From the narrow dirt road that winds past its boundaries, Twin Oaks, marked only by a modest, carefully lettered wooden sign, looks like any other well-tended farm in the red-clay countryside of central Virginia.
But a trip up the rutted driveway, past the manicured rows of cauliflower, red cabbage and tomatoes to the old clapboard farmhouse, is a journey through time. The music of the Grateful Dead blares out of the farmhouse from strategically mounted stereo speakers, filling a grassy, sun-drenched courtyard surrounded by sturdy, rough-hewn buildings. Young women clad in flannel shirts and patched and faded overalls and bearded men in sporting ponytails and wearing small gold earrings weave hammocks on large wooden looms. p
Twin Oaks is no ordinary farm. It is one of the nation's oldest and most prosperous communes, a flourishing counterculture island of 77 people 100 miles south of Washington in the heart of rural Virginia.
Unlike so many loosely structured communes and psychedelic enclaves that sprouted and died during the ferment of the late 1960s, Twin Oaks, now entering its 15th year, has survived and grown. Its success and longevity are attributable principally to two fundamental elements of the outside world -- capitalism and bureaucracy. In many ways, this is no freewheeling hippie pad in the wilderness, but rather a society that has strict regulations concerning everything from who is allowed to join to who is allowed to become pregnant.
"The values Twin Oaks builds itself on are nonviolence, equality, antisexism, ecology and noncompetitiveness, all the liberal values straight out of the late '60s," said Gerri, 30, who dropped her surname along with her studies at George Washington University in 1970 and has lived at Twin Oaks ever since. "We're not one big happy family, and we don't pretend to be.What's different is that we're quite bureaucratic, and most decisions are the results of compromises. If you want to do something, there are just a million committees to go through."
Garri, who resembles rock star Grace Slick, shares two characteristics with almost all of her communal brothers and sisters: she is white and comes from a middle-class background. But the length of her tenure here has been extraordinary. The average stay is a little less than four years. As a respected elder of the commune. Gerri has assumed one of its most important jobs, running the hammock shop.
Hammocks are the economic mainstay of Twin Oaks, an economically self-sufficient commune that has a net worth of $600,000 and last year earned $400,000 in gross revenues. Each year about 12,000 hammocks are produced in the shop, a cramped, L-shaped room that has industrial green carpet and faces the courtyard. Most of the hammocks are sold to Pier 1 Imports, although the commune does a brisk mail-order business and has produced a slick color brochure that features hammocks in various styles and colors.
The shop, which also serves as the social center for the 450-acre commune, is open round-the-clock and equipped with large Mason jars of granola, a coffee machine, a quadrophonic stereo system, tape deck, record library and neat rows of stereo headphones. Nearby all Twin Oaks' 15 buildings -- the appliance repair shop, the solar-roofed garage and even the barn -- have first-rate sound systems. On a recent afternoon, the mellow strains of a "Joy of Cooking" album filtered through the milking barn. But never does one hear the sounds of soap operas or the nightly news -- television is banned.
The success of the hammock shop has spawned other industries: the Glorious Mud Construction Co., whose six members are the only residents who work outside the commune; a furniture warehouse called "Emerald City," which produced 2,000 handsome oak-and-rope chairs sold commercially last year; and the eight-year-old bimonthly Communities Magazine, which has a circulation of 5,000 and publishes stories about communes around the world, food co-ops and alternative life styles.
Now the commune, through its New Industries Committee, is considering whether it should diversify. New products must be nonpolluting, politically correct, and, like hammocks, sufficiently simple so that new members can learn to make them within a few days.
"That's a real problem finding industries that can support us and are ideologically pure," said Taylor, 28, who heads the New Industries Committee. "When we were considering wood stoves, we were accused of pandering to the tastes of the bourgeoisie." Other new products under consideration are tofu, herbs, solar water heaters and organic ketchup made without sugar.
"Hammocks are not going to continue to be the savior of Twin Oaks," said M'Lissa Wenig, 40, who was editing Communities as she piled a soyburger on a wheat roll, put mint salad and carbo cake onto a plate and picked her way through the steamy, sour-smelling farmhouse kitchen, where milk and cheese are made and meals are served cafeteria-style. "We need a strong economic base so we can do the other things we want."
