The (nineteen-)SIXTIES: Lessons learned, a world transformed

A Book Review / Essay
Bonnie Shulman

Sleeping Where I Fall (Counterpoint, Washington, DC, 1998) by Peter Coyote

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In the 1960s there was a gaggle of folks who called themselves the Diggers and the Free Family. Bonnie Shulman reviews Peter Coyote’s story of how “they spawned, a loose confederation of “families” living in communal houses and connected by truck caravans, poetically described by Peter as beads on a necklace, up and down the coast highway.” It is not difficult to connect some dots between them and the Fellowship for Intentional Community. http://www.ic.org/ They publish the Communities magazine from whom GEO has drawn much of the material  for this Theme.)

Most people know Peter Coyote as an actor (the sympathetic scientist in E.T.), or as an activist (especially for environmental and Native American causes), or, if they lived in California in the 70s, as the Arts Council chairman who raised the funding for the arts from $1 million to $14 million and lowered overhead costs from 50% to 15% during his tenure.  But, until I read his memoir, I was unaware of these more mainstream accomplishments of my long time hero.  For me, coming of age in the 60s, he was revered as one of the founders of the Diggers, an anarchist group of talented, radical, performers (drug-crazed communist hippies to the “straight” world) dedicated to living collectively and hell-bent on challenging and transforming the consumer-based and profit-driven culture to one that was more authentic and rooted in the acknowledgment of our interdependence. 

That’s a mouthful, and one that the mainstream culture did find hard to swallow.  And though the hippies’ “style” has been co-opted, and revisionist historians and media pundits have written them off as idealistic, hedonistic, bell-bottomed youth who have either died of drug overdoses or grown up and come to their senses, when we look around today, we see the values espoused by my hero and his comrades permeating our culture.  The civil rights movement, the feminist revolution, gay rights, holistic health, environmental activism, and a burgeoning spiritual awakening have changed the way people think and live. 

Part of the power and flexibility of our profit-oriented economy is that it can co-opt nearly everything.  Everything but doing things for free.  The Diggers understood that style was infinitely co-optable.  What could not be co-opted was doing things for free, without money. (p. 35)

As a New York city girl, graduating high school in 1968, I was swept up by this cultural tsunami.  I dropped out of college, dropped lots of LSD, moved to a commune in upstate New York, and grew vegetables I only recognized by their pictures on the seed packets.  It was a heady time, and, unlike many of my contemporaries, I do not look back wistfully on the follies of my youth as if waking from a bad dream, but rather draw continued hope and motivation from the good dreams of that era of social, cultural and political experimentation. 

Yes, we made mistakes – some of them fatal.  In the opening words of Allen Ginsberg ‘s epic poem Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked // dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”  Peter Coyote also laments the loss of friends and loved ones as a “cost” paid during this time, but one that does not invalidate the quest for life, liberty and happiness our generation embarked upon.  In the Preface to Sleeping Where I Fall, he writes

This book attempts to describe what the pursuit of absolute freedom felt like; what it taught me and what it cost. It is neither an apologia for nor a romance of the '60s. Coming to understand the necessity and value of limits should not be construed as either a defense of the status quo or as the contrite repentance of someone who's flapped his wings a few times and decided that flight is impossible.

The San Francisco Diggers took their name from a group of English agrarian communists begun in 1649 as the True Levellers (because they wanted to “level” real property) who became known as Diggers, because of their attempts to farm (dig) on common land.  (Another explanation is that because they were persecuted and attacked, every morning they were seen burying (digging) their dead.)  They were among the social reformers of their time, and, like their modern day counterparts, sought to realize their vision of economic equality through the creation of small egalitarian rural communities.

Learning to live together is hard work, but it may be the most important work there is, if we are to survive (and thrive) as a species.  The lessons that Peter Coyote harvests from his experiences are the legacy of the Diggers and the Free Family they spawned, a loose confederation of “families” living in communal houses and connected by truck caravans, poetically described by Peter as beads on a necklace, up and down the coast highway: 

Since we had no money, we substituted cooperation and energy and helped one another establish a series of camps that we hoped would evolve eventually into networks of support. …Our diaspora spread north out of San Francisco, and Highway 101 resembled the thread of a beaded necklace that connected us to family sites along its length. (p. 130)

The vision that guided this admittedly ragtag, eclectic and idiosyncratic group of free-thinkers and freaks was of an interconnected and fluid network of households joined together in common purpose to learn to live, work, love and raise children cooperatively and collaboratively, to live more lightly and sustainably on the planet by sharing resources – in short, to create a new infrastructure to support a new society.

