Thursday, October 01, 2009

Slouching Our Way to Antitopia -- More Musings on New Buffalo Commune and the Counterculture

I recently finished Arthur Kopecky’s second book about New Buffalo Commune, called, as one might expect, Leaving New Buffalo Commune. It’s a sad tale, or it makes me sad at any rate. So much idealism, so much bright promise, swept aside by the pre-existing reality. And these people really, really tried. They invested their entire lives into this project. But it was like trying to stop a bulldozer with a bb.

As usual I’ll just meander around here and see what comes out.

An alternate title for this post is “Parasites, Predators, Unearned Power, and Perfect Freedom.” It’s very rare that the title comes to me before I write the essay, even though I decided not to use it.

Back in the day, I noticed a few things about hippies. For one thing, if a hippie told you they would do something, you could bet your life that it wouldn’t happen. “I’ll meet you at the town square at noon?” Never happen.

Also, the peace-and-love crowd drew predators and parasites, who found the peace-and-lovies easy pickings. There were some remarkably low-tone “hippies” prowling around back then. I managed to avoid them for the most part, but occasionally our paths would cross, so I couldn’t help but notice them. Parasites were more interested in “something for nothing” and were fairly harmless, but predators could really do some damage. That’s what ultimately happened to New Buffalo.

The trouble with unearned power is, a newcomer can move into a situation and be on equal footing with somebody who actually knows what’s happening. The oldtimer has earned his power through on-the-job experience, whereas the newcomer has much less to offer at the beginning. Yet, in hippiedom they were considered equal. The hippies had a free-and-easy attitude about power. They were trying to create a non-hierarchical paradigm in which power is shared, not imposed from the top of the hierarchy. Unfortunately this proved to be a perfect setup for predators, who could move right in and seize as much power as they were capable of, very quickly. With hierarchical power, it would be more difficult for a newcomer to do this.

New Buffalo started in 1967, when a rich kid bought some land free and clear, bought thousands of adobe bricks to build a compound they called the “Pueblo,” and bought basic farming equipment such as a tractor. Then he, like, as they used to say, split. By the time Kopecky showed up in 1971, the commune had undergone a complete turnover in membership, the taxes weren't being paid, the tractor had been sold. The commune was, as they used to say, totally untogether. Kopecky and a few of his friends stuck around, and over a period of several years gradually bootstrapped the commune to a state of serious productivity. The flame of idealism burned bright and hard for them, despite the setbacks and drug-induced mayhem. They gradually built irrigation ditches so they could irrigate their gardens, and fields of wheat and alfalfa. They bought goats and cows and started selling milk in Taos. They bought a tractor, other farm equipment, and a refrigerated truck to deliver their milk. They built greenhouses and solar collectors to help heat their pueblo during the harsh, high-altitude winters of northern New Mexico. They paid off their back taxes.

During all this, they never had enough money. They were young, strong, and worked amazingly hard. The money they brought in was used to buy food and other necessities. Their vehicles were always breaking down, and needed to be repaired. Gradually, they managed to accumulate dairy equipment and a small herd of dairy cattle. They started producing serious quantities of vegetables, wheat, and hay. They wanted to start a new culture, living on the land, living in harmony with the land and their neighbors. Kopecky obviously provided the focus and idealism that made all this possible.

New Buffalo always attracted parasites – people who came to hang out, get high, and eat free food. But it was the predators who destroyed it. There were only a handful of them. They had lived at New Buffalo in the past, and deeply resented Kopecky, whom they considered to be on a power trip. He was everything they weren’t. The downfall of New Buffalo is like something out of Ayn Rand – pathetic losers bringing down the brightest of lights.

As it turned out, Kopecky didn’t have any power beyond the force of his personality. It wasn’t “his” commune, after all. Ultimately, the predators made life so miserable for him (such as, taking pot shots at him while he worked in the fields) that he and his girlfriend finally left. This was 1979, after 8 years of gradual progress. They were on the verge of getting a grant to build a solar-powered, Grade A dairy barn, so that they could finally sell certified milk. The decline of New Buffalo was inevitable after that: the cattle, dairy equipment, tractor, and anything not tied down were sold, the taxes were no longer paid, and ultimately what was left of New Buffalo reverted back to the rich guy who made it possible in the first place.


In addition to being a focused and methodical hard worker, Kopecky was almost delusional in his idealism. He reminds me of myself in that way. After I moved to this piece of land in 1973, I always assumed that “something” was going to happen. (It never did.) By the early 80s it was obvious even to me that things were devolving, not evolving. But it wasn’t until the early 90s that I finally realized that Ecotopia was never going to happen. Quite the contrary, actually. How about calling our brave new world Antitopia? That’s the world we’re living in now, and just wait. Things are about to get very interesting, very quickly.

I need to mention Perfect Freedom before I go. The thing about hippies and communards: they were free spirits. Free spirits come and go like the wind. They will never be tied down. Thus: Joe is a critical member of the milking team. Those cows have got to be milked twice a day. Joe decides, on a whim, to leave the commune, or take a long vacation. Bye-bye, Joe! Too bad, milking team! Stuff like that happened all the time at New Buffalo. People came and went like the wind. It was hard to get any continuity. Kopecky always hoped to create a superior vibe that would encourage people to stay, but he never got more than a handful or two that he (and they) could really count on. Contrasted against the hippie ethic was the mainstream paradigm of selfishness, which still rules: Get a good education, get a good job, make lots of money, all for me, me, me. This is far and away the path of least resistance, so it’s not surprising that this is the paradigm that won. People consider themselves free, but are actually slaves. Our every act helps to destroy the planet in some small way. And as the Arctic starts to bubble methane at a furious rate, we already know how Antitopia is going to turn out.

New Buffalo: May you rest in peace indeed.