Buried in the Christmas edition of The New York Times was a story that might be characterized as the religion reporter’s version of the “last man in town who can whittle worth a damn” genre: “Commune to Close, After Years of Strife and Striving.” As a representative of the category, Sarah Kershaw‘s report isn’t bad; Kershaw tells the tale as one of zoning battles, which is a nice reminder that The Book of Zoning Regulations should be on every religion writer’s scripture shelf.
But Kershaw hits all the cliches of the “last commune” story, too. There are quips about the funny names of the commune members (all share the surname “Israel”; their spokesman is Serious Israel), and there’s a bittersweet tone for the “end of an era.”
And yet deep down in the story — in talking head territory — the reader comes across this insight: “‘Counterculture is a permanent tradition,’ said Bennett Berger, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. ‘There will be waxing and waning. It’s been waning for 20 years, but that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared.’”
A lesson Kershaw doesn’t seem to have learned, despite the fact (reported by her) that communes and would-be utopias have been an ongoing religious experiment in America since the beginning. The names and places may change, the details of the faith may vary, but there’s a continuity all the same.
Given such a venerable tradition, American utopianists merit more than a bemused nod; they are as much a part of our spiritual geography as the mainline denominations from which many of them emerge.
Find a commune story near you: Intentional Communities Website, The Farm(Tennessee), Zendik (North Carolina), The Hermitage (Pennsylvania), Breitenbush Community (Oregon).
Relatively new to the commune scene is the “Radical Faerie” movement, self-described as “queer country living,” with Pagan spiritual emphasis. Radical Faeries have established several communes, of varying size and permanence, including Zumi Mountain Radical Faerie Space (New Mexico), Planet Ida (Tennessee), Faerie Camp Destiny (Vermont), Nomenus(Oregon), and Kawashaway (Minnesota).