Pilgrimage to The Farm, in Tennessee: PHOTOS and story

I said I’d get pics, and that I might write something up, too. I did get pics, but, only of a few physical structures on The Farm. Far more interesting would have been pics of people mingling; but I was busy mingling.

One of the original 50 buses on a year-long, 9.000 mile pilgrimage, known as The Caravan,  across the U.S. from San Francisco and back, 1970.


If you are an old hippie like me, then The Farm is not just a venerated relic from our storied collective past, it also happens to be a thriving ecovillage of around 100 people on 1700 acres after more than 40 years in the middle of Tennessee.

The past three days: the main event of our stay at The Farm was the intermingling of people, residents and visitors. This  “community conference” turned out to be an introduction to the way this over-forty-year-old community works. Or even, I should say, we were subjected to an immersion process, which included both a feeling for the social dynamics — free, easy, friendly — and demographics — decidedly intergenerational: currently eight elders over 80 years old live there and meet once a week, plus lots of kids, pregnant moms, young men and women looking like they’re straight out of the fabled ’60s. I even met two residents in their early 40s who were born on “The Caravan,” during the time those 50 buses toured the U.S. with their then spiritual teacher Steven Gaskin looking for land.

Steven died two years ago at 79, after having been deposed from his singular role in the early ’80s, and from then on, supporting his wife, Ina Mae Gaskin, in her midwifery education. Even the New York Times acknowledged his passing.

Steven Gaskin: Hippie who founded an enduring commune, dies at 79.

My instant hit, the moment I walked past the Ecovillage sign into the area where we were to hold most of our meetings, meals, and other conversations: “It feels good here.”

Albert Bates, who I see as the philosopher-in-residence at The Farm, and whose blog posts I follow on

The Great Change —

gave a power point presentation Friday evening that looked at the past, present and probable future impacts of global warming, with myriad moving maps of processes, currents, patterns, etc. that bring home the recognition that things are changing greatly, though just how, is hard to say. I did not raise my hand and ask: “What about those who say it’s global cooling that lies ahead” —

Global Warming, or Global Cooling? (And does it matter?)

Though I’ve been known to throw curve balls, I decided not to this time, too interested in his “take” on the our common situation.

Albert is a proponent of biochar as an astounding remedy for depleted soils as well as many other uses. The Farm creates biochar and teaches biochar workshops (wood, in their case, bamboo, burned in the absence of oxygen).

The Farm finds lots of uses for bamboo, and has planted plenty of it. One resident admitted to a “love/hate” relationship with bamboo, since it spreads so easily, and must be watched closely.

Friday evening also featured another presentation, this one by Douglas Stevenson, a 40-year member of The Farm, who gave a general power point intro to The Farm and how it came to be.

Throughout the weekend, we guests were talking with each other, exchanging business cards, and very interested in all the other diverse intentional community projects that we have going or are currently planned. When I described our project, evolving a permaculture village within an existing suburban neighborhood, I could see light bulbs go off in lots of minds.

We anticipate a stream of new visitors here as the result of Rebecca and I’s pilgrimage to The Farm. And, as I said to the group in the closing circle on Sunday, “I will be very interested to see how our experience at The Farm percolates down into Green Acres Village.”

Saturday was occupied with a tour of first, the Farm School, which currently holds around 20 students, and according to the principal (who he says is also the janitor) shares The Farm’s philosophy of balancing individual free expression with community integration —

— then traveling a few roads and homesteads on The Farm —

— 1700 acres, eight square miles, with lots of structures; during the first ten years of its existence, The Farm held at least 1000 people, living often 30 and 40 to a house. And astoundingly enough, they managed to subsist on $1 per day each, learning how to farm well enough (thanks to mentoring by old farmers in the area) to grow 90% of their food. The communal farming days are long past. Here’s one of the small common gardens. Most gardens, unlike this one, which sits in the Ecovillage Training Center, are individually tended and placed next to dwellings. Another is a common garden with individual plots.

In the early ’80s, during what is called The Changeover, due to growing indebtedness, The Farm underwent a massive transformation, from communal living with a charismatic spiritual guru, to collective democracy, in which residents were expected to be financially responsible for themselves and their newly instituted membership dues by developing their own intrepreneurial businesses — or else leave The Farm. As I said, the current population is around 100. I can just barely imagine how difficult was that multiyear transition.

Saturday afternoon featured a workshop on midwifery. Neither Rebecca nor I attended: she went swimming in the swimming hole, I attended another talk by Douglas, who detailed the long strange story of their utter determination to protect their borders and just how they went about it. My takeaway: there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish if we just gear down and refuse to give up. Really an amazing tale.

Then another workshop, which many of The Farm residents also attended. This one on conflict-resolution in community. Very interesting; and though I asked, found no one who would tell me about the current internal politics that of course thread thru the place. As one of the younger members said: “Well, it’s like Republicans and Democrats, and I want to be neither.”

Saturday evening guests and Farm residents mingled for dinner and then we were all treated to a wonderful trio that sang and played “That old time music” with guitar, violin, and banjo.

Sunday morning, first Douglas’s talk on the Spiritual Principles of The Farm — all of which feel familiar and resonate with the Sufi/Buddhist path — then, meditation with members, Kirtan chanting,  and ending with a sing-a-long.

All in all, great fun, though Rebecca and I both said, on our way home, that we’d rather live here in our Green Acres Village, riding the edge of mainstream culture, than plunked in the middle of nowhere..

A few pics of the various cob and/or straw bale/straw slip structures on the place (Tennessee has no building restrictions, so the sky’s the limit). The Farm was doing “tiny houses” way long time ago.

BTW: They now say the “living roofs” were a mistake, given the rainy humid climate. Would have worked better in dry conditions.

By far the wildest structure is the Dragon House, still a work in progress. As a matter of fact, they teach most of their classes on natural building techniques there. It’s about 20 years old, as I recall.

Outside (see the dragon? It surrounds the three slanted windows above.)

Lest you think the entire place is that wild and experimental, let me introduce you to Douglas’s homestead, a duplex that he and his wife share with another family (they’ve lived adjacent to each other since the ’80s).

Douglas told us about his place on the Saturday morning tour of his gardens.

As I recall, he said this house was one of those that held 40 or so people in the early days.

His Mom lives in a prefab home a couple of hundred feet away. And his wife’s Mom lives just down the road. That’s the way it should be; generations connecting, just like in the olden days.

While there, I bought three books in The Bookstore:

One by Douglas: The Farm, Then and Now: A Model for Sustainable Living. Am currently reading this riveting account of how the place changed in the early ’80s.

Another, Steven Gaskin’s The Caravan (updated).

And finally, a book I’ll have to study, Commumity Land Trust: A Reader, since I have a feeling that’s the legal structure we will be putting under our Green Acres Village.

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1 Response to Pilgrimage to The Farm, in Tennessee: PHOTOS and story

  1. Sylvia says:

    I knew of Ina May Gaskin before I learned of the Farm. Her book Guide to Childbirth (a more recent one than Spiritual Midwifery) has helped me and many of my english friends to get empowered births.

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