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

August 5, 2010


By Gordon Solberg

For quite some time I’ve been asking myself the question, approved “Why did the bright promise of the ‘60s turn out so terribly wrong?” Why was the back-to-the-land movement such a failure?  As one of the few back-to-the-landers who stayed on the land, tooth I’ve read several books on the subject to satisfy my curiosity. A couple of my favorites are Arthur Kopecky’s New Buffalo: Journal of a Taos Commune, approved and its sequel, Leaving New Buffalo Commune, in which he ends up getting kicked out of the commune by an insurgent faction. It’s a sad tale, or it makes me sad at any rate. So much idealism, so much bright promise, so easily swept aside by the culture of exploitation that has been destroying the biosphere since long before we were born. We thought we had a better way. Some of us actually thought we could change things, or at least create a “counterculture” separate from the mainstream. Some of us invested our lives into this project. We really, really tried. It’s hard to imagine, from today’s complacent perspective, how hard some people worked to create a genuine alternative to the madness. But it was like trying to stop a bulldozer with a b-b. We were unable to conjure up a new culture when as children we had been programmed to do the exact opposite.

The sustainability “movement” has remained at entry level for the past 40+ years, while the condition of the planet has deteriorated at an ever-increasing rate. The whole “living in harmony with the Earth,” back-to-the-land movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s never really caught on, not in a meaningful way. There are several reasons for this:

Too much hard work. Post-World War 2 white people traditionally shunned physical labor, except in a symbolic sense, such as mowing the lawn or working out at the gym.  In this regard, back-to-the-land seemed like a step backward to many people.

Not enough money. Most people prefer having a “real job” with a regular paycheck with benefits.  Such jobs used to be so plentiful that grubbing in the dirt seemed ridiculous in comparison.

Too much isolation. The countryside might be beautiful, but you’re surrounded by teabaggin’ rednecks, and there’s not enough entertainment and “culture.”

* Lack of social support. Working for an organization, you’re part of the hive. The hive gives your life meaning and purpose, sort of. You have your place, you know your role, and you get paid for it.  Isolated on the land, people tended to feel cast adrift as soon as the drugs wore off.

There are no doubt other factors at work, but those four cover a lot of ground. I’d say that most people who went back to the land lasted anywhere between two months and two years, with six months being typical. Life on the land simply proved too difficult for most of the people who tried it. There were too many hassles, and not enough rewards.

Additionally, 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. 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.

New Buffalo commune, located near Taos, New Mexico, 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 – 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 occasional drug-induced mayhem. As time went on they built irrigation ditches so they could irrigate their gardens, pastures 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 paid off their back taxes. They built greenhouses and solar collectors to help heat their pueblo during the harsh, high-altitude winters of northern New Mexico.

They were young, strong, and worked amazingly hard, but they never had enough money.  What money they brought in was used to buy food, equipment and other necessities, and repairing their vehicles, which were always breaking down.  Gradually, they managed to accumulate dairy equipment and a small herd of dairy cattle. They developed a loyal clientele for their milk in Taos. In addition, 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 Earth and each other. Kopecky obviously provided a lot of the focus and idealism that made all this possible.

One fact that stands out about New Buffalo is how hard they worked. They were working fools (at least, the ones who worked). They never had a consistent membership, except for Kopecky (from 1971-79) and a handful of others. His books are in journal form, written day-to-day, not overviews written after the fact. Kopecky, like all of us, didn’t really know what was happening at the time. (I used to say, “You never know what’s happening till afterwards.” Which is to say, you need time to consolidate the data, analyze the information, and draw some conclusions. In the moment, we’re all just winging it.)

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, but that was all it took. The predators had lived at New Buffalo in the past and deeply resented Kopecky, who 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. The predators used their unearned power to cast out Kopecky and, in the process, destroy the commune.

The trouble with unearned power is, a newcomer or any unqualified person can move into a situation and be considered 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.

As it turned out, Kopecky didn’t have any power beyond the force of his personality, coupled with his vision and his vast amount of experience.  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, bitter and discouraged.  This was in 1979, after eight years of gradual progress.  New Buffalo was 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 Kopecky left: 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.

NEW BUFFALO COMMUNE * REST IN PEACE * 1967-1985

In addition to being a focused and methodical hard worker, Kopecky was almost delusional in his idealism. He reminds me of my own experience. After I moved to this piece of land along the Rio Grande in 1973, after three years of homesteading in the Ozarks, I always assumed that “something” was going to happen. (It never did.) By the early ‘80s it was obvious even to me that the whole back-to-the-land thing was 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 we’ve seen nothing yet.  Things are already becoming very interesting, very quickly, and soon even the unaware will be forced to take notice.

Americans have always believed in “freedom,” which translates, mostly, into freedom to travel, and freedom to shop. The hippies refined and distilled this concept into what could be called “Perfect Freedom,” or “freedom without obligations.” The thing about hippies and communards: They were free spirits. Free spirits come and go like the wind. They will never be tied down, which is to say, they can never be depended on. Thus: Joe is a critical member of the milking team. Those cows have got to be milked twice a day. The commune really needs him. But 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 impossible to get any continuity.

