In 2014, Laura Look and her boyfriend, Trevor Eustis, decided to sell their possessions and move into a van they had nicknamed Carlos Vantana. They had planned to roam the country for at least a year. But after less than a week on the road, they took a detour south of Nashville. The couple drove by a brick cottage and a blue swing set with a peace sign on top. Deeper into the forest, they saw a row of buses painted with psychedelic colors. They had stumbled, quite accidentally, into one of America’s most famous hippie enclaves.
The Wall Street Journal once called the Farm “the General Motors of American Communes.” Its founder, Stephen Gaskin, was a charismatic creative writing instructor from California who had, while tripping on LSD, developed a philosophy one of his followers described as “Beat Zen and Buddhist economics.” Gaskin believed that America should return to natural living; chemical contraception and abortion, he said, were “damaging to the fabric of society.” In 1971, he and 300 hippies set out from San Francisco in search of a place to form an agrarian commune and “get it on with the dirt.” They eventually settled in central Tennessee. At first, they lived in teepees, Army tents, and the school buses they had driven out from California, avoiding birth control, makeup, coffee, meat, alcohol, violence, and haircutting. Everyone took a formal vow of poverty and forfeited their possessions.
By the 1980s, the Farm’s population had swelled to 1,200 people who lived in communal homes packed with growing families (Gaskin’s wife, Ina May, had launched a renowned midwifery program), but with new mouths to feed, and increasing medical expenses, they fell into debt and nearly lost their land. Gaskin was stripped of power, rules were loosened, and those who wished to stay were told they must find work and contribute to a budget. Hundreds left. Today, only 200 remain.
The United States has a storied history of communal living attempts, from George Ripley’s Brook Farm utopia in the 1840s to Vermont’s back-to-the-land experiments in the 1960s, many of which failed. Today, however, “intentional living” is being reborn. Last year, the health care provider Cigna concluded that loneliness had reached “epidemic levels,” and with the dream of homeownership increasingly out of reach, many young people have sought out new ways to live and work. Co-working spaces like WeWork are booming. Co-housing settlements—which were founded in Scandinavia in the 1970s—are also springing up. (The United States now has around 170 such communities.) All told, the number of ecovillages, co-housing settlements, residential land trusts, communes, and housing cooperatives listed in the Foundation for Intentional Community’s global directory nearly doubled between 2010 and 2016, from 679 to about 1,200.
The Farm still lives on today, in part as a monument to a bygone American era. Many of the original generation of settlers want to see their community continue on as it always has, but the baby boomers who have long run the community are aging out, and a new influx of younger members are questioning some of the old ways. Now, their community stands at a crossroads: Can it live on as a space for fresh ideas, or will it become a retirement village for aging hippies?
Before Look and Eustis embarked on their road trip, they had been working a string of gigs, the latest at an animal amusement park in southern Maine. Their lifestyle left them longing for connection they couldn’t find in the isolated silos of apartment units or in suburban sprawl. The Farm provided it. “It immediately felt like home,” Look told me. There, they met other millennials: gig-economy workers, midwives, a burnt-out former bank manager, a paralegal, and a tree-house–building arborist. They saw the Farm less as a religious sanctuary or a bucolic spot to retire than as a place to find connection and experiment with new ways of living.
The millennials are eager to make changes, but their attempts to do so have, at times, chafed against the Farm’s older ways. “There’s a communication gap sometimes. A lot of the older generation is a little afraid to be as radical now because they’re looking to retire here, and they don’t really want to stir up any kind of trouble,” said Michael Beyer, a poet and activist who lives on the Farm with his partner and their one-year-old daughter. “Sometimes it feels like there’s resistance.”
It can be difficult to retain new members. To afford life on the Farm, some have to work traditional jobs on the outside—Beyer commutes to Nashville to make deliveries for Postmates—but the rural location means limited options. Housing has also been a challenge. Look and Eustis, who are now married, have moved nine times since they arrived on the Farm, with stints living in a bus, a cabin, a trailer, a co-housing space, and a hostel.
Another major deterrent to newcomers is the possibility that their neighbors could accost them at any given moment. Gaskin, who died in 2014, encouraged residents to practice direct confrontation when they saw others failing to live up to the community’s standards. The bluntness often catches new residents off guard, particularly young people unused to having uncomfortable conversations face-to-face. “Occasionally, baby boomers freak out on new people,” said Mark Hubbard, who was born on the Farm. “That runs a lot of people off.” Now in his forties, he, like many members of Generation X, serves as a voice of calm between the older and younger generations on the Farm.
Those who have stayed believe they can develop a vision for the future that builds off the Farm’s founding ideas: sustainability, and the desire to live in peaceful cooperation. “We realize that there is no viable way to start a full commune within a capitalist society right now,” Beyer said. “What we can do is slowly leverage our way out of it.” The Farm’s millennials are eager to try something radical again, but they have learned from the past generation that working within the systems of the outside world can be as important as working to build their own inside.