What the Trees Said

Life on a New Age Farm

by Stephen Diamond

In 1968, shortly after the explosive events at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, the Liberation News Service fell into a conflict of its own. This was a group of radical journalists who had begun the Associated Press of the hippie movement. They published, a couple times a week, a collection of articles that went out to alternative, underground, and college publications across the country. By 1968, though, the group had moved from Washington, DC to New York. There, they split along idealogical lines. The political radicals remained in New York, working for revolution through the LNS. The social radicals, though, moved to a farm in western Massachusetts, to live an alternative life on the land. With them, they took much of the news service's equipment and its money. This began a fight between the two groups, but that is not really discussed much in this book (for more on that, see: Famous Long Ago). Here, Stephen Diamond tells the story of life at the Pretty Boy Floyd Associates farm near Montague, MA. It is a short book, and so is made up of brief vignettes of farm life. And it is an excellent book. Diamond, perhaps because of his education in journalism, treats his very personal subject with a remarkably even hand. At the time, much of the revolutionary writing was polemical, given to the excesses of youthful arrogance and a certitude that everything the youth movement was doing was new, smashing society as we knew it. Diamond sets the farm in a wider context and treats its conflicts and struggles with sensitivity, though perhaps with brevity and lack of depth on some issues. Still this is an excellent document of the time. The book reads like a memoir, but is lodged firmly in its era, written after the farm's second winter and within the first signs that it is succeeding (it lasted beyond another decade). The book doesn't have that feeling of fuzzy retrospect or reflective doubt that a later memoir might have had. It is immediate and engaging. Surprising that this book did not get printed later than this 1971 edition


 

Here's an article describing what has since happened to the hippie commune turned Peace Temple where the Memorial will be held later this year.


 


 

What the World Needs Now
A group of peace activists with stellar credentials works to fashion Montague into its global hub

- January 8, 2004

 
ANDREW VARNON PHOTO
Feature
ANDREW VARNON PHOTO
Feature
Zen and the art of spiritual activism: Bernie Glassman leans in as Sam Lovejoy, kneeling, lights incense at the Founder's Day celebration.

On a quiet hillside in Montague, at the end of a dirt road, several dozen people are

gathered in a gravel driveway between an old farmhouse and a barn with scaffolding set up alongside it. It is approaching noon, and a meal has been cooked, but no one seems to be in a hurry, save for a few purposeful men and women scurrying back and forth between the barn and the house, attending to details.

This collection of aging hippies and spiritual activists has clustered into little groups, exchanging greetings and catching up on personal news. Many of them consider the place where they are standing to be hallowed ground, a former commune known simply as the Montague Farm. After serving for more than a century as a Yankee homestead, the history of the farm took an unusual turn in 1968 when a gang of anti-war journalists fled there from New York City and started a commune that crackled with activism.

Then, two summers ago, after a period of some uncertainty about the future of the farm, its history took another turn. The original trustees of the farm sold the 34-acre property to an international multi-faith peace network led by a Zen Buddhist roshi who has made a name for himself by mixing meditation with social awareness. The new ownership, a group called Peacemaker Circle International, intends to refashion the farm from a hippie hangout into a "global hub" for its growing network of activist circles.

The meeting is quiet and casual, but the attendees are legendary. There is former resident Harvey Wasserman -- now famous as the co-author, with Norman Solomon, of

Killing Our Own: The disaster of America's experience with atomic radiation --

wearing a striped rugby shirt emblazoned with a patch reading "No Nukes." There in a denim jacket is Sheila Hixon, wife of the late spiritual polymath Lex Hixon. There is Francisco "Paco" Lugovina, of the Zen Peacemaker Circle in the Bronx, wearing an eastern-inspired vest. There is anti-nuclear activist Sam Lovejoy, in an untucked flannel shirt and jeans.

