“I really shouldn’t tell you about this but…” That’s when you know you’re about to get some juicy information. My coworker and I sat at the visitor center desk discussing everything from plants to the weather when I mentioned I was headed down to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch on my pinch of days off in the middle of the week. “Your mother would kill me if she knew I told you this but there’s a place in Southern Tennessee called “The Farm” in Summertown that operated as a commune created by hippies for 10 years.”
I was already sold, but I needed a google search to make sure I wasn’t willingly handing myself over to a a cult. “The Farm” describes itself as “a spiritual community based on the principles of nonviolence and respect for the earth.” In the early 1970s, a charismatic writing teacher named Stephen Gaskin led a caravan of 60 buses across America, eventually purchasing 3 square miles of land. The idea was to divide the money equally between the 300 members and to live in harmony with one another and nature; in 1983 it switched from a commune to a community after financial difficulty.
The website gave me the contact info for residents I could stay with and I got in contact with Josie (name changed), a 75 year old woman who was part of the original caravan and a founding member of “The Farm.” I realized on our first phone call that I had to get over the novelty of her being an actual hippie; I tried not to giggle when she said her dog’s name was Sunrise and as she sang “Here Comes The Sun” by the Beatles.This was going to be good.
My mother is very used to phone calls from me at any time of the day when I’ve been inspired by something and need to tell her right at that moment. I explained the conversation with the coworker and the manic 30 minutes of internet searches, as well as my decision to stay with one of the members, to which she sighed and told me, “as long as you are safe.” Too many of our conversations end that way. Though she had her group of bible study ladies praying for me on my last solo trip to Georgia, she assured me I had gone too far this time and was blacklisted off the prayer chain.
She was obviously joking, but she did bring up a good point. I try to filter my life and choices through the gospel, and my excitement had gotten ahead of thinking about whether this was a faith-based decision. At first, I didn’t know what verses to go to – the first inclination was to google “what does Jesus say about hippies?”, but concluded after some verses that curiosity in other ways of thinking was okay as long as I didn’t stray from my personal truth. Plus, I owed it to my Anthropology minor to explore this fascinating little subculture… right? In any case, I was going.
My first stop was to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch; the drive down is one of those scenic, wind in your hair, sunglasses on, Chuck Berry blasting, “how could life get better than this” type of drives winding through the hills and hollers of Southern Tennessee. “The Coal Miner’s Daughter’s” property was quaint and gorgeous and contained every ounce of the prepackaged Southern Charm that I expected. Loretta has constructed a miniature Western Town, complete with a functional post office.
Knowing that Loretta was home that day, and having met her grandson in passing, I hung around hoping that if I concentrated hard enough, she might come out and thank me for stopping at her house on what might be my last solo trip before the “hippies got me” – as everyone else kept reminding me. She of course didn’t, and I continued my drive to Summertown.
Josie and I were coming into Summertown about the same time so we decided to meet at the gas station so I could follow her into the community. She pulled up in her Honda Civic (!!!) and I felt that obscure moment when you finally match someone’s face with their voice. Her phone conversations had represented her well; she was thin with long, gray hair and a kind face, exactly as I had imagined her.
We drove through the winding dirt roads of The Farm, and I felt as if my adventures had peaked as we drove by old Volkswagen buses and she waved at long-haired folks walking by. I searched for signs of radical thinking and general grooviness in the landscape, but the fields and horses only indicated that people who took care of the land lived there. Her house was tucked in a corner of the woods, and deer bounded away when we pulled up.
Josie gave me a welcoming hug and eagerly showed me around her home. The house reminded me of the cardboard box design in the beginning of “Bear and the Big Blue House” – a hodge podge of rectangles sat chaotically on top of each other. Inherent in its design was its sustainability and low impact on the environment, but the only indication from the outside was it’s green color. As she showed me the interior, I noticed a familiar pieced-together narrative. “James from down the street helped me with this part of the house.”