Kopecky kept asking, “Where are all the quality people who will surely be drawn to our quality scene?” He always hoped to create a superior vibe that would encourage people to stay, but he never got more than a handful or two that could really be counted on. New Buffalo never had any trouble attracting parasites and losers. But hardworking, consistent people you could depend on? Pretty rare, and they seldom stayed for long. Looking back, the dynamics are obvious: The more intelligent ones quickly said, “This sucks!” and went back to school so they could make something of themselves.

Contrasted against the easygoing hippie ethic was the mainstream paradigm of selfishness, which still rules:  Get a good education, get a good job and make lots of money, all for the benefit of #1.  This is far and away the path of least resistance, so it’s not surprising that this is the paradigm that dominated.  Even though this paradigm is now breaking down, the damage has been done. Americans embraced the illusion of “no limits” rather than the reality of a finite planet. The sustainable path was not taken when it needed to be.  Critical decades were lost, never to be recovered. Now, we are like flies trapped in amber, hoping that somehow our positive words and thoughts will save us.  Virtually our every act contributes to the destruction of our planet in some way. And as the Arctic melts, and the Gulf of Mexico dies, we already know how Antitopia is going to turn out.

(Gordon Solberg went back to the land in 1970, and is still there.  His blog is http://newearthtimes.blogspot.com)

Comments

10 Responses to “Slouching Our Way to Antitopia — Musings on New Buffalo Commune and the Counterculture”

  1. arthur Kopecky on August 23rd, 2010 11:33 pm

    Terrific review. Shows great understanding. But I’m still encouraged. Communities movement evolved. Just today there was a half hour program on KRCB about a local reunion and the Farm in Tenn. The OAEC just had their fall plant sale and their theatre will host a terrific show in a few weeks. I think ‘it’ can and will burst forth again. This time their are reviews and insights like the one by Gordon Solberg to help guide. Best Wishes, Arty Kopecky

  2. Cinn Fields on September 3rd, 2010 3:20 pm

    Well written essay! I’m not that familiar with New Buffalo, but for the past 10 years I’ve lived in a surviving 60s intentional community. People always ask us “how do you get the right people?” – we never go the ‘right’ people – we got the people who showed up – and it turned out that most of them were the right people. The problem I’ve been thinking about lately is ‘how do you get along with people’ – a “good” IC is like a school for successful human behavior – we are trying to have sustainable relationships along with using sustainable technology.

  3. Elaine CImino on September 12th, 2010 9:40 am

    Over the years I met people who were a part of New Buffalo, as for those parasites and predators they are still reviled. I have seen successes and have experienced the failures of family or IC farming, despite all of it I agree with Arty, it can work and be successful.

    Many of those free spirit shooting stars crashed and burned, if they have not burned they are about to or they have become borderline zombies.
    Hopefully we have become wiser with age and in some way we are still working to save our planet or at least our spot on it.

  4. Dave Heide on February 3rd, 2011 1:05 am

    It’s easy to get down when things don’t go as well as might be hoped.
    But that’s not the way forward. From communes to squats to collectives and the infinitudes of other experimental living arrangements comes the fabric of an antidote to the misery of competition and hierarchy. What’s great about going over history is not so much about why things failed, but in what way they succeeded.

    The leap forward that took place around the 1960s afforded a progeny of the great spirit. View history naturally and the continuing evolution will never cease to reveal itself.

    DH/Imploding Gate Factory
    Burlington, VT

  5. douglas keith on December 14th, 2011 11:17 am

    i stayed at new buffalo for three days in the spring of ’73. just hitchhiked in from boulder. the de facti boss (art?) told me to turn over a future apple orchard all day for the company, food and warmth offered. slept out back on a bedroll. i wasn’t a parasite. i worked hard. very worthwhile time for me. left to become a doctor then was going to return but …..i remembe a dark haired woman making a mural in the kitchen and i gave her some colored feathers that she used and she told me the great spirit had sent me to her. i never forgot her face. very beautiful . propably art’s wife. at meals we all held hands. a little dope. also 50 toothbrushes in one can by the shower. and in the round bldg a guy made a drum out of stones and a gord and skin and pebbles and called out to the spirits for me. there was one girl who refused to wear a top and at lunch she complained about my being there so i left. thanks art for letting me stay. doug

  6. Art Goodtimes on January 11th, 2012 9:05 pm

    gordon — nice to see you still writing. just visited lama for the first time and met rick klein, who was associated with new buffalo. a great guy … you make some great points about how the commune movement didn’t work, but i was impressed lama is still functioning…

