You can read the previous entries of Sunsh Stein’s memoir in the following issues:
It was the early 1970s and magic permeated the air on the 165 lush acres of upstate New York called Chillum Farm. The world belonged to us-a scruffy, skinny bunch of passionate hippies – and unconditional love and marijuana made anything possible. We planned to change the world by example, living simply with no electricity, plumbing or telephone, working the land and growing much of our own food, and sharing everything. Our lives ran happily on circuits-overload as we worked and partied till we dropped. Celebrating the demise of the nuclear family we created a dysfunctional one of our own. And like the typical American family we lived with hopes, dreams, tractors, sex, chain saws, gardens, animals, births, food, nudity, singing, and ultimately, relationships that went awry.
I’d left my home in Milwaukee to visit my best friend Spindle who had moved to the commune the previous fall. There she had fallen in love with a man named Shadow who dumped her in early spring for Joy. The story opens the morning after a long day of travel from New York City to the farm; I arrived at dusk and was greeted with a feast of a dinner followed by a stoned impromptu musical evening.
The morning after my arrival at Chillum Farm came too early with a sunny blaze I wasn’t prepared to face. I looked up from my sleeping bag on the floor for a reality check with Spindle, but an empty bed greeted me. My gaze went to the far end of the large room seeking Lem and Midge; they too were gone. Alone in this strange room in the house of these strangers, I checked out the surroundings I’d barely noticed the previous evening. Cotton-candy-pink panels of exposed fiberglass insulation stuffed between wood beams decorated the walls; the ceiling had the same work-in-progress look. Light crashed in from two windows, grazing me from one next to Spindle’s bed, while one on the opposite wall highlighted Midge and Lem’s king-sized bed.There I lay, bathed in brightness, between the beds of other people. I hadn’t shared a bedroom with anyone other than a lover since my brother and I were kids. This was not my adult fantasy. I squashed a nagging voice in my head asking what I was doing here, crawled out of my bag, and pulled on the jeans and now rumpled T-shirt I’d left lying on the floor the night before. A whiff of coffee penetrated my morning haze – something familiar. I followed its comforting aroma into the hallway and down the stairs to the kitchen. A chorus of “good mornings” greeted me. “How’d you sleep?” asked Spindle. “Fine. I don’t remember a thing. You been up long?”
“Just a little while,” she said, handing me a mug.
I joined the group around the table. Thankfully, the kitchen of the old farmhouse was less bright than the bedroom, but it was chilly, and hard surfaces of dingy grays and browns replaced the soft warm glow of the night before. The women had traded their Indian dress for jeans and flannel shirts. Except for the men’s facial hair the family now had a unisex look. “There’s a pot of oatmeal on the stove,” Joy offered. “Not for me, thanks,” I said. I wasn’t in the habit of eating first thing in the morning and oatmeal seemed a little too lead-weight-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach for the start of this adventure. The others, however, consumed mass quantities. I quickly learned that the stomachs at Chillum Farm were bottomless pits.
Between mouthfuls Shadow outlined the day’s activity–planting, planting, and more planting. I listened but the talk meant nothing. I figured I’d follow Spindle around and do whatever she did. I drank my second cup of coffee and longed for a piece of toast, but there was no bread, and I idly wondered how I’d toast it if there were any. Then the coffee kicked in, interrupting my cozy toast fantasy, causing my intestines to announce that they were on the move. I leaned over to Spindle, “I have to go to the bathroom. Uh, what do I do?”
“The shitter’s out back by the creek,” she answered.
“Oh.” If I knew where that was I’d be just fine.
Then remembering I’d just arrived, she added, “Come on. I’ll show you and then we’ll go on a tour.”
Following a path that curved around the back of the house we stopped at a crude, squat, tarpapered structure. It stuck up out of the high grass opposite the house. It had three sides, no door. The open front faced a little creek that ran behind the house and barn. “This is it,” Spindle said. I went in, or rather, I climbed aboard. It was built above the ground and had no seat. You had to squat on boards, handily centering yourself above the opening between them. Spindle stood around chattering away about the gloriousness of this spot and wasn’t it great that it was open air. I squatted awkwardly, feeling physically and mentally uncomfortable and thinking, I’m sharing a bedroom with a group, I have to shit in an odd position with other people watching, what’s next?
“When you’re done sprinkle some ashes in,” Spindle said. I saw a can filled with gray ash next to a roll of toilet paper. I gave a silent thank you for the latter then inquired about the former.
