More than 30 years ago, a few hundred hippies left California to start a commune in Tennessee. They're still there, and they're not the only ones.
If you thought the communes all quietly faded away, you're not alone. But the communes didn't go up in clouds of pot smoke, according to people in the still-thriving movement.
"Contrary to the public perception of the commune movement being a failure, it was a raging success," said Lois Arkin, one of the founders of the Los Angeles Eco-Village. "When the communities stopped being preoccupied with sex and drugs, the media stopped being preoccupied with them."
For most of the people who began communities like The Farm in Tennessee, it wasn't about the sex and drugs: It was about changing the world, and it still is.
The word "commune" may be out of date, but according to people who still live in them, the ideals behind those "get back to the earth" efforts are not, and they say they're making a difference in many different ways.
There are thousands of contemporary communes — now commonly called "intentional communities" — across the country, from rural Tennessee, Missouri and Oregon to downtown Los Angeles and New York City. They're organized on various different principles, whether concern about the environment, shared political views, religious beliefs or some other set of ideals.
"Intentional community" is a rather clinical and perhaps off-putting term for a simple idea — groups of people who have common views deciding to live together to improve the quality of life for themselves, and in many cases, to try to help those around them.
The definition is rather broad, said Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, an umbrella organization of some 3,000 such communities worldwide, and a longtime resident of Sandhill Farm in Rutledge, Mo.
By the FIC's definition, an intentional community is a group of people who "share property on the basis of explicit common values," which can be ecological, religious, social, political or psychological. Many of the member communities are eco-villages, focused on environmental issues, while other are followers of the co-housing movement that began in Denmark.
The only firm requirements for membership in the FIC are that groups be "upfront and honest about their views," don't advocate violence and don't hold people against their will.
"As a movement, it's not very focused," Schaub said. "It's more about people who are not satisfied with life the way most of society lives it."
Nearly all of the communities listed on the FIC's Web site welcome visitors — even for weekend stays or longer — and many are open to new members.
People join or form intentional communities for a lot of different reasons, members say. Some come because they feel isolated in society, some because they are concerned about their children's safety or the influences on them, and others because they want to lead a more environmentally friendly or simpler lifestyle.
Though the original communes like The Farm in Tennessee were often portrayed as experiments in free love and uncontrolled drug use by kids who didn't want to deal with reality, that stereotype was not always accurate, which is proven by the fact that many of those communities are still around, decades later, members say.
Instead, the founders of The Farm always had it in mind to be an example for others, and that ideal is shared by many of the thousands of newer eco-villages and intentional communities across the country and around the world.
"The founding principle was creating something that people could emulate," said Douglas Stevenson, who was one of those hundreds who left California more than three decades ago to start The Farm.
The idea was to create a community based on nonviolence and sustainability, and to provide an example of how it can be done, he said. Some 30 years later, he said, that's still what The Farm and other similar communities are doing.
"You want to get far enough away so you can do your own thing without being influenced by society at large, but you don't want to isolate yourself," Stevenson said.
At its peak, The Farm's 1,700 acres were home to some 1,500 people. Stevenson said the population is much smaller now, but it spans the generations, with about a quarter under 30, many of whom are children of the original members.
"Most of the people who live here have lived here at least 20 years," he said. "The majority of the population has been through it all."
For some, The Farm has been almost their whole life.
Julia Skinner, 20, was born and raised there, and she says she plans to stay.
"I grew up here, so I'm pretty much a country girl," she said. "I like how relaxed everybody is. I like it because of the community aspect of it."
While the population may have declined from its peak, in more important ways The Farm has grown from its agrarian beginnings, Stevenson said. Now it is home to more than 20 businesses, including a publishing company, food stores, doctors and construction companies that specialize in environmentally friendly technologies.
More than a half-dozen nonprofit groups also operate out of The Farm, including The Farm Midwives, a retirement village and Peace Roots Alliance, which is working to register new voters.
Another misconception about the communes, according to Stevenson and others, is that the groups of young people who founded them weren't accepted by their neighbors when they moved into rural communities to get back to the earth.
"Once they kind of got over the initial shock of us living there, some of them became our staunchest allies," Stevenson said. "We always had a strong work ethic, so they admired that. It was also a time when a lot of young people were leaving the area, so to see a group of young people coming to the area wanting to learn farming, that made them happy."
Some of the children Skinner met in elementary and middle school reacted with "a little bit of prejudice" that she came from The Farm, but she said that has changed.
"Now when I go back and see kids from the same school now they say, 'You're from The Farm? That's so cool,' " she said.
Caroline Estes of Alpha Farm near Mapleton, Ore., recalls a reaction similar to the one Stevenson said he and the others at The Farm received, when she and the other founders of the community moved there from Philadelphia more than 30 years ago.
"We were told we could do most anything we wanted to as long as we worked hard and paid our taxes. That's kind of an Oregon thing. That's what we did," she said.
Alpha Farm was founded by a group of people who believed that the country was on a path that "wasn't sustainable," Estes said. The inspiration for the social structure of the community came from the Quakers, with their values of nonviolence and the need for consensus in decision-making and a simple way of life.
Like The Farm, Alpha Farm has also reached out into the community around it, opening a bookstore and cafe in Mapleton, the closest town to the farm.
"We're very active in the community," Estes said. "One of the reasons we have a store is to have an open face to the community."
Among the accomplishments of the farm members' activism, she said, were stopping the spraying of pesticides along roadsides in the county, closing parts of the surrounding forest to logging for eight years to protect the spotted owl, and starting a food co-op that offered lower-priced fresh produce.
For many of the communities today, the goal is to be more than a role model. Instead, they want to take an active role in the community around them.
The desire to create a community outside of mainstream American life doesn't send everybody running for the woods, though. For some, the problems in American cities are all the more reason to stay there.
In Los Angeles, for example, a group of people was planning an eco-village in 1992 when the riots — sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King — broke out in the neighborhood. That forced them to rethink their focus.
"We had already been planning to build a sexy new solar-powered, state-of-the-art eco-neighborhood when the fires came," said the Los Angeles Eco-Village's Arkin. "We took a deep breath and said, 'What should our priorities be?' Our goal was to transform a really unhealthy neighborhood into a healthy community."
So along with trying to minimize their impact on the environment in terms of energy use, waste and pollutants, they tried to maximize their impact on their neighbors, by sharing the produce from their gardens and trying to encourage the people who lived around them to get to know one another and take back the neighborhood from drug dealers, prostitutes and gang members.
They tried to reach out beyond the neighborhood by periodically opening their bicycle repair shop for classes to teach people how to fix their own bikes, as part of their effort to get people to be less dependent on cars.
"We have a very strong public interest purpose, and that is to reinvent the way we live in our cities," Arkin said.