ARTS & ENTERTAINMENTARTS & CULTURECarolina A. Miranda

Vodka-spiked oranges and tamale lessons: Irvine's lost commune

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From the Department of Huh? The staid city of Irvine was once home to a counterculture commune
Irvine's lost commune is revived in a new book
Why did a Samoan chief carve a canoe and steer it amid the yachts of Newport Harbor?

You read that right. Irvine -- that bastion of staid, putty-colored suburban respectability -- was home to a commune of sorts in the late 1960s, albeit a short-lived one. The Farm, as it was known, was a social-studies experiment established by UC Irvine in 1968, in which members of indigenous groups from Samoa, Mexico and Guatemala were invited to inhabit the old Irvine Ranch buildings adjacent to the campus so that they could teach scientists and university students about their ways of life.

The freewheeling atmosphere (there wasn't much Irvine in Irvine in those days) attracted students and a crew of hippies, who took up residence in old chicken coops and dilapidated school buses, to share in the experience. (This was back when nearby Laguna Canyon was occupied by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and their LSD-distribution machine).

The history of this unusual experiment/encampment, which lasted only for an academic year (1968-69), was resuscitated, in part, by a pair of UC Irvine doctoral candidates researching the university's archives, Robert J. Kett and Anna Kryczka. In 2012, the pair created an exhibit based on archival material at UC Irvine. And this spring the pair published a book with everything they dug up: "Learning by Doing at the Farm: Craft, Science and Counterculture in Modern California" (Soberscove Press; $20). "This was something that we were really excited about," says Kryczka, "writing the history of Orange County into the history of the California '60s." 

It's certainly a history that will be surprising to people who might think of south Orange County as nothing but tidy lawns and Republicanism. The experiment was launched by the university's School of Social Sciences as a way of creating a cultural laboratory where students could get hands-on experience in field work and where an atmosphere of exchange could also be established. The Farm's foreign guests (somewhat creepily referred to in university parlance as "informants") weren't just passive subjects, they taught participating students and faculty how to speak Maya, make tamales and build indigenous houses. "There really was an unexpected level of cooperation," says Kett. "They really are treated like visiting experts. The potter, for example, is teaching UCI students how to make pottery."

One of the more interesting anecdotes involves a Samoan guest making a canoe and taking it for a paddle around Newport Harbor. "In the film room, amid these stacks of film canisters, we found unedited footage of this Samoan chief carving a canoe, strapping it to a truck, going down to the water and then going on a tour of the yachts of Newport Beach," says Kett. "Unfortunately, the film doesn't have sound, so we don't know what he's thinking. But it's this Samoan chief observing the strangeness of the yachts in the harbor." Adds Kryczka: "It's like he's engaging in his own ethnography." Interestingly, the canoe still resides in at the Social Sciences building at UCI. "We occasionally will get people from Samoa who come by to see it because they know that it's there," says Kett.

But there is the second part to this story, and that's about the counterculturalists who arrived to take part in the experience. "There were students from the art school and students from social studies and you had hippies drifting through," says Kryczka. "And, of course, there was the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and their acid religion that was being articulated in the canyons of Laguna Beach." A number of them decided to join the encampment of indigenous people, taking up whatever space they could inhabit.

The arrival of the communalists resulted in some pretty unusual activities going down on the Farm, as Kett and Kryczka recount in the book: "Improvised shelters built from scavenged materials with roofs reading 'F--- WAR,' organized attempts to elude the draft, and days spent injecting oranges from the area's orchards with vodka." At one point, the social studies dean bailed out a bunch of hippies who'd been arrested in a bar.

These aren't the sorts of happenings one usually associates with south Orange County. Yet, as someone who grew up in Irvine, none of it strikes me as entirely surprising. The city was built and laid out with some pretty utopic ideals in mind: an open space egalitarianism that can be easy to forget in a world of homeowner's associations sending out notices about non-regulation plants. Irvine, it turns out, has always harbored old hippies, and many aspects of its architecture reflect its early utopianism. I went to Irvine High School, which was built without walls dividing individual classrooms. The idea was that everybody would share; people and ideas could move about freely. It was totally hippie crunchy. (Only it didn't work. No one could hear a thing, so walls were added ex post facto.) 

Unfortunately, the sponsoring dean left UC Irvine, which is why the Farm lived for only a year. And, as Kett explains, "there was a bit of a moral panic on the part of the town, with all the sex, drugs and rock and roll." But it remains an influential part of campus lore.

"The Farm was an experiment inside the experiment of UCI and UCI was part of an experiment in terms of the urban planning of Irvine," says Kryczka. "California was an important site of experimentation during the '60s and Irvine was part of that."

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