“The wood ash cuts down on the flies and the smell,” she explained. Being on the learn-as-you-go plan I followed instructions and stored the information.
When I finished she led me back up the path to the barn, which loomed as big and gray in daylight as it had the night before. Spindle pulled open an oversized weathered door and ushered me into a dark, dank, low-ceilinged chamber. She climbed up a set of stairs slanted against a once whitewashed wall. The steps, strewn with pieces of straw, disappeared into the ceiling. I clambered up behind her and emerged into a huge high-ceilinged airy space. Well actually, there was no ceiling; it was just the roof way above us. What a contrast from the room below.
“Wow!” I stood gaping and looking around, struck by the open enormousness. We were standing in the center of the hay mow with bales of hay scattered around us and light streaming in from what seemed like everywhere.
She motioned me toward a large vertical opening in the far wall. It could have been a window except it had no glass.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Throwing hay down into the barnyard to feed the animals. But we just use it for hanging out.”
We sat down, dangled our legs out the opening, and took in a panoramic view. Directly below us the barnyard sloped down to the creek. Beyond the creek was a pasture with scattered trees and lot of scrub brush growing around rocky outcroppings. Set a little apart, standing alone in its splendor, was a gigantic oak tree just leafing out. Surrounding the pasture I saw woods-everywhere. The farm was surrounded on two sides by 4,000 acres of state land. And everything was green-every possible shade in old ma nature’s palette. It was just so bucolic. The space between this and New York City was much greater than the distance I had traveled yesterday.
Spindle pulled a joint from her shirt pocket, lit it and passed it to me. “You can’t smoke in the barn but we all do this. Just make sure to keep it outside.” I toked, nodded, and passed it back to her, careful to keep my arms outside.
“So how’re you doing? What’s going on with you and Shadow?” I asked, grateful for the opportunity to have some time alone with her.
“I’m still hurtin’ behind it. I love him and it’s hard to see him and Joy together all the time. But I really love her. I’m working on it. More work, more love.”
“What’s this more love business? Seems to me you’ve lost his love.”
“No. He still loves me. He just loves me differently, and there’s enough love between everyone to go around.”
“Oh, please! Here you are, odd man out, with these two couples.” I was getting agitated. “You know? Once there were three couples, now there’s two and you.”
“But they all love me.”
“They may love you but it’s not the same as being with a lover.”
“No, it’s not. But that doesn’t mean I’m left out; we’re a family.”
I inhaled the joint and pressed on. “But they’re curling up with each other while you’re sleeping alone.”
“I know. But it’s okay.”
“Come on! The guy left you to be with her. How is that okay?”
“It has to be.”
I wanted to shake her. “Where’s Joy’s husband?”
“He left last week. He couldn’t deal with it.”
“And you, you wanna leave?”
“No. This is home. It’s hard sometimes, but I belong here. I couldn’t go back to that rat race. This is what’s real.”
We finished the joint and stared at the landscape. We’d been through a lot of stuff together but this was all new. I wasn’t going to understand it so quickly.
“Come on, let’s do some planting,” Spindle said, getting up.
The cool morning was turning into a hot day so we detoured to the house to change our jeans for shorts. Going through the living room I saw what I had missed in the darkness of the previous night-not much. A green barber’s chair dominated the sparsely furnished room; near it sat an old metal tractor seat attached to the top of a rusted milk can. That was the seating arrangement. A wood cabinet nestled into the corner closest to the kitchen, and a small table near the front door held an eight-track cassette player that ran off a car battery.
Outside again, we followed a dirt track that curved around the side of the house. We came to a narrow weathered structure with a peaked roof and a closed door. I would have taken it for the outhouse had I not already been initiated into the ritual of outdoor shitting. “This is the well house,” Spindle said. “I’ll show you how to get water.” She undid the makeshift latch and the door fell open revealing a dim interior with a large square dark hole in the ground filled with water. On the edge of the hole sat a white enamel bucket with black patches where the enamel had scraped away. Attached to the bucket was a rope knotted on a board overhead.
Spindle picked up the bucket, turned it upside down and dropped it into the water. I watched it sink. “You have to throw it in upside down or else it’ll just float on the top and it won’t fill up,” she said. She pulled on the rope and the bucket rose out of the dark depth, spilling over with water. “You try it.” She dumped the water back in and handed me the bucket.