The sensibly dressed people gathered in the driveway on Nov. 1 are waiting for the man who had a vision for the 200-year-old barn, a vision he called "The House of One People." A native of Brooklyn, Roshi Bernie Glassman began his working life in a career not often connected with social activism. In the 1960s, he was employed by McDonnell-Douglas in California as an aeronautical engineer, working on sending a probe to Mars.

But his explorations would take him in another direction, studying Zen under Maezumi Roshi and becoming a Zen teacher himself. In 1980, he returned to his native New York and established a Zen community there. Rather than retreating to purely spiritual concerns, however, Glassman founded Greyston Mandala, a network of community development organizations. Perhaps the most successful venture of the community development network is the Greyston Bakery, a $4 million business which hires and trains unskilled people from the Yonkers area to bake high quality brownies and cakes, including the brownies used by Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

In January 1994, leading a retreat in Washington, D.C. during which he and his followers slept in shelters and spent their days on the streets, Glassman had the idea of starting a Zen order dedicated to the cause of peace. Later, that idea would be broadened into a multi-faith activist network and would lead him to Montague. Glassman and his wife, the late Sandra Jishu Holmes, founded the Peacemaker group in 1996. In the summer of 2002, Glassman moved the group from Santa Barbara to Montague, taking up an offer from the former trustees of the commune to buy the 34-acre farm.

G lassman was held up on his way to the "Founder's Day" celebration by a delay in his flight from D.C. He had been on a book tour in Germany, promoting his book Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, and his connection was late. Soon after arriving he emerges from the old farmhouse, wearing a patterned vest over a white, flowing shirt. His look is part roshi, part raconteur. His gray hair is tied back behind his head and his eyes sparkle beneath his bushy eyebrows. He has the look of a man who has seen much of the world and yet is still on the lookout for something new.

Now that Glassman has arrived, a Buddhist bell is brought out and hung upon the scaffolding outside the barn and rung to begin the ceremony. Slowly the 50 or so people gathered in the driveway begin to file into the unfinished barn. Inside the barn, hanging from the original chestnut beams, are quilts made from discarded fabric, or "pamsula," by poor women working in a Peacemaker-sponsored project.

On one side of the barn, tables have been set up for a meal. Hanging behind the coffee thermoses for the catered lunch is a sign reading "It's better to be active than radio-active." On the other side of the barn, a shrine of sorts has been set up, with flowers and mementos displayed on a table, flanked by easels holding photographs of the two "founders" the ceremony aims to celebrate. Both Marshall Bloom, who brought the Liberation News Service to the farm and formed the commune there, and Lex Hixon, who helped Glassman hatch the idea for the House of One People, died on Nov. 1. Bloom committed suicide in 1969 and Hixon succumbed to cancer in 1995.

The two symbolize the strains that the Peacemaker organization is trying to bring together: the activist and the spiritual. Bloom's Liberation News Service aimed to end the war in Vietnam. Hixon's New York City radio show In the Spirit tried to engage people of different faiths in a dialog about spirituality.

T he attendees sit in a rough circle, completed by the altar. Inside the circle, four chairs are set up in what Glassman calls a "fishbowl." People take turns coming forward, sitting in the fishbowl and sharing their remembrances with the circle as a whole. That sharing begins with those who knew Bloom.

The commune was founded by a splinter group of the Liberation News Service. A sort of Associated Press of the underground newspaper circuit, the Liberation News Service was founded by Bloom and Raymond Mungo in 1967 and delivered twice-weekly packets of news and graphics, initially focused on campus demonstrations and the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Bloom's group, which was interested in exploring the cultural side of the peace movement, left for the farm after making off with the service's printing press and leaving the more political wing of LNS in New York City.

But journalism soon gave way to organic farming, and the Montague commune stopped issuing its press reports within a year. When Northeast Utilities proposed to build a nuclear power plant in the Montague Plains, however, it spurred the residents of the farm in a new direction. Famously, resident Sam Lovejoy lit out one night in 1974 to loosen the turnbuckles holding up a weather tower taking exploratory readings at the proposed plant site. Lovejoy had aimed to provoke the utility into a show trial where he could trumpet the dangers of nuclear power, and the utility took the bait. He was to be acquitted, however, not on a decision of principle, but on a legal technicality.

