People & Places

New book on Vermont commune links the past and present

VTD Peter Gould
Peter Gould is the author of “Horse-Drawn Yogurt: Stories from Total Loss Farm,” just released by the Brattleboro-based Green Writers Press. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
BRATTLEBORO — Ask Peter Gould what inspired his new 1970s Vermont commune remembrance “Horse-Drawn Yogurt: Stories from Total Loss Farm” and he’ll point to lies spouted by the president.

Make that two presidents.

Gould was a twentysomething Pennsylvania native a half-century ago when, disenchanted by Lyndon Johnson’s claims about the supposed success of the Vietnam War, he migrated to the state as part of the back-to-the-land movement to help found the Packer Corners commune in Guilford.

“I can still see it: a narrow beam of house light falls on the weeds and stones,” he wrote in his journal about arriving on a night so dark he couldn’t spot the peeling yellow paint, leaning tractor shed or outhouse. “Before long I’ll sleep in the hay in the barn, on my first night on the farm.”

Fast-forward to the present and the “alternative facts” era of Donald Trump. Gould knows his book is arriving on the heels of such recent titles as “We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America,” which sparked national news last year when author Kate Daloz recalled a young Bernie Sanders ruffling some of her neighbors in the tiny Northeast Kingdom town of Glover.

“Other writers have pointed out that we who came ‘back to the land’ in the 1970s eventually and directly enabled so much of today’s positive activity in Vermont and beyond: successful co-ops, organic agriculture, CSAs, farm-to-table food, farmers markets, microbrew beer, artisan cheese, public radio, socially-responsible investing, renewable energy, craft tours, our community college,” Gould writes. “All these would be radically different or even yet unknown if a generation of idealists had not arrived in these hills nearly 50 years ago.”

But even after seeing all the other books, the Brattleboro resident best known as half of the self-described “clown jewels” duo Gould & Stearns has reason for releasing his own work. The 212-page Green Writers Press paperback opens with a quote from philosopher Walter Benjamin: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”

“I think we’re living in a moment of incredible danger,” Gould says in an interview. “In a society like ours now where truth is so variable, whose memories are still going to be around?”

VTD Peter Gould
A young Peter Gould works the garden of Guilford’s Packer Corners commune in the 1970s. Provided photo
And so, trading his old manual typewriter for a MacBook Air, the 71-year-old has stitched together what he calls a “patchwork” chronicle of essays, poems, recipes and drawings from his commune days.

The author first traveled to Packer Corners in August 1968 when, studying in Boston, he watched television coverage of police beating back antiwar protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

“I thought I’d go see what would happen with more protesters and more police,” he recalls. “On the way, I suddenly changed direction.”

Gould followed a map his sister had drawn to a property his friends had purchased just two months before. Locals knew the 100 acres as Packer Corners based on the name of a nearby dirt-road intersection. But when its young transplants sought a more private moniker so the rest of the world couldn’t find them, they came across a line on a federal tax form: “Did you run a business or a farm that was a total loss?”

The Total Loss Farm was born.

Gould started writing upon settling there in 1969. Prestigious New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf, nosing around for a novel about commune life, would release his first book, “Burnt Toast,” in 1971. (Equally renowned Farrar, Straus and Giroux would print his second, “Write Naked,” in 2008.)

Gould eventually left the commune to earn a doctorate at Brandeis University in Boston, where he taught in the Master of Fine Arts acting program. Since returning to Vermont, he has juggled writing, directing theater, teaching Shakespeare, peace and justice studies and partnerships professionally with Stearns and personally with state Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, the latter who prompted his latest release.

“My wife said, ‘Other people are writing books about their commune days — you have great stories, you should put them together.’”

Gould is set to share his book June 14 at 7 p.m. at Brattleboro’s Brooks Memorial Library, June 25 at 2 p.m. at the Guilford Center Meeting House and Aug. 8 at 7 p.m. at Hardwick’s Galaxy Bookshop. More information is available at his website.

“A few names and places have been changed in this book, just a few, and one or two scenes imperceptibly altered from fact,” he writes in it. “Does this make that scene fiction? Ask the people who were there; they will assure you it’s the truth.”

And still troublingly relevant.

“Whether you were willing or not, whether you thought you were participating or not, you got swept up and swept along by a rising, storming, out of control tide of current events, with waves getting higher and higher and you hardly had time to breathe and hit rock solid ground again before the next wave hit,” Gould concludes. “The next wave of events, I mean. That is how it felt. Today, it feels like that again.”

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