Movers of Mountains, Shapers of Worlds
Kirsten Johnsen, now 26, reflects on her childhood at Greenfield Ranch (Ukiah, California), revealing the joy and awkwardness of growing up in community. Having now reached the age that many of the original members were at when Greenfield Ranch was founded, she has insights into the consequences and hopeful art of creating community.
I am now the age that many of them were when they began this place. Long ago, to a six-year-old child, they were giants…movers of mountains and shapers of worlds.
I’m not sure exactly when it was that I realized they were clumsy, not wise. There was a General Meeting that lingers in my memory; it was one of the first times that doubt and fear settled silently in a corner of my child’s mind. I remember the sensation as I was kneeling down next to my mother who sat cross-legged on the lawn of the ranch house, perhaps to ask her a question as she shushed me. Suddenly there was shouting across the circle; someone was standing up and raging at other people in the meeting, as the old walnut tree towered over us all. Other voices rose and other bodies stood to yell over the heads of those seated, and I didn’t wait to see what happened next. I ran, scared, to rejoin my friends playing in the dusty parking lot.
The next time I ran from a general meeting it was with some disgust and flippancy. As I grew older I began to assimilate the general attitude that the General Meetings of Greenfield Ranch Association were impossible. It was an attitude that circulated among the adults, filtering down to the kids around tables and fireplaces at home, and reinforced in our play together around the barn and parking lot and swimming hole.
School at the Ranch House
I think we felt we owned the place anyway, since we were at the ranch house every day for school, which was taught by a few dedicated parents. We knew all the hiding places in the barn, all the secret passageways and best routes for getaway from the enemy in boys-chase-the-girls. Long hours we played, or sat around on the porch listening to Zephyr read stories from The Jungle Book as we ate lunch.
School would often center around morning lessons, beginning as soon as the teacher and enough kids arrived from our respective hikes and horserides to the ranch house. In the wintertime we would huddle around the wood stove, drying out our rainboots and wet clothes. After lunch we’d often gather in the kitchen, sometimes working on art projects like sewing or batiking, or else English and math skills. It seems we were a pretty tough group for the teachers to control. As summertime approached, many school afternoons ended early with a successful mutiny. We would simply refuse to return to class. As a group we would take off down the road, around the bend, tumble down the steep path of the meadow and jump in the pond. There we would spend the rest of the day frolicking and swimming.
Zephyr would round us up every once in a while for a “nature walk,” usually along the creek that leads from the dam to the ranch house bridge. We played and discovered all kinds of plants, flowers, and creatures; pouring plaster of paris into the tracks of the wild things that came down to the creek; pressing new wildflowers into the pages of the school journal. I’m sure it was a joy as much to the adults watching us as it was to us.
There were many adults that passed through the Annie Greenfield School. Parents, other community members, and travellers passing by, taught both basic and special classes — woodworking, pottery, sewing, reading, math. I remember when Gwydion taught us ab out homemade water systems, a subject to which we could all relate as our parents struggled with their homesteads. And how mad Molly would get when we would deliberately make mistakes in grammar! There were singing lessons with Phyllis at the piano, poetry sessions with Sun Bear on the back porch, French taught in the barn by Silvianne.
Arrowheads and Acorn Meal
One memorable time a man passing through the community demonstrated to an eager crowd of us kids how to chip out arrowheads. It was a daily passion among us to dig through the rich black soil around the Commonland searching for artifacts from the distant past. The land that now houses the community center, ranch house, and barns was a Pomo Indian village site, so we could never absorb enough information about the people before us, who had lived here for hundreds of generations. We experimented with making acorn-meal mush, and learned about basket weaving from our field trips to the Willits Museum. One of our first field trips was to a neighboring community to see an ancient rock with petroglyphs. We were eager to learn the mysteries of the land. We explored every corner of it, observing the mating rituals of the newts in the creeks, rummaging throu gh the dumps of the 1860s cattle ranch that was the origin of our beloved but dilapidated barn, and playing in the ranch house around which everything in our world revolved.
So when the adults came to their once a month General Meetings on the lawn, we kids felt inherently superior to their long process of talking and squabbling and fighting. We knew the land from the ground up, the secrets of the past beneath the black dirt and in the maze of rotting stalls; we knew the joy of cool water to splash in as we hunted for baby salamanders in the creeks; we knew when to run away from the obnoxious shouting that erupted during the meetings — we knew how to play!