Like many Twin Oak members, none of whom use their last names -- "You wouldn't use your last name with members of your family," she explained -- M'lissa shed even her real first name, Mikki, several years ago. Twin Oaks also features people who go by such colorful names as Orion, Rico, Blue and Velveteen.
"You hear a fair amount of anticapitalist rhetoric from people who say, 'I came here to be outside working in the garden, not be a businessperson,'" said Tom Harden, 28, who graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English and is one of three planners who serve staggered, 18-month terms and essentially make all the decisions about life at Twin Oaks. "But of course people can do that [be businessmen and women], too."
In an effort to minimize boredom and foster equality, jobs at Twin Oaks rotate. Everyone is required to work at least 45 hours per week, and work can be scheduled to permit afternoon naps or mornings off. To ensure conformity with 16 pages of bylaws, members are not fully accepted until they pass a six-month probation.
"Almost everyone joins with a lot of idealism, and many are invariably disappointed," said M'Lissa, who joined in 1977. "We lose a lot of people in that first year who ususally say it's not what they expected." Annual turnover is 25 percent, and recruitment of new members remains one of the commune's chief priorities.
New members are quickly introduced to the many ways in which their daily lives will be controlled. No one here can own a car. Everyone receives $11 per month to spend on beer, movies, concerts and junk food bought on forays to Richmond or Charlottesville, both about 90 miles away. Everyone gets three weeks vacation per year and can earn extra money or additional vacation time by working extra hours.
No one can receive more than $35 per year from outside sources, such as family or friends, although members can accept money for transportation home. Twin Oaks members are allowed to keep any savings or other accumulated assets, but interest on those savings goes into the Twin Oaks treasury. Members are asked to loan the community their assets and have done so, giving the commune a loan pool of $150,000.
Although sharing is one of Twin Oaks' cardinal tenets, everyone except the seven children, who range in age from 4 months to 7 years, has his or her own room. The contents of that room are considered private property. Bedrooms, equipped with a loft bed and a simple wooden dresser, afford the only privacy allowed at Twin Oaks. There is no privacy in the bathrooms; it is believed that bodily functions should not be hidden from others.
The dorms, which look like ski chalets, are named after the earlier American utopian experiments -- Oneida, Morningstar, Harmony. The walls of the dorms are lined with posters and books ranging from college calculus texts to novels by Thomas Pynchon and, of course, The Whole Earth Catalog.
There are slight incongruities. Members are permitted to keep small gifts, and some have blow-dryers and sleep on designer sheets. But there are others, including Gerri, who do not own their own clothes. Their wardrobes come from what is called "commie clothes" -- a community clothes stash located in the attic of one dorm that contains large musty trunks and long racks of clothing from which anyone can choose. There is even a white wedding gown with yellowing lace there for the taking.
"Commie clothes are great when we have a party or a holiday," said M'Lissa. Twin Oaks has no official religion, but it celebrates four holidays a year based on the seasons.
The life of everyone at Twin Oaks is touched by the sophisticated bureaucracy that keeps the commune running. What keeps it interesting is the intense pressure to be endlessly articulate and self-aware and help others be that way, too.
Consider the daily life of Tom, one of the three planners. On a typical weekday morning, he wakes up at the ring of his alarm clock at about 7 a.m., dresses in jeans, a flannel shirt and track shoes, and then walks across the courtyard to the farmhouse for a quick breakfast. While he is gone, another commune member designated as the "serf" for that day will straighten up around his dorm and clean up the dorm living room, furnished with sagging overstuffed chairs, the ubiquitous stereo, and mauve and black batiks hung on stretched canvas frames.
After a breakfast of orance juice, eggs, granola and milk fresh from Twin Oaks' six cows, the four-member wood-shop crew assembles shortly before 8 o'clock to tramp the half-mile through the woods to Emerald City, the furniture warehouse. Tom will work there until noon, in conditions that meet federal work standards. Lately, Tom has been working on the design of two new oak serving carts that Twin Oaks is trying to sell to the Door Store as part of its expanding new product line.
At noon, when his shift ends, Tom will return to the courtyard for lunch with friends or for a business lunch. As a planner, he will be buttonholed by other commune members while waiting in the chaotic cafeteria line or while sitting outside in a hammock chair eating lunch on a tray balanced precariously on his lap. Because there are 11 councils, 50 managers and about 150 aspects of life to be managed here -- cars, the garden, animals, children, milk production -- Tom spends much of his time listening.