The overriding concerns of these family houses were to learn how to live communally, to expand and deepen the sense of community, and to diminish our per-capita consumption of natural resources and energy.  (p. 139)

Implementing this vision, as many of us discovered, is no easy task, and our youthful exuberance and innocence gave way over time to a sobering realization that the culture we sought to transform was deeply entrenched within us.  Lesson one:  transformation begins at home.

Furthermore, American individualism made unanimity and collective cooperation difficult.  We challenged ourselves to create systems in which each of us could maintain personal authenticity and still participate in a social unit.  Though easy to express, such creations required constant discussion, checking, and rechecking.  . . .We knew that if we were to build a new culture from within the old, it would require time, patience, and practice to resolve obstacles and create habitual responses that were based on community well-being rather than merely personal preference.  (pp. 139-40)

This tension between the individual and the collective good is at the heart of most (if not all) conflicts, be they inter-personal or inter-national.  What lessons for resolving (or at least finding ways to live within) these contradictions does this memoir offer us?  There are no easy answers, and lesson two is that this project requires ongoing negotiation and communication among the members of the community, be it one household, a commune, or a village.  

Recalling a metaphor popularized by Otto Neurath (another precursor to the modern day Diggers) to “build a new culture from within the old” is like building a new boat while still sailing in the old one.  Neurath (1882-1945), a very unorthodox Marxist, was an Austrian sociologist/economist/philosopher who developed a theory of a moneyless "economy in kind" in the years leading up to the First World War.   He wrote:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

This metaphor is particularly apt, as one of the principles of the Diggers was to reuse and repurpose the detritus of an affluent society.   “We were happy to live with society’s garbage because we had the time to recycle and reclaim it.”  (p. 133) However, youthful insouciance and disregard for status quo social norms led to some ethically questionable behaviors.  “Petty theft was considered a way of living off the enemy’s surpluses.” (p. 49)

There is an important lesson here, too.  Peter reflects that “What strikes me in hindsight about my ethical transgressions at this time is not the revelation of a flaw in my character but the ease with which anyone can sweep away ethical concerns in pursuit of a noble goal.”  (pp. 109-10)  Lesson three:  In the words of Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan), legendary bard of that era:  “To live outside the law you must be honest.”

My own commune was rent asunder by the fault lines in personal dynamics that living together in close proximity and poverty uncovered.  Most of us were refugees from dysfunctional families, but we merely walked (or ran) away from these war zones, and like the returning Vietnam Vets, we were shell-shocked and unaware of the inner traumas we still harbored.  We did not have the skills to do the inner work necessary to heal these wounds. 

While we developed refined vocabularies to discuss free economies, bioregional borders, subsistence economy, . . . we possessed almost no tools for discussing interpersonal conflicts and personal problems or resolving the sometimes claustrophobic stresses and strains of communal existence.  (p. 291)

And so, much to our collective horror, we often found ourselves duplicating the same cultural assumptions we were committed to challenging.  One very obvious place this showed up was in gender roles and relationships.  As Peter wryly observes,

At every place we stopped, I offered some evangelical variant of the same speech, exhorting others to participate in ‘the evolving, countercultural nation that will support regionally organized, self-sufficient communities.’  …While I was creating an enchanting self-sufficient future, the feeding, care of the children, and our laundry was left to Nicole.  Tonto was pissed.  (p. 305)

Lesson four is well-articulated by a slogan from the women’s movement :  The personal is political.  Working on societal transformation must go hand in hand with personal transformation.  If we only attend to society’s ills and ignore our own psyches, we end up re-inscribing our own neuroses.  And exclusive attention to personal growth becomes narcissistic navel-gazing with no impact on the conditions that created our problems.  Carol Hanisch, who first used this phrase in an eponymously titled essay in 1969, states "One of the first things we discover in these [consciousness-raising] groups is that personal problems are political problems.  There are no personal solutions at this time."

