This Time We’ll Keep It a Secret

by Martin Beck

“What is the alternative to established America?” A documentary study of certain living arrangements.

“This Time We’ll Keep It a Secret” was published as part of Triple Canopy’s Internet as Material project area, which receives support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.


  1. “We’re thinking of burning Drop City down,” he continued.

  2. Go up a steep hill and take the first road to your right.

  3. These are instructions to almost break out of prison.

  4. I understand what he is trying to say, but it amounted to telling me to be somebody else instead of me.

  5. Forty-five minutes before you want to serve it, add several sliced carrots and diced potatoes to the pot.

  6. For twenty uninhabited miles around, no sound.

One anonymous community gives this advice to those interested in starting a commune: “Publicity is the death of community … it would probably be a good idea to refrain from giving yourselves a name. You will be harder to talk about without a handle.”1

A name describes an entity and distinguishes it from others. A handle is the part by which a thing is held, carried, controlled, how we understand its use—how it is remembered.

In the spring of 1968 I read the following news about Drop City in an underground press paper:
    “At the entrance a large sign exactly like those outside the ramshackled Southwestern Indian Reservations: NO PHOTOGRAPHS, VISITING HOURS WEEKENDS ONLY 8 AM TO 8 PM.”
    “We’ll let anyone come for a while, but only those who contribute, can stay,” stated a resident. “It has to be that way. We have learned the hard way, by letting too many come who could only take away.”
    “We’re thinking of burning Drop City down,” he continued.2

No photographs, limited visiting hours, no handles, no names.

What is an image without a photograph?

Capturing and captioning.

When, in 1996, the city council of Trinidad in southern Colorado was about to vote on landmarking the only remaining trace of Drop City, the “theater dome”—a geodesic dome built from recycled car tops—a truck accidentally backed up into it and brought the structure to collapse. The larger site had by then already been mauled over by the new owner, a trucking company that uses the area as a staging ground.

rumors and murmurs
documents and journeys
ruptures and hinges

A commune … is an arrangement of three or more persons among whom the primary bond is some form of sharing rather than blood or legal ties. The degree of sharing is as various as the arrangements made, from a minimum of holding only land in common to holding all things in common.3

Is there a form to a shared togetherness? Are there rules that generate that form? How to trace and project the connective tissue that constitutes togetherness? How to display a new social body?

A vocabulary, a language in the making: some words, maybe grammar—building blocks and rules for the building blocks, connecting them into a structure. A formal language as an image of the social. A social abstraction in the form of instable diagrams. An image of an absence.

1 Alternatives Foundation, How to Make a Commune (San Francisco: Alternatives Foundation, 1971).
2 Richard Fairfield, “From Drop City to Libre,” in Communes, U.S.A., ed. Richard Fairfield, the Modern Utopian series (San Francisco: Alternatives Foundation, 1971), 93.
3 Fairfield, “Definitions,” in Fairfield, Communes, U.S.A., 1.

I never had the desire to join or visit a commune. When, a few years back, I began to look into the history of 1960s and ’70s communes in the US, friends offered narratives and contacts. Although not knowing exactly what I was looking for, I decided against seeking out former communards. Instead, the published record became my set of instructions: The atmosphere of a medium, circulation and body, indents and illustrations, colophons and afterwords, rhetoric and rhythm.

I am turning pages. A view from one point to another, from the outside looking out.

a tourist and a vagabond
an expert and a dilettante
a contributor and a thief

The traces of discourse perform the act of remembering. The form of memory becomes the condition for recognizability.

Needs take form and forms make needs.

To rip, to rend, to rive, to split, to slit, to tear, to cleave, to sever, to sunder, to shred, to pull apart, to come apart, to pull to pieces, to run, to snag.

Images without photographs. Rules, recipes, diagrams. The social and the display.

Go up a steep hill and take the first road to your right. You’ll see it from there.4

People who visit communes do so for a variety of reasons: 1) They want somone or something “out there” to turn them on. … 2) They want a “hip” place to stay for a while before returning to their ordinary world of reality. … 3) They are writing a book, doing research for a term paper or a Ph.D. dissertation and all of this for some liberal institution which gives money to study deviant behavior.5

Because other communes we had visited had been difficult to reach, it was a relief to have good directions and a paved road all the way.6

To put something on a map suggests a rule of correspondence, connecting elements in one set with elements in another.

