On Columbus Day, 1970, more than 200 San Francisco hippies set off in a caravan of remodeled school buses on a cross-country pilgrimage. In the lead bus was Stephen Gaskin. A former Marine and middle-class college teacher, he started experimenting with psychedelics in the 1960s and began holding Monday night discussion groups at San Francisco State College on drugs, religion, honesty, and peaceful cultural revolution. In several years, the group grew from a few friends to more than a thousand — the talks are included in Gaskin’s first book, Monday Night Class — and by 1970, Gaskin’s most dedicated followers were ready to leave their environment of psychedelic serendipity to start a community of their own, based on self-reliance, voluntary simplicity, hard work, and faith in God.
In Tennessee, they bought 1,700 acres that became known, simply, as The Farm. Members of The Farm, who eventually numbered 1,500, signed over all their worldly goods upon joining. The Farm grew into one of the nation’s most ambitious and successful communes, with its own schools, a clinic, a soybean dairy, a bakery, work crews for carpentry, farming, and so on.
It must have been quite a shock to the neighboring families to find those psychedelic school buses, looking like the ships of an extraterrestrial invasion force, in their back yard. But The Farm soon established bonds of friendship with its neighbors, often sharing information, farm equipment and manpower. Gaskin recalls going to the local bank to secure the initial loan to buy the land. “The bank guy said, ‘It’s not just that you’re these out-of-town hippies we’ve never seen before, it’s also that it’s the largest loan that anyone’s ever asked for from this bank!’ And since then, two of those banks have folded and we haven’t. No one would have predicted that.”
During the last fourteen years, 150,000 visitors have passed through The Farm’s front gate. The Farm has meant different things to those people: The Farm midwives have delivered 1,250 babies, by natural childbirth, for Farm members and others; an international relief project called Plenty got its start on The Farm; many have come simply to share their visions of an alternative way of life.
And The Farm has also paid its dues. There have been hard Winters, a hepatitis Summer and a bust for growing pot for which Gaskin and others spent a year in jail. The community has evolved spiritually and culturally, and the physical Farm has often reflected that — from tents and oil lamps to computers and solar technology.
It was 1980 when I was last on The Farm. When I returned recently, for this interview, I expected to see the same old Farm, more or less. However, from the minute I arrived at the gatehouse, I could sense something was different. For starters, I was the only visitor. Before, I had seen throngs of curious sightseers, veteran pilgrims and hippie children along the road; now there was only the sound of my car engine. The fields that usually would have been plowed up for Spring planting were idle, full of grass and wildflowers. The canning and freezing building, the radio station, the community kitchen and the huge tractor barn were all vacant and boarded up, looking more like a psychedelic ghost town than the busy community I had last seen. Some of the houses I had helped work on during past visits were now empty, many with windows broken; some had been torn down. The children that I later saw were not the tie-dyed replicas of their parents I had seen last time. These kids were wearing designer jeans and jogging shoes. Their hair was cut shorter. And video games had them in a frenzy. In short, they seemed a lot like normal middle-class kids, except they were more mature, self-confident and likable.
As I talked with a few of the members, I kept hearing phrases like “before the change” and “the new system.” Gradually I began to piece together what had happened. During 1982-83, they had hit their peak population. The only substantial source of income was the construction crew, which did work outside The Farm, and when business began to slump, the burden of providing for the whole community became too great. There was a danger of having to sell off part of their land to survive.
Besides changes in the economy, there were internal tensions. Many people felt they weren’t accomplishing anything, or that the standard of living was too low, or that they were being taken advantage of. Other families, now in their mid-thirties, were growing tired of living with dozens of other people and wanted a more traditional nuclear family structure.
After selling their soyfoods company, Farm Foods, to pay off their land mortgage, the board voted to change the basic financial structure of The Farm; total collectivism had turned into economic suicide. Now each family must provide its own income and pay a weekly tax which goes to support the few remaining services, such as the school. But many families were unable to find outside jobs and others disagreed politically with the changes. People began leaving and The Farm’s population dropped steadily from 1,500 to the present 300 adults and children.
