As they simplify their lives in middle age, former hippies find themselves returning to the land
David Frohman/Douglas Stevenson
When she first found the place that would one day become her retirement home, Kathy Connors was 16 years old and seven months pregnant. She left the Chicago suburbs and hitched a ride with a trucker she knew to a commune in south-central Tennessee. The commune, called the Farm, had about a dozen midwives who would deliver any woman's baby for free. Kathy had arranged to have her child there.
In late June of this year, Kathy, now 50, and her 62-year-old husband Bob drove with their 28-year-old daughter Joyce from Charlotte, North Carolina, to the Farm. Kathy visits about three times a year, but this was a special visit. It was the Farm's 40th reunion, but it was also, more importantly, the visit when Kathy would finalize plans to build the home where she and Bob planned to spend the rest of their lives.
On the drive down, Kathy's phone buzzed with texts and updates from the Farm Facebook group. Friends were posting photos and status updates. It was a big party and Kathy couldn't wait to get there.
Crossing the Tennessee border, Bob, usually a quiet man, shouted, "Welcome to Tennessee!" The family cheered. Kathy's stomach fluttered and her heart beat faster. She sent a text to an acquaintance, "the closer I get to my true home, the better I always feel."
Kathy and Bob Connors are among a handful of former Farm members who are moving back in middle age. This choice reflects that of a growing number of Baby Boomers who are choosing to retire to intentional communities, an umbrella term for living situations organized around a common value structure or vision.
Although hard figures are impossible to determine, Laird Schaub, the executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, estimates that the United States has about 4,000 intentional communities with a combined population of about 100,000. The number and population of intentional communities grew most dramatically between 1965 and 1975. Some were artists' collectives, religious communes, or self-help oriented communes, says Timothy Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Kansas, in his book The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. Others were born out of a broader idealism that aimed to rebuild the world from the ground up.
In his book The Hippies and American Values, Timothy Miller,writes:
They questioned the very rationality upon which Western culture has been built. To the counterculturists, reason had run its course; now it was time to return to the mystical and intuitional. The products of centuries of reason-dominated cultures were thrown into question as well: the hippies rejected the industrial for the agrarian, the plastic for the natural, the synthetic for the organic. Finally they challenged the formidable Western tradition of seeing the individual on a pedestal; for the hippies, communal values stood over the rights and privileges of individual persons.
The Farm's recruitment book, Hey Beatnik!, published in 1974, largely reflected Miller's observations. It referred to America's economy as being on a "speed trip," criticized overconsumption, meat-eating, organized religion, higher education and politics, and rejected individualism:
We say that we're like a mental nudist colony, and you have to take off your head clothes. We just don't believe in that level of privacy, because we'd rather be sane than be highly individualistic.
Communes began dropping off in the 1980s, although why that happened is hard to say, said Schaub.
"It doesn't really match up with recessions or boom cycles in the economy or which party controls the White House or whether the Berlin Wall was standing or falling," he said.
The individual communes' fates were as unique as their births, according to Timothy Miller. "Some communes went out with a bang, some with a whimper, and some are still going--robustly or feebly, publicly or privately, with the same leadership and ideals they had two or three decades ago or heading in some new direction," he wrote in The 60s Communes.
Douglas Stevenson, a 57-year-old former Farm manager and unofficial spokesman for the community, said that for many, communal living was a youthful experiment rather than a lifelong commitment. Because so many young adults joined communes in the 1960s and 1970s, it followed that they left en masse in the 1980s when they grew older.
"There were people who were in it for the long haul and those that weren't," said Stevenson. " It's like hair. There were the people who grew out their hair and it became their life and the people who had long hair then they had curly hair then they had short hair and it wasn't a whole lifestyle change."
What kept the Farm around at all when so many other communities disappeared, he said, was that its sheer numbers helped it weather the changeover from commune to coop. During the 1980s, the community created a new government structure, and over time members paid off the debt on the land.
"If you only had 15 to 20 people," he said, "and you had a breakdown among the members the whole thing crashed. We were large enough that we could absorb a lot of crises."
Intentional Communities have been going through another surge in popularity since 2005, according to the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Young adults in their 20s and 30s originally drove their growth, said Schaub. But this time, something different is happening.
"That group is still there, and in addition there are a lot of people over 50 trying it for the first time," said Schaub. "That's really different from what we had before."
Take Helen Spector, a 65-year-old organization development consultant. Along with her husband, also a consultant, she moved this year from California to join a cohousing community in Oregon.
"We both spend a lot of time teaching people how to work together," she said, and yet they were living in relative isolation from neighbors in their 2800-square-foot house.
Now that they are living in a cohousing development in Oregon, where private homes are small and common spaces and many appliances are shared with dozens of people, they are exploring the concept of interdependence.
"What does it mean to live in a way that we actually do and are willing to depend on others and support others?" she asked. It's a daily challenge, she said, but one that they feel compelled to take on.