I imitated her actions but the bucket just bobbed along the top of the water. “Try again,” she encouraged. I fared no better the second time. I watched Spindle do it again, then gave it another shot. Trying to balance my footing while positioning the bucket just right for the toss was challenging. A step too far and I’d either tumble out the door or into the well. After a few more tries I got it and was proudly hoisting my heavy prize out of the water when I heard Spindle say, “Oh look, there’s the snake!”
“What? Where?” I jumped back, almost dropping the bucket. “Up there,” she said, and pointed to a shelf just below the peak of the roof where an extremely large black snake lay coiled.
“Jesus fucking Christ! You scared the hell out of me.” Keeping my eyes on the snake I emptied the bucket and eased myself out of the well house.
“Sorry,” she said. “He lives there. One lives in the house too,” she added matter-of-factly.
My previous exposure to snakes was the reptile house at the Milwaukee County Zoo where they all curled up securely behind glass, instead of coiling al fresco overhead.
“They don’t bother anyone, they just hang out. And black snakes aren’t poisonous.”
“Great,” I said, “can we move along?” I was more startled than frightened, but I didn’t see any reason to know this particular farm resident any better.
“We have a lot of snakes here, and most of them are harmless,” Spindle added as she latched the well house door.
“That was kind of cool, getting the water,” I said, as we continued on the dirt road.
“Yeah. You know just where your water comes from and you feel more connected to it.”
Several yards down we crossed a concrete slab of five feet or so that spanned the trickling creek. A few feet beyond lay the garden gate. As we approached, a motor shattered the country quiet. “What’s that?” I asked, seeing Midge half pushing, half being pulled across the dirt by a machine with metal teeth biting into the ground. “The rototiller,” Spindle answered, as we joined the group watching Midge and the machine churn up the earth. Although a kerchief covered Midge’s hair, she was naked from kerchief to waist. I tried not to stare while she and the rototiller battled back and forth a few more times. No one else looked at her bobbing boobs.
“Good, more hands,” Shadow said, acknowledging our presence.
“What are we planting?” Spindle asked above the din.
“Carrots here and beans over there,” he answered, giving her a packet of seeds.
Midge, who was a few inches shorter than me, turned off the machine, restoring peace to the brown earth and country air, and dragged it off to the side. She picked up her shirt and went up to the house calling, “Have fun guys!”
Spindle picked up two rakes and handed me one. I stared at her blankly. “We want to smooth the dirt in the rows to make a nice bed for the seeds,” she answered my look. We started at opposite ends of the row and met in the middle. Her end looked like a freshly-made bed, mine had that rumpled just-slept-in look.
“Whew! It’s hot,” she said, pulling her shirt over her head and dropping it on the ground, exposing herself. Sweat dripped down between my boobs, but I decided to let my bra and T-shirt absorb it. I had no problem hanging around my apartment naked with a lover, but here in broad daylight, in a group I had just met, I wasn’t ready to let it all hang out.
We redid my end of the row, then turned a rake upside down and ran the handle through the bed to make a trough in the loose dirt for the seeds. I then learned that carrot seeds are really teeny and I discovered the tedium of planting.
“Put them about an inch apart,” Shadow instructed.
I couldn’t get those little black seeds, hard to see against the dark brown earth, to spread out an inch apart from each other. They insisted on clumping.
“Don’t worry about it,” Spindle said, eyeing my less-than-handiwork. “We’ll just thin them when they come up. Now cover them over and tamp the ground down.”
I bent over the dirt and busily tamped away, hoping I got that part right. We repeated the whole process on another row. Then a new sound intruded on the country quiet: a clanging bell accompanied by the shout of “Lunch!” I finished my row and gladly followed the others back to the house. There I discovered that the previous night’s pasta feast had been a rare event and was now only a fond memory. The lunch menu was brown rice and onions, ketchup optional.
“Brown rice is our staple,” Spindle explained. “We eat a lot of it. Particularly now because the root cellar’s tapped out, the food we canned is pretty much gone, and there’s not a lot of fresh stuff to eat-just a few wild greens and a titch from the garden.” I nodded while taking the bowl of rice Joy handed me. “We don’t have money to buy much other food regularly and brown rice is the perfect food.” Perfect for what, I wondered. I lived on a student’s meager budget, so it’s not like I ate a diet of delicacies, but an occasional avocado or bottle of Dr Pepper managed to find their way into my kitchen, along with butter pecan ice cream. But, I got the message, this is it, get used to it while you’re here.