The last time I had sat at Sunday Morning Service, there had been a meadow full of people, and Stephen had needed to use a microphone. On this Sunday morning, we numbered fifteen and sat in a small circle, exchanging ideas. But the feeling I came away with was one of determination, not defeat. These were not starry-eyed hippies looking for a free ride, but seasoned homesteaders. Most of them came with the original caravan; they had seen it all come and go. They now see their practical knowledge as an untapped resource, and are considering using The Farm as a conference site, sort of an Esalen for community training projects.
At the heart of all these changes is Gaskin, something of a Sixties landmark, a man as hard to pin down as his community. He refers to himself as “a non-violent social revolutionary,” which includes being an author, a teacher, an activist and parish priest to his community. His books include Caravan, Mind at Play, Rendered Infamous, Amazing Dope Tales, and This Season’s People.
Is he a leader? Although he shuns this label, he has been criticized for being too egocentric and demanding. As The Farm’s founder, no one can dismiss his strong influence on internal affairs, yet The Farm has always been governed by an elected board which may or may not agree with him. Is he enlightened? Gaskin sees that as more of “a process, and the enlightened man can think an ordinary thought and be ordinary, or the ordinary man can think an enlightened thought and be enlightened. It depends on your contract with yourself. I made a contract with myself about a way I was going to be the rest of my life and I haven’t broken that contract.” For the most part, he is a self-taught avatar, a spiritual maverick who draws his teachings from Zen, Judaism, Christianity and peyote rituals. Rather than leading the community through a daily set of yogic calisthenics, he believes in staying true to the original realizations acquired on San Francisco’s Haight Street, continuing to manifest them through the day-to-day practical business of The Farm. “What we are trying to do is take our yogas out of real life, not to manufacture things to use up our senses with when we have this humongous amount of work to do.”
Is he controversial? Definitely. And he shows no signs of changing anytime soon. He sees no distinction between spiritual practice and political action, and in the past has aligned himself with the anti-nuclear movement and Native American land rights, often travelling around the country to speak on their behalf. Currently, as the founder of Plenty, he has worked for peasant reforms in Central America, which earned him the first Right Livelihood Award, sort of a New Age Nobel Prize.
Though his waistline and hairline are beginning to reflect his age, he says he will always remain a hippie at heart. His face is more wrinkled, but his eyes still sparkle with a mixture of mischief and inner wisdom.
Gaskin wasn’t as eager to talk about metaphysics as about his new family cottage industry, The Practicing Midwife, a magazine begun by his wife, Ina May, which deals with all facets of natural birthing, particularly the political issues. It has turned the upstairs of their home into a computerized beehive and is truly a family venture. Stephen was particularly proud to show me his latest personal project — installing their first indoor bathroom. He joked that, “When it’s done, we’re going to celebrate by having a pot party.” Computers? Fancy indoor bathrooms? Could this be the same man who once stated that he “fought every inch of electrical wire that The Farm wanted to put up?” It simply reveals someone who has never been afraid of change, either personally or culturally. He seeks constantly to stay at the vanguard of his generation, yet always with integrity and a moral consistency that he traces all the way back to the spiritual truths he encountered on Haight Street.
Those interested in learning more about The Farm, or Plenty, its international aid program, can write to: The Farm, 156 Drakes Lane, Summertown, Tennessee 38483.
SUN: What was your religious background?
GASKIN: Not much. American Christmas card. My mother was half an agnostic and my father won’t talk about it at all. There was no pressure on me to be religious. I think that’s why it was so fresh to me and why it turned me on. I’ve always thought organized religions are a bore. They’re just absurd. What I have come to respect is the continuing unending stream of people who have a spark or flash of enlightenment happen to them in their lifetime that changes their view so that they usually have to tell about it. They leave records and tracks, and you follow them like an explorer, knowing that there are other people who have been through these changes. And if you get the good luck to read good books, you find out that people as long ago as we have records had similar questions, concerns, problems and flashes of enlightenment. So you find yourself in the mainstream of humankind.
SUN: How was it that you began to fill the role of being a spiritual teacher?