Not that the adults didn’t play as well. The whole community played. It seemed in those times that the annual Summer Solstice parties went on for several days. Everybody looked forward to the horse races and water ballets, the watermelon races and homemade ice cream. One year the Flying Karamazov Brothers entertained us, but all I remember of that night was dancing in the dusty parking lot in an oversized old-fashioned man’s suit, jealous of the twirling skirt that my friend Aileen was wearing. We had just performed a skit to “Up The Lazy River.”
The next year someone lifted Aileen and me up to the back of a flatbed truck, where we pranced around in flapper suits and sang songs from the ’20s. It seemed we were often entertaining each other in the community with plays, skits, and other events.
There were many, many outrageous parties: a pyramid-raising party at John’s, when we rode up Stay High Drive on a hay wagon. My friend’s dad got so high that night he stole Peggy’s truck. I know, because my dad and I hitched a ride with him. We didn’t realize something was amiss until the 55-gallon barrels of water — kept full for fire safety — started falling over on us. We got out as soon as we could and walked home!
The Halloween parties were always a scene, the ranch house packed with people in all sorts of costumes. We bobbed for apples and had haunted houses in the barn. Troll and Marylyn made a hit with the kids when they brought real caramel candied apples. We didn’t care how our purist parents frowned — for once we got real candy!
Musicals and Nude Movie Makers
One of our first plays we kids put on with Marylyn’s help…something about cats and raccoons fighting and somehow reuniting under an effigy of the historic “Annie Greenfield” which was lowered from the barn loft. We danced around her and sang “Them bones, them bones, them…dry bones.” Another time I played Dorothy, with a group of neighbors dressed up as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. We danced into the ranch house and barn complex singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” which we had practiced for weeks.
I can’t recall all the happenings, though longtime community members remember and retell the stories: nude weddings in the summer, Christmas caroling, the time when the movie makers from Belgium came and strolled around the pond naked behind their cameras, trying to fit in I suppose. There were work parties for the roads and for houseraisings, and a great many potlucks.
Slowly but surely though, the pall of the impossible General Meetings spread over the spirit of community. People burned out and issues became too complex to smooth over with a potluck dinner and a joint passed around the circle. We kids grew up and turned our eyes outward to the larger world: the inevitability of Ukiah High School. Parents started driving us to school in town, and soon we were separated from each other in classes and grades. We lost contact.
It felt very strange to me that the mountains that were moved and the worlds that were shaped in the back to the land movement seemed to disappear so easily. The society that we had retreated from, that had been loudly denounced in the whirl of activism around Simple Living Workshops and United Stand court battles, was suddenly very threatening to me. I felt unprepared for it. I was not prepared for classes that graded me, for town kids that sneered at me unless I did my best to fit in. I had to hide the fact that I loved to run naked and free in the woods and meadows with my friends. I let no one know that I really wasn’t grossed out by a compost privy. I brushed down my wild crazy hair into managed curls and slipped into the back of the classrooms, hoping not to be noticed.
Communal Values Shaken
Somehow as a young kid I had nurtured a feeling in the back of my mind that the world these giants had shaped for me to live and play in was the best world. Naturally I had overheard the conversations and arguments at meetings about the “right” way to live…and other “righteous” concerns. My friends and I played games that ridiculed city kids, and felt very proud of our freedom and wildness. Perhaps it was also because I had been taught to watch out for the younger kids that I developed a tangible sense of responsibility to the community and that I knew I’d get in big trouble with everybody if I misbehaved. Our version of “the way to live” was supposed to be the answer to the problems of larger society. Now this feeling of purpose and identity struggled to survive against the onslaught of the Reagan Youth, the New Republicans of the 1980s, and, worst of all, the internal cynicism of the Greenfield Ranch Association at its own perceived failure.
I realize now that they were never giants. They were kids, too, leaving the suburbs and cities in droves to escape the oppression and social unrest of the 1960s. The age range of these people with visions of a new alternative society were from 18 to 35, most of them in their twenties.
Adulthood Brings Perspective
I am 27 now, amazed to know how young the Ranch founders really were back then. The mistakes that they made were mistakes that every generation makes, so that the next may learn and go on with a better understanding — if anyone is paying attention. How could these predominantly white children of the affluent 1950s suburbs have any understanding of community, or know how to recognize it, encourage it, preserve it, when it happened to them? Their parents’ generation had already been largely cut off from their roots of extended family during the preceding historical waves of farm-to-city urbanization and social change.
