One of the more widespread social experiments of the 1960s counterculture in the United States involved "communes," groups of like-minded people who agreed to live together and share their property and even their fates, somewhat like an extended family.
Mismanagement, internal politics and new interests among members put an end to most, but not all, of those communes. One survivor is the "Hog Farm" commune of northern California, now almost four decades old.
Nestled among the redwood forests and high rolling hills of northern California's Mendocino County is the nearly 300 hectare plot of land which 30 or so Hog Farm Family members call home.
There are no hogs at the Hog Farm as there were back in 1965 when the group coalesced on a mountaintop farm in New Mexico. But the guiding principle at the Hog Farm is still service and sharing. Members have their own jobs and bank accounts, but most household and commune expenses are shared much as they were during the hippie heyday of the 1960s.
Jahanara Romney, who helped start the commune with her husband Wavy Gravy back in 1964, says that communal living has been always been her preferred way of life. She said, "I remember when I was kid, that somebody down the block had a motorized lawnmower that you sat in and steered and one person had it and it was 'would they loan it?' and everybody wanted one and I thought 'why don't we just get one for the neighborhood?' you know? Our grass doesn't grow that fast. Why does everybody need their own motorized lawnmower? We could share it. And I remember the response was that I was saying really weird and I kind of went 'whoops! I did something wrong!' But it always made sense to me."
It was the same with "Tinker," who joined the Hog Farm early on, left for a couple of decades to raise a family, then returned, like many others, as an elder. He said, "It's a basic principle that if you've got a dime, if you go to spend a dime, you can maybe get a couple pieces of bubble gum or something, but if you got a hundred people with a dime and you put them all together, you can buy a bus or a sack a rice. And on not just the most basic level but on every level that kind of becomes true whether it's a mental attitude or physical work or finances, then all of a sudden the whole thing goes farther and there is a lot more time to play."
Not that life on the Hog Farm is all play, any more than it is in the world outside the commune, as Dr. Sharon Palton, who joined the Hog Farm relatively recently, in 1980, explains. "I don't know if you'd call it a work ethic," she said, "but yeah there is a lot of dishes to wash and if you can't do what you need to do to contribute and it becomes a drag on the community, it seems that those people don't last as long at the Hog Farm."
The Hog Farm was one of many ad hoc social experiments of the 1960s that emphasized group cooperation over competition, or "people over profits," as one contemporary slogan put it.
Hog Farmer Richie Shirley was one of many who left his traditional workaday job and joined the psychedelic culture then blossoming in the East Village of New York City. That is where he met his future Hog Farm "brothers and sisters." "To me," he said, "it was like the birth of myself as a cultural person you know? And the sense that history was being made at that moment and we could all effect it in some way. To protest the war, trying to prevent violence from happening around you, you know? And by just being a kind of a nice person if you could. Walking down the street and saying hi and by meeting in the park and sharing food and you could go into the park and there would be a group of people and you could sit down with them and share a bottle of wine with them or whatever. I got a radical understanding of things It was an interesting time."
Yet, as Dr. Sharon Palton points out, communal living is not exactly unique. She said, "I think it's very common all over the world that [when] people that can stand to live in a pile with a bunch of other people, it's very enriching spiritually too and in the heart. There is a part of us that doesn't want to be lonely The Hog Farm is a multi-colorful thing. I don't know, I think of it as my extended family."
But unlike a traditional biological family, Hog Farm members have chosen each other. Jahanara Romeny said, "The amount of support I get is indescribable. I will never, ever, be out on the street. I will never not have someone to take care of me if I am ill. I'm alright. I'm gonna be fed. When my son grows up to be an adult, which he has done now, if he comes home to live for a while, because that makes sense, it's not the same as coming home to live if you're in a nuclear family and 'Oh your 25-year-old is coming home. What's the matter with him?' It's his home and his friends are there that grew up with him and it's their home too. We live like rich people and we're not rich people. It's beautiful."
But Ms. Romney adds that, like in any family, communal life does have its disadvantages. She says the constant meetings and consensus building sometimes annoy her. "You want to paint the bathroom," she said, "you can't just get up and do it. You've got to have a discussion about what color and if somebody objects you've got to wait a little while or think of something else. You lose real independent motion and that gets wearing for sure! If one of you decides that you want to have the kids do chores for instance and the other person thinks kids should never have to do chores at all and you are living in the same house. It's not easy. But I am very clearly a person who should be living communally. It's a no-brainer to me which set of disadvantages I want to go for!"