Listen to the River
Back in 1970, two friends and I bought a station wagon in Baltimore for the price of two Friendly’s fried clam platters and headed out West for spring break. I eventually ended up in Taos, where I stumbled across Wavy Gravy’s famous hippie commune, the Hog Farm. It was an experiment in dropping out, but it reminded me of a poorly run summer camp: The kitchen was filthy, the diet was mostly goat’s milk and undercooked brown rice, everyone’s hair was smoky and snarled, and I almost froze to death the first night since nobody knew how to bank a fire. I spent a long weekend scrubbing the kitchen and cooking, an early sign of my eventual career path. Today, they probably all trade oil futures.
Fast forward 40 years, and I am so far on the grid that I am not sure I would know how to get off. Sure, we produce a lot of our own food—and, yes, we can heat our farmhouse with our wood furnace, and we can’t get cell phone service except when I stand exactly 15 feet down the driveway, perched on the south side. Yet I have a fair number of frequent flyer miles, my passport is well stamped, and I can tell you the best place for lunch in Saigon.
Unlike our parents’ generation, whose core values were drawn from two world wars and the Great Depression, my generation has little to show for its life philosophy other than the peace sign and a brightly painted VW bus. “Give Peace a Chance” and “All You Need Is Love” turned out to be nothing more than pleasant mantras. Religions understand that an approach to life has to be simple and actionable. The Golden Rule (“Do unto others . . .”) is perfect in that regard or, as I once summarized the essence of Christianity in a Sunday sermon, “Don’t be a jerk.” Harsh, perhaps, but easy to follow.
My story is the story of a generation. I left for college, became a lifelong Deadhead, spent more than one evening skinny dipping in cold Vermont beaver ponds after listening to Cat Stevens and eating carrot cake, and studied Foxfire books to learn about a future dressing out hogs, building my homestead cabin, and running a pick-your-own operation. I stood on a stage next to Allen Ginsberg on May Day 1970 in New Haven, chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” while being teargassed by police, marched on the administration building at Columbia, drove a 1961 VW Beetle with a sunroof and a large sheepdog for company, and spent more time than I care to admit eating burnt oatmeal at rainy rock concerts from upstate New York (Watkins Glen) to the state of Washington. My bible was Living the Good Life by the Nearings, who lived, serendipitously enough, not far from our present farm. Their philosophy of hard physical labor in the morning followed by a long, lovingly prepared lunch and then an afternoon of intellectual and musical pursuits is still my life goal.
Our movement skidded ingloriously in the mud of Woodstock, which defined the ’60s only by its music—a dissonant, howling version of our national anthem played by a soon-to-be-dead rock star who overdosed on drugs. Hmm. Not an ideal last chapter.
So here we are, a generation later, in need of a new, improved philosophy. The irony is beyond ironic. War. Earth endangered. Mass consumerism. And Bob Dylan is still giving sold-out concerts.
My Vermont neighbors never dropped out, nor did they succumb to the siren song of platitudes. They simply got up early every day in an effort to be useful. They still bake birthday cakes flavored with locally picked butternuts, can tomatoes and green beans, and know how to switch out blades on a mower. They regularly send their sons and daughters off to serve their country. In hard times they might complain a bit—don’t mention the price of gas—but they make do and still find time to hunt and fish. And when a neighbor needs a lift or a casserole, they are quick to provide.
They might think nothing of sitting starkers outside their roadside sauna on Sunday afternoons, watching chickens and traffic, unlike the made-for-media nakedness of Woodstock. They know that the old sayings are perfectly true: Make hay while the sun shines; a penny saved is a penny earned. They have an independent streak with words: “I’m so broke that I can’t even pay attention,” “I wouldn’t run uphill after it,” and, one of my all-time favorites, “I’m so hungry I could eat the north end of a southbound skunk.” Shopping is not a sport (unless it’s Cabela’s); it is merely a necessity. And where they live is no small thing—the full moon rises over our upper horse pasture, bathing the farmhouse with a pure, spectral glow. The moonlight whispers that there is redemption in the little things, in trying hard and in self-reliance.
Ken Kesey, the voice of the Beat Generation, lost his son in a car accident and found himself not long after at a Grateful Dead concert. When they played “Brokedown Palace” he cried, realizing that art is not about politics but about the personal. We sing along: “Going home, going home, by the riverside I will rest my bones,” and then we end with, “Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.”
Life is a mystery. It isn’t what we think or even what we hope. It is always just one step beyond our understanding; once in a while, it comes back around to offer us a second chance. Across America, we now realize, there were people better than us who had always lived within the sound of the river.
Last summer, after the brook had dried up, a midnight thunderstorm drove through the valley, dropping an inch of rain. The next day, I sat on the porch and heard something familiar. Having been gone for so long, the river sounded particularly sweet.