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Commune: Chasing a utopian dream in Aotearoa by Olive Jones

Olive Jones was still a teenager when she joined the Graham Downs commune in the Motueka Valley near Nelson in 1979. She stayed until she was in her early thirties when disillusioned, she broke away to start a new life with her young daughter. Commune. Chasing a utopian dream in Aotearoa is her story of living a hippie life for 16 years.

The 1960’s and seventies were the counterculture years in New Zealand. Groups of young people rebelled against the values and mores of their parents and flocked to the countryside to set up communes.

Under the leadership of PM Norman Kirk, the New Zealand government was the only country in the world which supported dissatisfied youth to establish rural communes called ohu. Crown land was made available to allow them to try their hand at living a self-sufficient life and to enhance their spiritual and social well-being. But the land that was allocated was largely remote and of inferior quality, which meant most were doomed to fail.

Graham Downs was different. The small group of founders raised funds themselves to purchase a farm near Motueka in the late 1970’s. It was good arable land. Olive writes:

We were peasants, working the land with horses, milking cows by hand. We spent our waking hours growing and producing food. It was a simple, unmechanised way of connecting with the land that connected us deeply to the earth. Instead of working for someone else to generate the money to buy the things we needed, we did it for ourselves. The old-world way of farming felt clean, honest and hugely satisfying.

But while Olive, being young and single, was free to work on the farm, the married women with young children had to spend hours scrubbing the family washing by hand. It made her determined to avoid such drudgery and not to have children until she had a house of her own with a washing machine.

Olive grew into a strongminded and capable woman who taught herself many skills, like skinning a horse, using leather to make handmade boots, making cheese, and building her own house while pregnant with her first child.

Free love was the norm at Graham Downs. She came to see that it was an ideal promoted by men who liked to have sex with as many women as they could, and it did not include emotional intimacy. At one stage, she found herself in a polyandrous relationship. She writes very candidly about how this affected her, caused jealousy, and hurt feelings.

After a few years, due to its open-door policy, the Graham Downs commune began to be overrun by newcomers attracted by not having to pay rent, no rules, or clear expectations about helping with the work, and free meals. They included drifters and addicts and some who were mentally unstable.

The problems escalated in the 1980’s when the introduction of the dole and the DP benefit brought a whole new subgroup of people who used Graham Downs as a cheap rural crash pad. They also had no real commitment to self-sufficiency and the hard work this entailed.

It had been a deliberate choice from the beginning to operate without rules or formal structures, no boss, no one in charge and people could do what they wanted to. Some of the core group who had been there from the start were idealists who remained resistant to putting some rules in place which were needed to fit the changed circumstances. This led to endless arguments, and the end result was that nothing changed, and the farm fell into disarray. It is a cautionary tale of how society cannot operate successfully without some rules and regulations and how anarchy can lead to chaos.

In her honest account, Olive has opened a fascinating window for us into the highs and lows of life in a commune. I found it a compelling read.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Potton & Burton


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