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Lifeboats: A memoir

[This is a guest post by Albert, whose amazing erudition and experience gives him the right to tell just about anyone to sit down, shut up and listen—although he is far too nice to actually say that. But I am not, so I will: sit down, shut up and listen.]

During the early days of The Farm, 1971-1973, we learned a number of lessons that will be useful again now that a rapid petrocollapse scenario is likely to come to pass. The Farm spiritual community emerged from a 50-bus caravan of 320 Haight-Ashbury refugees fleeing hard drugs, exploitation and counterculture tourism. After a year on the road the gypsy vagabonds pooled inheritances and purchased 1050 acres (450 hectares) of land 80 miles (130 km) from Nashville. It was US$70 per acre.

The Farm grew to a standing population of well over 1000, with 20 satellite centers, then, in the early 1980s, declined and decollectivized, bringing its population to under 200. Since then it has experienced something of a renaissance, finding new popularity amongst permaculturists, ecovillagers, and roving students. But let’s begin at the beginning, when our group landed in Tennessee.

Living in remodeled school buses was quite an adequate introduction to “roughing it,” especially for those of us who had never gone camping as children. The “honey pot” latrine bucket, mosquito-proof backpacker tents, canteens, flashlights, storm lanterns, and two-burner Coleman stoves were familiar to the pioneer settlers by the time they first stepped off the bus.

The land itself was barren of amenities save a small log cabin, a horse barn and a line shack, and so the first order of business was setting up facilities for bathing, sanitation, kitchen and sleeping. I’ll skip over the organizational aspects here because they would require a lengthier and more nuanced discussion; suffice it to say that circumnavigating North America in a 50-bus caravan required a degree of organization similar to running a rock-and-roll band tour. That’s enough organization to get you started in designing and constructing a settlement, although perhaps not enough to keep it intact for very long.

For pumped water, an engine was lifted from a Volkswagen Bug and set on blocks in a springhouse. A well-used and rusting 5700 liter (1500 gallon) water tower was purchased for scrap value, repaired and erected atop a hill above the springhouse. This required minor welding and auto mechanics, as well as a continuous supply of petrol. Some years later, when power lines came in, the VW engine and springhouse were replaced with a submersible pump and well. Today it would have been built with photovoltaics or wind power, but such technology, while already available in the 1970s, was well beyond the reach of a community that subsisted on average per capita cash income of US$1 per day for its first 13 years.

After the first winter, a second, larger water tower was erected near a 100 meter (300 foot) well with good aquifer recharge. The tower was salvaged from a railroad company for a purchase price of US$1, but moving and erecting the tower and tank required a crane. From the towers, water was delivered to homes in 20 liter (5 gallon) jugs by horse wagon.

While the buses provided initial shelter, with more than 6 residents per bus on average, after 8 to 12 months of living on the road most people wanted to get out into better housing, as quickly as possible. At the time, the government of the State of Tennessee held monthly auctions of surplus property, and Korean War vintage army tents could be bought for as little as US$15. These formed the basis of our first foray into home construction. With salvaged materials from construction sites and dumpsters, they morphed into “touses and hents.” Going into a partnership with a nearby sawmill allowed us to add some beautiful timber-frame buildings and D-frames. Common buildings such as the community kitchen, motor pool, canning & freezing, print shop, clinic and school sprang almost entirely from salvaged materials. Scraping mortar off cement blocks and straightening nails become well-practiced skills.

There was limited electricity to the site, and for an entire decade almost all of our electricity came from 12-volt DC systems powered by car batteries. Initially the batteries were charged by switching them through vehicles every day, but full discharge cycles make for short battery life, so after trying novel methods of pedal power, bamboo wind generators and other wacky ideas, most houses went to a “trickle charge” system — a long copper cable run through the trees to a central power center that took its electrons from Tennessee Valley Authority (although we always sent them back in the next nanosecond).

At one of these power centers, where we did our canning and freezing, we erected walk-in coolers and freezers. Refrigeration was a necessity that is as difficult to avoid as it is to achieve. A few of the buses came with propane-powered fridges and they were a blessing. Most of the households relied on a system of 5-gallon (20 liter) buckets that rotated to the walk-in coolers and freezers near the cannery. Buckets with tight lids were obtained from dumpsters behind the McDonalds in town. The other essential item was a Flexible Flyer wooden wagon with slatted sides. If you couldn’t get your parents to give one of those to their grandchildren for Christmas, the next best thing was to weld a bike trailer or pushcart to get your buckets to the neighborhood cooler.

Buckets were also employed to carry diapers and laundry to a communal laundromat, which was set up near another trickle-charge node. Salvaged coin-op equipment was purchased in bulk, the coin slots replaced with toggle switches, and a large diaper rinse and centrifuge babe-manure extractor installed. The grey- and black-water flowed to a constructed wetlands and rainbird, creating what today, 40 years later, are some of the richest soils on the property.

Communal unisex showering facilities were constructed in places with good supplies of water and a way to heat it: downhill from the original water tower; beside Canning & Freezing and the Farm Store; at the Farm School and print shop.

