“How do you put thirteen years at a commune on a resume?”
I started asking myself that question shortly after leaving Zendik Farm in 1991. Since early 1978, I had been a prominent member of that community and at times a highly visible public spokesman. But after hitching my identity to Zendik for over thirteen years, I suddenly became just another long-haired thirty-something with no money, no job, and a very long gap in my employment history.
During the early 90’s, a friend pointed out that what I had experienced was equivalent to a divorce. I had severed my social and emotional connections with an extended family I had lived with for many years, including a handful of children I’d helped raise who I would never see again. Just as in the end of a marriage, that it worked so well for so long is hard to reconcile with how it went so wrong for me in the end.
It’s important to point out that as I write this in 2013, Zendik Farm is a far different place than it was when I left in 1991, and THAT was a far different place than it was when I arrived in 1978.
While I was there, I would describe Zendik Farm as an intentional community of 20-30 adults and 5-10 children, founded in the late 60’s by Wulf Zendik and his common-law wife Arol Wulf. We practiced a life of frugal self-reliance – based on an ethic of environmental conservation – on an organic farm with vegetables, poultry, goats, horses and all the work these things demand.
We promoted “tribal living” as a way of life that would minimize environmental impacts and reject consumerism. The commune was offered as a model of Wulf’s vision for society, and as a refuge from the mainstream world.
Their location is a moving target that last rested in West Virginia. When I joined them in 1978, they were in Gainesville, Florida preparing to move to California, where they eventually settled on a five-acre farm in Bonsall (north San Diego County).
The proximity of commercial agriculture drove them out of Bonsall, and in 1982 they bought a hillside compound in Topanga, a rustic community in the Santa Monica mountains between Malibu and Canoga Park.
By ’86 they went looking for cleaner air and room to farm and ended up with 75 acres near Boulevard, an outpost east of San Diego near the Mexican border on the crest of Tecate Divide. But that place was too dry, so they moved to Bastrop, Texas (a farming community east of Austin) shortly before I left in 1991.
The community I joined was a bit new-age and a bit back-to-the-land. Each member had a high level of personal autonomy, and was encouraged to express his/her creativity and environmental consciousness in the design and construction of their own personal space. In practice, these spaces were in adapted outbuildings, trailers, garden sheds, crawl spaces, and any other space that could be made into a “space”.
Between the Topanga and Boulevard periods, we were forced to live in tight quarters. When the leadership discovered they could build social cohesion by constricting personal space, cramped quarters became the norm. By the time I left, the founders had suites, the favored elites had dorm rooms, and the rest of us were in bunk houses.
For money, we published a newspaper that we sold on the streets as an underground newspaper. So part of the farm was a publishing operation that produced a 32- to 64-page magazine three or four times each year. On Fridays and Saturdays, a van full of Zendiks would invade a metropolis like San Diego or Los Angeles. Individuals would be dropped off in the morning at their designated neighborhoods with a bagful of “mags”, which they’d spend the day convincing passing pedestrians to buy for “a dollar or two” per copy.
That’s what I did 2-5 days/week, 12-30 weeks/year, for a good ten years.
I found myself talking to hundreds of people – one at a time – each day. I learned how to squeeze a complete and compelling pitch into a short attention span, to quickly and concisely respond to common questions, and to thoughtfully respond to uncommon ones. I got really good at one-on-one conversation, and on my best days I thoroughly enjoyed my role as a proselytizer and evangelist for a visionary environmental utopia.
The philosophy I was promoting is basically what I believe and promote to this day:
The chemistry of the Earth is getting altered in a way that threatens the survivability of human life. This problem is caused and exacerbated by over-consumption: the wasteful production of “stuff” that is casually discarded almost immediately. Our economies are designed to encourage consumption, waste and pollution. What is needed is an economic system that encourages and motivates conservation and low-impact living.
Looking back through human history, we see our species having evolved to live in tribal groups, where individuals support each other sharing skills and resources. Modern life is isolating and counter to our biological heritage, which leads to stress and an emptiness that we try to satiate with drugs like alcohol, food and shopping. Where the very old and the very young were once part of the extended family, now they’re institutionalized. Worst of all, our co-operative nature has been suppressed by a system based on competition.
Given that the religion that the world operates on is money, that prime motivator must be replaced by a reverence for the world that sustains us.
Based on that last sentence, Zendik presented itself (when convenient) as a religion… militantly athiest, yet spiritual. It was a belief system that was willing to answer the Big Questions with, “We don’t know. Let’s trust science as it tries to figure it out.”
