I’m delighted to welcome Brenda Marie Smith back to my blog with another riveting post about her years of living off the grid in a commune. She has the perfect background to write post-apocalyptic fiction. I positively loved her novel, If Darkness Takes Us, so when she offered me an ARC of the follow-up, If the Light Escapes, I jumped at the chance.
I was honored when she asked me to write a cover blurb for the book. And wow–what a stellar cover! Look for my review on this fantastic novel next week. In the meantime, check out Brenda’s amazing post below!
By Brenda Marie Smith
While living off the grid in the Ozark Mountains in the 1970s, my ex-husband and I read the book Hey Beatnik! about a hippie community in Tennessee called The Farm. They were vegans before there was a term for it, they offered free midwifery services, and they even pledged to raise your child if you didn’t want it. The group followed a spiritual creed—a fusion of the common threads that run through most religions—love, compassion, and keeping a clean mind. We needed to see it; we took off for southern middle Tennessee.
Farm folks were amazingly friendly, which was scary for me as a shy twenty-one-year-old who’d been living in the woods for years. But they were genuinely kind. Full beards, long hair, bright clothing—much of it held together with multi-colored patchwork. They had 1,700 acres of woods and farmland, with creeks and springs and wells, horses and tractors, a free store, a soy dairy, a canning kitchen, and scads of housing made from old school buses and army field tents stretched across wooden frames.
There were pink-cheeked kids and babies and pregnant women everywhere, a greenhouse under construction, a coin-free laundromat, a mill with workers covered in flour, and acres upon acres of soybeans, sorghum, tomatoes, and more. The smell of woodsmoke permeated the air, and when you walked the dirt roads, everyone greeted you.
People mediated in the meadow on Sunday mornings, finishing it off with a harmonious OM. Couples were often married afterwards. They had a spiritual leader, Stephen Gaskin, who pulled the group together with his charisma, but who outlived that role over time.
We wanted to join up, but we had to go back to Arkansas first. I got pregnant that winter, as though all the pregnancies we’d witnessed had rubbed off on me.
We moved to The Farm in March 1975 and “soaked” for weeks—a kind of probationary membership before making a final commitment. At the end of that period, we gathered at the gatehouse with other soakers, signed a “Vow of Poverty,” and turned over our meager cash plus the keys to our truck, which went to the motor pool to be shared.
We moved into a tent house on Hickory Hill. Our bedroom had East Indian print curtains for interior walls and a platform bed with foam on top. We lived with two other couples, fairly far from where most of the community resided. We wanted it that way. We were too shy to live close to so many people. We carried our water from a creek down the hill—probably not the cleanest, but we didn’t know.
For a few months, it was sheer, heady adventure—working in the hot beds growing sweet potato slips, starting tomato and pepper plants, building compost and working it into the soil, hiking up Hickory Hill to make dinner by kerosene light, maybe play music with neighbors.
But The Farm was short on money and food. Sometimes we ran out of flour, other times salt. We seldom had cooking oil, but more often had margarine and sugar, home-canned tomatoes and pickled eggplant. The only foods we could count on having were soybeans and soy flour, which we made into not-so-tasty soy souffle. We baked small sweet potatoes to carry around to eat for energy. But I was pregnant, and I couldn’t eat a bite of soybeans without instant nausea. Years later I learned that I’m allergic to soybeans.
I was given peanuts to shell, roast, and take to the mill to become peanut butter. People who went to town sneaked me candy bars with nuts and boxes of crackers to get me through. The midwives checked me regularly, and the local doctor pronounced me in good health, just a little too thin.
All this may sound crazy, but we were intense idealists, trying to create a more sustainable lifestyle, believing that our voluntary peasantry would help the world’s poor. But the Farm was located in a disadvantaged part of Tennessee, which lacked in ways to earn sufficient money to support twelve hundred hippies.
A construction crew, tree-planting crew, and farmhands worked outside The Farm for money. Our farming crew sold produce and farmed nearby land as well as ours, but they had to run up debt to do it, and the depleted soil wouldn’t yield enough to feed us all. We had to buy bulk food, plus cloth diapers for the dozen or so babies being born each month.
The food situation improved when we started a satellite Farm in Florida and shipped home mass quantities of fruits and veggies. My first son was delivered by midwives in October 1975, my second son fifteen months later. I had difficulties with the second birth but was well cared for at a nearby hospital.
Eventually, we got water delivered to barrels outside our houses with gravity-fed plumbing to our kitchen sinks. A few doctors joined our ranks and trained a crew of EMTs. A system of governance was established, and tent houses gradually became regular homes.
