Notes from the Underground

As a teenage runaway in the 1970s, media artist and writer Jesse Drew hid out in communes across the US. He describes what they were like

Text by Jesse Drew

In March 1971, I boarded a Greyhound bus headed for a city in northern New England with three other boys and one girl. All five of us were 15 years old and all of us had just run away from home. We had a pocketful of change between us and a phone number to call when we arrived at our destination. The number was given to us by one of our entourage’s siblings, who had connections to an underground political organisation that was then on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list. The bus pulled into town just after midnight and we were dropped off into a howling blizzard. Stamping the snow from our shoes and blinking in the flickering fluorescent light of the dingy bus station, we made our phone call. Miraculously, someone answered, and within minutes we were greeted by a bearded young man, who whisked us off to our first commune, into a network that would be my home, school and refuge for many years to come.

The next day, the five of us were moved from an attic hideaway to a commune in the countryside inhabited primarily by children, with adult collective members as teachers and guardians. We enjoyed roughhousing and playing games like the kids, but as teenagers we were also interested in pot, wine and sex: we called ourselves the “Middle Earth” people. We were in the “kid’s collective” for about a month before it became obvious that the police and FBI were edging closer to us. We became aware of a strange clicking on the telephone, neighbours being questioned by strangers, the feeling of being observed – the warning signs that would eventually become routine for us. One morning, we were all packed up in a vehicle and moved to a remote communal farm in the mountains. Here, we dug out firewood from snowdrifts, milked goats and tried to find dried herbs to take the place of our cigarettes, which we had run out of. The long dark nights led me to their communal library of Beat and American bohemian literature and poetry, which I read ravenously, starting with Trout Fishing in America.

We could not stay too long in any one place and for the greater part of the year, we were moved from commune to commune, one step ahead of law enforcement, which persisted in taking a great interest in our whereabouts. The collective wisdom was that a blundering group of teenage runaways would surely lead the law to the wanted band of political outlaws that had been able to avoid entrapment thus far. We remained always packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, sometimes getting a phone call from a neighbouring commune who had just been visited by police, or spotting an unmarked car coming up the driveway. On our travels we experienced first-hand many of the communes and collectives throughout northern New England. To avoid being too much of a liability and a burden, we milked cows, made candles, ploughed the fields, rolled logs in saw mills, raised bees, planted crops, cooked, cleaned, took care of babies and children, and helped out in any way we could. We also discussed racism, imperialism and guerrilla warfare with revolutionaries, sexism and lesbianism with radical feminists, working-class organising with inner-city activists, prison conditions with radical lawyers, essential medical practice with “barefoot doctors”, existentialism and Marxism with avant-garde film-makers. It was quite an experience for a teenage runaway with a ninth-grade education. The communal movement enabled us to move from coast to coast as part of an underground railroad, offering a truly utopian alternative to the usual fate of teenage runaways: drugs, theft and exploitation. In all those years, no one ever turned us away or denied us food and shelter, despite the burden we placed on food-strapped communes and the danger from law enforcement.

The popular perception of a “commune” is as the habitat of the rural “hippie”, a peaceful, longhaired vegetarian who longed to go back to the land and be removed from modern social ills. According to this myth, in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of such hippie communes dotted the US, eking out an existence of subsistence agriculture, with no television, little outside contact and infrequent bathing. While such stereotypes are fun, they obscure the real legacy and character of these communal and collective projects. In all my travels through the communal network, I couldn’t say I ever actually came across a “hippie” commune. The people I met were not escaping from the world or cutting themselves off from society: they were attempting to build a working model of a different life; they wanted to influence radical change in mainstream culture. Many communards were engaged in resistance to the social order, fighting logging companies, defending family farms, building food co-ops, organising demonstrations, assisting military resisters or simply offering refuge to other activists. We were not a meditation retreat: our communes at various times gave respite to Black Panthers, Young Lords, the radical theatre group the Living Theatre and Lincoln Detox Centre medical personnel from the Bronx.

What exactly constitutes a commune is somewhat subjective. I would differentiate between four types of group living. A commune is a group of people who live with shared property, goals and lives in common. It is a conscious, intentional community whose daily lives are coordinated in general consensus. A collective is a group of people working on a single project, who may or not live together. Then there is co-op living, really just based on shared costs and household chores, with no other goal than convenience and saving money. And a group of friends may live together, but that does not make a commune.