4 Fairfield, “Hog Farm,” in Fairfield, Communes, U.S.A., 90.
5 Fairfield, “On the Road,” in Fairfield, Communes, U.S.A., 5.
6 Fairfield, “Drop City,” 93.

Head north on Ashbury St toward Page St — go 0.1 mi
Turn right at Oak St — go 1.3 mi
Turn right at Octavia Blvd — go 0.2 mi
Merge onto US-101 S via the ramp to I-80 — go 0.8 mi
Take the exit onto I-80 E toward Bay Bridge/Oakland — go 7.4 mi
Take the exit onto I-580 E toward CA-24/Hayward/Stockton — go 63.1 mi
Merge onto I-5 S — go 167 mi
Take exit 278 for CA-46 toward Lost Hills/Wasco — go 0.4 mi
Turn left onto CA-46/Paso Robles Hwy — go 25.4 mi
Merge onto CA-99 S toward Bakersfield — go 20.5 mi
Take exit 24 to merge onto CA-58 E toward Tehachapi/Mojave — go 126 mi
Merge onto I-15 N via the ramp to I-40/Las Vegas — go 4.5 mi
Keep right to take I-40 E toward Needles — go 672 mi
Take exit 159C onto I-25 N toward Santa Fe — go 253 mi
Take exit 18 for El Moro Rd — go 0.2 mi
Turn right at County Rd-32/El Moro Rd — go 0.2 mi
Turn right at Freedom Rd - go 0.3 mi
Turn right at Liberty Dr - go 479 ft

These are instructions to almost break out of prison. The prison is the paucity of shapes to which we have in the past confined ourselves because of our technology-industry-education-economy.7

Freedom to Liberty to Constitution to Democracy to industrial park.

[Drop City] fell out a window in Kansas three years ago with a mattress and a balloon full of water and landed in a goat pasture in Trinidad, Colorado.8

Correction: Do not turn at Freedom Rd

Continue on County Rd-32/El Moro Rd
- go 1.2 mi
Turn right at County Rd-75 - go 65 ft

There is nothing left. The view to Fisher’s Peak.

7 Steve Baer, Dome Cookbook (Corrales, NM: Lama Foundation, 1968), 1.
8 Albin Wagner [Peter Douthit], “Drop City: A Total Living Environment,” in Notes from the New Underground: Where It’s At and What’s Up, ed. Jesse Kornbluth (New York: Ace, 1968), 253.

In making a structural cartop panel a great deal of care has to be given to accuracy, particularly to getting the crotches between the flanges the correct distances apart, these points become the tips of the structural panel and thus determine the edges. The holes are also important; the end holes should be as close to the corners as possible. Bring them back just far enough so the connecting bolts can be fitted through.9

Needs take form and forms make needs.

Forms which answer a need but end by answering even when they are not called. People are trained for the construction of the form, special tools are designed and manufactured, a language grows up with the workers. … Finally the relationship between need and form capsizes and instead of forms being thrown out because they don’t fulfill the needs just the opposite occurs.10

Tools, fatigues, and feelings.

To every child who has ever played with a pencil it is obvious that you can draw a polygon and then adjoin another along one of its sides and go on and on with this and never stop, you even have considerable freedom as to the sizes and shapes the individual polygons will have.
    This is a wonderful quality of space, we can eat it up in different sizes and shapes in infinite numbers of ways.11

Three or more line segments form a closed plane figure. Closed plane figures are angled against each other. A spatial construct, a refuge, a haven. The particular way in which a thing exists.

Methods of arrangement.

9 Baer, Dome Cookbook, 22.
10 Ibid., 1.
11 Ibid., 4.

This year we got a lot of help from a pair of professional Group Encounter leaders, who donated their time and talents to us out of interest in the Community. They lived with us for several days, asked us in depth about our internal conflicts, and used their skills deftly and effectively in the lively group sessions that gathered during their stay.12

A model is a schematic description of a system, theory, or phenomenon that accounts for its known or inferred properties and may be used for further study.