A typical day as a new mother on The Farm: Wake up twice per night to nurse the baby and feed the wood heater. Rise at dawn for breakfast. Pack up and head to work, one baby strapped to my front, the other on my back, diaper bag and lunch in tow. If a car passed, hitch a ride. If not, walk a mile to the farming crew office in the tractor barn to do bookkeeping while tending babies. Head home in late afternoon to pick up food from the store and make dinner. Once a week, haul enormous bags of laundry a mile to the laundromat, where it could take all night to get your clothes clean. Lug them home wet and hang them to dry.
Other typical days: take turns babysitting, where two moms would tend eight or ten babies, lining them up in highchairs to eat, lining them up to change diapers, chasing toddlers all day. Other days, cook for the masses, making bread, tortillas, and tofu from scratch. Or be a farmer or bookkeeper or caregiver. Learn midwifery; work in the solar electronics lab, or for Plenty, our charity.
Each of the few thousand people who cycled through the Farm over the years has a separate story to tell. I think of it fondly. I made dozens of lifelong friends. My kids, now in their forties, have friends they’ve known since birth. I overcame my shyness and learned to cooperate in households as large as forty people with dozens of kids underfoot, sharing all we had. I never mastered tie-dye, but I can braid hair like a boss.
My allergies in the Tennessee woods gave me recurring bronchitis. We tried several satellite Farms, ending up manufacturing tofu salad in Austin, Texas, where we had indoor plumbing and no dusty roads.
In the mid-1980s, the Farm underwent a “change-over” and switched from being a collective—where all money was thrown into the pot—to a cooperative—where each family pays its share. Hundreds of people couldn’t do that in rural Tennessee and moved away. The population decreased from near-2,000 at its peak to a few hundred, and the satellites shut down. But the Farm is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, its debts are paid, the roads are paved, and second and third generation families have made it their home. Co-ops actually work; collectives not so much.
And I have a rich vein of experience to draw from in my writing. I often think I should write about the Farm, but others have written fine nonfiction accounts, and the place and its human relationships were so complex that there’s no earthly way to do it justice.
I think I’ll write a fictional story based on limited aspects of communal living. Guru of the Ozarks has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
(Me on far right with braids, holding my baby, who’s cut off, my other son in front of me)
In 2018 when they were in their early forties, my sons Aaron and Jared (J.D.)—lifelong vegetarians—took a trip back to their roots to visit the Farm. They sent me almost 200 photos while there and called me while visiting old friends. Everyone was so happy to see what fine young men they had become. And I couldn’t help but cry.
Thank you, Mae Clair, for your monumental kindnesses and for hosting me on your blog.
Did that post leave as astounded as I am? Brenda has led quite the colorful and intriguing life. Her background is just perfect for her dystopian series. Today, I am happy to share book two, If the Light Escapes.
“Gritty and powerful… takes the reader on an emotionally charged and adrenaline-fueled journey that lingers long after the last page is read.”
—Mae Clair, author of the Point Pleasant series and the Hode’s Hill series
The standalone sequel to IF DARKNESS TAKES US
A solar electromagnetic pulse has fried the US grid. Now, northern lights are in Texas—three thousand miles farther south than where they belong. The universe won’t stop screwing with eighteen-year-old Keno Simms. All that’s left for him and his broken family is farming their Austin subdivision, trying to eke out a living on poor soil in the scorching heat. Keno’s one solace is his love for Alma, who has her own secret sorrows. When he gets her pregnant, he vows to keep her alive no matter what. Yet armed marauders and nature itself collude against him, forcing him to make choices that rip at his conscience. If the Light Escapes is post-apocalyptic science fiction set in a near-future reality, a coming-of-age story told in the voice of a heroic teen who’s forced into manhood too soon.
“Brenda Marie Smith stuns a gain with the breathtaking sequel to her debut. With her skill for detail and character, Smith captivates us with Keno’s kindness and humanity while also exploring the capacity for violence that lurks within all of us.”
—Aden Polydoros, author of THE CITY BEAUTIFUL
“IF THE LIGHT ESCAPES is a rich coming-of-age story about the legacy of family, infused with hopefulness and humanity.”
—Laura Creedle, author of THE LOVE LETTERS OF ABELARD AND LILY
BRENDA MARIE SMITH lived off the grid for many years in a farming collective where her sons were delivered by midwives. She’s done community activism, managed student housing co-ops, produced concerts to raise money for causes, done massive quantities of bookkeeping, and raised a small herd of teenage boys. Brenda is attracted to stories where everyday characters transcend their limitations to find their inner heroism. She and her husband reside in a grid-connected, solar-powered home in South Austin, Texas. They have more grown kids and grandkids than they can count.
Thanks for visiting with me and Brenda today. I hope you enjoyed her post as much as I did, and will drop her some thoughts in the comments below. Remember to check back next week for my review of If the Light Escapes (hint: it involves lots of stars)!