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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Photo 1

Courtesy of Harry Saxman

A scene at Total Loss Farm, one of the many communes that blossomed in southern Vermont in the back-to-the-land movement.

Voices / Memoir

Losing Old Pal

A back-to-the-lander plunges into a cult-addled brainwashed throng in the middle of the forest to extricate a puppy

Peter Gould moved to the Total Loss Farm commune in Guilford at the start of the back to the land years, and turned all the living, cooking, eating, dancing, loving, and gardening into multiple books of fiction. This piece is from his new memoir, Horse Drawn Yogurt, published this month by Green Writers Press (greenwriterspress.org). Gould describes the book as “a patchwork quilt of mostly true stories of farm life” that chronicles “how locals and newcomers came to value each other in a pivotal moment of our history, and how young people new to the land became part of a national utopian movement — against the Vietnam war and for peace and justice around the world.”


Two dogs resided at Total Loss Farm. Barf-Barf was a black-and-white collie who had come with the place. Mamoushka was the Siberian husky who had jumped onto the front seat of my old Volvo sedan when I was visiting friends in the city. She smelled the farm and Barf-Barf on me and insisted on moving to Vermont. Her human owners followed soon after.

Dogs on the farm had few responsibilities: They alerted us to visitors’ arrivals and helped us round up our wandering cow. They provided subject for conversations and company on walks.

Barf-Barf had a fatal weakness for running deer. A dog’s wide footpads can lightly skim a snow crust late in the season when a deer’s sharp hooves break through. The frantic deer will leave a trail of blood where her legs are cut by the ice; neighbor dogs join the hunt, and for them it’s a howling pack game, ending in an orgy of blood and eating, unless a hunter, hearing the chase, can get there first. That’s what Ed Hardy did; he put a bullet in Barf-Barf’s brain. The other dogs scattered and the deer got away.

Luckily, Barf-Barf had made a deposit in Mamoushka before he died. From her litter we kept two. I named my male Old Pal, a name I borrowed from the label on the metal box where I kept my fishing tackle.

Old Pal grew up, big, slow-moving, and quiet, with deep yellow eyes in which I perceived preternatural canine wisdom.

Others on the farm, who didn’t know Old Pal as I did, thought he just didn’t have much upstairs.

* * *

Old Pal and I came to know the woods in all four directions from the farm. We rambled by day and night, on trail and off trail. But I nearly lost him when he was only five months old.

A summer journey carried me away. When I returned in early September, he was gone. I couldn’t blame anyone; Old Pal was my responsibility, and I had not been there at a formative time of his youth.

Michael poked his head out of the back of the VW bug he was working on. He always had his head next to a motor.

“I don’t know, Pete,” he said, scratching his neck with a greasy finger. “Pal’s been gone for a few days. Somebody said they saw him follow some people from the Brotherhood of the Spirit.”

The name was new to me.

“The Brotherhood of the Spirit?” I asked.

“It’s down at Johnson’s Pasture. Up above it, on Owl’s Head.”

I knew the hilltop Owl’s Head well; it was one of our destinations for Old Pal and me. To get there, you left our commune (the first), headed west from the corners past the driveway to Tree Frog Farm (the second commune), descended to the troll bridge and made a right at the T. Just by that bridge is where the ideas for most of my stories used to hang out. There’s probably a few still there. You’re welcome to go pick one if you like.

If you walk a few steps from there, hang a right, and take the crescent-shaped trail toward Dottie Weatherhead’s hayfield, and head right again at the next T along the flat, soon you’ll be at Johnson’s Pasture (the third commune). Walk past the main house — the one rebuilt after the fatal fire — if it’s still there, and follow the switchback path to the summit.

Some people used to claim that Owl’s Head was a cosmic vortex. I figured that’s where the Spirit Brotherhood (number four) would be.

* * *

How did it happen that there were four distinct and different communes within a mile of each other, in an isolated forest near the border of Vermont and Massachusetts?

It was 1970, and communes were poking up everywhere, like skunk cabbage in springtime. Ten or 20 people would pool their resources and put a payment down on a derelict farm, or they could purchase a cheap patch of forest and throw up a hemlock-log yurt or longhouse.

To the locals, they may have been an alien, invasive species, but to themselves they had a dreamlike inner logic; they built up a surprising, instant, tenacious belonging to wherever they bloomed; and a certainty, both innocent and arrogant, that they would remain in this new place for the rest of their lives.

For the past 200 years in that forest, only decent, God-fearing, Protestant-blood families had tried — and mostly failed — to make a go of dairying, sheep-raising, sugaring, and logging, and there was not a recent sign of any of that old life on the walk I took that morning. Just a lot of overgrown stone walls. All those rugged individuals were gone. In their place, the woods were full of communists.

