Why The Hippies Are Topical: Can We Really Make a Better World?

Why the Hippies are Topical: How Writing About a Historical Time Can Make a Writer Ask— Can We Really Make a Better World?

The sourdough bread is rising. I’ve captured the yeast myself, a painstaking process. The yogurt sits fermenting. What am I, a hippie? No. But I have always enjoyed these quiet domestic pursuits, and now in this strange time, I feel connected to the counter-culture of a bygone era. In this pandemic, we all, to one degree or another, have dropped out.

My new novel, Joyous Lies, tells the story of a botanist raised on a commune turned organic farm. Maelle, my protagonist, learned to love nature on that farm. Her Vietnam War-protesting grandparents startled their parents’ generation by committing themselves to live sustainably.

Fifty years ago, society convulsed. An unpopular war aroused protests, and a huge cohort of young people proved a demographic impossible for politicians to ignore. We could ask why, at a time of unprecedented material prosperity, young people in their droves fled to the wilderness. Looking back, the answer seems obvious. These young people saw prosperity won through exploitation, a petroleum and chemical-based unsustainable economy, and a Western world-view warped by the ever–present Cold War.

Today, this question is being asked again. What is the price of prosperity? History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but it asks the same moral questions.

This is such a quandary. I have no answers. But being of the hippie generation, remembering the reverberations of that time, I feel I’m living in a historical novel. Or perhaps a better word is time-travel. In the first couple of months of the coronavirus pandemic, world-wide lockdowns made the sky blue again, pollution diminished, birdsong could be heard because traffic noise had diminished. This is how the world was, once. We know we must bring it back.

When I started writing Joyous Lies, I wanted to write about plants and science’s new discoveries about their amazing powers. So my main protagonist is Maelle, a botanist. She believes plants communicate. I delved into fascinating research that shows they actually do. But then another figure entered my mind —her grandmother. Johanna, her fingers gnarled from spinning and knitting, from kneading bread and picking vegetables, is my second point-of-view protagonist.

Researching my story, I read many memoirs of Vietnam-era back-to-the-landers. As I read one of these stories, a sense of familiarity came over me. In the nineteen seventies a band of friends composted the acid fields of Cape Rosier in northern Maine and grew crops, ground their own flour, drew water from a well, and lived hand to mouth, dedicated to a goal of total vegetarian self-sufficiency. Today, their leader has risen to prominence as a pioneer of the organic farming movement, his impact immeasurable.

I never met these people, but at same the time they were living their experiment in back-to-nature farming, my young family spent time nearby. In fact, on the farm next door. We were invited, with a swarm of young couples and their children, to spend long summer weekends at the Cape Rosier compound of our friends, Jack and Ruth.

:Our hosts, too, gardened organically, hauled seaweed to compost their own extensive plots, passionate about farming without pesticides. The family cooked on a cast-iron stove which cast a welcome warmth in chilly late-summer Maine mornings and used composting toilets, but unlike the hippies nearby, they had electricity, a telephone, and ate meat. I have such happy memories of that time, when we enjoyed big communal clam bakes, explored the magical islands of the cape, picked blueberries and baked pies, and watched the sunset behind the trees from the beach.

But other memories of that time surface, too. While the alternative community next door struggled to grow enough food to sustain themselves and endured jealousies and stresses that eventually broke them, our group experienced life’s difficulties as well.

A suicide. Divorces, problems in pregnancy, relationships teetering on the brink, tumultuous emotions close to the surface. We sensed that society was on the edge of enormous change. That our generation, the largest age cohort in history, was going to make it better. We believed all that. But human failings got in the way, as they always do. The arrival of children, those small persons for whom we sacrifice so much, hamper utopia.

So thinking about how reality gets in the way of dreams, my story developed, and with it the idea that those hippies whose communes survived had to develop a system that worked. What if a young mother had to endure the sight of nubile, athletic young women striding naked through the farm while she felt cast aside, housebound, unable even to smooth her chapped lips with face-cream? My character Johanna, faced with a similar dilemma, comes up with what she thinks is a creative solution. How was it? Ask her children. This dedication to an ideal had a cost.

Human frailties and the desire to live a life of loving abundance do not change through the generations. When I started this novel, I had no idea that a pandemic would spin our Western assumptions, questioning our getting and spending, allowing us time to wonder if a quieter life, closer to the earth, might be better.

When we read novels about other critical times in history, we find in them the same battle to remain true to our best selves. And we read about the cost of doing so. That’s what good historical fiction can do – arouse our compassion about humans who lived before us, and how they struggled with the same questions— the price of authenticity, the price of trying to make a better world.

My bread has risen. My yogurt is fermenting. Past ideas continue to brew today in a different culture. Something new is being created from timeless ingredients as we struggle to move forward. As the hippies found, the experiment may fail. But aspects will succeed.

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