There are many more lessons to be gleaned from this book, but I will only add one more to the list here.  When we moved up to Granville, NY, a sleepy community fifty miles north of Glens Falls NY and about twenty minutes from Rutland VT and the Canadian border, we were the first hippies the locals had ever seen.  We hoped to endear ourselves to the neighboring farmer by helping him bring in the hay and buying a milk cow from him and a bull to slaughter for meat (which is when I became a vegetarian).  We thought we’d earned his respect and even approbation, but later we found out he told lots of tales about us in town, mostly as the butt of jokes at our expense.  Peter Coyote’s people had similar experiences.  What we failed to realize is that we were still holding ourselves apart from the community at large, subtly exuding an aura of “noblesse oblige.”  We did not attend town meetings, go to the barn dances, or generally join in the life of the community.  We felt we had a lot to teach, but nothing to learn from “these people.”  You might say we were suffering from undiagnosed attitude deficit disorder.  We were evangelical – even sometimes fundamentalist – convinced we had all the answers.  Lesson five:  Learn to listen and find common ground.  Dialogue, not monologue, is the way to connect with others. 

I could see that despite their poverty, the hippies were aristocrats in the valley and deeply resented.  Their real wealth, aside from access to cash, consisted of their education, their social and political skills, and their mobility.  They were not sharing these with the local shopkeepers and farmers and consequently not creating a common economy.  Instead, they organized their own cooperatives and drove into Pueblo and Denver to buy food more cheaply than valley merchants could afford to sell it to them.  They might have placed their orders through the local stores, allowing local merchants a commission that would have linked their economic fates.  They might have been teaching local families how to cooperatize their purchasing as well.  Even at Oriviz Farm, land was lying fallow that might have been leased to local farmers, creating community and shared interests.  …A dialogue needed to be initiated.  Did the inhabitants want wealth or stability, neighborliness or tourism?  It occurred to me … that the worship of different gods in the same locale usually leads to war.  (pp. 255-56)

This book is very well-written and a pleasure to read.  Peter Coyote is a consummate story teller.  He won the prestigious Pushcart Prize for Carla's Story, http://www.petercoyote.com/carlasstory.html  which is incorporated (in abbreviated form) into his book.  Olive Pits, http://www.petercoyote.com/olivepits.html “scripted by Peter Berg and me in one frenetic afternoon” (p. 57) won an OBIE award, much to his consternation.  “After all,” he wrote, “if the society you are criticizing gives you a medal, how effective a vehicle for social change can theater be?” (p. 60).  His language sometimes soars to poetic heights – especially in his descriptions of people:

The most articulate teacher of this new intellectual perspective was Peter Berg, perhaps the most radical and cranky member of the [San Francisco Mime] troupe, and arguably the most brilliant.  He had an imposing round head with a face plucked from a Breughel painting: high cheekbones and crooked teeth semipermanently revealed in a death’s-head grin.  Long, thick blond hair fell across a domed brow, and his eyes, except for their humor, possessed the indignant fury of a raptor.  Genghis Khan might have smiled like Berg, and in fact Berg’s nickname was ‘the Hun.’ (p. 32)

One more item on Coyote’s resume that I was unaware of is that he is an ordained Zen Buddhist monk.  It seems fitting to close this review with his own words from an interview in Shambhala Sun (a Buddhist magazine) in 1998 (when he was 57) (http://www.petercoyote.com/shambhala.html) :

As you look back at the Diggers, what beyond the basic impulse do you think still has validity today?

Well, I think the notion of doing what you do without thinking about fame and fortune is pretty valid. I think the notion of doing things for free is pretty valid. It doesn't work in all contexts, but it certainly works in some. I really trust that compassionate intentions will find the appropriate ways to make themselves manifest and that each generation will think up their own ways to do it. Just as we related to the Beats, kids will be relating to what we did and correcting it and altering it to be more appropriate to their time.

I think it's a new game because we have exhausted the idea of having a pure place to stand outside the culture. I think this is now the time of mahayana culture-this is the big vessel, the big boat, and we're all in it. Things are going to be played out not as outsiders, but as insiders, and I trust that young people will work out their own ways of doing it. You know, things are coming around. It looks like capitalism has won but it's not over 'til the fat lady sings. They're creating a global proletariat, they're creating global oppression, and people are not going to dry up and blow away. I don't know what's going to happen, but it's going to change.

About the author: 

Bonnie Shulman, now in her 60s, is an elder hippie who came of age in the 60s.  She is a recovering mathematics professor, recently retired from Bates College in Lewiston, ME, and looking forward to life in the slow lane.  Her friends and family are skeptical about her slowing down, and she grudgingly admits they may be right.  She is eager to return to her passions of poetry, gardening, and yoga.

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Bonnie Shulman (2013). The (nineteen-)SIXTIES: Lessons learned, a world transformed. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 16.
GEO Volume 2: