- We Are as Gods by Kate Daloz
Reading Kate Daloz's We Are as Gods at the dawn of the new age of Trump is just begging for an out-of-body experience. This may not be inappropriate. At a moment when a nihilistic form of antipolitics is consuming the nation, transmogrifying the world and its people into raw ore for extraction, and deriding any conception of public good or even common good, Daloz's stunning new history is a powerful reminder of the alternatives Americans once lived and the creative ways in which they shaped community.
The centerpiece of Daloz's account is a subtle portrayal of a network of communities and people that rippled out from Myrtle Hill, a thinly veiled pseudonym for a 1960s- and 1970s-era commune high in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, leavened by insightful explorations of the idealism and naïveté that went into the community's formation and lingering demise. Neither entirely memoir nor entirely history, Daloz's book often reads like a novel, but like the best of focused histories, it transforms the particulars of person and place [End Page 363] into a broader and persuasive argument about the communal and back-to-the-land movements writ large.
At a surficial level, there would seem to be nothing entirely new for Daloz to add. The generation at the center of We Are as Gods is famously self-documenting, particularly in Vermont, and although the literature sometimes indulges in the nostalgic or self-congratulatory—or in the rueful, regretful, vengeful, and apologetic—there are some truly electric works. Barry Laffan, Ray Mungo, and Steve Diamond produced spectacular insiders' accounts from Vermont while the movement was in its stride, and in recent years, Tim Miller, Dona Brown, Blake Slonecker, and Tom Fels have added perspective and depth, as have a spate of recent memoirs by children of the era. Daloz is herself one of these offspring, the daughter of not-quite-hippie farmers who set up independently, interdependently, near Myrtle Hill. Indeed, much of the new that Daloz brings stems from her position of being removed generationally from the communards, yet tied intimately to them, and from her translocation from communal to independent living. The passion and affection she exudes when writing about her parents' generation are tempered with a clearheaded distance that reminds me, if nothing else, of what a commune child once said to me, "I never lived in an intentional community. My parents brought me here. There was nothing intentional about it for me." Intention becomes a place for introspection.
If a single word were to summarize We Are as Gods, it might be organic. Myrtle Hill played a large role in conceptualizing and catalyzing the rise of organic cooperatives—the Loaves and Fishes Trucking Co. was founded there—so the word is formally appropriate. But the term organic has a deeper resonance. One of the book's key virtues is the way that it weaves disparate elements seamlessly into an organic whole, turning a mosaic of intensely focused vignettes into a narrative that defies simple linearity and that allows for a more complex exposition of both the conceptual and geographic landscape. Deftly, discursively, Daloz fills pauses in the chronological narrative with ventures into the past to add background detail or that expand the scope of imagination. Her style is evocative of the back-to-the-land movement itself and its headlong, natural flow of ideas, people, and activities that grew organically into something larger.
Daloz is particularly strong when conveying the nuances of the varied incarnations of the back-to-the-land movement and the fluid mechanics of living arrangements that made each commune a universe unto itself, even as universes coalesced. Myrtle Hill hosted no more than a couple dozen communards at any one time pooling resources and making joint decisions (when decisions were [End Page 364] made), but Daloz shows persuasively that this small scale barely hints at the true extent...