Build a model of a dome.
   Why build a model of a dome?
   If you build a model you quickly and easily acquaint yourself with many of the problems of dome building. …
   Then when you build the real thing you’ll be surprised because it’s so much like building a model.13

A model is usually built to scale. It represents in detail another, often larger object.

Aside from their intrinsic interest, communes also have certain general properties that help to facilitate research. … The changes in both social structure and personality structure that occur within communes follow a time scale intermediate between that of the larger society and that of the various mass phenomena. Significant structural transformations often occur within a single year’s time in communes. These same communes have nevertheless maintained enough of a common thread of identity to be recognizable as continuous social systems. Transitions from anarchism to totalitarianism, schisms, purges, revolutions, and reconstitutions are some examples of such conveniently timed social events. Furthermore, the short lifespan of many communes enables us to observe them through all stages of their growth and decay.14

Modification of behavior resulting from past experience. Memory is the starting point for transformation. We know that something has changed because we remember it differently.

Me. About ten people present. Brian said I ought to get the newsletter out oftener than I do. Also that I am too easily bored, which I interpret to mean that I show my boredom too openly. Simon said that I ought to drink a little beer and hang around and party a little—loosen up and be part of the social life instead of worrying about the Community all the time. I understand what he is trying to say, but it amounted to telling me to be somebody else instead of me.15

I am, I will be, I will have been.

The use of self-management techniques is proving to be a powerful tool for improving the quality of an individual’s life, and consequently deserves to occupy a prominent place in the planning and execution of an experimental community. … I have applied self-management to my own behavior in a comprehensive way and have developed some effective techniques and forms.16

Coherence, integrity, identity. In order to belong, one must learn the rules, speak the language, master the idioms. Contradictions and differences. From one point to another, from one form to another: A plan for an anticipated course of action.

The simplest and maybe oldest of all deliberate techniques of social control is the making of rules. We have them. They are not backed up by force, but they are there as a kind of guideline and goal.
Item Four of [our commune’s] Behavioral Code says that we will not speak negatively about other members behind their backs.17

12 Kathleen Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment: The First Five Years of Twin Oaks Community (New York: William Morrow, 1973), 162–63.
13 Baer, Dome Cookbook, 22.
14 Benjamin Zablocki, Alienation and Charisma: A Study of Contemporary American Communes (New York: Free Press, 1980), 5–6.
15 Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment, 154–55.
16 Matthew Israel, “Walden Two: Behavioral Community,” in Fairfield, Communes, U.S.A., 214.
17 Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment, 150.

Exhibit 3:
Checklist of Desirable and Undesirable Interpersonal Behaviors

Reinforces me
Makes qualified statements
(… My experience is … Perhaps)
Smile on face
Makes friendly physical contact (e.g. touches me in friendly way)
Builds my self-esteem through justified praise of me
Has non-punishing, nonaggressive attitude
Makes me laugh or smile
Has humility
Is cooperative; offers to help
Agrees to change his position or to rethink his position in the light of a
  remark or suggestion
Checks appropriateness of remarks (“May I inquire about …”)
Asks for my opinion and seems to respect it
His remarks, eyes, cast of face say “Welcome” to me
Eyes light up when he talks to me
Embraces me at start or finish of conversation
Finds a felicitous way to say things

Matthew Israel, “Walden Two: Behavioral Community,” in Communes, U.S.A., ed. Richard Fairfield, the Modern Utopian series (San Francisco: Alternatives Foundation, 1971), 215–16; ellipses in original.

The love density effect is interesting because it is counterintuitive. We very well might have guessed that the amount of love in a commune would be directly associated with stability; instead we find that there is an inverse association. …
    The extensive literature on cohesiveness would lead us to believe that the proposition, love density equals group stability, is well established. In fact, there is no evidence for this except in the very special circumstance of men in combat situations.19

In the early nineteenth century, the French social theorist François Marie Fourier believed that universal harmony could be achieved by reorganizing society into self-sustaining units he called phalanxes. In order for the collectivity to survive, social and physical closeness among its members must be constantly and harmoniously varied. Ideally, a phalanx would be composed of 1,620 people representing the various characters found in a society. Each phalanx would be housed in a phalanstère, a multistory structure incorporating country and city building features and divided into distinct living, working, and leisure areas.

