Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.
Review of Gordon Ball, Scenes From East Hill Farm: Seasons With Allan Ginsberg
(Coventry, England: The Beat Scene Press, 2007)
by Jim Feast
Gordon Ball’s new memoir, Scenes From East Hill Farm: Seasons With Allan Ginsberg is a picaresque account of life on a rural retreat (of 70 acres) near Cherry Valley, N.Y.
In the late 1960s, this land was purchased by Allen Ginsberg with support from the filmmaker Barbara Rubin, the author and his girlfriend, Candy.
The story of this unlikely quartet’s struggles to maintain the farm along with their sanity and amicability makes for an engrossing read, though, to be frank, the one thing the book lacks is girth.
By that I mean,the anecdotes sometime zip by too fast, lacking a full fleshing out. Ball himself supplies the reason for this, by saying of this presentation, “The following are excerpts from my book-length manuscript.”
In the course of pointing to some of the particular virtues of the text, let me suggest a little context, which will help the reader sort through the mini-stories, though this will (I imagine) be of no help to the author since his full MS probably supplies this background.
Why did Ginsberg and his cohorts decide to buy a farm? Were they looking to “get back to the land” and engage in subsistence agriculture? No. As Ball writes, “The farm was intended as a refuge for Peter [Orlovsky] and other writer friends with city or chemical entanglements.” Peter, as Ball describes him, was “Allen’s partner for over a decade [and] was strung out on speed.”
This may seem a rather lame-brained idea -- setting up a drug rehab center in a ramshackle out-of-the-way farmhouse, staffed not by experienced counselors, but friends – but it is eminently comprehensible, given the temper of the times.
The ’60s feeling behind such an experiment is brought out by Gary Snyder in his description of the famous San Francisco Be-In of 1967. Snyder writes that in this period there was an attempt to develop new living arrangements to replace the nuclear family. He notes how:
Large old houses were rented communally by a
group, occupied by couples and singles (or
whatever combinations) and their children. ...
One woman can stay home and cook and look after
all the children while the other women hold
jobs. They will all be cooking and eating together.
In many cases, these ad-hoc, associational households were more harmonious and loving than nuclear families, which Snyder characterizes in this way. “The modern American family is the smallest and most barren that has ever existed.”
By contrast, he notes, “I remember sitting down to a Christmas dinner eighteen years ago in a communal house. ... The house was my first discovery of harmony and community with fellow human beings.”
Part of the agenda of these communal families was to heal friends with psychological problems and addictions in an atmosphere that would be more conducive to transformation than that found in an institution. Noted therapist R.D. Laing set up a house to do this in London. And this was the trip on which East Hill Farm residents had embarked.
As noted, Orlovsky was “strung out,” and this was nothing new. In Joanne Kyger’s recently published diary, Strange Big Moon, she recounts her traveling with Ginsberg and Orlovsky in India in 1961-’62. Orlovsky would commonly lock himself in the bathroom at night to get high. The next day he was often too sick to travel and they had to delay their departure.
So, while also trying to set up a viable, working farm, raising livestock, and a communal household, the group was trying to construct a healing place for Orlovsky. But Peter was a hard nut to crack.
Everyone knew Peter was on speed (which he
denied), but no one could wrest it from him.
One afternoon ... Allen tried talking with him
about his amphetamine problem. Several of us
were gathered in the dining room. ... “I’m
sorry I ever met any of you,” he [Peter] said
after Allen had finished his effort at starting
a dialogue. He put his sneakers on, walked
away, and stayed gone till nightfall.
After multiple failed attempts to help Peter, Barbara gives up and leaves the house. Allen keeps tolerating Peter’s misbehavior and in a sense gets his comeuppance for being too indulgent. He lets Orlovsky drive their car back from the airport on a rainy night.
The road exiting the airport led into a
major artery just as it swooped by in a curve.
... It wasn’t clear if oncoming traffic would
be feeding into our road or going past us.
It wasn’t, certainly, clear to Peter, who
entered the artery in front of oncoming forty-
five mile an hour traffic. Immediately we
collided with another car.
Allen hurtled forward, hitting his head
against the windshield.
Ginsberg was the only one seriously injured, ending up in the hospital with four broken ribs and a broken hip.
This is only one strand of the multiple narratives that make up this memoir—though I think it is the major one—in this rich social history. Although at first glance, it may seem to be a cautionary tale, which tells us that drug addicts can’t be helped by caring non-professionals. This is not the deeper intent.
A close reading of the book yields a very different meaning. Stumbling, halting and ultimately frustrating as these attempts to help Orlovsky may have been, we know that warehousing addicts in hospitals or jails as well as, alternatively, letting them wander the street as homeless, is simply a way to ignore responsibility. Rubin, Ginsberg, Ball and the others involved tried, courageously enough, to shelter and revive someone who the establishment would have shunned, ignored or imprisoned. Such an attitude on their part can be read as a signpost indicating the direction (if it would survive) that society must take in saving its own. Ball has rendered us a service by describing this noble failure.