In the lowlands, in the cities, U.S. Communist Party membership had dropped to an all-time low. The party was infiltrated by law-enforcement spies, broken by union-busting, pursued by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and embarrassed — blindsided, humiliated! — by Stalin’s diabolical alliance with Hitler in the run-up to World War II.

Over in Russia, the Kremlin leadership were all fossilized: they held on to their empire with tanks and secret police. And life in Soviet Russia seemed no example to follow — it suffered in comparison to the other chief world system: U.S. consumer-capitalist creature-comfort culture.

Nobody but a few Albanians and Cubans wanted to be a Soviet communist anymore.

Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was rehearsing for the presidency, honing his act as governor of California. He would soon, with the help of the Afghan Mujahideen, bring the whole Evil Empire to its knees.

So, it should have been a time when no young Americans would turn to communism by their own free will. But hundreds of thousands did. Rejecting the homegrown evil of the Vietnam War, we went on a collective high. Jimi Hendrix claimed the national anthem on his electric guitar for a generation who hated the grown-ups’ war.

The war was on television. Fleeing both, thousands fled to the country, for the last gasp of simple industrial-age machinery before the computer age descended upon us.

For a few years in the boondocks in every single state, a pre-Soviet, all-American transcendental communism flourished; folks moved back to the land and shared all they had, which often wasn’t much.

A few communards died in fire — four at Johnson’s Pasture — and several went off the drug deep end, but far fewer than died of fire and drugs in the cities.

And there were so many different kinds of communes: people gathered around leftist politics, group therapy, organic farming, New Age religion, meditation, music, women’s empowerment, sexual practice, food, Native American vision, witchcraft, Eastern religions.

* * *

The Brotherhood of the Spirit was a flock of wide-eyed believers in a teen-age visionary Mike Metelica, believers who had pledged to follow him wherever he went. He had gone to squat on a cosmic-ray-bombarded rock on the summit of Owl’s Head Mountain.

Pilgrims found their way up the road past our unexciting collective house and towards Metelica’s visionary eyrie. Old Pal must have seen a group of them go by, and tagged along; Pal loved to join any human outing.

Well, I would find him.

I would take that path. I was a communard, too, although of a different stripe. We all spoke English, I supposed, so we would be able to communicate.

As I headed down the road, with my red bandana and my maple walking stick, I breathed slowly and deeply. I was practicing harmlessness, nonjudgmentalism, and forgiveness, the time-tested three-legged support of any spiritual program.

From what my farm family told me, the Brotherhood of the Spirit was just the kind of guru-driven, vegetarian, crazed, drop-out, give-up-all-your-worldly-goods, put-on-your-overalls-and-granny-dress-and-remove-your-shoes, patriarch-gets-to-screw-all-the-young-women, unwashed hippie commune that gave our thoughtful agrarian utopia a bad name in the straight press.

I had no plan to critique Metelica’s club, nor to join it. I just wanted my dog back.

* * *

Soon enough, I was walking on my favorite flat part of the trail. It was in those very woods that Barf-Barf had met his bullet-y death the previous winter. Now, although it was sunny and comfortably warm, the changing light and coloring leaves presaged the approaching autumn and the chill beyond.

At our farm we were already loading the woodshed, insulating walls, fattening the pig, and filling the canning room and freezer for the coming cold months.

Were they doing that at the Brotherhood of the Spirit? Did they live only in the present, or in Shunyata, the cosmic void where no cast-iron stove could warm them? When winter came, would they disappear, or would they gather in one cabin and huddle like bees around — in this case — their king, and all keep warm by simply vibrating, the ones on the outside overcoated with frost?

Briefly, at the Pasture, I greeted old friends I hadn’t seen for many weeks. They were harvesting a large garden and getting ready for winter, but they had time to stop and talk and raise an eyebrow toward the hill above them where the Spirit folk had swarmed.

Fritz straightened up from his work, pulled on his old rope suspenders, and pointed toward Owl’s Head with his quince wood cane.

“Yep, I think Old Pole’s up there, Pete,” he said; “good luck gettin’ him back.”

* * *

I crossed the little stream that divided the Pasture from the neighbor highland, and I headed for the winding path up Owl’s Head Mountain.

I suffer from an optimism that, depending how you look at it, either helps me solve problems or gets me into trouble. I never even asked myself, “Is it foolhardy for a solitary smiling person to plunge into a cult-addled brainwashed throng in the middle of the forest to extricate a puppy?”

Owl’s Head is not very high. In a few moments, I emerged from the trail into the clearing just below the summit. There was a small cabin just below the peak from which the vibrations emanated in sine waves I could almost see.

In the area between me and the cabin, clots of truly transfigured people stood about or in the lunch line. They were all skinny. Some were bearing cut-up brush wood toward a large cooking fire.

