Hippie Leader Stephen Gaskin, Author of 'Cannabis Spirituality,' Dies At 79
By Steve Elliott
Stephen Gaskin, the tie-dye wearing hippie philosopher who founded The Farm commune in Tennessee and authored books including "Cannabis Spirituality," died Tuesday morning at his home in Summertown, Tennessee after a lengthy illness.
Gaskin, an ex-combat Marine and self-described "hippie priest and freelance rabble rouser," had led a caravan of hippies across the United States in the early 1970s from San Francisco eventually to the hills of Tennessee, where they founded a commune based on utopian ideals. It became one of the world's oldest surviving intentional communities.
"We have been freethinkers for generations," Gaskin wrote of his family. "And, as is provided for in the Constitution, I have passed my philosophical and religious ways on to my children, who are very proud of their heritage and ancestors."
Gaskin's teachings inspired not only those who followed him across the country to found The Farm. His ideas also changed forever the way a generation thought about changing society and making the world a better place in which for us to live.
He spent two years teaching English and creative writing at San Francisco State College after earning his master's in 1964. In 1967, he began an informal philosophy seminar that became the Monday Night Class, in which the hippie guru would discuss religion, politics, sex and drugs.
Gaskin believed in Tantra, telepathy and togetherness, and he helped young people make sense of the experiences they'd encountered on marijuana and LSD. He later wrote that he became a spiritual teacher because "there was a bunch of stuff I wanted to know really bad, and I went out looking to learn it, and I found that it was really hard to answer the questions I wanted answered."
"I also saw that one man, if he was honest and kept the faith and pushed long enough, could move enough of the world to make a difference," he wrote. "And that was such a turn-on of an idea that I thought I'd try to do it, and I've been doing it ever since, and so far it's working."
Gaskin and hundreds of members of the Monday Night Class in 1970 embarked on a cross-country speaking tour in a convoy of campers, Volkswagen vans, and brightly decorated school buses. When they returned to California, they decided to search for something better, and Gaskin decided to "go out to the middle and find some land."
The found a place just outside Summertown, Tennessee, where a moonshiner sold them 1,000 acres for $70 per acre. The ragtag group of hippies might as well have been a group of aliens arriving in flying saucers, as far as their new neighbors were concerned. But it didn't take their gentle vibe long to win over some friends.
"The rednecks took to us good," Gaskin recalled in 2013. "They liked us."
"There are gated communities of rich people," Gaskin said in 1997. "We are like a gated community of not-rich people."
Making decisions by consensus, led by Gaskin, the 320 original settlers erected buildings from salvaged wood, found water supplies and became agriculturally self-sufficient within four years, reports Jessica Bliss at The Tennessean. They communicated at first by CB radio, then a system of phone lines powered by batteries -- a hippie party line.
Within this self-sustaining society based on non-violence, vegetarianism and respect for the Earth, members willingly took a vow of poverty, grew their own food and home-delivered babies. The Farm became the biggest, longest-lived, and most successful hippie commune of them all.
To join The Farm, people accepted Gaskin as their spiritual teacher, "and a person's inner business became everybody's business," writes Bliss.
"He could take the most complex concepts of Eastern mysticism and translate them into Jimmy Stewart-like homespun English, former High Times editor Steven Hager wrote in January. "Stephen had the abilities of a psychic, but used those talents only to help people remember their own forgotten wisdom."
A few of The Farm's residents were caught growing marijuana in the early 1970s. Gaskin took responsibility for the weed, and in 1974, he and several others spent nearly a year in the Tennessee State Penitentiary (Gaskin had been originally sentenced to three years). When he was released, he married his longtime partner Ina May, who became well known for her midwifing services.
"If you want to throw some seeds in your garden and grow some pot and smoke it yourself, I don't think it's anybody else's business," Gaskin said in 2000 in an unsuccessful campaign for President. "And I don't think that the Constitution thinks that it's anybody else's business." While Bill Clinton infamously claimed he "didn't inhale," Gaskin proudly said, "I didn't exhale."
By 1980, with The Farm's population cresting at more than 1,200, a financial crisis led to a reorganization; with The Farm more than $400,000 in debt, a large corporate hospital placed a lien on the land, after members couldn't pay large medical bills.
In 1983, they took a vote, and communal sharing lost. Members started to pay monthly dues in the formerly cashless society, and only The Farm's 1,750 acres were held in common. The debt was paid off in about four years, and The Farm continued with separate, private ownership of property.
He told the Associated Press in 2000 that he envisioned a country where eliminating corporate donations and "soft money" to political campaigns would restore integrity to political office. Gaskin believed the government should foot the bill for the people's health care and educate everyone through junior college.
"For a couple of B-2 bombers you could pay for all the education in the United States," he said, reports News Channel 5.
"I consider any attempt to take this country over in the name of any religion to be as repugnant and unconstitutional as a takeover by international communism or fascism," Gaskin wrote in 1997.
Gaskin remained on The Farm until his death. "I'm just grateful the people around here had a big enough heart to take us in," he said. About 200 residents still live on The Farm.
Photo of Stephen Gaskin: Discover Tennessee/Flickr