The Zendik propaganda I sold presented assorted facets of this belief system through essays, poetry, artwork, cartoons… whatever we could reproduce well on newsprint. It expressed a vision of a world in which everyone was connected to a community… a large extended family where day-to-day life and work were integrated. Self-reliance would be brought to the most local level possible, and a moneyless economy would liberate the environment and society from the destruction wrought by greedy global financiers.
This is what I spent thirteen of the best years of my life promoting.
But as one of my former comrades once said, “Revere the art, not the artist.” The Zendiks presented a compelling belief system, but just like everybody, they were and are flawed people. Some had volatile and bombastic personalities. Positions in the hierarchy were based less on merit than on personal favoritism.
Worst of all, living there brought out a disturbing mean-spiritedness in each of us, and as a group the Zendiks had an uncanny ability to make enemies out of people who could have and should have been their friends.
Wulf’s and Arol’s authority could only be challenged by each other, and that was how they restrained their extremes. In their writings, Wulf was bombastic, militant, and take-no-prisoners; Arol was all hearth-and-home and let’s-get-along.
Personally, they were each the opposite. Wulf was compassionate, considerate of differing ideas, and went out of his way to accommodate even the most troubled person. Arol had little patience for anyone who wouldn’t unquestionably toe the line to her dictatorial whims. She was harsh, often used bigoted language, and could be brutal and mean.
Wulf generally stayed behind the scenes, writing and approving business decisions. On most mornings he would “make the rounds,” checking in on the status of major projects. Arol was the field general to Wulf’s commander-in-chief, running day-to-day life and dealing with operational or interpersonal crises as they’d arrive. They were only effective as a team, as Wulf’s compassion restrained Arol’s tyranny.
The End Game
The deterioration of my relationship with Zendik Farm happened slowly over several years, and in many ways, it was centered around my relationship with computers.
I had been trained at a university as a computer programmer, but computers were only found at big corporations in the mid 70s, and I was not interested in corporate life. I wound up at Zendik looking for something else. By the mid-80s, computers became more compact and affordable, and I quickly understood how they could streamline our writing and publishing operation. I was unable to get the rest of the group to understand this.
Eventually we came into a simple computer (a Commodore 64), which reunited me with the art of writing code. I wrote and deployed simple data tracking applications in BASIC, and won a programming contest with a synthesizer program developed in machine language. Yet the computer was dismissed as “Obbie’s toy” and my exploration of it was seen as a frivolous hobby.
In early 1990, the Zendiks were given a complete Mac-based desktop publishing system, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it. “Computers make you crazy,” I was told.
I saw this as a complete contradiction of one of the pillars of their belief system: the Genius Potential Principle. It states that every individual is a potential genius in some area, where “work becomes play.” Society functions best when each person is allowed to work in the field where he/she functions best. I enjoyed programming, I’d proven my proficiency, yet I was denied an opportunity to practice a craft I had invested much of my life learning.
While I was brooding over this hypocrisy and injustice Arol said, “you’re just miserable here,” and sent me off on a series of long road-trips to sell mags.
Once in exile, it turned out that I thrived on the road. I sold thousands of mags monthly in fresh new territory, and was energized by the social interaction that came with it. I built a network of new friends in the cities and college towns on my circuit, and I became a fixture on the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts. I enjoyed more personal freedom than I had known in years.
While I was touring, the Zendiks were completing a move from California to Texas. By the summer of ’91, I was in an old step van called “The Battlevan” when I came “home” to the Texas farm expecting to reload, recharge, and be on my way with the next tour.
In my absence, the farm had become more authoritarian, and Wulf was presented less as a social/political philosopher and more as a spiritual guru. Arol sat me down and said that I wasn’t going on the road any more. Road life had corrupted me and “made me a Deadhead,” and my articulate communication skills were needed at home.
For the next three days my articulate communication skills were put to work stripping fields of nasty stinging plants while fire ants feasted on my blood. I was told that I would be moving from the Battlevan into one of the bunk houses. In spite of my 13 loyal years of service, I was to be treated as an “apprentice,” a nooby.
An ultimatum was issued: sign over the Battlevan, or hit the road. My relationship with the Zendiks showed no sign of improving, so I left that day in the Battlevan, with somewhere between five and ten dollars to my name.