Some stood behind a long table dishing out brown rice and vegetables from the largest wok I’d ever seen. (In those days, among many communards, brown rice was the major nutrient of their mostly meatless lives. It was a Japanese plot to unload all this unchewable grain that no Asian wanted to eat — you had to prove your dedication to the spartan spiritual life by chewing each mouthful of food 50 times, and this was especially hard for those like me, who had grown up low in spit.)

Several men and women turned and vacantly regarded me with the unmistakable gaze of chronic protein deficit. Still others watched me, then turned to look up toward the leader’s cabin, from where, I suppose, they expected good counsel to come. Thinking of it now, I’m glad I was not a distraught parent coming to find a dear lost son or daughter.

I stood silently holding my hiking staff, smiling above my red bandana. I had arrived in heaven, or a bizarrely elevated underworld, without a guide.

Oh, but I would have a guide on my way back. I had no ties to this spirit world. A little dog would lead me out. Just below the crazy plank steps leading into the cabin, Old Pal sat, displaying that yellow-eyed deep wisdom I mentioned before, for which, I speculated, he had already won respect among the flock he was visiting.

He had positioned himself close to the leader but not within the council house. His tongue hung at an odd angle to the left and below his jaw.

“I’ve come to get my dog,” I announced to the multitude. “This is Old Pal; he’s mine.”

There was little response; why would they deign to descend to my level, to my miserable clinging, my ludicrous notions of private property? Had there been a debate, I would have lost it.

Anyway, he was one of them now; they’d gotten to him over the past few days. We would have to see if he would follow me.

Gazing deep into Old Pal’s eyes, I saw there no support for my claim. When you commune with the humor around any dog’s eyeballs, you’ll find no confirmation of any delusion you may have that you own this fur-covered warm being. It is a relationship of faith, consent, and discipline but not of property.

I knew that. So did the men around me, who, I imagined, knew everything they knew with a scourged, self-abnegated certainty. And so did even the downcast, second-classed women of the misnamed Brotherhood, who, somewhere inside them, may have begun to doubt their choice from the menu of communal options. They could have picked a profit-making, carnivore lesbian feminist dude ranch in Montana. Much more fun.

And so did even the brilliantly blue-eyed, long-haired teenage prophet who emerged from the cabin naked and sexually satisfied, regarded me from the top step, and held me for a long time in his gaze.

* * *

I knelt and whispered into Old Pal’s ears. I reminded him of the place where he’d been born and of the genuine, vitamin-enriched dog chow awaiting him back in the dooryard. And the beef bones.

We were a real farm, I told him, with domestic animals, cultivated gardens of vegetables and flowers, a mother who loved him, responsibilities, work to do. I spoke of his dead father, and of the love I felt for him.

I am a dog person. To this day, when a dog looks at me, through me, in a certain automatic way, I feel a pleasurable pulse at the base of my left thumb, a nonverbal near awakening that reminds me of all we have in common.

Apologizing for my recent absence, I stroked Old Pal’s broad forehead; I gave him good eye contact. I saw the effects of his recent indoctrination fade and recognition return to his eye.

He yawned and stretched audibly as dogs do, breaking a spell, and as he led me to the edge of the clearing and to the trailhead down, perhaps I do not totally anthropomorphize if I recall that, in the instant before we entered the woods, he paused and looked back at the clearing and the people, relinquishing the rewards of the spiritual life he would now abandon, the mountaintop he would not seek again.

* * *

The Brotherhood of the Spirit left Owl’s Head before snow flew. Their pooled trust funds bought them a farm in Warwick, and then a city block of Turners Falls, Mass., an old red-brick mill town left to ruin by a global corporation that had headed south and east to hire cheaper labor.

Spring and summer followed that winter. Old Pal, my constant companion, grew into a bigger dog — slow and quiet, trusting and agreeable — as he had to be.

At night, he would put his front paws over my shoulder and hang still as I lugged him up the ladder to our room above the tractor shed. He would sit still and not nip when my pliers pulled half a hundred porcupine quills from his nose. He’d lie in the grass on the peach orchard hill and let me use his ribcage, gently rising and falling, for a pillow.

In the winter of his second birthday, Old Pal left the farm again, not in search of spiritual salvation, but of deer flesh on the hoof. Other local dogs joined him. The sound of the pack carried up to the end of Abijah Prince Road.

A hunter, perhaps the same one, heard the chase, grabbed his ready rifle, and set out to protect his sport and his food supply.

Old Pal never came back. That hunter had cut him off as he closed in on his prey. The harried, bleeding deer had switchbacked down a ledgy cliff wall that the wind had swept bare of snow. With better footing, she put some distance between her and the yelping, blood-mad pack.

As the dogs crossed the hunter’s sight, he squeezed the trigger and sent Old Pal to that mountain top, that spirit brotherhood, where his master could not go to claim him and bring him home.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #404 (Wednesday, April 19, 2017).

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