BY MEREDITH DAVIDSON
What is a need? Lama founder Barbara Durkee (now Asha Greer), speaking about the 1967 founding of Lama Commune just north of Taos, explains that she knew there was a need for water, and hot water at that; here in New Mexico there is always a need for water. Her needs did not extend much beyond that. Experiencing a back-tothe land lifestyle on the side of a mountain was the real need she was attempting to fulfill. The pursuit of this desire was one of the many products of the rise of the 1960s and 1960s counterculture in the American Southwest.
Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest at the New Mexico History Museum (May 14, 2017– February 11, 2018) highlights personal stories of the youth who took the Southwest by storm as they sought alternatives to the cultural mainstream. Many people think of the rise and fall of the typical 1960s and 1970s counterculture as a mostly coastal experience. New York and the Bay Area received much of the media attention for festivals and “hippie” scenes; D.C. and Berkeley received much of the coverage for major protests, marches, and sit-ins. But, when the city environments didn’t satisfy their spiritual selves, hordes of (mostly) young people poured into the Southwest seeking an alternative path.
New Mexico has a way of embracing those who respect our history, and quickly dismissing those who impose their own sense of place on our lands. People who met and worked with Native American communities or took up residence at compounds owned by generations of Hispanic families were the most likely to stay. These individuals and their experiences are the core of the current exhibit. As the curators, Jack Loeffler and I felt it was most important to let the voices of those who lived the local counterculture speak for themselves. Visitors encounter 45 unique personalities in audio excerpts from oral histories conducted over the last two years and pulled from the Loeffler collection, which spans nearly 40 years of recording in the Southwest. The stories span geographies and themes, and are accompanied by documentary photography, ephemera, and cultural material. Each story evokes the flavor of the era and the intimate nature of first-person experiences. This approach, to paraphrase Timothy Leary’s sixties mantra, enabled us to capture the diversity of what it meant to turn on, tune in, drop out, and relocate to the Southwest.
Recordings of first-person experience, to paraphrase Timothy Leary’s sixties mantra, enabled us to capture the diversity of what it meant to turn on, tune in, drop out, and relocate to the Southwest.
In one case, we feature the poet John Brandi, who was born in southern California in 1943. As a young man, he, like so many others, received a draft notice calling him to service in Vietnam. In this exhibition highlight, which includes Veterans for Peace ephemera and protest imagery, Brandi recalls being a conscientious objector:
The war in Vietnam was increasing. I decided there were so many people standing up against the war that the wisest and most truthful thing I could do was to say no in the courts. And I talked to lawyers about it and they said you’re probably going to be on a waiting list for two years before they ever get to your case. You probably won’t go to jail, but you are going to have this on your record. I said, “I don’t care.” I was empowered during that era because it wasn’t me going to be standing up alone saying no. Everywhere I looked there were people saying no. Everywhere. That focus against that war, stopping that war, was tremendous.
The fact that so many people were finding ways to express themselves or stand up for something they believed in has much to do with the concentration of youth in the population at that time. In recent interviews, we repeatedly heard the sentiment that children born to World War II survivors—Baby Boomers—were often brought up with limited opportunities to explore individuality; many reported on the pressures of television shows pushing a cookie-cutter American family narrative and other popular culture forces, which encouraged young people to buy into a materialistic culture. The tides changed as a coalescence of events thrust young people into action. Many attribute the rise of the counterculture to the Vietnam War, the development of a folk music scene and its merger with rock and roll, and the introduction of mind-altering drugs. These factors helped make it possible to explore personal expression soon after the 1950s development of a national interstate highway system had made it easier for young people to crisscross the country, pursuing their passions and dreams.
The Southwest’s land and cultural diversity were fertile proving grounds for a countercultural explosion. One of the most diverse manifestations of these efforts is the variety of communal living efforts that arose, particularly in Northern New Mexico, starting in the late 1960s.
After founding Lama, Barbara Durkee and her husband attracted seekers of an alternative life, connected to the earth and grounded in multi-faith spirituality. Many of those who came through the commune, which still thrives today, left a mainstream middle-class background behind and began exploring Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths. Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, spent several years with the commune. In 1968, he traveled to India and returned with a set of Indian musical instruments and a newfound passion for sharing his experiences with the public. With the help of residents at Lama, Ram Dass, the Durkees and others began crafting From Bindu to Ojas, the boxed set of texts and resources that would become the classic countercultural book, Be Here Now. Over the winter of 1969, working together on the floor of the commune’s iconic zonahedral dome, designed by Steve Bear, Ram Dass and residents illustrated his teachings from India, which served as the core of Be Here Now. The original pieces, on 5-by-3 foot white paper, reflect a shared effort that includes a variety of artistic expressions. Mutually cooperative efforts like these characterize much of this era. Published in 1970, the book has now become an icon of the era and, in the exhibit, five of these large-scale pages will greet visitors in a section about Lama, while recordings of the voices of the Durkees and other Lama residents fill the space with personal stories.
Counterculture asks us if we’re truly happy with the status quo. Examples from the 1960s and 1970s show us that our bodies are our strongest tool against the mainstream machine. What can we do? We can physically move to new spaces; we can mentally move to new spheres. Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest explores the stories of those who chose these movements, body and soul, and who took up the challenge of resisting their typically middle-class urban or suburban upbringings.
To those who remember the events explored in the exhibit, and to younger generations, we ask: What connections can you make between the exhibition and today’s social environment? Perhaps visitors will leave with more questions (and a few answers) about what they personally need, stand for, and choose to pursue in order to be an active citizen of the world. Some of the people whose perspectives are preserved in Voices of Counterculture did this questioning by developing new ways of living on the planet, and by standing up for social and civil rights and equality for all. Thankfully for our purposes, many also documented the history around them in photography, in press, in art, and in physically moving their bodies here to the Land of Enchantment.
Meredith Davidson co-curated Voices of Counterculture, and is curator of the New Mexico History Museum’s 19th and 20th Century Southwest Collection.