GASKIN: I was about ten years older than most of the hippies, so that left me traveling between generations. I had also been in the Marine Corps, I had been to Korea, I’d already carried dead and wounded. I couldn’t listen to any bullshit about military takeovers. Also, I was just coming into the will of my own life at that time, and realizing that I had to get rid of the stuff that was just trimming. See, I believed and I still believe in our hippie realization of this cycle we’re in. And although it caused a lot of us to become interested in the Eastern religions because they had such interesting cosmologies and psychologies, I have always tried to keep faith with the fact that it was our realization that was real and precious and common to our generation. I don’t fit any of those Eastern things. I haven’t been to any swami schools; no Zen master has given me any stripes. When we came here, I found myself getting loaded with a lot of responsibilities just because of being one of the older ones around.
SUN: If you hadn’t been a teacher, what else might you have been? What other direction might you have gone in?
GASKIN: Well, I don’t make them mutually exclusive. I am a non-violent social revolutionary, and I think that anybody who follows religious disciplines ought to be one. And people who say they’re religious but aren’t social revolutionaries are fooling themselves, because if religion is to have any validity whatsoever, the gap between the real and the ideal cannot be so unbridgeable that it’s all pie in the sky. There’s got to be a chance for justice on earth.
SUN: What has happened to the enormous energy that was generated in the Sixties?
GASKIN: Some has fallen on stony ground, some of the seeds have been eaten by birds, and some of it has fallen places where it has returned a hundredfold. That’s what happened to our revolution. It’s still there. Although there’s not a visible hippie tribe on the streets and roads or in the cities like there used to be, it doesn’t really matter. Because we permeated the culture. The cultural music of this country is now rock and roll, you know. You hear people on “Hee Haw” talking hippie talk that was invented on Haight Street. They say, “Dig this.” Everybody does. We permeated through the culture and that’s what it was supposed to do.
The other thing, to me, is what I talked about earlier — to not forget that this was a homegrown set of realizations that hundreds of thousands of people had, and not to try and tie it down too much. I know and am acquainted with about half the religious teachers you hear about on the circuit. That’s all fine, but they didn’t bring that stuff to this country. That stuff grew out of this country like mushrooms, right out of the cultural conditions we’d gotten ourselves into.
SUN: As a way of coping with or changing those conditions?
GASKIN: You’ve got to be a rich country to have hippies. They’re an interesting class. They’re a free, privileged scholar class that can study what they want. They’re like young princelings. That’s why the only other places to have produced hippies are countries like Germany, because they’re rich enough. It’s really kind of an upscale thing, in a way, except for where it broke through. And when it broke through was when it was the most revolutionary and when it really scared the establishment. Because hippies bond across cultural, religious and class lines. That’s terrifying to the establishment. That tears down everything that they’ve stood for, for five thousand years. The Communists want their dynasties too; everybody wants their dynasties. They don’t want for people to be able to just step out of one culture into another. They can’t stand Ford heirs chanting Hare Krishna. People who were supposed to have lived off the sweat of old Henry Ford going out and sitting cross-legged and wearing pony tails and stuff. It ain’t hardly civilized!
SUN: Was some of that energy maybe too optimistic? Expecting something to happen too soon?
GASKIN: Things did happen. We got out of Vietnam. We made it so that you couldn’t run a racist society separate from the rest of the United States, so that the Constitution reached down into corners of Alabama and Mississippi. We got rid of a President who was a tyrant. We brought new forms of education to other countries through the Peace Corps. There was a tremendous cultural flowering that took place. All flowers eventually curl up. But the significance of the flower is in the seed. The seeds were planted.
You could say we sent out a call. I guess I’m one of the guys designated to stay by the phone and answer the calls as they come back. And I get those calls. I get letters from people who were babies when I was a hippie; who, as soon as they grew up and looked at the world, said, “Oh, I wanted to be one of those. Are there any left? Is it too late?” They say, “Did I miss it?” And I say no, it’s part of an ongoing thing, a cultural thread that should continue forever. It helps keep societies from going crazy. Societies are too powerful by definition. Everybody has to be an anarchist to some degree. The amount of police powers that societies are getting is terrifying. There always have to be people who, not from malice or greed or evil but for the best social reasons, remain outlaws.
SUN: How hard has it been for you not to set yourself up as a guru figure? Is it tempting?