Someone may try to convince him that the planners should allocate more money for farming or that Twin Oaks needs another dog or that the community should expand the child program and approve another pregnancy. These requests would probably also be tacked on the community bulletin board, which usually contains long, rambling and searingly intimate letters to the community from individual members.
Recently there was a letter from a member who wanted to keep his membership at Twin Oaks but leave the community for several months for psychiatric care, and another from a woman who attributed her failure to do her work to sleeplessness and anxiety caused by an attack of herpes.
After lunch, Tom will check the bulletin board for personal messages, hang out near the hammock shop and talk to people, and then meet with the two other planners until dinner. At the meeting, he may review this year's detailed 29-page economic plan, discuss issues raised by other members, and prepare for the big Friday night planners' meeting, to which all members are invited, but only a few of whom ever attend.
After dinner, Tom will take a shower, go to the hammock shop to work for a while, take a long walk in the woods with his friend M'Lissa and, if it is warm enough, go skinny-dipping in the South Anna River, which meanders through the commune. If he needs a reassuring hug, there's a 10-member "hugs squad" he can approach, whose names are posted on a bulletin board outside the kitchen. If he needs depression counseling, couples counseling, raw foods advice or a massage, that is available, too.
During the day Tom will see, but not have much to do with, the seven children who live at Twin Oaks. They are raised communally and live kibbutz-style in a specially designed children's house cared for by a team of 10 men and women called "metas," who may or may not be their parents. But as a planner, he will probably have to make important decisions about their futures. Decisions involving community children are among the most emotionally volatile.
"Basically we let all the people who want to have kids fight it out," said Josie Kinkade, 28, who has lived at Twin Oaks since it was founded by her mother in 1967. "The planners decide if there's enough money for us to have children, and the Child Board decides who gets to do it." Unapproved pregnancies are rare, but are accepted as graciously as possible.
Last year Twin Oaks was torn for months over a decision by the Child Board that a child could not stay at Twin Oaks without one of his parents. The mother of a 4-year-old boy decided she wanted to leave the commune to live elsewhere in Louisa, but wanted her child, whose father had left earlier, to stay behind. After several turbulent public meetings and a raft of fevered position papers had been posted on the bulletin board, the planners sided with the Child Board, and the boy left to live with his mother. Had a simple majority of Twin Oaks members vetoed the planners' decision, the boy could have stayed.
Twin Oaks children are taught by M'Lissa, a certified teacher, and Amri, another commune member formerly named Anne Marie Palmieri. Virginia law required that children be taught by a certified teacher. They learn reading and math as well as carpentry and sign language.
"They're not outstanding, but we don't really push them," said M'Lissa, who taught for 12 years in Massachusetts, California and Washington state before joining Twin Oaks. "They love to go to school."
Gerri, the mother of a 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, agreed. "Their ability to work things out with the other kids is phenomenal. Sometimes instead of punching each other, they'll say: 'Hey, I think we should talk about this.'"
Twin Oaks' relationship with the burghers of Louisa, a sparsely populated county of 18,000 whose bread-and-butter industries are farming and timber, are cordial. Commune residents have worked hard to allay anxieties. Among other things, they have banned all drugs, a policy that delights Louisa County Sheriff Henry Kennon. "From a law enforcement standpoint, we've been invited on the premises to investigate anything we choose," said Kennon."There haven't been any problems."
Even though the commune presents a united front to what it calls "the outside," life in this alternative society is not always tranquil. While gossip and what is called "public bitching" are frowned upon, both occur with what some consider alarming frequency.
"The problem most in my consciousness is public bitching.I always like to keep the psychic atmosphere clean, but there are people here who don't feel that way," said Pam Bricker, 26, who left Hampshire College for Twin Oaks in 1973.
"I'm feeling really engaged here for the first time in my life," said Tom, who joined Twin Oaks four years ago after living briefly in a commune outside Madison, Wis. "But the level of dirt bothers me. And having to go to meetings and make decisions and check with a whole lot of people to do insignificant things, well that sometimes bothers me. Sometimes I don't like the fact that some people are willing to take more responsibility than others. It could be that for most of us, Twin Oaks is an educational experience, a trip to somewhere else."