American Impressions, Chapter 48: Oregon
We’re standing in an uneven circle, about 35 of us around tables strung together for the Thanksgiving banquet. We hold hands silently for a minute, the men on either side of me breathing with dedication, their eyes closed until the big man with the whitening Santa Claus beard and two thin braids at the head of the table breaks into song: “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me . . .” As if the scene has been well rehearsed, which it hasn’t, everyone joins in, in harmony. It’s not “Alice’s Restaurant,” which the older set around the table probably knows by heart, but it’s pretty: A river of life is actually flowing all over the place in this Oregon farm house, isolated from anywhere as so many places in Oregon choose to be.
I’m in a commune called Alpha Farm. I was invited here for the holiday as much to sublet myself a family for the occasion as to staid my curiosity about communal life in America, a vast sub- or counter- or micro-culture that tends to be riddled by outsiders’ stereotypes rather than understood. No one, incidentally, is naked or passing reefers or booze or ululating some top-40 tantric hit. The setting is as middle class as a Woody Allen Thanksgiving, minus Manhattan’s concrete and steel canyons outside and neurotic psychodramas inside.
After the song ends, the big man with the braids sits down and begins carving the elephantine turkey. Everyone else keeps the circle as each individual briefly says what there is to be thankful for—the extended family around the table, God, lots of turkey. I look around the group, thinking about the stories I’d heard—who was here and why, how Alpha Farm began in 1972, how it has survived, as most communes from that period haven’t.
The commune is made up of 18 members at the moment. (Their friends and family make up the rest of the circle.) It’s impossible to generalize about their backgrounds, or to skirt the obvious. Some are there because an urban life of corporate hassles and commutes and a private life of consumption and alienation didn’t appeal to them. And some couldn’t make it elsewhere at a particular point in their life, or at any point at all. They are drop-outs, but in a self-preserving sense. By joining the commune they have helped themselves better than they could have outside of it, at no cost to anyone. They’ve removed the danger they might have posed to themselves or to others. The commune is their reform, their aspirin. No welfare checks, no counselors, no rehab programs. Just the support of that extended family around the table, and a full slate of work and responsibilities. Slackers would flunk out of Alpha in a day.
Dave Merrill, 49. Alpha resident since 1996. A native of South St. Paul, Minn., he dropped out of high school before 12 th grade and joined the Marines for four years beginning in 1967, the height of the Vietnam War. “My best friend went in the Army, so I was thinking I’d be fighting for my country since there was a war going on,” he says, rolling a cigarette from a yellow pouch of American Spirit tobacco. “When I got there I found out that wasn’t the case. I found out that wars are about greed and corruption. Mostly about greed.” He was a mechanic behind the lines, for the 1 st Marine Air Wing. Never used his gun. He has been a mechanic ever since, moving from Minnesota to California to Oregon over the years, marrying and divorcing twice, at one point living in a log cabin without electricity for two years. He has two children, Tad, 12, and Ashley, 10, who spend their vacations with him at Alpha. Four years ago he was asked to repair a car at the farm. Then another. Then he was invited to join. On July 4, 1996, he made a 10 year commitment to the commune, his own personal Independence Day wrapped in the assurance of many close dependencies.
”It’s real beneficial to me to be here because I’ve learned to live with more of a variety of people. You work with people but when you go home they’re still there. People aren’t used to doing that. People in the outside world don’t talk to their neighbors. They don’t even look at each other. Sometimes a commune is like a rehab center where people have had enough of society’s ways. They come to a community to come away, but they carry all that stuff with them—all the negative energy.”
Dave Merrill is giving me a tour of the grounds, a 280-acre spread the founders bought in 1972 for $72,000. The mortgage will be paid off next June. With its rich timber strands, the land could be worth more than $1 million today. It’s pouring rain, this being Oregon’s rainy season, a five-month blaze of water, spongy ground, the occasional flood. The land around the farm is mush and rivulets. We skip the garden, but Dave shows me the dam and pool he’s constructed in Deadwood Creek to make it easier for salmon and trout to lay their eggs—and easier for Alpha residents to dip in the river before sauntering the 10 yards across a field to the sauna.
I count a dozen major buildings—the white farm house where we’d be having Thanksgiving dinner, an auto shop, a machine shop, a canning shed, a barn, “The Pyramid” (the commune’s spiritual retreat), several residential houses or shacks that serve as residences—commune members each have their own place—and a couple of old buses that have been converted to living space. The natural interruptions of woods, knolls or creeks creates privacy for every residential quarter.
Income and land is owned communally at Alpha. (Most American communes have given up income sharing.) The commune owns the Alpha Bit, a bookstore and coffee shop in nearby Mapleton, which provides work and generates some income for members. It also contracts three mail routes from the Post Office. Some members work outside the farm. On the farm, the garden, the buildings and sheds require constant maintenance.
