Book by Arthur Kopecky, forward by Peter Coyote
University of New Mexico Press, 312 pages, 39 halftones, 2 maps.
I remember visiting the New Buffalo commune in the spring of 1970. It was a clear day, probably a Sunday and because poet Alan Ginsburg was there, too, the place was packed with people. Ginsburg had a very deep and distinctive voice which seemed to boom over everything in a certain way that suggested depth of understanding. And though the place was impressive in its adobe construction, it seemed to shrink back from the presence of the poet and the crowds. It was impossible to tell who lived there and who was visiting and even to determine what was going on at all. But the place was welcoming, open and had good vibes.
Fast forward thirty five years and you get the story of the place through the journals kept by one member who arrived in 1971 and left in 1979. This is not a narrative in any usual literary sense but more a diary of day to day happenings looked at through one person's perspective.
Since it was a journal one gets a glimpse into the head of the person doing the recording. And since history tells us that the commune did not make it - it really is about the journey. (New Buffalo is now operated as a campground or bread and breakfast by the original purchaser of the property, Rick Klein.)
But New Buffalo can stand on its own as a good example of the times, the beliefs, the problems, the people, the difficulty of forging a new way of living and the seeds of destruction in the lack of commitment, the users and abusers and certainly the leadership or lack of it. But even in its failures it a celebration of possibility and potential and perhaps a model of what can be done in the future and what things to avoid.
Many now will say that with the coming to the end of the age of "cheap oil" that communities will have to be established using models from the sixties communes so perhaps this book may serve a more a useful purpose then just a historical treatise.
It would be easy to criticize the book and frankly somewhere in the first half I almost did put it down for good due to its almost one dimensional thinking but kept with it and changed my point of view one hundred and eighty degrees to realizing that the author grew and understood more as the days went on and in fact became a more dedicated and thoughtful member, certainly a leader with responsibility. It is somewhat sad that the journal ends in 1976 (but mentions a Volume II) while the Epilogue describes that "my family left New Buffalo under rather dramatic circumstances in 1979."
But what happened to "New Buffalo" and the other communes in the area like Reality and Morningstar?
Well, here are my thoughts:
New Buffalo and others were organized along an agrarian model in that they were growing their own food and raising chickens, goats and some cattle. One problem with that model in that particular area of New Mexico there was a serious lack of water. Another issue was that the residents of the communes did not have the background as farmers as almost all were middle class city dwellers, many of whom were products of the university and thereby taught more to think then to do. Funding would have been very helpful for farm equipment that could have been used collectively with some of the other communes in the area but that was not to be. Also needed was more practical expertise as to what to plant and how and when. The book does talk about developing that knowledge but it seemed to take a long time and the wear and tear must have had a detrimental affect.
Almost everyone in the society and the society itself was against the concept of the commune and the changes they suggested. Even now over thirty years later the media still wants to depict the age as being either about the music or about the drugs or about the sexuality. (And this book certainly shows that there was music, drugs and sex, but that paled in comparison to the work involved.) But for many it was really about a concept, a core belief that change along these lines was not only desirable but necessary. But back in the sixties and early seventies the concept of communal living was also a "trip". That means that you could show up at a commune with nothing and expect to be taken in and taken care of even if your involvement was minimal. As you read this book you are continuously reminded that people are coming and going all the time. True, some came back but as you keep reading then they left again. Where did they go? They went - to town, to the next commune up the road or back to visit friends, parents or to someplace warmer or easier.
Economics played a big part in the life of the commune and here there was no economic base. At New Buffalo they tried jewelry making, candle making, selling milk and eggs and even taking outside day labor but it did not provide enough. The nearest town, Taos, was a tourist and an art center but when you peel back the top layer - the area was steeped in poverty. There was enough to live but only barely. The Spanish inhabitants had learned over generations to squeeze out a living from a multitude of things but there was not a whole lot left to go around. Food stamps helped the communes but as time went on this alternative was shut off by the authorities. So the economic reality squeezed anyone who did not have an income or a job.
Leadership was lacking. And that was not just the fault of the communes but of the society, too.
Here are some sections of the book taken from Amazon
Various entries speak for themselves of the life and flavor of New Buffalo.
"We got a refrigerator out of the dump for a smoke house. Pepe taught me to cut a hole in the bottom, connect with stovepipe to a covered fruit wood fire twelve feet away. This provides cold smoke for best taste."
"Larry started hooking up the new hot water tank to run off the wood cook stove. He worked all day on it. The thirty-gallon tank sits behind the firebox, the smoke goes where the insulation used to be, and a water pipe goes right in the fire and back out. If you were on a colony spaceship, you'd want this guy with you."
"Full moon. Wild party here started in the afternoon. Mick butchered five chickens. Jason from the Hog Farm helped do the cooking. We had cars, trucks, longhaired hippies, dark-skinned gypsies and big-chested, long-legged dancing girls getting it on in the front yard. Guitars, a banjo, three or four drums, a saxophone, a clarinet, and perhaps 80 people here. Fire in the courtyard at night. Joseph Cruz from the Pueblo came with Phil, Joe, Henry and Benjamin, all local Indians. They sing really fine. I went to bed early in the moonlight, under a cedar tree on the hill, listening to their ancient songs."
"Yesterday we stepped into a Van Gogh painting and cut the golden wheat field. Five sickles and two stackers worked much of the day. Incredibly beautiful. Also weeded and watered the cornfield. We have a pretty good harvest."
"County Fair tomorrow! Carol baked coffeecakes for the contest, and she's really got a chance to produce the best. Kim is bringing fresh carrots, beets, onions, yellow squash, and lettuce. He is already putting carrots away - colors so lush in the humid air - beautiful produce. John intends to enter cheese, butter and maybe some goats."
"This mudding we can do. Old way good way. Basically grab a handful with the straw and some sand mixed in, and slap it on the wall. Next smooth it out a bit. To keep the clothes clean, it's best to take them off."
"We live in such abundance. A bunch of poor people, we are still able to scrape up what we need to patch and glue this scene together."
"Recommended: Don't store the apples and rutabagas in the same cellar."
"Mercy mission to Lama; they have some sick ones. We gave them a five-pound cheese, elk meat, candles..."
"The huge teepee is up and the floor is covered with sheepskins, blankets and rugs. Tonight we go in to pray for a good spring and for this place. New buffalo was started with a peyote meeting. The ceremony joins the spirit of the new arrivals and the Indians, and gives thanks to mother earth, father sky and Jesus, for our life."
"The commune is a natural alternative to the lifestyle of consumption. I've still got a notion in the back of my head that this may play a role in the future of this country's economics. With roots in the soil, with people being close to some essentials, there would be less insecurity about the often-slipping number of jobs. With more working people not so dependent on the jobs offered by the big corporations, we would perhaps be able to depose those people who guide our economy into such conspicuous consumption."
This book is a very worthwhile read if for no other reason then it reminds us of what was and is possible.
So don't throw away your peace buttons or tie dye clothing. Part 2 may be ready to begin.
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