Over the years, Kathy returned to the Farm for visits, taking her daughters down for a week that would extend into two. Two weeks would become three, three a month. They grew close to a family named the Skinners and would stay with them. When the Connors' daughter Barbara Ann finished high school and did not know what she wanted to do next, her parents sent her down to the Farm to live with the Skinners and paid $100 a month for her food. And more than 10 years later, now that Kathy and Bob are ready to move back, they are taking over the site the Skinners' daughter is leaving to move in with her boyfriend a few roads down.
Sitting in her friend's house on the Farm, relaxed on the couch in a tie-dyed night shirt, she explains. "Where I live in New Paltz, it's a nice place, a nice neighborhood," she said. "I have several neighbors around me that would watch out for me. They would let me know if there's a strange car in the driveway or maybe check something out. I'm pretty sure that if I was in my yard screaming 'Help!' somebody would come and help me."
"Yeah, if they were home and if they could hear me, I'm pretty sure. I'd be damn sure somebody would show up here," she said, eyes big with emphasis.
She saw this firsthand at the end of January 2009, when she got a call she'd been dreading: Stephen Skinner had died of cancer. She hopped on a plane the next day with an open-ended ticket and moved right in with the family. The community's support for the Skinners was overwhelming. Dozens of people were helping in whatever way they could--whether it was running errands in town or dropping off hot meals. Kathy became part of the small inner circle that took care of the house. They never knocked.
"Those people who were there day-to-day who were allowed to come over -- the people who could slip in unnoticed and clean the bathroom and they knew where the scrub brush was and the disinfectant was so they didn't have to bother them," said Kathy. Kathy stayed for about a month, to care for the family as she herself grieved.
"It was really helpful for me just to have days and nights where I could be with these people and, you know, we could just shake our heads and cry or just look at each other and know," she said.
While it's hardly uncommon for aging populations to worry about who will care for them as they grow older, many Farm residents expect that they will be cared for. They are accustomed to living as a closely-knit group of people acting like family. When a resident's elderly mother-in-law moves in, friends and neighbors immediately take to checking in on her.
Many expect this will continue as the group ages together, facing illness and frailty in greater numbers. The Farm's population is a steady 200. About 70 percent of those are in the founding generation, about 25 percent are second generation adults under the age of 40, and five percent are children.
Asked about what will happen when age and illness takes more of the population, very few on the Farm seem worried.
"We started off communally," said Stevenson, "and we'll probably go back to more communal living with people who are in better shape taking care of people in less better shape."
The outpouring of care and support for Skinner through his illness made Kathy feel secure about aging at the Farm. "It made me feel like this is a community I would like to grow old in," she said.
Bob is less certain about the safety net she sees.
"I think the big thing for the Farm now is figuring out how to pass it on to the next generation of people because otherwise it's a hippie nursing home and it's gonna be like the Shakers were, who were celibate," he said, drawing a comparison that another Farm retiree made independently.
Bob and Kathy will move to the Farm in three years, when Bob turns 65. The couple will live off of his Social Security and 401K. Kathy says she may not have health insurance and while she may work part-time as a massage therapist, "there will be a 10-year span where our budget will be something like a third or a quarter of what we've gotten used to." While the lifestyle on the Farm is cheaper than their life in New York, or what they would pay to move into a traditional retirement community, building a home on the Farm is a gamble.
Since the property is held in a land trust, the Connors will not have a deed to the house they build. Should they need more care than the community could provide and if they had to leave, they could not sell their house on the market. They would need another approved Farm member to pay them for their investment in the land. But as the population ages, the question is whether a younger generation will take the reins.
But Kathy is not worried. She has friends of all ages, and one young couple just asked her to be their baby's goddess-mother. Would they do that, she asked, and then not care for her if she were sick?
On the Farm in early July, Kathy was sunburned and smiling. A bit of sunscreen melted from her forehead in the afternoon heat. The weeklong reunion party called Ragweed had ended the day before, and her voice was hoarse from late nights and all-day parties. While her daughter and husband had already left, Kathy still had two and a half weeks to stay at the place she calls her true home. Outside of New Paltz, she had once again picked up the Tennessee twang of the Farm.
She drove a rented golf cart down the small and often bumpy roads. She stopped to chat with some people or just called out in passing: "Did you know we're moving back? Yep, we're provisional members."
Driving down the roads, every landmark was layered with stories.
That's where the midwife who delivered Barbara Ann lives. This is the meadow where we'd have Sunday services and women's meetings. This is the blueberry patch I told you about that I helped save from that fire. That place with the shades drawn? That woman's a great artist. She taught Barbara Ann. It's like they have the same DNA.
As Kathy stood at the side of the empty road by the grazing horses, a pickup truck drove down the long stretch of road and pulled over.
A man with short brown hair and a beard rolled down the window and smiled. "You got tomatoes where you're staying?"
Kathy said no.
"Here," he said. He grabbed six from the passenger seat and gave them to her. They chatted for a few minutes before he drove away.