But individual income is minimal. So-called Alpha “members” (the equivalent of partner in a law firm), who have been there more than a year and made a long-term commitment, earn $45 a month. Residents, there 6 months or more, earn $35. Long-term visitors earn $25. An extra $15 to $25 is provided for children of members and residents, who also get a $300 vacation allowance, and one month’s vacation a year. All their basic needs—rent, food, clothing, gas, utilities and necessities down to toothbrushes are provided by the commune. It’s not unlike the Army, or a monastery.
Lief McCurrach, 53. “On August 8, at 4 o’clock in the morning, I was here at Alpha 18 years,” he says. “During that time the longest I’ve been gone from this piece of property was three months. I feel incredibly blessed, incredibly blessed to have lived in one place for so long.” McCurrach is the big man with the Santa beard and the braids, the man who sang about the river of life flowing out of him and who is slicing up the turkey. He wears a green beret, a Santa paunch, a denim shirt and blue jeans that have faded lighter than his blue eyes. When he tells a story, he sometimes closes them as if in prayer. He was born and raised in Connecticut. His mother was a nurse, his father a jack-of-all trades and a manic depressive, a genetic charge Lief has moderately inherited. He recognized it as serious enough to keep him from marrying and having children. He was a VISTA volunteer in Appalachia, where it became evident to him that “if we were going to survive as a species, we were going to have to learn to live with each other.”
He became a carpenter, taught woodshop and recycling in Berkeley, Calif., for a few years, lived in a worker’s co-op. But he was not hopeful about anybody’s survival. He thinks the human species, in an overdrive of consumption and waste, is headed for ruin. Like Captain Hatteras, Jules Verne’s discoverer—who also lived the latter part of his life in a struggle with his mind—“I knew I needed to get north.” Unlike Hatteras, who made it to the North Pole, McCurrach stopped in Oregon. Alpha met his hopes for survival, at least on a small scale. And its communal covenant is such that when his parents became unable to take care of themselves, they were welcomed at Alpha, where they lived their last five years. McCurrach has no plans to leave. “My hope,” he says, “is that the organization outlives me, because that means I get to be buried where I want to be buried, right next to my parents and my dog.”
The feast of a dozen dishes and as many pies is winding down. Children have resumed their slalom runs around and beneath the furniture, an assemblage of many generations of wood and tastes which nevertheless mesh together. A task list on the wall near the kitchen determines the clean-up crew, releasing others to self-assigned naps. Windy, New Agey sounds had come out of the tape deck earlier. Miles Davis replaces them. In most of America’s dens the Dallas Cowboys are giving Miami a 20-0 indigestion. Television is not allowed on Alpha property. Conversation is sport. I listen to Jim and Caroline Estes, 77 and 71 respectively and married 42 years, tell the story of Alpha’s beginning.
Jim was an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for 16 years, Caroline an instructor for the deaf before both decided to move to Philadelphia and work for the American Friends Services Committee (the Nobel Prize-winning Quaker organization). After the first Earth Day, in 1970, “We looked around us,” Caroline said, “and decided that our culture wasn’t going the right way.” With friends, the Esteses began looking for land to start an alternative community. The land in Oregon was the most appealing. “We came over the hill and tried it on like you try on a coat,” Jim says, “and after half an hour we said we’ll take it. We didn’t have a dime.” The part of the farm house where we’d just finished dinner, and where Jim and Caroline were sitting, was once a post office run by a postmistress whose daughter was named Alpha. The name stuck. On April 1, 1972, Alpha Farm was born.
Hundreds of community members have gone through the farm since, giving Jim the impression that it’s been like a school, graduating individuals who hadn’t been able to graduate in more conventional settings. It’s had its share of hippies, but it has also changed with the times. Hard drugs are forbidden, growing, selling, buying or trading softer drugs like marijuana is also forbidden, but if a friend passes by with a couple of joints to offer, they won’t necessarily be refused.
Even the word “commune” has had its transformation. The “correct” word for such places, which I see no reason to adapt because it sounds too much like the concoction of an image-minded consultant, is “intentional communities.” Communes with a purpose. The Fellowship for Intentional Community, based in Rutledge, Missouri, lists some 300 communes in its 1995 directory, a fraction of the actual number of communes in the country. Most prefer not to publicize themselves. There are all sorts, mostly in the Northeast and the West, their focus varying widely from “peace and human rights,” “live well with less” and “cooperation, consensus,” to “extended intimate family,” “queer spiritual faerie art” and “fourth way living food.”
The old image of communes as drop-out paradise is fading, at least at Alpha. “There’s more openness to understanding,” Jim says. “We’ve played a part in bringing that about in the Eugene area. When we first came here and opened up shop, there was a lot of talk of hippies and that sort of thing. When we opened the Alpha Bit and got a mail route and people saw that we were going to work our (butts) off, they started taking us seriously. Remember, that was the early ‘70s, when communes was the buzzword. It was all dope, sex, alcohol, that sort of thing.”