GASKIN: Not to me. Not the trappings. I might fall into excesses, but I’m too much of a down-home kind of person to get into ceremony and pomp. I was amused when I saw fifteen hundred hippies drag a Juggernaut with Bhaktivedanta on it through Golden Gate Park. I thought that was funny at the time, and I still do. I think my temptations are different. When you’re in a position of a lot of responsibility and you can’t lay enough of it off onto others, you tend to get fast. You shoot from the hip and are brusque because you’ve got so much loaded on you. You want to get it over with quickly. It’s the same condition that doctors find themselves in. Because to a doctor, you’re just one of a class of appendectomies. But to you, it is maybe the only hospital trip you’ll ever have and it’s a hell of a big deal. The doctor isn’t going to give you as much time and importance about it as you really think he should. I can fall into that and I have to be aware of it.
SUN: So there will never be any Stephen Gaskin School of Meditation?
GASKIN: No, people have hung stuff like that on me, you know. But I haven’t liked it. And in spite of what people have said I don’t want it. The old religions are full of hierarchy. Maharishi, for instance, now gives initiations by video tape. That implies a great deal of hierarchy if one guy’s blessing is so good that you have to get it by tape instead of a live one. Really weird.
People have spoken about my followers. Well, I don’t have followers, I have friends.
SUN: Is it necessary for a community to have a central figure or leader?
GASKIN: I don’t know if it is or not. There’s millions of villages all over the world that don’t have that. Although somebody usually seems to evolve to the position of elder or something like that, that’s just because there’s a normal bell curve everywhere you go.
SUN: How is The Farm different from some of the cults that got established?
GASKIN: I remember a long time ago, when we were still on coal oil light, of seeing two paths. And one of them went to a place where we became almost a quietist village, where all we did was polish our craft, do our meditation and study our thing. That looked like a dead end to me; it had no freedom in it and we would begin to be stagnant if we went that way. The other was to grow and influence and interact with the world.
SUN: What mistakes have been made by other communities that have failed?
GASKIN: I don’t think it’s a question of mistakes. Mistakes imply that you should have known it already. I think it’s that there are normal evolutions, and that if you go into community without the awareness of those evolutions, you’ll evolve yourself out of being a community if you’re not careful. In Israel they talk about the kibbutz and the moshav. The moshav is like a kibbutz that has evolved away from its collectivity toward the families having more individual control of their money and stuff. I think we’ve become somewhat of a moshav.
I don’t fit any of those Eastern things. I haven’t been to any swami schools; no Zen master has given me any stripes. When we came here, I found myself getting loaded with a lot of responsibilities just because of being one of the older ones around.
SUN: Let’s talk about the changes The Farm has been going through. When did that start happening?
GASKIN: I think our peak was about four or five years ago with about 1,500 people on the property; there were some 1,200 residents and the rest were passing through, here to have a baby, studying soyfoods, and so on. The last of the Carter administration and the beginning of the Reagan administration was very hard on us. We had a 105-man construction crew, and when the prime interest rate went to twenty-one percent, nobody would build a doghouse. It just stopped us; imagine 105 jobs gone. We always used to try and rotate the people who had to go off The Farm and work. But we didn’t really do that as much as we had intended because people got to be journeymen in their craft. They didn’t want to rotate. And they wanted to keep more of the money they made. So we hit a kind of plateau. We were an absolute collective on an honor system, which meant that it leaked like a sieve. People had checkbooks who had no reason in the world to have them, but they were running funds out that somebody else was working by the hour for. We didn’t have enough accountability. We didn’t have enough skill in accounting, much less a philosophy of it.
SUN: Were you overpopulated?
GASKIN: In the sense that we had too many people here that were not here for the community, yes. We had dedicated people, guys who had been carpenters for several years who really wanted to be part of the community. They got burnt out because there were daytrippers soaking up the funds.
The question of self-government is something we’ve worked on longer than almost anything else. I don’t know how many different kinds of boards and committees we’ve tried. And what seemed to happen to them is that they’d all lose their clout in about a year or two. They’d make a few moves and then people would just quit listening to them.
Eventually the idea came out that the state requires us, as a non-profit corporation, to have a board of directors. So we said, OK, let’s take that board of directors and make them the governors of The Farm, and they will be responsible to the state about being the type of non-profit corporation we say we are. And that will put people’s tails on the line about maintaining the standards.
