Some good friends of ours spent several of their formative years (late teens/early twenties) living on a commune in Southwest Oregon. I pretty much missed that era when young people congregated in the woods, dropping out, dropping acid, smoking pot and testing community life.
My own experience during this time period (Baptist college, USAF, moving to a suburb, corporate life) seems quite drab by comparison when I visualize a huge garden staffed by naked youth or lazy swimming holes on a mountain river. So, I’ve made these friends tell us their stories over and over. It is the stuff of fiction and better than Drop City, a favorite book, or Commune, an interesting film about a hippie enclave in Northern California during the same period.
For years we’ve talked about a visit and recently we made it driving from Ashland towards Cave Junction to visit the survivors of this particular back to the land experiment. The group in question assembled on a lovely and unusual piece of land around 1971. They were squatters living in teepees and tree houses and a two level shack of redwood boards. A shack (pictured on the left) where seventeen young people spent the winter crowded around a wood stove and living off food stamps. This small house still stands and is in pretty good shape a testimony to the usefulness of redwood as a building material. Yet, it is astounding that seventeen kids could spend the winter there corralled in that small space, cooking quinoa and pooping in the woods. More surprising is that four people from those early days, two couples, are still on this land—two hundred acres of very interesting geography and geology that has morphed from a place of trespass to individually owned, to a trust and now to a non-profit corporation with a conservation easement in favor of the local land conservation organization.
And, here we come to the point of writing about this place and its relevance to the subject of transition, sustainability and self-reliance: two couples, a partnership of four, now all sixtyish in age, have lived here, off the grid for forty years, making a nice life for themselves in these woods and meadows and hillsides and along the river. For years they had to wade the river or drive miles on a circuitous route through the hills to bring supplies. In later years they managed an ingenious footbridge and have found ways to even get a cement truck onto the property. Today, they live in attractive and comfortable hand-built homes. They have solar and hydroelectric power. Their gardens are extensive with nearly three acres fenced for cultivation. Their harvest of blueberries alone is “several hundred pounds.” Fruit trees are protected from bears by ingenious, solar powered electrified wires. There’s a great barn and a wonderfully designed green house attached to a twelve foot concrete wall which extends the growing season. They have been experimenting with grain and displayed two five gallon buckets full of wheat and a loaf of bread for lunch from flour ground on the property. It was a garden of eatin’ with grapes from the vine and cider pressed on the spot.
On a warm October day it was idyllic and exceeded my expectation, inspirational to see what had been accomplished and to know that it is possible, with ingenuity and sweat, to build and live in the modern age the way the earlier Oregon settlers had done. This former commune is a living laboratory for the future using old and new technology to create sustainability and comfort. A case study for the homesteading crowd, for preppers and survivalists.
We had parked the car and crossed the footbridge and were warmly greeted by one the couples. The woman had been a high school classmate of our good friend. These two young women had left the East Coast in 1970 to drive west seeking adventure. They arrived at this spot, had paired up with their men and continued their stories, one staying in the woods and one eventually moving back to the city. Although they don’t see each other much anymore the connection is still obviously strong.
We walked up the hill and into a large meadow and then past the site of a recently fallen tree, an enormous oak tree probably three hundred years old or more that had sheared off in a winter storm. It was being sawed and milled and split. This tree had watched it all, from Indian times to the hydraulic gold mining that had taken place below it to the hippies running amok. Over time the kids grew older organized themselves and learning to live with the land. Like the oak tree everything has its time. Nothing goes on forever and although the two couples have stayed to steward this large property and created the legal framework to protect it, they will need some younger energy to perpetuate what they’ve started. It seems inconceivable to me that with “back to the land” gaining steam again that they won’t find a young couple or two or more to join with them.
I envy our friends and these couples and their stories and the experience they had which seems to me so delicious. What they had then was better than a college education. What they have now is the know how that all of us might need in the near future.