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Brook Farm: Where the poets farmed and the farmers philosophized

New England in the fall is the perfect spot for a walk in the woods. The hills are covered in trees, the air is crisp, and flocks of birds fly overhead in fluttering V's. The past three weeks I have spent up here I have enjoyed a lot of scenery. I have watched the leaves burst into red and bright orange, and then slowly fade to brown as the autumn wind plucks them from their branches. The place is so beautiful this time of year that it's hard not to contemplate questions like "Why am I here? What's my purpose?"

A perfect spot to reflect
One afternoon Daphne and I took a walk in a graveyard south of Boston. While making our way in between the tombstones we happened upon a little marker which read: "Here lies the location of Brook Farm, a collective formed in the year 1841."

A collective is a community that extends the boundary of family to include every neighbor. They work, raise children, and spend their leisure time with each other. What made this commune so important? And how did it come to be a graveyard?

Nobody's gonna take Teddy alive!
Back in the 1840s, the city of Boston had not yet expanded into this area. Where we were standing was actually far out in the countryside at that time. A small brook cut through rolling hills of nut and maple trees. It was in this idyllic scene that a special group of thinkers got together to form America's most successful early commune.

Daphne and I looked around, read a few books, and did an Internet search for Brook Farm, and we found out some interesting things about the place. It turns out that this little place, The Brook Farm, was the home to some of the most influential Americans of their time! It began when a small group of idealist thinkers decided to form a community where the "true" values of life could be pursued.

Philosophers and economists of the early 1800s saw major flaws in a pure market economy. They predicted that a completely independent and free market would result in the "industrial feudalism" of monopolies and corporations. To counter the unequal tendencies of the free market, philosophers like Karl Marx and Charles Fourier began to design planned economies that distributed wealth and work evenly.

Fourier's plan was to replace the existing society with model communities derived from a blueprint for a rational economy. He spent time identifying personality types and classifying them. In all he came up with 810 types of people, each of whom would tend towards certain types of work. While the smallest unit in his scheme was the individual, he came up with a plan for communities of a million and a half people working together and spending most of their time eating and enjoying life. Fourier's dream was a world where everyone lived in a castle like Versailles near Paris. He thought that marriages would become obsolete and spontaneous affection would produce children to be raised by the community.

Oops!  Teddy did it again!
While some of his ideas were quite radical for even our times, many people around the world accepted Fourier's views. There were lots of signs that the industrial revolution was going to produce suffering and misery for the working class. Fourier's plan would enable economic progress to happen without the burden being placed on a class of workers.

Twelve Fourier communities were started in America. Brook Farm, founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley, was one of them. Ripley believed that the holiest thing a person could do was follow his or her own intuition. By observing nature, the work of God, one could get in touch with the power of creation. This called for plenty of time spent walking in the woods. The only problem with getting time to spend outdoors is that it usually comes at someone else's expense. Who would tend the vegetables and farm animals if everyone's always out on a walk?

The plan they came up with was for the families of the commune to split the farm work evenly among themselves, leaving ample time for everyone to enjoy leisurely activities. In reality, things did not go quite so smoothly.

First of all, the land in the area was very rocky and it was tough to get much produce out of it. Also, most of the people living at Brook Farm were not farmers. They were poets, priests, writers, philosophers, and only a fraction of them had ever touched a pitchfork.

For seven unsteady years, Brook Farm sputtered along, gaining high points for its philosophy and its school, but very low points for its meager farming output. What was important to the community members was not the number of apples came out of the place but the quality of the ideas. The people of Brook Farm had begun to reevaluate the puritan work ethic. Was it really God's plan for people to work all the time?

The people living on Brook Farm were able to strengthen their bodies plenty in the fields. They also had time to strengthen their minds, to discuss new ideas, and even put on Shakespeare plays.

One resident of Brook Farm said about life there, "Our farm is a sweet spot. . .even my lonely hours have been bright ones. Many dreamy days have been my potion here, roaming the meadows, or lying half asleep under the nut trees on the green knolls nearby."

Teddy contemplates life under an apple tree
Unfortunately, the utopia of Brook Farm was short-lived. A fire broke out in the main house in 1846, and the commune never returned to its previous success. By 1847, everyone had left.

Although the farm ceased to exist, the idea of enriching the mind and the body remained strong in the developing character of America. One of the main legacies of Brook Farm is a small college in California called Deep Springs. It was founded in the 1920s by a millionaire who believed in many of Brook Farm's pioneering utopian principles. The purpose of the school was to give young men a rounded education that combined intense academics with the hardships of running a ranch. There is no charge to go to the school, and after the two years of study are over students can enter the school of their choice.

For six hours every day, the young men of Deep Springs College head out and run the farm. Only 25 students attend the school, and women still are not admitted, despite protest from current students. They plow fields, put up fences, milk cows, lay down irrigation lines, and ride horses across the desert valley. The rest of the time they spend in small classrooms discussing the subjects of their choice. Speech class is mandatory, but aside from that the students make up the curriculum.

Deep Springs has a very respected reputation. Students who graduate from there tend to excel far more than their peers who spend all four years in normal colleges. What makes Deep Springs so special is the concept that much of what there is to learn from life is taught outside the classroom. Qualities like leadership, planning, and an appreciation for the outdoors are better experienced then read about.

All right guys, I know that this has been a touch dry, so let's end this one with one of Teddy's infamous pop quizzes:

1) Brook Farm was known for its:

  1. Apples
  2. Philosophers
  3. Flesh eating bacteria

2) My partner Daphne is from:

  1. Brazil
  2. Bulgaria
  3. Planet Beelzebub

3) You have reached the bottom of this page because:

  1. You found the dispatch fascinating, as you find everything that Teddy writes to be
  2. Your hand slipped on the mouse scroller
  3. You heard there was a pot of gold at the bottom of one of the dispatches (it ain't this one)


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Public school's best friend
Teddy - Those radical, shakin' Quakers!
Daphne - Standing up for the mentally ill
Rebecca - A simple walk 'round Walden Pond
Kevin - Class struggle takes center stage
Neda - Looking for Utopia - and mint chocolate chip ice cream
MAD - Homeless shouldn't mean hopeless