So we elected a nine-member board. And because of the kind of troubles we were in, the party that got the most seats was made up of the business guys who said, “We are sloppy, we have got to be accountable.” So we elected essentially a business board. I think seven out of nine. We got smarter about business and things tightened up real fast, but there were side effects. Some people started having to leave because under the new system they couldn’t earn as much as was required.
SUN: You mentioned a two-party system on The Farm. How does that break down?
GASKIN: The Farm industries and businesses couldn’t get outside loans and they wanted to separate themselves enough from the community to have financial independence, like the moshav. So they bought the businesses they worked in from The Farm. For instance, The Farm only owns about twenty-five percent of Farm Foods right now. The employees and investors they’ve been able to hustle up own the rest of it. So they are making more money than other people on The Farm who are working by the hour at the trailer factory, for example. We’re beginning to have two social classes here.
The other party is more the folks who are interested in living on the land, who are committed to the idea of community as an ideal. They are interested in The Farm becoming more of a conference center and maintaining our position by a transmission of our learning.
SUN: Your population is so much smaller now. Was there a mass exodus at one point?
GASKIN: It happened in waves, and over different questions. It ranged from folks who came here for a formal spiritual community, which we aren’t, to folks who thought we were going to get rich and have a swimming pool and live better sooner than this, and decided to go out and do it by themselves. And everything in between. So people left for all different reasons. There are people out there who are my close friends who write me really lovely mail, and then there’s folks out there who are mad at me and think I caused them to waste a couple of years of their time.
SUN: So there were bad feelings?
GASKIN: It was like a divorce. There were people who had been here for years whom other people felt had contributed nothing and that they should be on their way. And there were other people who felt they had contributed a lot and that they should get a bunch when they left. People who are on our boards now are confronting all those problems, and trying to figure them out in the fairest ways we know. The nucleus of us who are here now are pretty sure we want to stay here. If we didn’t do this, we’d probably start something somewhere else, and if that’s the case, why not continue with this, which is already going?
SUN: Did it look like The Farm might fold at one point?
GASKIN: It was scary for a little while when we were counting noses to find out if there was going to be a skeleton crew left who wanted to keep doing it.
It’s interesting that we started having television during Watergate. The kids began seeing TV ads and began caring how they looked according to the way kids looked on TV. So some people who for themselves would go with long hair, blue jeans and outhouses, for their kids had to have beauty parlor hairdos and designer jeans — because they felt that they weren’t being good to their kids if they didn’t give them that stuff, although they had at one point given it up themselves.
At first I took very seriously a lot of the shenanigans that came down here, much more than I needed to. Then I saw that you can’t stand in the way of a cultural movement and mass-generational changes.
SUN: Were people overly optimistic that The Farm would continue the same way that it was, as a collective, indefinitely?
GASKIN: Those of us who are into community wanted it to continue. But there’s no sense in being collective for a principle if it’s not working. So what we’re doing now is a reassessment of the things that we do want to be collective about. I don’t want to be part of anything that’s so institutionalized that you spend more time being mad at the institution than being helped by it.
SUN: What do you see as the importance of The Farm.
GASKIN: There’s been 4,000 residents of The Farm over the years. And the vast majority of those people are pacifists, conscientious about what they eat, caring about what’s going on in the Third World and other cultures. Very few of those people turned out to be Republican congressmen. Most of them are still pretty idealistic folks.
We really helped the soy industry get off the ground in the United States. At one time our tempeh shop supplied the spores to all the other shops in the country. We had been living on soybeans for years when other people were playing with it to find out if it was cool or not. I feel we have helped out the movement all the way along the line.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s a lot of folks who worked real hard for the folks who had their good free experience here. So now the experience is going to cost a little bit and we’ll try to be as sweet about it as we can.
SUN: What type of economic system does The Farm have now?
GASKIN: We pay taxes and we’re now more of a cooperative whereas before we were a collective. The main difference is that all our money used to be handled centrally. Now everybody earns their own money.
SUN: So you could have some people on The Farm making more money than others.
GASKIN: We already have that. We have some people who have a hard time paying the taxes we have to pay right now, and for other people it’s not a burden.
People who for themselves would go with long hair, blue jeans and outhouses, for their kids had to have beauty parlor hairdos and designer jeans — because they felt that they weren’t being good to their kids if they didn’t give them that stuff, although they had at one point given it up themselves.