Lunch became not only the first time I ever ate brown rice, but the first of a seemingly never-ending stretch of brown-rice-onions-ketchup-optional meals in my life at Chillum Farm.
We spent the afternoon planting, and they worked me hard. I was so tired at the end of the day that the pre-dinner Om chant, rather than annoy me, almost put me to sleep, and the brown rice and steamed wild greens supper came close to tasting good. Dinner conversation focused a lot on the garden.
“So guys, you think we’ll have enough veggies to sell?” Midge asked.
“If we have a good growing season there should be no problem,” Shadow answered.
“What’s happening with the veggie stand anyway?” Spindle chimed in.
“It’s pretty definite that Charlie McAdam will let us use that little shed at the edge of his property. It’s right on Route 11 so it gets traffic,” Lem said. “We’ll have to fix it up though.”
“Yeah, cleaning and painting for sure,” Joy said. She had her hair in braids giving her a real country cousin look.
“How do you know how much you need?” I asked. I thought we’d planted a ton of stuff and the garden looked huge to me.
“I read a lot over the winter,” Shadow said. “With that and what we grew last year we determined our seed order. But there’s a lot of variables. The weather’s a big one. And we don’t know how much you might eat.”
“A lot if I keep working this hard.” I guessed he was joking but I felt he was making fun of me.
After dinner we sat around the kitchen table reading and talking. Nick and his guitar had gone back to Syracuse and there was no music, but it was another mellow smoke-filled period.
“What are you reading?” Joy asked me.
“The Doors of Perception,” I answered. “I started it the day after an acid trip right before I left Milwaukee.”
“That book is far out. Huxley, man, takes a trip and then recreates it in words,” Lem said.
I agreed and felt a little more comfortable, definitely less alien and alienated. And I didn’t need Spindle to go outside with me when I had to pee. I did not feel at home, but my feelings of wanting to go home had lessened.
The following day was a repeat of the first, except that Spindle’s and my alone time came when we took the tractor the mile down the road to get the mail. It felt like a bad amusement park ride. The ancient machine was red, or maybe it was rust. Spindle, wearing a blue-and-white striped railroad engineer’s cap, sat in the curved metal driver’s seat, while I stood to her side leaning against the fender that covered one of the huge rear tires. The tractor had two narrow pedals, clutch and brake. You fed gas by smacking the throttle, a silver rod that stuck out behind the steering wheel, up for speed, down for slow. Sure that we would tip over as the tractor chugged up the inclines and around the curves of the road, I reached behind me to clutch the fender with white-knuckle-tightness. Spindle extolled the virtues of it: they got a good deal; it ran well; it was basic (like everything else); it was in good condition. I formed my own list: old; rickety; loud. Our bodies appeared to be the only shock absorbers. Of course, the major virtue was they had it and it worked. But that failed to register with me as I braced myself for a spill.
“How are you doing?” This time she put the question to me.
“Okay. People are nice enough and it’s not as weird as I expected.”
“I knew you’d like everyone. What about Shadow?”
“Well, it’s hard to be objective, and he is a little strange.” He wasn’t warm like the others, he looked odd, and I remembered things she’d written me about him.
“Yeah, I guess he takes a little getting used to.”
“Everything here takes getting used to.”
“Maybe. But it’s a much simpler life, more real. We’re connected to the source of things. You want water, you go to the well, you want food, you go to the garden.” She smacked the metal rod up to negotiate a rise in the road.
“Yeah. You want to take a shower, you don’t. You want to go into the bathroom and close the door, you can’t. You want to make a phone call, you whistle in the wind. You want to keep something to yourself, everyone knows it.”
“That’s no big deal. You get used to it – it’s all part of the bigger picture.”
“Of what? Deprivation?”
“No. Of living off the land, sharing everything as a family. Paring things down. Cutting out the bullshit.”
“I don’t think those things are bullshit.” I felt defensive for my normal life style.
“But they get in the way.”
“Finding our path.”
“You know. Being one with everyone and everything. Being a living example of how life should be.”
“Oh yeah.” I knew that was an admirable goal but my rational unstoned self questioned the possibility of reaching it. There was only so much I could absorb at one time, and oneness took a backseat to dealing with the physical plane of this life.
“You’ll get into it. I know you will.”
Her confidence exceeded my own.