The recipes range from variations on familiar American staples like pizza and cheeseburgers and traditional ethnic concoctions to wholly unique creations that reflect the astonishing variety of tastes and dietary theories that Lucy … discovered on her year-long quest through the often primitive but always prodigiously productive kitchens of country communes.
    She discovered, too, that group cooking (not group sex) is the central fact and preoccupation of communal life.20

Directions articulate a course of action that must be taken in order to reach a destination. They are a code of practice.

Cut goat meat into cubes. Heat several tablespoons of oil in a kettle, and brown several chopped onions and mashed cloves of garlic over medium heat. Add meat, and brown. Cover with water, bring to a boil, add a bay leaf, lower heat, and simmer 2 hours. Forty-five minutes before you want to serve it, add several sliced carrots and diced potatoes to the pot. At the end, salt and pepper to taste.21

19 Zablocki, 176–77.
20 Lucy Horton, Country Commune Cooking (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972), inside cover.
21 Ibid., 98.

Current events and journalism; sociology, narrative, and history; how to, resource, and cooking; memoir, and religion; fiction. Modeling community, modeling time. Memory and projection.

This Guide is meant to be used. The people who wrote it are participants, not observers. Our task is to make involvement as easy as possible.22

Published between 1968 and 1980:
Alienation and Charisma
The Alternative
Celery Wine
The Children of Prosperity
The Children of the Counterculture
Commitment and Community
Communes in the Counter Culture
Communes, U.S.A.
Communes USA
Cooperative Communities
Country Commune Cooking
Dome Cookbook
Drop City
Families of Eden
The Far-Out Saints of the Jesus Communes
Getting Back Together
A Guide to Cooperative Alternatives
Hey Beatnik
The Hog Farm and Friends
Home Comfort
January Thaw
The Joyful Community
Living on the Earth
Living Together in a World Falling Apart
Modern Man in Search of Utopia
The Morning Star Scrapbook
The New Communes
New World Utopias
Shared Houses, Shared Lives
Total Loss Farm
Utopia U.S.A.
A Walden Two Experiment

January 74. Cold day, I sit in the Crow’s Nest that overlooks the main house, the garden, the barn. … I feel isolated, trapped in the past, re-experiencing emotions I thought were finished. I marvel at our persistence, at our optimism. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by the poses we’ve taken to make ourselves feel better, yet I’m also amazed at how they get us through to the other side. I wonder about the contradictions inherent in our life here and the differences between us as people. What makes it work?23

No one writes for themselves. There is always another.24


We had revealed a little bit of ourselves to each other. The words love, sister, brother, took on more meaning to us. We were committed to each other, while not always liking each other.25

22 Paul Freundlich, Chris Collins, and Mikki Wenig, eds., A Guide to Cooperative Alternatives (New Haven, CT: Community, 1979), back cover.
23 Blue Mountain Ranch, January Thaw: People at Blue Mountain Ranch Write About Living Together in the Mountains (New York: Times Change, 1974), 22.
24 Edward Said, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituents, Community,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 120.
25 Blue Mountain Ranch, January Thaw, 17.

To form a group, to display a group. To instruct, to guide, to report, to narrate, to analyze, to remember, to scrap.

Once you know what you want to present, you’ve got to figure out how to organize it. The main thing is to be sure to state at the beginning of your presentation why you are giving it, how it’s organized, and what you want people to do with it. Sometimes, everything seems to relate to everything else. There is no “right” place to begin.26


We dismantle abandoned bridges by moonlight.27

The last person to bed dropped large pieces of wood on the fire, sending a shower of sparks up through the opening. My imagination followed them outside, and I could see their orange specks above the low lodge set in relief against the night sky; then falling, dying of light. For twenty uninhabited miles around, no sound.28

26 Michael Doyle and David Straus, How to Make Meetings Work: The New Interaction Method (New York: Wyden Books, 1976), 260.
27 Wagner, “Drop City,” 254.
28 Robert Houriet, Getting Back Together (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1971), 96.