SUN: How is that going to change the fabric of The Farm?
GASKIN: Hopefully, we’ll raise the entire thing across the board to where those inequities are not so obvious. I’m not going to begrudge my friend Bernie because he drives a new car when my car is fourteen years old.
SUN: Would you say that in the past you weren’t choosy enough about who you allowed to come live here, and that now you’re tightening up on that a little more?
GASKIN: No, I couldn’t say that, although at one point we had people who were just coming here because they were in love with the phenomenon of us, and did not seriously understand what it took to keep the phenomenon happening.
SUN: They were looking for paradise?
GASKIN: Yeah. And there were other people who knew that they were working harder than what they were getting back for it. It’s OK to choose to put out more than you’re getting back for the purpose of doing a good thing. To fall into it as a lifestyle because other people don’t pay attention makes you mad after a while and some folks got mad.
The mistake that we made, and that I think a lot of people make, is taking the number of people in the community and dividing it by the amount of money that could be made if they all had a job. Because it isn’t going to work that way. There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to make it, or are going to get sick or something like that. We never made anywhere near the amount of money that we had projected.
Some of the folks who didn’t deserve to get hurt by the change of systems got hurt by it. They were working at what we call public works, like farming, sanitation, teaching and medical services. Those people didn’t have a way to make a living and weren’t trying to make a living. They were trying to serve The Farm. A lot of those people had to leave.
SUN: Now that The Farm is getting more practical, is there a danger of losing your spiritual perspective?
GASKIN: There’s always a danger of losing the spiritual. But one of the things that we have here which is a great blessing to the whole Farm, and with which a large majority of The Farm would concur, is that we are host to Plenty International, an international overseas aid group which has already grown another organization larger than itself in Canada. That helps us to keep things in perspective.
SUN: You used not to be involved in the local politics here, but lately that has changed. Can you talk about that?
GASKIN: We didn’t want to upset the balance of power when we came in here. But now we have two members on the county council. And we seriously helped put our congressman in, putting out a computerized mailing list for him. A week after the election, the local news said that one of the best kept stories in the election was that Congressman Bart Gordon’s secret weapon was the computer crew from The Farm. And those guys got an offer to go to D.C. and be on his staff too!
SUN: What changed your attitudes about local politics?
GASKIN: When we first came here all the people who were running things were in their fifties and sixties. We were the kids and we asked for sanctuary from the older folks. It was very kind and good of them. That’s one of the reasons why we have such a strong love of the local Tennessee people — we felt like they gave us sanctuary here. And then, the older folks died off, so the people who are now in charge are other baby-boomers. So we got to be part of the action. When we had our first election, it wasn’t us against the Tennesseeans. It was us and one wing of the Democrats against the other wing.
SUN: Personally, how has your life here changed? What kind of things do you do now?
GASKIN: I get to do what I want to do more now.
SUN: What do you do less of?
GASKIN: Stand around and jawbone with people. I love people, I’m a very gregarious dude and I can rap and rap. But I really like the chance now to clean up my yard to the point where my father won’t be ashamed of it every time he comes to see me. And to have the time to pull off some of my projects here at home. This bathroom project is significant. I’m really interested in all these people taking care of themselves and taking me off the hook so that I don’t have to take the blame for everything that happens around here.
SUN: You’ve caught a lot of criticism from the feminist movement about the more traditional male-female roles here on The Farm. Has that been justified to some degree?
GASKIN: I haven’t felt confident enough to have any opinions about what women ought to do for several years now. As a wild free hippie who had all my social mores blown to hell by a couple of hundred acid trips, and then grew back from civilization over the next decade or so, I can’t defend all the places I’ve been other than to say, “Yeah, ain’t that a trip.” But I would like it to be known that, for instance, pornography causes violence against women and I am disgusted by portrayals of women in subordinate-slave-bondage roles. I have daughters and I would be revolted if someone wanted to treat them in that fashion. I am also the general manager of Ina May’s Practicing Midwife magazine, which is a feminist cause.
SUN: Some of the criticism has been from people who have come here and seen women in traditional roles, such as child care and cooking, and have felt that The Farm was holding women back.
