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Tecumseh, MO
AUGUST 2005
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Tecumseh, MO @ National Geographic Magazine
By Alan Mairson
Photographs by Maria Stenzel
Keeping a fractious socialist commune running in Tecumseh, Missouri, takes good old-fashioned capitalism.

If most meetings at the East Wind commune typically draw about 10 people, why did more than 50 come out of the woodwork for this one?

"Well," says Kara Jo, an East Wind resident for nine years, "people always show up for a lynching." She's kidding (mostly). Yet when a majority of the commune's 75 free-spirited residents appear in one place at one time, something clearly is at stake: Yarrow, 26, has been getting drunk again. He's failing to meet his labor quota; he's smashed up a communal car; and he's ticking people off. After posting complaints on the bulletin board, members scheduled a meeting to find a cure for this chronic pain.

Every community has its problems, of course, but it's hard to visit East Wind without high expectations. Nestled in the Ozark Mountains on 1,000 acres of land, this commune bills itself as an "intentional community" that strives to be egalitarian, noncompetitive, nonviolent, and "an ally of our bioregion and planet." Members use first names only—often ones they've made up, like Pilgrim and Simple. They eat organic fruits and vegetables from their garden, where some labor in the nude. And they run a business making nut butters—peanut, almond, cashew, macadamia—that annually generates $500,000 in profits. The money is pooled and pays for everything the residents share, including food, clothing, child care, and transportation. If this sounds like hippie heaven, East Winders are quick to set you straight: This is not utopia.

The fact that a capitalist enterprise is supporting a socialist commune is an irony not lost on East Wind's founders. "We thought we were going to change the world," says Deborah, 56, one of a group of friends who left Boston in 1973 to create East Wind. Back then it was still possible to believe a socialist revolution was sweeping the globe. "The east wind is prevailing over the west wind," said Mao Zedong in 1957, when he was chairman of the People's Republic of China. His vision of socialism blowing away capitalism gave East Wind its name and helped inspire its mission: To create a place where people get what they need, give what they can, and don't obsess over accumulating stuff.

Sitting on the front porch of Rock Bottom—the commune's kitchen, dining room, pool hall, poker parlor, and 24-hour hangout—Deborah sips a glass of merlot, rolls yet another cigarette, and ponders what went wrong. "We thought we had the numbers," she says, "people ready to join us in the belly of the beast." Amused by the image, two young women sitting nearby curl their fingers, bare their teeth, roar like wild animals—then burst out laughing.

"We failed," says Deborah, lamenting the demise of the counterculture. East Winders, though, keep on going. Seeking a healthier, happier lifestyle, they still wrestle with familiar problems. The freedom to do your own thing, for instance, can eat away at group solidarity. Apart from two hours a week of required kitchen tasks, members are free to round out their 40-hour work quotas as they choose—gardening, doing laundry, making nut butter. "We've organized the nut-butter business so all we do is insert labor," says Woody, 46, one of the managers. "The problem is how to get people to care about what we're doing." Several members feel trapped. Despite years of work for the community, many feel they don't have enough money or equity to begin a new life elsewhere. Beer, wine, and cigarettes provide welcome diversions for some. "We talk a lot about ideals," says Lynn, "but by the next morning no one can remember what we said."

Despite these difficulties, East Wind retains a countercultural allure, attracting a handful of new members each year. They come because they're sick of life "out there"—the time-sucking commutes, endless bills, and a culture where greasy take-out passes as dinner. Some seek security—three meals a day, clean clothes and a warm bed, health insurance and dental care. Others come to make new friends, to dance and dream, drink and party, have sex and fall in love. All in the comfort of knowing that if they start drinking themselves sick, 50 people might come together on a Sunday afternoon to help them wrestle with their demons.

Arriving at a high-ceilinged workshop to discuss the fate of Yarrow, people sit on the floor or climb into the loft, its graffiti conveying decades of hippie wit and wisdom. ("Even if you win the race, you're still a rat.") For three hours the discussion focuses on whether Yarrow should be asked to leave, reflecting the conflicting intentions for this intentional community. "We're not a family, but we are a pseudo-family," says Kara Jo, 26, who came to East Wind when she was 17. "When people here are at a loss, we help them out. And I don't want Yarrow to leave." She turns to Yarrow, who sits slumped in the corner, poker-faced. "You can come hang out with me," she tells him.

Bad idea, say others. Yarrow needs professional help, and East Wind isn't a detox center. Some argue for a contract that would specify how Yarrow's behavior must change. That's redundant, comes the rebuttal; membership here is the contract. Another member insists that Yarrow will change only when the culture that enables excessive drinking is transformed.

The next day ballots go out, and a week later the verdict is in: Yarrow can stay if he signs a social contract. He does, and promises to change, but soon breaks his vow. Six months later, he's gone. His exit solves one problem, but it skirts a much larger one: With socialism faltering around the globe, what gives East Winders a sense of hope and keeps them together—besides the peanut butter?

For many it's the land itself, a back-to-nature, almost neo-pagan faith in Mother Earth. May 1—socialism's day of solidarity—is Land Day at the commune, with dancing in circles around a maypole. Celebrations—the summer and winter solstices, the equinoxes in fall and spring—are pegged to the cycles of nature, not to any redemptive winds of history. Time, like the seasons, goes in circles, serving up what's familiar instead of something new. Tomorrow promises to be just another today.

On a chilly Wednesday night someone builds a bonfire on the crest of the hill just outside the music room. Drawn to the blaze, a dozen men and women pound on drums with a mesmerizing beat. As the flames light up their faces and sparks flit like fireflies into the darkness, the hours slowly disappear—and so does the beer. After a while the drumming peters out, then stops. Someone asks what time it is. But no one is wearing a watch.

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