New Buffalo by Arthur Kopecky
New Buffalo commune Taos, New Mexico
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Review-Weideman-Pasatiempo

Baby on a tractor.

By Paul Weideman / The New Mexican - Pasatiempo
April 16, 2004

It’s easy for those who knew about communes only from rumors to imagine they were all about hedonism—a lazy lifestyle of free love, drugs and music. Read Arthur Kopecky’s new book about the legendary New Buffalo commune north of Taos and you find out that at least the lazy part doesn’t fit. The reality was more about hard work and constant struggles to find or grow food, build shelter and get along with anyone who might be around at the moment.

“I didn’t live at New Buffalo, but I lived in other communes around there, and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” said Paul Mushen, a Santa Fe remodeling contractor. “It was a valuable part of my life. In a way it was a failed experiment, but we learned a lot along the way.”

Kopecky lived at New Buffalo, on a beautiful parcel of land in Arroyo Hondo, for eight years. A history graduate from City College of New York, he kept a journal during those years and chose to preserve that form when he published New Buffalo: Journals from a Taos Commune.

I’ve been sitting on those journals,” Kopecky said when asked why he’s opening them to the eyes of the world at this point. “It took quite an effort to type them up. I had to get a computer. I just finally got around to it. I also have the sense that things haven’t, for a lot of us, come around as well as we would have liked, and actually reading the journal myself, I sensed there was a lot of power there.”

In the book’s foreword Peter Coyote agrees with the author’s desire to present the “sketchy, unstructured energy” of the journal. Coyote writes that he found the “fearless, energetic, forward motion toward an imagined future” in Kopecky's account to be gripping. “Urban kids came together and learned cabinetry, animal husbandry, carpentry, irrigation, weaving and a host of critical survival skills to make a life based ‘in place’ and not predicated on exploitation.”

Kopecky began his account in the spring of 1971 as he and a small band of like-minded people left Bolinas, Calif., and traveled throughout the United States in a converted Wonderbread truck called the Mind Machine. At a Minnesota stop on July 4, he writes, “Today is our country’s birthday! Many have struggled so that today we can be this free, and we thank them.”

The Mind Machine sputtered into New Buffalo in September, and Kopecky began his participation in the experiment. The days were filled with work—building a corral and barn, planning plantings—and the evenings began with what they called “Circle,” consisting of communal prayers and dinner in the communes’ underground kiva.

In February 1972 Kopecky notes that there were 15 adults, six children, 40 chickens, five goats, a cow, a donkey, two turkeys and three horses at New Buffalo. Dinners ranged from humble repasts enjoyed by the residents to parties attended by 50 or more, including neighbors and residents of the Hog Farm, Morningstar and other area communes, and featuring roast goat or pig, live music, plenty of beer, LSD-spiked punch, wine and marijuana.

The writer marvels at the cultural mix of these parties, which drew Anglos, Chicanos and Indians from Taos Pueblo. He notes on the morning after one event, “Rick Klein was at the party. I am told he put up the original $50,000 that got Buffalo off the ground.”

Kopecky’s descriptions of commune residents speak volumes about the nature of New Buffalo. There was Tahiti, 33, “craftsman, metalworker, independent, constant worker. Born in Frisco, he ran away from home at 15; went sailing around the South Asian seas. In the Merchant Marines at 21, he almost died and lost the sight in one eye from a fall.”
There was Angela: “sweet young thing—stays with Chuck. Glad I’m not too much in love with her! She has black hair and a tiny nose and can melt stone with her smile.”
And there was Steve. “Has lived here on and off for three years… I have to yell to him’ Good morning’ just to get him to grunt to me.”

Along with the dozens of personalities to be enjoyed or endured from day to day came issues to be resolved. Journal entry: “Had a big discussion on food stamps. Paul thinks they suck. I, myself, think they help; a little connection with the government is OK. In my view, the commune is part of the society.”

Page by page, the adventure continues. President Nixon is in China, a noteworthy visit for Kopecky, the student of history. The people at New Buffalo work alongside their Arroyo Hondo neighbors to clean irrigation ditches, bake pies to sell for kerosene and make candles to trade for compost. Poet Allen Ginsberg visits on a June day in 1972. Taos and New Mexico state police raid the commune, but no one is busted. Kopecky and a few others drive to Colorado to Pick potatoes after the machine harvester had dug up the crop. “We got 600 pounds, at least, in two hours for free.