  7. jeffrey morrison on January 7th, 2013 3:10 am

    I was at the New Buffalo commune for about a month in 1970…I was 19 years old. Some friends of mine and I had left Boston with the plan of starting a commune in Alaska. Our plan was to homestead in Alaska and create a community where we could all live free and develop ourselves creatively. Thinking back I am somewhat astounded at our idealism and naivete. We were traveling in an old converted telephone company van and had an accident in Vivian, South Dakota. WE were able to purchase another vehicle but it was really too small for all of us so I made the decision against the protestations of my comrades, to give them my share of the money and I would hook up with them later in Seattle. I hitch hiked from there through the Badlands and the Black Hills and following the whims of my spirit I headed south through Colorado winding up eventually in Taos where I inquired about working for a meal at various establishments. I was referred to the New Buffalo Commune where I was warmly received and given a job of sorts. Patching the adobe buildings and making new brick. The food was superb and plentiful. We would gather in the round building to eat and play music and sing and smoke dope. During this time an Italian film crew came and wanted to film us (for educational TV) at the commune. The leaders drove a hard bargain. Sure they could film us but it would cost them a pound of dope and two goats. The complied and they started filming, in fact they filmed me explaining how to make adobe brick. I stayed for about a month but came down with the beginnings of hepatitis. It was explained to me that this was natural. A sort of biological indoctrination to living off the land. There was a Navajo indian there at the time, he was maybe 25 and he helped me with my symptoms by preparing for me a juniper tea, however I didn’t relish the idea of possibly becoming seriously ill so I left and hitch hiked back to Boston. I would have liked to stay but I was concerned about my health so I left. It was a great experience that I will never forget. Seems like a dream to me now.

  8. Denise Lassaw on May 22nd, 2013 10:59 am

    Greetings!
    I was among the founding members of New Buffalo, having been invited by Max Finstein when we met at the Love Festival at Drop City in 1967.
    just a few corrections: We always had and used the irrigation ditches. Water rights were part of the land. The adobe bricks were not bought. We made every single one of them, some thousands. I think someone was hired to teach us how to make the bricks, but after that we worked all day everyday. The men did the really hard physical work, but us girls turned the bricks so they dried on both sides- not to mention all the other work everyone did, laundry in the creek, gardens, cooking for huge numbers of people, babies, firewood etc. Since most of us came from city life we all had a steep learning curve. When it flowed nothing could be more wonderful. I left NM in 1969 and spent the last 40+ years in Alaska. New Buffalo prepared me for life in the bush and gave me the courage to live alone. After all the crowds of the “summer of love” I was so ready for solitude that I turned down an invitation to go to Woodstock with the Hog Farm.

  9. Monica on September 7th, 2014 5:50 pm

    There are many reasons why experiments like communes can fail and living that primitive is extremely hard work. While living in Taos New Mexico during the summer of 1970 I met some members and visited New Buffalo so I was able to see it rather than just hear about it. Living off the land in isolation requires constant daily labor and everyone had to do something to contribute. But what I saw was the ancient division of labor between men’s work vs. women’s work. All the women were doing kitchen, household and childcare tasks while the men did field work, fixed equipment, drove trucks and handled outside business. It seemed a long way from true freedom and rejecting the establishment, more like reverting back to a system of self-sufficiency with an old rule book.

    Every organization requires some oversight and good strong leaders to succeed. If everyone is equal, including new arrivals, misfits, addicts, grifters, it’s hard to make it work. Ideologies aren’t always practical in the face of every day existence and people developed civilization, government and social structures to help solve those problems. Small groups can also breed internal conflicts or undue pressure to conform from those with dominant personalities. No system is perfect, but communes threw away too much of the good aspects and gains over the last century.

    Many of us rejected these experiments and returned to the rest of the world. However, on a bright note, we are the people that champion efforts like save the planet, equal rights for all, political reform, international peace, and many other causes that we still struggle with today. I think that’s better than living on a commune helping only a few.

  10. Michael Hadden on September 22nd, 2017 6:16 pm

    Musings and memories, it was 1969 when Yvonne and her 4yr old son, and me, left San Francisco and wound up at New Buffalo. Not sure how we found it, but I remember turning left off the highway ending up on a dirt road heading west, then turning left on a long dirt driveway up to the compound. We met two elders, Justin and Richard. The norm was to give all possessions to the commune. I think I held back a couple ounces of weed. Since I had some experience driving a truck, I became the truck driver. We would head up into the mountains where the Forest service had marked certain trees, we would fell the trees, clean them , cut to size and haul them home. These logs would become the roof of the great room. We made Adobe bricks every day. Mixing the mud in ditches, adding straw and using our feet like making wine from grapes. At noon the women would bring out lunch.
    I remember a few of us traveling up to the Lama Foundation to help make bricks, they feed us and shared spiritually. We had The Whole Earth Catalog and Be Here Now. I have good memories of The New Buffalo. I remember Paul, who came down from the mountains and built a Hogan using only hand tools, it was perfect, he never said a word. If he ate with us, he would have the dishes done before some of us had finished. He practiced and lived yoga. Lots of memories, now 72 so forgive me for rambling.

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