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Scrapbook of a Taos Hippie

Book Review
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Scrapbook of a Taos Hippie:Tribal Tales from the Heart of a Cultural Revolution

The story of Iris Keltz’s involvement with the communes around Taos begins in 1968, when the author and her husband Faisal stumbled into New Buffalo commune during a cross-country ramble from New York City to northern California and back, a route made famous by the transcendental Beat literati. More than thirty years later, Scrapbook of a Taos Hippie interweaves personal recollection with interviews of Iris’s comrades, as well as neat bits of poetry and hippie scuttlebutt, local news clippings, family-style snapshots of the longhairs hanging out, washing, chopping, making music, doing the hippie boogie. Personal and collective histories are served up in tantalizing snatches and truncated pieces.

The New Buffalo commune had only been in existence for a meager two years, but judging from Iris’s account of her first impression, it was already full-fleshed with all the accoutrements of high hippie life and landscape–the vegetarian diet with fresh-cooked vegetables, the four-seated outhouse, the barebreasted women, the offer of a night in a tipi, the goats, chickens, milk cows, cheese-making. And then there were also the already manifested problems: the workers versus the partiers, and the instability of large numbers of visitors simply passing through.

Iris loved it. Faisal did not. Faisal had come out of village life to take to wandering at an early age. He found New York City to be much more homey than any village either in Israel or New Mexico. But like many young Americans, Iris yearned to reconnect with a mythologized landed past. She had fallen in love with Faisal’s childhood village and even imagined moving there for a little while–as Faisal’s old man desired, a proud father who had welcomed the young couple by slaying a sheep and inviting everyone in the village to the feast. But Iris knew that the strictures would be too much for her, and doubted she would be able to accept Faisal bringing home another wife. In New Buffalo village she saw a chance to wed new ways with old, for personal development within new sexual codes.

So, in 1970 the young couple split on the basis of their divergence of opinion on city versus commune-country living. A letter had come from one of the New Buffalo women they had met on their visit the year before, offering them a room. Iris departed the shared fourth-floor New York City tenement accompanied only by dreams of herding sheep, embracing poverty, farming, and maybe a little bellydancing through strings of starry nights and holy days.

But the spirit of New Mexico was changing. Word had spread quickly of communes willing to receive any and all who were looking for refuge from war-madness and capitalistic greed, and thousands swarmed the Taos area. As Ed Sanders points out in his introduction to Scrapbook: “The very idea of preparing vigorously for a 60-year career in the suit-and-tie world followed by a few years’ retirement, then a terminal illness caused by pollutants, did not appeal at all to quite a number of young Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s.”

The flood of alternative-life seekers became a deluge after one of New Buffalo’s neighboring communes, the Hog Farm, was hired to set up and provide security at the Woodstock Festival. The commune’s efforts far exceeded the expectations of their employers; their free kitchen, first aid and freakout tents were in large part the underpinnings of the festival’s famous high spirits. But when they came home, they discovered that many had beaten them there with plates and tin cups in hand.

And the newcomers did everything wrong. They were fools in the wilderness, ruining tools when they tried to do simple chores like chopping wood, getting sick from hepatitis and dysentery, building careless fires that burnt down fragile structures like tipis and strawbale lean-tos. The story was the same throughout the communes. Several communalistas had specific numbers and ratios they wished to impose upon their population growth; Mama Lama of the Lama Foundation felt, for instance, that there should never be more than one child for every four adults, an equal number of men and women, and only one to two refugees for every twenty-five communitarians. Still, the communal response to runaway popularity was in large part one of education rather than rejection. Flyers were distributed instructing on simple hygiene in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the response of the surrounding community was anxious and angry.

The first day a young John Nichols rode into Taos, he saw a new model Mustang with DESTROY THE HIPPIES taped across one side. Nichols had arrived at the start of the Hippie-Chicano War. The Taos Chamber of Commerce, Taos Ministerial Alliance and the Rotary Club of Taos were engaged in a serious head-hover, with suggestions that remedies might come through ordinances by the county or the town in the areas of zoning, health and morals. A local official described the hippies as “a threat to our established way of life.” The state attorney general was consulted for advice on how to eliminate the hippies “without discrimination.” But when talk turned to closing the communes based on the state building code–particularly because of a lack of indoor plumbing–the Health Department cautioned that the code could not be differentially enforced; many New Mexicans lacked flushing toilets. So local resistance stepped out of the public forum and into the cover of night. Parents encouraged teenaged boys to engage in vandalism. In the spring of 1969 vehicles were bombed. A bridge to one commune was blown up. Shootings, assaults and rapes proliferated. Meanwhile, La Raza’s El Grito del Norte, speaking for both Chicanos and Indians, printed a direct appeal: Hippies please don’t come anymore. You are still Anglo/Gringos, able to buy land when many older residents are not. Hippies were people who got welfare and food stamps when they could get money from home or a job if necessary. They were people who abused the water, and lacked cultural knowledge of cleanliness, family values, sexual morality. They were educationally advantaged and could leave if the going got tough, whereas the natives were stuck within a single reality. If the hippies couldn’t make change happen within happen within their own society, why did they think they could do anything in the midst of someone else’s culture?

The updated hippies Iris includes are generally a bit apologetic, or sometimes defensive, when asked to describe their states of mind in those youthful times when they were full of self-assurance that their individual actions of turning on, tuning in and dropping out could change the world. “Free love,” according to one of New Buffalo’s founding settlers, Joyce Robinson, now a born-again Christian, created hurt. Back-to-the land wasn’t enough. Introducing the interview with one of the younger communalists is the photograph of a thin boy with dark, shoulder-length hair–Morgan Haynes as eleven-year-old acid head. Today he’s a paramedic studying oriental medicine. The grownups, he recalls, were so into expanding their consciousness, they often forgot there were any children around, making the kids little shadow people. His teachers were of the lofty-valued Taos Learning Center, which would teach children how to build houses, grow food, tan hides, survive in the wilderness–as well as provide traditional studies in math, literature and sciences. But since he had started before the school was built, all he could remember of his education was being used as slave labor, making adobes while the classes fell apart. According to Rick Klein, the man who originally bought the land New Buffalo was founded upon, “The whole thing was a courageous experiment, but very naïve.” As of the year of his interview–1997–he was doing business on the old acreage under the name of New Buffalo Bed and Breakfast, but had put it up for sale. “We can’t hold up the’60s for everybody.” Still, of the thirteen communalistas Iris interviewed and updated, the majority remained in the Taos area through all of the turbulence of the past three decades.

Iris’s own recollections come through luminously and unapologetically. She worked as a waitress at Joe’s, taught children from a homemade curriculum, participated in the homebirthing experiences of her friends, tackled hard work with cheerfulness and no despair. She attended Peyote Church services, gathered with the Rainbows, shared lovers and resources–and now shares stories from her extraordinary American village times.

I was reassured by Iris’s book of hippie hymns to sisterly love and acid-lickin’ that not everyone had swallowed their tongues and blotted out the times when there were so many fools believing we could make love instead of war, and turn the whole dang universe on its ass, legs-up under the howling moon. I wish she had given an update on herself as she did for the others, but she enters into history as a young adult with no delineated roots and remains the same throughout, except for a brief glimpse of herself as an interviewer with silvering hair. To the end she remains elusive, offering up scraps and pieces as intimate and fine as the gypsy outfits of the boogie women. Courageous, high, mountain-climbing spirits shout out and shine through these pages.

Pat LittleDog is reading, writing and dreaming in Dale, Texas.