It is now simply an alternative, oddly middle class in its own way and connected to the rest of the world, as always, by dollars. Caroline’s extensive lecturing and workshops around the country—she travels half the year—commands fees of $500 to $1,000 a day. Soon, she and Jim will be retiring for good. They’ll be taking off for Europe for half the year. The community’s survival may depend on Andrew Dumitru, 46, an Apha member for 22 years, and his wife, Lysbeth Borie, 41, a member for 13 years. Lysbeth is being groomed to take over Caroline’s lecturing responsibilities. Andrew is a builder and a committed community member. But with their two young children, the couple have been trying to move their orbit away from the community’s core, living in a trailer house a quarter mile from Alpha, testing—and tasting—a fringe of autonomy. Between the Esteses’ retirement and Andrew and Lysbeth’s experiment, Alpha Farm is tampering with uncertainty.
Tim Shimmel, 28. Born in Michigan, lived in Fort Lauderdale six years, at Alpha Farm five months. “This is kind of my meet-in-the-middle sort of thing between suicide and moving out into the woods and living by myself,” he says. “The world is a pretty sick machine. There are just so many people that are unprovided for, so many people that live hand to mouth. You’re kind of chasing after a carrot and there is no carrot.”
He’d been in the Army for four years— Fort Lewis in Washington State, Korea, Fort Bragg in North Carolina. In Fort Lauderdale, Shimmel worked in landscaping for several years after the Army. He reached a low point, downing fifths of scotch, partying, looking at bridges for their fatal heights. Trying to rekindle his family connections, he found that there was nothing left to rekindle. At a concert one night a friend passed him a magazine published by a commune, which kindled his interest in going that route even though he wondered what sort of fruity life he’d be getting into. Researching that alternative world led him to Alpha Farm.
”I wanted a place where I could make a difference, be part of something, like everybody wants. So I came here. I am a part of something.” He delivers mail three times a week, works at Alpha Bit twice a week, answers correspondence, takes care of the farm’s bee hives. Thoughts of suicide have vanished. So have, for now, thoughts of returning to his previous world. “This place is very much like an extended family. People come here, some don’t fit in, some become your friends. There’s nothing fruity about the place unless you consider sharing profits and sharing your spaces, although we all have our individual spaces.”
”Do you know about dream catchers?” Dave Merrill asked when we were in his house, a circular cool greenhouse of plants and small stone works or woodworks, of raccoon skulls, of talismans and amulets of Dave’s making, like a blue moon he carved out of a common blue bottle the day of the last blue moon, of environmental posters and of things that hang from the ceiling, odd to me only because the language of a commune is, to most of us, foreign. I was looking at one of those things that hang, a wind chime, only made of feathers.
”This is a dream catcher here,” he says. “I made this of feathers I found here—a crow feather, grouse, flicker, this might be an egret feather, this is guinea hen, and this is pigeon. It captures the bad dreams and holds them in, then you take it outside and the sun takes them away so you don’t have any bad dreams. It works, too.”
Even, apparently, when the sun disappears the five months of Oregon’s rainy season.
OREGON IN BRIEF
Total area: 97,132 sq. miles (rank: 10)
Population (1997): 3,243,487 (rank: 29)
State capital: Salem
Economy: Timber, manufacturing, services
Nickname & Motto: Beaver State; She flies with her own wings.
Entered union: Feb. 14, 1859 (33 rd).
Notable facts: Oregon was the first state in the nation to approve physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill who request an injection of legal drugs. Oregonians approved the measure in a Nov. 8, 1994 referendum, which passed with 52 percent of the vote. In 1997, 60 percent of voters refused to repeal the measure after the Legislature sent it up for another vote. The idea was first proposed in 1972 by Gov. Tom McCall. In 1995, 525 Oregonians killed themselves, sending Oregon’s suicide rate to an all-time high of 17 per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of 12.4 per 100,000. More people killed themselves with guns than with any other means combined.
Oregon in quotes: “A great undeveloped country is here, none need be idle who choose to work, labor is better remunerated than anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. The poor, crowded, overworked denizens of the great cities could here find homes and a competency with no capital save industry and good habits, the pale, overworked city girls, cooped up in their dingy apartments in tenement houses earning scarcely enough to keep soul and body together, could here obtain situations at twenty to thirty dollars per month and become useful members of society, and be respect by all whose respect is worth the having, and could get fresh pure air, such as the greatest millionaire in the Atlantic cities could not purchase a breath of with all his gold.”—From an editorial headlined “Oregon” in the Coos Bay News, May 5, 1875.
The Fellowship for Intentional Communities publishes “Communities Directory: A Guide to Cooperative Living,” a detailed, 440-page book covering North American and international communes, for $25.
For more general reading about Oregon, “In Search of Western Oregon,” by Ralph Friedman (Caxton Printers, Idaho, $14.95) is a layman’s voluminous and eclectic collection of articles and book excerpts on Oregon.
As always, local fiction is the best travelogue, and for that “The World Begins Here: An Anthology of Oregon Short Fiction,” edited by Glen Love (Oregon State University Press, $12.95) is a good choice.
* Intentional Communities: www.ic.org
* Federation of Egalitarian Communities: www.thefec.org
* Oregon tourism: www.traveloregon.com