Communes had many different philosophies, structures and sizes. My experience consisted primarily of communes geared toward political activism, but I did encounter others that were more spiritual in nature, progenitors of what would eventually be known as “new age”. These tended to revolve more around “leaders” than our more consensual process. Communards all took a great interest in how things worked in other communes, and there was a great deal of visiting and exchanging notes and resources – about how chores were divided up, how much or how little privacy could be expected, whether monogamous relationships were encouraged or discouraged. Some of these questions led to particularly infamous experiments, such as collectivising all the clothes, or having a roulette wheel to determine who slept with whom that night. Everything was up for grabs, and there were heated disagreements over a whole range of issues – spirituality, vegetarianism versus hunting, violent versus nonviolent resistance.

Communal life had all sorts of benefits for non-members too. Small farmers left to the ravages of bad weather or other misfortune could appeal to the commune for help, picking up hay before a rainstorm, perhaps, or pulling a tractor out of a ditch. Far from promoting an alien idea, we saw ourselves as reviving a very American tradition of collective work, the barnraising. Bringing communards to help a local farmer pull the roof joists up for a new barn renewed a custom that had been dying, as family farm culture had been slowly strangled by corporate agriculture and suburban encroachment.

Eventually, life in New England became too intense, with frequent visits from police and undercover spies. It was decided that our group of runaways should be split up and moved out of the area. I would be sent to a remote northern California commune called Black Bear Ranch. After two days by myself in a small cabin on a dirt road, a car pulled up and we drove non-stop to California. I was greeted at the door by two members of The Cockettes, a female-impersonator theatre group. Clearly, I had arrived in San Francisco.

The next day, a local group of Hell’s Angels prepared to drive me out into the wilderness, to Black Bear Ranch. We left late because the bikers, with tears in their eyes, were glued to the TV, watching the funeral of the revolutionary prison activist George Jackson. Seven of us went along for the ride, in an old Ford Econoline van with no passenger seats, hunkered down in the empty back end drinking Red Mountain wine, stopping along the way to take fruit from orchards – grapes, peaches, apricots, plums. In the mountains, we came across a crew of orange jumpsuited men clearing the desolate highway. Our barrel-chested, ponytailed driver took out a few joints from the glove compartment and surreptitiously handed one to each of the guys in the prison work gang. The hand-rolled gifts elicited restrained glee and a secret nod of thanks from each.

At last our van began climbing the long, winding, dusty route up treacherously steep, single-lane dirt roads that led into the remote virgin timberlands. After many hours, we edged past the cabins, teepees, goats, gardens and domes of Black Bear and stopped in front of the main house, a ramshackle bleached white structure with porches. Several people were milling about and came up to welcome us. I was immediately invited down to the creek by a young woman, so that we could cool off in the freezing mountain water and she could show me the new tattoo on her upper thigh.

Black Bear Ranch incorporated many of the most intriguing aspects of the communal movement, and it’s worth describing in detail. Unfortunately, in those days I travelled extremely light, living out of a backpack, with only a packet of phony IDs, a knife and my toothbrush. I had no camera, no journal, no pens to capture my surroundings. Fortunately, though, there are some very good notes and photos on Black Bear Ranch, taken over a period of years by outside observers – and paid for by US taxpayers. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I can rely on the FBI’s record of observations collected by external spies and infiltrators, and by aerial photography.

One of the striking things about the Ranch was the sheer remoteness of it, located in an old mining town deep in the Trinity Alps, surrounded by forest. This observation recurs many times in the FBI report:

Captioned commune is located in an extremely mountainous area in southwestern Siskiyou County, California, which is immediately adjacent to the State of Oregon... The property is surrounded on all sides by US Forest Service land in the Kiamath National Forest. Commune located approximately 50 miles from Oregon border and is accessible only after considerable travel on a logging road.

