At least once a week, and sometimes more, I think about running away. Granted, I don’t usually get too far into the specifics. But I do wonder, abstractly, what that would actually look like. Just going completely off the grid. No more career, no more fixed responsibilities, no more technology, or even electricity. Well that is precisely what Margaret Grundstein did, which she describes in delightful detail in her memoir Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune.
I don’t know who you picture when you think about hippies. Burnouts, maybe. Freeloaders. Potheads. But Grundstein was none of these things. A graduate student at Yale, her “running away” was done for philosophical reasons, not out of laziness or lack of ambition. The late 1960’s/early 1970’s were tumultuous times, and Grundstein and her cohorts were in search of a better way. These were talented, intelligent people, in truth not running away from anything, but running to something, creating a utopia, setting an example, essentially being the change the crazy and controlling and “straight” world did not provide.
Grundstein is so down to earth, reading her book feels like a casual conversation with a dear and enlightening friend, albeit with an amazing story to tell. Sure, sometimes her thinly veiled intellect shows through, when, for example, she casually drops a word like postprandial (p. 82) (adjective- 1. during or relating to the period after dinner or lunch- “we were jolted from our postprandial torpor”; 2. occurring after a meal). A polysyllabic word lover myself, I certainly don’t mind.
Her story is captivating and funny, but also offers an unflinching look at the difficulties Grundstein and her group faced. Peace and love and sharing are all excellent as concepts, but there are certain unavoidable realities that, even “in the woods,” cannot be escaped completely. Money never becomes a total non-necessity. And even the most devout hippies are human, prone to the same impulses and imperfections we all are; exposure to the elements and lack of food and stability (and yes, occasionally, even some mood/reality-altering substances) often pushed personality differences up to and beyond the boiling point. Is Utopia possible in contemporary society, or even a few steps removed? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
I think a lot of the ideas that drove people like Grundstein to so completely abandon the “normal” path of education and career and taxes and mortgages have come full circle. Wasn’t the point of technology to make life more efficient, freeing up more time for what we want to do? To soul search, be one with nature, have more meaningful connections with people, more meaningful relationships? To help people? To take care of those who can’t take care of themselves? And what have we done with it? We use the efficiency technology has created to work more, to spend more time grinding, not even just the 9 to 5 the hippie culture bristled against, but an almost 24/7 work cycle. Why?!?!?
Have things really changed that much since the ’70s? Did groups like Grundsteins’ make a difference? Are millennials contemporary hippies? Hipsters? Did hippie culture mark the true beginning of the “tiny house” movement?
In maybe my favorite part of the book, Grundstein describes a point where she offers, almost in passing, “not that any of us still had a watch, as time had lost all meaning.” (p. 98). Can you imagine that? And does the idea scare you or invigorate you? Admit that at least a part of you wants to take off your watch (and maybe more), head for the hills, and never look back.
Naked in the Woods is informative, entertaining, but above all thought-provoking. Whether we lived through that period or have only seen it fictionally portrayed in movies or literature, I think all of us have some fascination with the offbeat, enticing world of hippie culture. Grundstein here gives us an inside look at what it was all really about, and I am thankful to her for that.
Check it out!