By late 1975 New Buffalo was growing its own alfalfa, harvesting honey from bees and making money from a goat dairy, but Kopecky writes, “We’re still so damn poor.” In another notation at the end of the book he says, “Commune is a place for a family group to live together and work together, not a catch-all for an unrelated bunch of hard-luck cases.”
The end of the story? Kopecky and his wife, Sandy, were virtually expelled from New Buffalo, he says. An abusive guy named Joe had settled in and actually had fired a gun at Kopecky.

There’s quite a bit of excitement for volume 2,” the author said in a recent interview from Sebastopol, Calif., where he and Sandy live. There will be a sequel if the demand is there, including from schools that value these first-person accounts of commune life.

Kopecky said he “made a clean break” after leaving New Buffalo and took a job at a dairy and hog farm in Nebraska, adding, “I had no grudges against the American enterprise system.” He worked there for 13 months before the couple moved to a dairy job in California.

Kopecky began making furniture, using skills he had acquired at New Buffalo, and today earns a living as a carpenter and contractor. During our interview he remembered the feature story Merilee Dannemann wrote about New Buffalo for The Taos News. “It was quite a long article, done at the height of the good times, when we were harvesting hay. This would be volume 2 time.”

“I was probably a lot more square and conventional than a lot of those people, but I did spend a little time at New Buffalo,” said Dannemann, now a policy planner with the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration. “I think it went from more wild and crazy to more stable over a period of time, but as they attempted to get more stable, there was a problem because some people were trying to run it like an orderly community and others were resisting that.

There were an awful lot of people who had a real good time there, so it’s easy to look back on it with respect and nostalgia. The place had real good vibes. It’s a beautiful property, and they had done a nice job with the buildings. At a superficial level it was a very warm and welcoming place, and there were a lot of people who made it that way. Looked at a little deeper, there was an attempt to live the counterculture ideal, and that was a moving target.”

One thing Mushen noticed in Kopecky’s book was how often he wrote about food. “I was cracking up reading that because we were always hungry.” he said.

Another reason that topic was important to Kopecky, Dannemann said was that “he was basically a farmer. He was the main person I interviewed for that feature story, and he was really into the farming aspect. I remember he had a very unromantic viewpoint of cows.”

The author admits to having ‘an extreme case of ‘recessive peasant gene.’ Agriculture was a revelation. I think farming is the missing element in many ashram-type situations.”

Kopecky remains interested in alternative communities. “New Buffalo did go on for 14 years. At the start I was amazed to meet all these people who were so friendly and getting along, all different colors and religions. Everybody jumps to the conclusion that such a community is impossible, but it is very close to possible. I believe in it, and it’s amazing that that scene occurred without any leadership. It was spontaneous and came out of soul or heart, and that’s one reason it’s studied: there’s a certain mystery to that.”
Kopecky, who reads Communities, a quarterly publication that has covered ‘intentional communities” in North America since 1972, points to the groups—such as the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center 10 miles west of Sebastopol—that exist today. Another example, the Twin Oaks community in Virginia, has been a going concern for 37 years.

“That one works because they’ve been very clear about what was expected of people there,” said Santa Fe Community Foundation director Billie Blair, who covered the closing of New Buffalo in the early 1980’s for The Taos News. “New Buffalo ended up with too many freeloaders and druggies.
That was the downside to the goal of having an open community. Mushen said. “It’s based on freedom, so when some guy walks up the road, you have to let him stay there. All of a sudden it gets to be a bunch of hangers-on who aren’t part of your dream.”

Mushen, who will have Kopecky as a houseguest when the author is in the area this week for book signings, said they’re both convinced there are many people today who would be interested in an alternative way of living. “Arty wants to go back and do it again. Me, I’m not sure,” he said with a laugh.

“I think there is room for a vanguard to show the way and help others out,” Kopecky said. “I was willing then, and I still would be. We’re all sick of development, and all we can do is build more freeways, but we’re running out of oil and lumber and lots of stuff, and all you have is a world of people locked behind their doors. It may take some kind of economic shock, but then Alan Greenspan does seem to be talking worried.

“We didn’t quite get it right back then,” Kopecky said. “The fear of becoming cult like is one of the biggest problems, and the key is to stay open with the community, with the police and the mayordomo and everyone else. To consciously stay open keeps you from getting crazy—and to stay away from paranoia and a defeatist attitude.”


For more information on Kopecky or New Buffalo, please contact Amanda Sutton, UNM Press publicity at 505-277-0655, 505-277-9270 (fax), or asutton@unm.edu.
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