After Lovejoy's stand, the commune became a focal point for the emerging anti-nuclear movement. The farm had close ties with the Clamshell Alliance that protested the nuclear plant in Seabrook, N.H.

The first speakers traded stories about Bloom, the experience of living on the farm and its wider impact. Wasserman said Bloom was filled with "Godforce," and life on the farm was "miraculous."

"All those stories that you heard about those 1960s communes were true and it all happened here," he said. "Amazing things happened at this farm. It changed the world."

Later speakers remembered Hixon, the influence of his writings and his spiritual mission. Sheila Hixon, Lex's wife, remembered living with her husband in an apartment in the Bowery in the 1960s, with furniture constructed mostly of two-by-fours.

"We knew a lot of people who were activists," she said. "We could have gone in that direction."

But her late husband went on to devote his energy to teaching and writing. His many books explored various mystical traditions, from Sufism to the Divine Mother Tradition of Bengal to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A couple of titles: Coming Home: the Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions and

Great Swan: Meetings with Ramakrishna. He also hosted a radio show in New York City called In the Spirit, where he interviewed spiritual teachers from around the world, including Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama.

It was through a mutual interest in Zen Buddhism that he met Glassman. The House of One People was an idea the two of them came up with together. Sheila Hixon said she was thrilled to see the spirit of her husband's work continued by the Peacemaker group."His work was very much on a spiritual level," she said. "I'm so happy to see it combined with the social activism."

A t lunch, some of the farm's old commune residents swap stories about figures from the anti-war movement. One is about Abbie Hoffman on the lam from drug charges under the assumed name of Barry Freed. As Freed, Hoffman led an environmental campaign against opening the St. Lawrence River to winter shipping traffic and wound up shaking hands with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan apparently saw in Freed a promising new face for the Democratic Party -- not knowing he was shaking hands with a counter-culture hero.

When the idea surfaced for the Peacemaker group to purchase the farm, the original trustees -- none of whom were still living on the farm -- saw it as an agreeable solution to the question of the farm's future. That had been a persistent question since 1993, when it was posed at a reunion of the commune and no satisfactory answer was agreed upon. Now, sitting at tables in a wide open space in the barn where there used to be cow stalls, the former residents seem enthusiastic about the farm's new stewards and their plans for the place.

"I told Bernie, this was the kind of thing we were trying to do, but never got there," says Steve Diamond, a trustee whose 1971 book What the Trees Said: Life on a New Age Farm chronicled life on the commune. He adds, "We were too whacked out."

C urrently, Peacemaker Circle International's offices are located in a couple of trailers behind the farm, where desks and a conference room are set up. Earlier this fall, I paid a visit to the trailers. In the conference room, there was a map of the world tacked to one wall, with little pushpins marking locations where active circles are forming. Most of the pins were clustered in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, but there was also a pin or two in Mexico.

Leah Uberseder, an energetic young woman who is Glassman's personal assistant, explained that the group has held a number of trainings here in the past year. Representatives from places as far apart as Israel, Poland and Mexico sat in this room to learn the circle model of organizing that the Peacemakers teach and techniques such as nonviolent communication.

"They learn how to go home and talk about us," she said.

Glassman and his wife, Eve Marko, who is vice president of the organization, travel a lot, Uberseder said. In fact, a couple of days after I visited, Glassman went to New York City to meet with Hollywood movie star Richard Gere about a possible peace event focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gere is a high-profile Buddhist and his foundation has provided some funding to PCI.

In December, PCI announced plans for an ambitious event to highlight the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In partnership with Gere, PCI plans to produce a series of events featuring performing artists and spiritual leaders it is calling "Middle East Live: 2005," intending to focus international attention to the plight and concerns of ordinary people on both sides of the conflict. This summer, PCI established a regional hub in Amman, Jordan, and has been working with circles in Israel and Palestine. The group has also sponsored two trips by Gere to the Middle East -- in June and December -- where the actor visited communities in Israel and the West Bank.