It was a truly gallant gesture, the movement to create lifestyles based once again upon the values of the land and reliance upon one’s neighbors. Did any of these child-giants grasp the enormity of their vision, or the amount of commitment through generations that it would require?
The Righteous Survive
The world they shaped and lived in was the foundation of my childhood. Confused as I was coming out of high school, I held on to the images of that world, that “once-upon-a-time” life. It hurt me to hear the cynicism and despair of my community members as they ridiculed their own efforts. I felt self-conscious and foolish that the community had meant so much to me.
Then I began to realize that it had been a different experience for them. I hadn’t been involved in the long, arduous meetings, the struggles to build and maintain community. Nevertheless, I had learned something very valuable as I darted between the clamoring adults to snatch the best of the potlucks. I learned a sense of place, an identity among people, and a belonging that lasts beyond “success” or “failure.”
A New Generation Hears the Call
The values that I learned in my community at Greenfield Ranch are very much a part of my adult life. I still feel a great sense of responsibility and belonging. Two years after finishing my college degree I moved back home to the Ranch. Someday when I have children, I know that they will have a lot of people around keeping an eye out for them, like cousins and uncles and aunts.
I continue to enjoy the stories told about the “old days.” These tales give me a sense of place in history, because I know the intentional communities movement is vast, and that our local history as a community arises from a long tradition of folk struggle. Now I can understand my community in the context of this historical struggle. This awareness gives me patience and tolerance, which I need if I’m to accept the hard lessons that come with living together and putting up with all the crazies!
Bozos for Christmas
Alongside all the bozos, drunks, and psychopaths, is a feeling of family and belonging that I would not trade for anything. Last Christmas it delighted me that Fred carved the turkey, playing out the role of one of our benevolent patriarchs. He told jokes to the kids about absent community members, jokes that only we would have understood. We laughed about the old days while my mom rushed around looking for a knife sharpener. Finally, a neighbor produced one from his jacket pocket, whetted the carving blade, and we started the feast.
Later, we all crammed around the Christmas tree and gave out simple presents to each other. The traditional Christmas carols were banged out on the piano, the ever present “rumor mill” was grinding away, and once again the whole event had all the familiar trappings of our annual extended family gathering.
Meeting Blues Meet the Nineties
Over all the years, what of those mountains and worlds that were once so earnestly moved and shaped? Well, it’s obvious that my community was not successful in creating a “New Society.” The internalized “evils” of the Establishment came with these back-to-the-landers from the city and made an awful mess of our meetings, contributing to — maybe even creating — the frustration and disillusionment that our community experienced throughout the 1980s.
Still, through it all, we have maintained the ingenuity and perseverance to carry forward our dreams and our longings for a better life, inevitably overcoming the disillusionment. Community members started putting their energy back into the larger society, and incredible creative ventures sprang up on all sides. Food and business co-ops, alternative technology research and development, theater, music, political and social activism of all kinds, midwifery, ecological restorations, art, dancing, teaching, law, therapy, solar engineering, bizarro paganism, computer weirdness, you name it — the wealth of our creative energies poured into the surrounding community.
Along with this outpouring, our personal definitions of community expanded to encompass these new territories. And while the wind sometimes still blows a bitter whiff of a sense of community “failure” (or perhaps it is a sense of impossibility), I believe that underneath it all there is a knowing that we will come through for each other when and if we have to.
A Happy Future for Mountain Movers?
Now, after more than two decades together, the lessons of respect and patience in our meeting processes might be finally beginning to take hold. It is a difficult road, with many backward steps and disillusionments. Conflict resolution is a spicy stew, made of trial and error, perseverance, immense tolerance, and a great deal of humor. I believe that it is humor, the ability to laugh at ourselves, that brings us through the worst storms.
I don’t believe that there is any goal to community living — there isn’t a state of perfection or realized potential that we are striving to reach. Instead, our “goal” is the daily fabric of life and the relationships we weave together, out of long-time familiarity. It seems to me that the work of moving mountains and shaping worlds can only be realized on all the levels of relationship. It is a dynamic interplay between self, home, family, community, and society at large.
About the Author
Kirsten Johnsen grew up in an alternative community in northern California during its hippie commune phase in the 1970s. After surviving the culture shock of public schools, she attended and, in 1992, graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She currently rents a small yurt on Greenfield Ranch, her home community, and works as assistant manager at the local hot springs resort. She recently finished guest editing Communities magazine on the subject of “Growing Up in Community” (Fall 1994). Her future aspirations include graduate study in cultural anthropology, travel, writing, and singing.