GASKIN: I think that was an idea which was having its time, and everything was being checked out against that paradigm. But there have always been women involved with management on The Farm, and there are women involved currently. When we suddenly had the question here of how to make a living put upon us, in some of our families the man got a job and in other families the woman got a job and who stayed at home helped take care of business because it made the whole thing work whether they were the mommy or the daddy. And I respect all that.
SUN: Let’s talk about Plenty a little bit. How did it get started?
GASKIN: Our first operation was 50,000 bushels of grains to Spanish Honduras after a hurricane took out their crops. We also did some local tornado relief in Memphis in 1974. We were already a concept and happening by the time of the earthquake in Guatemala. This was our response to the question of whether or not we were going to be a quietist community. We said no, we’re going to build an arm that reaches out to other folks.
I used to travel on the exchange ratio. I would go to a poor country and live a long time on not much money. Now I feel that’s immoral. We wanted to make a way that we could go to those same countries with good karma, meet the people and come in as help instead of as tourists.
SUN: Plenty is the only thing that you’ve ever asked for donations for, unlike other communities. Why is that?
GASKIN: Because I thought it was wrong. It was a teaching I was trying to create that the day of the begging monk is over, that a monk ought to pull his weight if he wants to help the world. A monk these days should have a job.
SUN: What kinds of things does Plenty do that were not being done?
GASKIN: The concept of foreign aid prior to us was big. They did a $200 million railroad project in some African country, and when the guys who built the project went back home the whole thing collapsed. And they built big Canadian-style wheat farms in Africa. But you’ve got to have Canadian-style farmers to run them too. So now, the people who are studying aid groups are saying the grassroots help, building from the ground up, helping the peasantry get stronger, helps the whole country. And our kind of aid is getting really relevant. In Guatemala we’ve put in twenty-seven miles of water pipeline. In concert with other groups, we built a pre-fab house factory that built 1,200 houses after the earthquake as well as rebuilding twelve schools that had fallen down. We’ve done soyfoods projects, introducing seeds and beans that are indigenous to the countries. We have 200 farmers growing soybeans in Guatemala now, and a about 1,000 families using them in a soy dairy there.
SUN: How many countries have you done work in?
GASKIN: We had a crew of four in Bangladesh for a while, we’ve got people in Sri Lanka working on a soy dairy. We’ve been through St. Lucia, Jamaica, St. Vincent, Dominica and Antigua in the Caribbean. We’ve been to Haiti, and we want to do an ongoing project there but it’s hard to get it to happen there because Baby Doc still runs the roost. Plenty is also interested in Grenada and we’d like to go to Mexico, and we’re currently negotiating with them to see what we can do for them. We’re saying, “How can we help?”
We’re interested in developing businesses at a small grass-roots level, because these peasants don’t even have the power that comes from having a Mom and Pop grocery store. We make a distinction between rank capitalism and petty bourgeois. Small business, the petty bourgeois, is a good thing for the world. A lot of those form a thick web that makes for a good civilization. If you haven’t got a lot of that stuff going on, then you’ve got multi-national corporations and slaves. We don’t buy slaves anymore in this country, we just rent them.
SUN: So you’re promoting self-sufficiency in these countries then?
GASKIN: We don’t want to be relied on. And if the people there would like to set up a collective to be a recipient for the stuff we give them, that’s fine but we don’t demand it. We don’t care if somebody makes some money on a project we set up because we figure that some cash flow has got to help a little poor country.
SUN: The more I look at the culture these days, the more it looks like the Fifties all over again. Do you feel we’re headed for another Sixties-type phenomenon within the next decade?
GASKIN: Yeah. That, and also the fact that we’re getting nostalgic for that action that we used to have. We’re getting so bland now, and I really pray that we get to see another burst of it again. When the Sixties happened, I didn’t know there were such things, and it lifted me and blew my mind and informed my consciousness a million times heavier and more interesting than it had been before. I think it did that for many people. And now, knowing that such a thing can happen, I can just sit here and wait for it to happen again. Like, “Yeah, here it comes!”
I believe that it is cyclic, and I think the reason that Reagan is getting such good play right now is that we were a little extreme in the Sixties. And now we’re being paid back for fucking in the streets. Next time, I’m not interested so much in that as I am in making real solid social changes that last for decades.