|Photo: Melvyn Stiriss
|Melvyn Stiriss: “The Farm collective was our attempt to create a utopia.”
Voluntary Peasants Trilogy Tells The Story of S.F.’s Monday Night Class and The Farm
When a ragtag band of hippies set out in a 20-bus caravan from San Francisco in 1970 looking to reinvent society, they rode into the history books with a psychedelic, very weird yet very American tale of idealism and do-it-yourself utopia.
And right there in the midst of things was young writer Melvyn Stiriss. Tom Brokaw once said of himself, “In the sixties, I was a young up-and-coming reporter, and I came right up to the edge of what was happening, and I backed away.”
“At that time, I too was a rising young journalist,” Stiriss said. “I came up to that same edge as Tom, only I went Wheeee! Over. And that has made all the difference.”
“The fact that I am a trained, experienced journalist placed me in a situation that was both enviable and uniquely challenging,” Stiriss said. “I never entered the hippie world with the idea of writing about it. I was never just a fly-on-the-wall, unattached observer. I was in deep, sometimes over my head.”
What began as the Monday Night Class in 1960s Haight-Ashbury, a writing class taught by San Francisco State College instructor Stephen Gaskin, morphed into an open philosophy discussion and soon attracted up to 1,500 students — and that mutated into the bus caravan.
Leaving San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1970, the psychedelic bus caravan/speaking tour drove right through the heart of America, logging more than 10,000 miles in six months. Starting with 20 buses and 50 people, the caravan picked up folks along the way as Gaskin spoke of peace, getting back to the land, communes and consciousness.
“Like a psychedelic Pied Piper, the caravan snowballed to 100 buses and 250 people, all hot to get back to the land and change their lives,” Stiriss said. “We had many great adventures and began to coalesce as a community along America’s highways, parading through cities and towns, sometimes picking up police escorts.”
Of course, once the caravan came to journey’s end at what became The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, their starry-eyed 1960s idealism quickly ran up against entrenched rural attitudes and suspicious neighbors. They also endured some harsh winters, primitive conditions, and a marijuana bust that landed leader Gaskin in jail for a year after hunters found a pot patch and showed their lack of class by reporting it to the sheriff.
The Farm not only persevered; it became the most successful intentional community in the United States, with the Wall Street Journal eventually dubbing it “the General Motors of American communes.”
Along for the ride was former UP wire service reporter Melvyn Stiriss, who had covered the Grateful Dead’s first New York concert, then became a Madison Avenue PR man before dropping out. Stiriss went a vision quest which culminated with him joining Gaskin’s Monday Night Class and the ensuing bus caravan and ultimately spending 13 years on The Farm.
|Photo: Voluntary Peasants
|Stephen Gaskin leading the Monday Night Class “for Seriously Mindblown Trippers, Seekers, Hippies and Aspiring Wizards, Avatars, Bodhisattvas and Spiritual Teachers” in San Francisco, 1969
”By 1969, there was a growing horde of people in the Bay Area, people who had taken the psychedelic inner journey; discovered exciting new levels of reality; followed ‘a vibe,’ a powerful, attractive, telepathic energy, all the way to California, to the epicenter, San Francisco,” Stiriss said.
“Arriving in happy-looking, colorfully painted school buses, vans, on foot and by thumb, there came a wave of humanity, everyone in a state of flux, transforming from the old, American paradigm into something new and exciting — budding hippies, New Age pilgrims, adventurers and seekers, a great confluence, all converging, here and now,” Stiriss said of the time and place where the Monday Night Class was born.
“The Bay Area was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual trips, emerging new religions, yogis, swamis, gurus, Hare Krishnas, hip Hasids and Sufis on the saner end, with numerous self-proclaimed messiahs, avatars and prophets running around starting cults, on the other end,” Stiriss said. “Haight-Ashbury was full of wide-eyed, mind-blown seekers, freaks, trippers, spaced-out, homeless, hippie wannabes, and everything was up for grabs.”
|Photo: Voluntary Peasants
|Melvyn Stiriss and baby back in the day
”There is so much more to life than I ever imagined — so many more levels and dimensions,” Stiriss said. “I thought all along that life was far out, but I was about to learn a new meaning for far out. Suddenly energy and auras were everywhere, and I had experiences that went far beyond the ability of words to describe, though I am duty bound, as a journalist, to try.”
“Back East, I had just begun to see a little magic and telepathy,” Stiriss said. “Here in California, I was suddenly awash in amazing, real-life magic and far out, telepathic people — all on the cusp of an historic quantum leap in consciousness.”
When the aforementioned bus odyssey — which Stiriss calls “The Great, Round-the-Country, Save-the-World, School Bus Caravan” — landed at The Farm in 1971, the process of building a utopian micro-society began in earnest.
“At The Farm intentional community, I learned to be useful, mindful and more compassionate,” Stiriss said. “I worked as a farmer, miller, carpenter, mason, vegan chef and head baker. I ran the newspaper and worked at the gate, through which 10,000 visitors a year passed.”
Stiriss’s Voluntary Peasants Trilogy is the first comprehensive insider report about a great social experiment, its history and evolution, told by a founder.
”The Farm collective was a grand, 24/7 peace project and demonstration, involving voluntary peasants, who dared to get out of ‘the box’ and experiment with their own lives to change the world,” Stiriss said. “The Farm collective was our attempt to create a utopia.”
The planned trilogy is made up of the already-available Book 1, Enlightenment: What’s It Good For, the soon-available Book 2, Holy Hippies, which Stiriss tells me should be available online in mid-January 2011; and Book 3, The Farm: A Bold Experiment and Labor Of Love.
Voluntary Peasants offers a revealing look into the “guru trip” as a modern American attempt at a deeply personal, spiritual teacher-student relationship, with its unique challenges, rewards and cautions.
All three books of the Voluntary Peasants Trilogy will also be available as print books and audiobooks in mid-2011, Stiriss told Toke of the Town.