A flour mill took over the tack room in the horse barn. Initially we used a small stone mill to grind corn meal. Later we bought a larger, 3-break steel feed mill and set it up in the line shack, connected to 3-phase AC power. Arrayed around the roller mill were Clipper seed cleaners, sifters, a coffee roaster, an oat huller, and bagging racks. Within a year the mill was churning out a ton per day of wheat, corn, soy and buckwheat flours, pastry flours, corn meal, grits, groats, mixed cereals and porridges, horse feed, soy nuts, popcorn, coffee, and peanut butter.

Transportation and communications were priorities, because our sustainability depended on commerce, and without good transportation and communications any attempts to create a business would have been hampered. Bear in mind that for the first 13 years the experiment was communal, meaning shared purse. Just as many societies throughout history, we have found that in times of difficulty a reversion to communal economics provides greater survival advantages than the exercise of individuated private property rights. After achieving stability, most drop the communal form in order to stimulate greater enterprise. This was the path taken by Amana, Oneida, many kibbutzim, The Farm, the People's Republic of China, and, now, Cuba.

Any group that can cross the country in 30-year-old school buses will learn something about automotive mechanics. Our motor pool and junkyard became one of the technology hubs for The Farm, a place where anything from a hay rake to a fire truck could be machined and rebuilt, nearly from scratch.

The first two teams of horses, black Belgians and white Percherons, were acquired from neighboring Old Order Amish. They laughed at our feeble attempts, as vegans, to replace leather harness with more hippy-kosher canvas and Naugahide. “How’d you raise that nauga?” they’d ask. Interesting koan!

Communication was accomplished through a rapid succession of home and business devices. The log cabin became the business center with two phone lines. On US$1 per person per day, personal long distance charges were unaffordable, but one of our caravaners was an Eagle Scout with a ham radio merit badge, and he made a radio shack in the horse barn and began training ham radio operators to staff an amateur band Farm Net. Before the Internet I was WB4LXJ.

A 12-volt telephone system was installed to link every bus, tent, home and business. The dial tone was replaced with a Grateful Dead or reggae melody or a public service announcement (1000 jars of catsup planned today, canners needed; line at the laundry is now 90 minutes; bean shucking and banjo at horse barn 7 pm). The dial itself was replaced with a pushbutton that you used for Morse code to signal where you were calling. Four shorts meant “all points.” It was a party line, but there was a second carrier band, the “Hot Line,” used for emergencies. A toggle switch flipped you over to that band where an operator was always on call, sitting at a phone console to summon fire, police and ambulance and to assume management of the emergency. This pre-dated most emergency telephone services.

Emergencies were taken seriously, and fire marshals, gate and patrol security, and emergency medical responders were treated as actual jobs from the very beginning. Each became more sophisticated as the body of experience grew. Naive hippies learned to adjust to the rigors of self-reliance, which could sometimes be terrifying, such as when a kerosene lamp tips over in a canvas tent, the Ku-Klux-Klan rides up to the front gate or a deputy sheriff wanders into the marijuana patch while hunting deer.

Finding additional uses for the copper wires we passed through the treetops, we sent a TV signal through the phone lines, and could download direct network feeds from a 12-foot (3.7 meter) dish made of pine 2x4s and chicken wire. We watched the Watergate hearings that way. We produced our own shows, too, sent from the Bandland Studio tent to 12-volt TVs in tents and buses. If you were within 30 feet of the phone line, you could pick up the signal on channel 3. We watched Greenpeace work out its chess moves with the Spanish Navy in real time, using a slo-scan ham TV transmitter installed on the bridge of the Rainbow Warrior, sort of a proto-Animal-Planet pilot

Eventually, when CB radios became popular, we were able to install them in our vehicles and interface them with the ham radio and “Beatnik Bell” phone system. Free international calls became possible. Our “Extra Class” hams grew in proficiency and could link to satellites, monitor police, military and secret service sidebands, and bounce audio, digital and TV signals around the world to an expanding Farm Net.

A weekly newspaper, Amazing Tales of Real Life, began coming out of the print shop, along with a host of do-it-yourself books that turned into a brand. A brisk traffic in daily visitors, more than a hundred some days, required tour crews and a large hostel tent, but also supplied nearly free labor for the fields.

From the very first arrival of the buses and through the first 5 years a community dining facility was an essential efficiency, and one of the main reasons that living could be so cheap. Milk was made from soybeans, which became tofu, mayonnaise, yogurt, sour cream and ice cream. Soybeans were also made into coffee, tempeh, soysage (from okara), soyburgers and stroganoffs. A bushel of dry soybeans (35 liters) cost US$3 (US$7 today). The protein needs (with all 8 essential amino acids in good proportion) for a hard-laboring farm worker can be supplied on less than a pound (450 grams) per day, rehydrated and made into gourmet vegan cuisine. Thinking of storing food for emergencies? Include soybeans.

Tracing back down memory lane to my experience then: a young man of 25 arriving at The Farm in 1972 with just a backpack; being greeted by the Night Sentry and shown a place to sleep; going for a breakfast at the Community Kitchen, porridge and sorghum molasses, soysage and corn biscuits; then to the field in a horse wagon; harvesting sorghum cane with a machete and piling it into the wagon; at the end of the day returning to my assigned, dirt-floored army tent lit by candles; supper of bean soup and cornbread with pickled japapeños; guitars and song around a fire under the canopy of stars; abiding sense of harmony in the world; community.

Editorial Notes: There are a lot of useful ideas in this article that communities can pick up on whether or not "a rapid petrocollapse scenario is likely to come to pass." -KS

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