I did low-wage temp work in Austin until I could afford to move on, and did more temp work here and there as I got back on my feet. It took a couple of years and a good deal of trauma to establish a new life, but I managed to do it.
When I disassociated myself from Zendik Farm, I still believed in its professed values, and was even willing to sell their propaganda on a contract basis. But just as we were about to come to terms, they backed out… they feared that I would saturate selling territory they may wish to work themselves. The bridge was burned for good, and I was on my own.
I have read many accounts written by other ex-Zendiks that come across as extremely bitter. These people probably wonder why I’m NOT bitter. After all, I gave the Zendiks thirteen of the best years of my life and came away with next to nothing. On the other hand, many of these people handed over thousands of dollars in trust funds, tools, sound equipment, vehicles, etc.; while all I gave up was a beat-up old car and a few hundred bucks.
The most precious commodity we accumulate thru our lifetimes is our experiences, and my time at Zendik overflowed with valuable experiences that will stay with me forever. I got to travel to every corner of the country, and to meet and have conversations with hundreds of interesting inhabitants of each stop along the way. I got to participate in dozens of protests, rallies, concerts and other events that are now milestones of history.
There are many things I learned at Zendik that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I learned a conservation ethic and how to apply it in every aspect of our lives. I learned how to live and co-operate with other people. I became focussed and articulate in one-on-one conversation and in speaking to groups. I found that an appropriate level of discipline can make life go much more smoothly.
If I had it all to do over again, would I do things differently? As any Star Trek freak knows, tinkering with the timeline is a dangerous thing. I’m very happy with where I am in my life right now, and my time at Zendik led me here.
Early in the summer of ’91, I was selling mags out of the Battlevan at a Dead show in Indiana. Near the end of the day, I met a girl from Kansas named Kristi (not her real name) who hitched a ride with me thru the rest of the tour. We developed a short relationship, and she became an important support person during the aftermath of my departure from Zendik.
We split up later that year but kept in touch, and some new friends she’d introduced me to became my neighbors at the “Berkeley KOA”. Two years later, while visiting these friends in Kansas, I was taken to an event where I met RoZ for the first time.
So if I had never met the Zendiks, I would have never met “Kristi”, and therefore I would have never met RoZ. RoZ and I have been happily married since 1995, so things turned out fine.
Zendik went thru two more major moves and a handful of minor moves after I left, first from Texas to North Carolina, and later to West Virginia. Wulf passed away at the North Carolina farm in 1999, and I’ve been told that Arol became a “monster” once he was gone.
Arol died in June 2012. In early 2013, the commune disbanded (there are rumors of serious debts) and the West Virginia farm is on the market for just under a million dollars.
It is not my job to defend the Zendiks (It hasn’t been since 1991), nor is it my job to condemn them. I just think that there’s a lot to learn from this experience.
The following links go to what others have said about Zendik Farm. I may not always agree with the attitude or the tone of many of Zendik Farm’s critics, but as someone who spent thirteen years there, they ring true.
- Zendik Farm – The commune’s web site, domain was dead for a while, now an “eShop under construction.” (UPDATE 12/19/2014: The domain registration for zendik.org expired on 12/2, and it is now owned and occupied by cybersquatters.)
- Zendik on Facebook – nothing new since September 2012.
- Zendik Farm Justice Foundation – Facebook page for angry ex-members
- Work of Wulf Zendik – repository of Wulf’s writing maintained by ex-members
- “Ghost of Wulf Zendik” MySpace page
- Who Are These People? – In-depth profile from Washington DC CityPaper, November 2005
- Zendik FAQ – highly critical, angry and bitter – but mostly accurate – description of life on Zendik Farm compiled by an ex-member who spent five years there long after I left
- Hip Forums “discussion” – 844 posts on the topic, often a very ugly and nasty flame war that raged from May 2004 to July 2005
- Zendiks Down on the Farm – Article from Tejas – a journalistic outlet for Hispanic students at UT-Austin, published in May 1992. This is early in the Bastrop era, about a year after I left, and is a sympathetic and accurate portrayal of life on the farm during that period.
Ground Rules for Discussion
Judging by some discussions I’ve seen, the topic of Zendik Farm can be quite contentious, so some ground rules are in order. This is not a place to air personal grudges. It is more important and constructive to discuss what current and future social experiments can learn from Zendik Farm, and how their failure could have been avoided.
With the exception of Wulf, Arol and Fawn, no names are allowed. This discussion is moderated, and the owners of this site reserve the right to reject, redact, or edit any comment.