She settled me into my room and I soon helped her unload her car with groceries. Josie has a warm and inviting personality; she makes you feel like an old friend. We struggled to find dinner between my three-year old palate and her vegetarianism, but settled on black bean burgers. We clinked our wine glasses together with a cheer to “mother earth, our children, and our children’s children” and slipped into a long conversation about forgiveness, shakras, and spirituality.
I came to respect Josie greatly during our conversation. She is the type of person who wrings every ounce of excitement and joy out of life – “oh I once lived in Arizona! I studied spiritual shamanism and slept on the roof every night”, she casually mentioned. When I brought up backpacking, she told me about how she had lived in Italy for 10 months while her husband tried to start a nightclub. She also told me about the interconnectedness of the community – “if one of us needs help, we just do it.”
Eventually, Josie needed to slip away to study her Spanish – she is learning a new language at 75! – so we both quietly retreated to our rooms, with me still basking in the warmth of the conversation full of love and tolerance for beliefs. I fell asleep with the window open, listening to the sounds of the forest.
Waking up at Josie’s house was beautiful; we discussed how we both felt mornings were an indication of the rest of the day. Josie urged me to sit out in her closed-in porch to read while she made me a cup of coffee. I enjoyed “The Way of Tea and Justice” by Becca Stevens which details her creation of a cafe to fight human trafficking while she made me eggs with pesto – “just try it!” – and I was becomingly increasingly aware of her ability to get me to do things outside my comfort zone.
We set out for a morning hike and it wasn’t until I asked if she often hiked alone that she reminded me the dangers of doing that at her age. We had spent the morning bouncing so much dry humor off each other I had forgotten she was 5 years from turning 80. Josie trudged up and down hills she “had hiked for 30 years now” and recounted the history of the land. I tried to gently steer the conversation to why she felt the design of the commune ultimately failed.
“We just didn’t have money, I don’t know. We did it for a while and no one abused the system, and we were very thrifty. We bought things at the dollar store, but some of the basic necessities… we just couldn’t afford. We were living in tents and didn’t have shoes for the kids. So, we changed it to a community. We still take care of each other, though. I just happen to pay people for their work when they help now.”
Though we lacked a common religion between us, Josie’s enthusiasm for serving others and forgiveness was deeply moving. She described an altercation with a family member and how she had used her training in nonviolent communication to deescalate the situation. ( I later overheard the family member call and apologize for their actions, which Josie gracefully accepted.)
Our two hour hike took us through meadows and across creeks, which Josie often paused at to listen to the sound of rushing water. We talked about family and healthy eating and relationships, but our newfound friendship had reached a comfortableness where silences were relaxed and easy.
We emerged from the woods back into The Farm; I was excited to see the funkadelic architecture of the local neighborhood at a walking pace. Compost piles, vegetable gardens, and greenhouses were as plentiful as the amount of paintings in Josie’s home. We passed by different structures as she described each one – “that’s where we make our tofu!” – and I wondered what style my architecture professor would classify these hippie-chic buildings into.
Josie excitedly asked me to stay for lunch and I helped her prepare one last meal together of homemade hummus (!!!) and banana smoothies. She said over and over again how much she wished I would have been able to stay longer and, just like the meal before, she stated her gratitude before eating. “Thank you for bringing sunshine and smiles into my home”, she told me as I wished for the 100th time to be born in the 1960s.
I left shortly after, but not before a hug and an offer from Josie to return and to stay for free (as long as I helped with some housework, of course.) I wished her a good day and thanked her for her warm hospitality as she was about to leave to go do yoga with a friend. We parted ways and decided that I would be back down there, or she would come up to visit me soon.
Josie and I are products of different generations, but there is a lot to be learned from someone who has spent their time with seemingly so little and still exudes happiness and light. (She once told me about how they lived on beans alone and she was grateful for it because it made her more compassionate to 3rd world countries.)
In a lot of ways, The Farm is an example of what christian community should look like. Working together to build each other up and with the intent to serve only to serve are concepts I definitely struggle with on a daily basis, and yet, here is a community doing it full-time and living in gratitude.
I can only hope that I am still doing yoga and hiking when I am 75!
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2