buffalo was founded -- if you want to call it that -- by an absentee rich fellow who purchased some land in Northern New Mexico between Arroyo Hondo and Taos (around 9,000 ft elevation, which isn't exactly ideal for farming!) and opened it up to would be communards to come, do and prosper. This happened quite a bit back in the day. Land was relatively cheap (if you were rich enough) and relatively widely available. There were abandoned farms everywhere (it was a period of agricultural consolidation), and there were millions of restless young people "looking for to find" alternatives to their dreary programmed existence. Bingo!

It's not unlike the situation today when you think about it. The real estate market collapse has made millions of homes and a lot of land very, very cheap to buy -- if you are rich enough, if you have enough pelf to begin with. If you're not, it's not that easy at all.

Back in the day, those who had wealth -- especially young people with inherited wealth -- were much more willing to buy land and experiment with alternative approaches to matters social and spiritual than seems to be the case today. It was even possible back then for people of much more marginal means to pool their resources and set out to build a new-model community without the instigation or backing of wealthy patrons.

The rules are somewhat different now. Or so it seems.

New Buffalo had a rocky start, but it grew and it prospered as those who could handle the requirements of communal living and near pioneer conditions found it and stuck around. One of the things I've noticed about Kopecky's journals is that they are filled with physical, psychological and spiritual evaluations of practically everybody already on site and those who come by. Are they strong, are they young enough, do they have any weaknesses, will they fit, do they have anything to offer, can they handle it and get along, how close are they to the Divine? Can they cook or fix a truck or build things? Do they have any material goods they can share-- how about books? Are they creative? Are they lonely? Are they social? Do they know anything -- at all -- about farming? Can they operate a tractor, wrangle livestock, deal with the neighbors? What is their background? Are they crazy, drunk, whacked out on drugs? Are they just tourists?

Kopecky evaluates everyone -- even himself -- on an ongoing basis. Sometimes he strikes me as remarkably judgmental when something else is called for, but I realize he's trying to ensure that the community and the farm work as well as they can under what are truly difficult, borderline impossible, circumstances. He uses the tools he's brought with him -- from New York and California as it happens -- and one of them is his need to evaluate others -- and himself.

During the Occupy heyday, I was involved with quite a few people who were active in the field of alternative and intentional community building some of them with a great deal of experience doing it, others with an intense longing to be part of it. When The Farm became the center of the community formation process, a lot of people stepped back. It was in some ways just too difficult and scary. (It's a long, complicated, and ultimately very sad story that I won't go into here, but it mirrored some of what happens as intentional communities are founded -- and fall apart or are taken apart as was the case in this instance.)

"Evaluation" of participants is a fundamental necessity -- and it is one of the most difficult things to handle and get right. That's one of the reasons why it can take years to develop a well-functioning intentional community or commune. They don't happen spontaneously, though they may be initiated spontaneously.

I think about these things in the context of St. Francis and what he was trying to do almost a thousand years ago -- and the hostilities and hazards he faced every step of the way. I think about it in terms of the pioneers who went out West, whether to California or New Mexico or wherever, to make a new life (including my mother's parents and my father's grandparents). I think about it in terms of my own life and the quest I've been on all these years.

The motto we formulated as part of a visioning process for something to come:


has yet to catch on, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, but which clearly involve decades of conditioning toward indignity, injustice, individualism, and struggle with one another -- or war, as the case may be.

This is the legacy of Thatcherism and Reaganism, a legacy heavily propagandized for decades, with disastrous results everywhere, and yet with few or no alternatives anywhere. When New Buffalo and the other communes and intentional communities were being set up in the 1960's and '70's, the legacy -- and the propaganda -- that had conditioned their originators was quite different. The communes and intentional communities were generally honest attempts to realize the ideals we were brought up to believe in, ideals that could not be realized by submission to the material demands of consumerism and formal institutionalism and all that went with it.

But maybe there was something about those ideals that was out of whack.

Or maybe it's something else.

Back in the day, the ideals many of us were raised with and conditioned to believe in drove the demand and necessity for alternatives to the war and empire, the consumer, conformist culture we were immersed in. Back to the Land was one of those alternatives. But now, though people have the notion they need to do something like that again, it's proving more and more difficult to imagine it, to visualize it coming to pass, even though, perhaps, the opportunity to do it is greater now than it was in the 1960's or '70's.

Or maybe it is something else. I've said many times that the demonstrations of the Occupy Movement were the key elements of what was going on. They were demonstrations of alternatives to the cruelties and destructive tendencies of the Overclass, and they had a very, very powerful impact on people's imaginations of what could be.

Some of the demonstrations, however, particularly the governing and political elements that grew directly out of the anarchist roots of the movement, were deeply troubling to those who witnessed them -- as I and many others did. It was stuff we were not prepared for, and it showed how vulnerable these latter day spontaneous communities were to the vagaries of human nature and the predation of a certain class of individuals. I documented quite a lot of what I witnessed as things developed -- and devolved.

There was something missing.

New Buffalo is still there, but it's now a proprietorship, not a commune, called The New Buffalo Center.

There are archeological digs under way.

Historical documentation and speculation takes place. Kopecky is not the only one with recollections, after all.

We can't go back to what used to be, we can only go forward. But forward to what? And how?

 Still being worked out...


  1. These are interesting posts on communes, thanks. I'll have to wait to watch the video at home. I really like the idea of communal living but my mind has been so conditioned to be "hyper individualized" it's scary. I really want to seek a simpler way of living but feel stuck. I'm responsible for 3 other people's well being right now so I can't just pick up and go. I'm having a really hard time mentally dealing with the fact that the way of life I'm currently living is insane. I guess I'll have to find answers soon. Anyway, thanks for the post.

  2. Communtarianism and liberationism were two complementary strains of the 60's
    Revolution, and it seems to me that liberationism was far and away the more widespread and successful.

    Communal living is more difficult partly because it is more personal; lots of experiments have failed miserably, but quite a few have survived at least in some form and some have flourished. As so many have pointed out, it takes years to get it right.

    But then, is it really any better in the "hyper-individualized" realm most of us are more familiar with? I don't think so.

    One of the things that comes through in all that I've seen and read and experienced over these long years is that there is no immediate or easy path. There is no way to force a solution.

    One does what one can as well and as soon as one can.