This made it an ideal hideaway for dissidents and political activists on the run. It had no electricity, no phone, no running water. Once the snows came, the land was locked in until spring. There was a public telephone booth in the closest town that the commune used in emergencies – it took an hour to get to it. The booth was bugged by the FBI, who meticulously logged the numbers of outgoing and incoming calls. The primary tone of the FBI file is frustration at the agency’s inability to discern who is actually spending time at the commune. Their traditional spy techniques – telescopes and nightvision from neighbouring buildings, wiretapping phone lines, tampering with the mail – were mostly worthless in the wilderness. Unfortunately for the FBI, to get to know the residents and visitors in Black Bear, you had to physically be there, a daunting task for outsiders. The file notes that it was a hospitable place: “(DELETE) indicated that the individuals located at the Black Bear Ranch were not particularly New Left oriented, but had never been known to refuse food and shelter to individuals in a fugitive status.” However, this generosity evidently did not extend to government agents: “NOTE: ALL OFFICES SHOULD BE AWARE NO INTERVIEWS CAN BE CONDUCTED INSIDE BLACK BEAR DUE TO HOSTILITY OF RESIDENTS.”

Of course, the FBI considered all communes a menace to society. An anonymous FBI supervisor offers this advice: “Experience has shown communes are a haven for revolutionary violence-prone individuals. Any indication that individuals are living in a communal existence should be given immediate investigative attention to establish their identities and determine their propensity to violence.”

For the rest of us, the commune’s remoteness encouraged a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It was the evidence that the hope many of us had for a new way of living could actually work. The inaccessible place was a perfect laboratory environment to explore and develop alternatives to the status quo, from social governance to technology to food production. In the main house, there was an excellent research lab and library for medical remedies derived from herbs, roots and plants. Many babies were born on the commune, creating a training ground for midwives, doulas and women’s health practitioners and advocates. Food was gathered, fished, hunted and cultivated. Despite harbouring over a hundred people, the group worked together without coercion and outside any capitalist logic: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Even the FBI was impressed with our productivity. In the report, some handwritten notes accompany aerial photographs of the land:

Cultivation in fields growing well (more cult. under trees) 25 people in fields (count aprx) * Note: Considering the number of tents and the extent of cultivation, the total population is estimated at approximately 125. More could possibly be supported by present facilities.

Notes from the FBI’s aerial investigation also count two teepees, six “circular tents” (otherwise known as domes), a main building, a barn and several shacks, checkpoints and observation posts. The FBI also took a great interest in the commune’s technological accoutrements, as evidenced by the Cuban Missile Crisis-style photos it took of the land from low-flying planes. An early report convinced the agency that a radio transmitter and antenna had been installed at the perimeter of the main house. It later turned out to be the washing machine and a clothesline: “The writer, with the assistance of (DELETE) flew over the captioned commune at an air speed of approximately 85 miles per hour and approximately 50 feet off the ground on two occasions. Particular attention was given to the area in question, no such towers were observed, and the area in question was identified as a laundry area.”

I left Black Bear Ranch that winter and headed to an urban collective in San Francisco for six months, where I sold underground newspapers on the street, developed a radical film screening series, became involved in the Food Conspiracy and got to know other urban communes. I then returned to a New England collective farm for several more years. In the mid-1970s, I left the commune I was living in, as interest waned and people drifted away, and moved to a small city where I earned the first pay cheque that was mine alone. I worked as a palletiser in a syrup factory, stacking boxes for forklifts to take away. I confess, I felt a guilty pleasure at having my first wad of bills in my pocket that I could spend any way I wanted, regardless of the needs of the collective. The first thing I bought was a six-pack of beer, which I drank on my friend’s front stoop, hard hat in my lap. I felt no remorse about the commune’s dissolution, no sense of loss.

The communes had played a catalytic role in developing an abundance of ideas that are now seen as givens: alternative fuels and energy, sustainable agricultural processes, sexual freedoms, new forms of participatory culture and grassroots democracy. All sorts of institutions built by communes still remain vital: food co-ops, free health clinics, alternative schools and political organisations. They were also a proving ground for new forms of technology, and the fusion of the new with traditional craft methods had an important, often unrecognised impact on rural America. The communal experience proved to many that you could maintain an alternative life without coercion or threats. There are still thousands of them functioning today, but also thousands of people who have been schooled in such collectivity. I see many of them in leading roles as trade unionists, environmentalists, political activists, media producers and musicians. The communes were a badlands, a refuge, but also an autonomous zone, a place to test out a new way of doing things. That idea has lasted me a lifetime. §

A version of this piece first appeared in West of Eden, edited by Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts and Cal Winslow, from PM Press.

  • Notes from Underground
  • Notes from Underground