T he metaphor that best describes what PCI aspires to be is the Internet. Glassman conceives of the organization as a network linking individual circles of activists around the globe, who share information and support each other while working on their own projects.

"We don't talk about circles just by themselves, but we talk about circles together with each other and how those circles get linked to each other," Glassman explained in an earlier interview. "Once you plug in the Internet line, now you're linked to all kinds of information."

Glassman says the Peacemaker group is a logical extension of his work with Greyston Mandala. The Mandala built a local network of community development projects in order to try to deal with homelessness and unemployment. Now he aims to take that entrepreneurial approach global.

"The kind of events I like to create bring diverse groups together," he said. "By the end of the event, the folks involved belong to one family."

But while Glassman has a vision for the group, PCI is still evolving as that vision gets clarified. In May, the group reorganized under its new, more corporate-sounding name, having formerly been called the Peacemaker Community. Meanwhile, it is assembling an international advisory board with cultural leaders and socially conscious businessmen from four different continents. The group has a separate foundation for fundraising and a network of donors receive Bearing Witness, the group's newsletter.

"I believe that here at PCI we're not just building networks, but a self-governing, self-awakening structure that will generate new ideas for social transformation that we can't begin to imagine or guess at," Glassman writes in a recent issue of the newsletter.

T he Founder's Day event was the first assembly in the barn since work to refurbish it had begun, Glassman says. By Nov. 1, 2004, he hopes that the "House of One People" will be complete. The barn itself will be the first segment of a three-year, $1.8 million project to renovate the farm into a campus, focusing on the farmhouse and barn, but also including an organic garden, an amphitheater and huts modeled after Mongolian yurts to house visitors. Once completed, the House of One People will host trainings, workshops and retreats for activists.

After the lunch, I sit down with Teiju Corbett, director of training and development at PCI, to ask about circles and the Peacemaker organization's relationship with other peace groups in the area. Mixing a sense of spiritualism with activism is not new to Franklin County, after all. Just over the hill in Leverett from PCI's new home is the New England Peace Pagoda, where Buddhist monks have begun long-distance walks to Washington D.C., Boston and elsewhere to protest military aggression. Perched on Woolman Hill in Deerfield is Traprock Peace Center, which during the run-up to the war in Iraq helped sponsor former United Nations inspector Scott Ritter's national tour, opposing the Bush administration's rationale for war.

Corbett says that PCI is open to working with other groups and welcomes members of other groups to join its circles and participate in its networks. But she says the group has not made any formal ties or alliances with other peace groups in the area.

Corbett's group focuses on a process, a way of engaging problems and coming up with solutions. She describes the circles as a support network for activists doing grassroots work in their local areas.

"Activists are out there, competing for funds, feeling isolated, disempowered, burned out. ...The circle is a place we can begin to find solutions for these problems that activists face," she says.

Because it is focused on a process, the organization seems hard to grasp -- still as much of a concept as an actual working reality. Pressed for an example of the sorts of activities circles engage in, Corbett told of a venture in an Arab-Israeli village where a Jewish businessman and a young Palestinian set up an Internet café to train youth in the village to use computers. It's a small, localized effort. But maybe if it works, the blueprint could be shared with other parts of the world.

As NASA's Spirit rover craft sends back images from Mars, realizing a dream in which Glassman was once a participant, Glassman's mission has brought him here, to a tract of land in western Massachusetts with a history of nourishing peace activism that almost adds up to a mystique.

It's clear that Glassman and company can dream big, envisioning chains of local projects with global impact, imagining the Middle East as a stage to play out a high-wattage peace event. And the roshi clearly has connections to draw upon. But results?

"We've just really put our feet on the ground and we're just beginning to show a product, if you wanted to use that word," said Corbett. "Only [in the past year] have we begun to put it into play."