Return to All One Farm

The image of the group photo from Ruth Dennison’s 1975 Vipassana meditation retreat on All One Farm wrapped around my consciousness like a wool shawl on cool autumn day.  It all seemed so near and deeply familiar.  Though I was neither in the photo nor at the farm that day, I was there.  I felt the damp morning air on my skin and the serenity of the land under my feet.  A sense of personal freedom and limitless discovery animated the frozen moment.  I knew I must make a pilgrimage, and soon.  But how?

Zooming in on the farm site via Google Maps reassured me that it was still there and seemed to be pretty much the same.  Now, who owns it?  How will I find out?  Robert Friedland’s recollection of the address that he thought was for the farm was correct.  Pretty impressive recall after 35 years.  I was able to confirm the address with one that I had for the current owner of the property who has requested anonymity, but for purposes here I will refer to him as Randy.  He purchased the property in 1976.  Through an online search I was able to determine that Randy still lived on the farm.

Though I now had a current phone number for him as well, I decided to mail a letter and a copy of the group photo from 1975 asking if he would contact me by phone or email to hopefully arrange a visit.  After two weeks with no reply I decided to try phoning him.  I really didn’t want to intrude on his life, but I just had to try to make that pilgrimage.  I phoned the number a couple of times and it just rang and rang without going to voice messaging.  I tried it again the next day and he finally picked up.  “Hi, my name’s Bill Angel.  I sent you a letter a few weeks back along with the picture from 1975.  I used to live at the farm, and in fact I had stayed behind for awhile to do some carpentry work for you after you bought the property.”  “Oh, I remember you,” he replied.

As we talked it became pretty clear that he valued his privacy. As the conversation moved on I felt confident that he was open to meeting me.  He hesitated at first because he assumed a visit to his property would include several people.  After assuring him that it would be only me and my wife, Uma, he agreed to meet as long as no photos would be taken.  With due respect to him, I agreed.  A date was set and a warm feeling settled around me as if fate was directing me forward.

My personal view of karma is that there are certain events in our lives that, as a result of past life activities, are destined to unfold in one way or another.  Period.  While much of what takes place between those karmic imperatives can be and is influenced by our own material consciousness and, hence, future karma.  No matter which category this compulsion to revisit the farm was in, it felt exactly right.  I could hardly wait.

About a week later the van was packed for the much anticipated drive from Boise to the former All One Farm location near McMinnville, Oregon.  Though we had planned to leave around 5:30 am, we were both awake much earlier and on the road by 4:30 am.   About 550 miles and nine hours later we were in McMinnville waiting for Randy to meet us to follow him back to the farm.  The roads leading to the farm were vaguely familiar, but after 35 years things had changed and memory of the terrain, houses, and surroundings had dimmed.

All that suddenly changed as we started up the narrow mile long gravel driveway into the property.  As we topped the rise and made the final curving turn out of the woods, there it was.  Memory was now fully engaged, as it looked from this perspective very much like it did those many years before; a large open area of several acres surrounded by the dense mixed forests of hardwoods and conifers so typical of the area.  The overhead power lines had been buried, which was a nice improvement.  The terrain slopes at first gently from right to left, then somewhat steeper leading down to the barn and adjacent garden plot level.  From that plateau the slope continued down past the pond that had been added, then down further into the forest below and the neighbor’s cornfield beyond.

As we proceeded toward the parking area near the main house the small cabin to the right looked very much like it had when we left.  There had been two large walnut trees just in front of it but one has since died.  On our left was the grand old barn that had been for me a focal point of my experience there.

As we approached the main house it became clear that it had significant exterior renovations done in understated natural wood siding, well suited to the rural setting.    The main house had been enlarged and an angled wing was added.  A large cobblestone patio was in front of the expanded main house.  The steps down to the patio were made from railroad ties with railings fashioned from weathered wood.  The unpretentious ambiance of the small complex echoed the gentle serenity that had always been the signature of this very special place.

Farther down the slope in front of the patio stood the wood-fired sauna and the adjacent shower platform in the cedar grove, all still fully functional.  I remember this as a place where we came not only to relax and recharge, but a place where stories of India sojourns of the past and those to come were discussed, and relished.  India was the center of the universe for many of us back then.  All One Farm was a staging area for headlong plunges into the confounding but somehow compelling crazy-quilt milieu of Indian culture that several of us made again and again.

Our first visit was to the barn.  A place that had occupied the secluded recesses of treasured memories for so many years, and that had been so pleasantly recalled to conscious life by the Vipassana retreat group photo from a month prior.  I had frequently slept alone on the upper floor there, with the resident barn cat ever present through the night.  It could often be heard in lethal pursuit of mice in the soothing stillness of those darkened hours.  A furtive howl was often heard when the chase didn’t succeed.  It took great pleasure in saving one of the more unfortunate critters for the moment that I awoke, then eating it barely a foot from my sleepy eyes.  As the tail of the morning meal disappeared ominously out of site, the cat’s expression was of pride and contentment.  After a few affectionate strokes from me, maybe even a roll over on its back – with purring, it would wander off to relish its exquisite independence.  And I, though I didn’t eat mice, felt pretty good about my own.  Life was simple.  Life was good.

Randy had done a complete renovation on the barn, inside and out.  All of the exterior board and batten siding had been replaced with the new material of the same type.  Now weathered, it appeared much the same as it did those many years before.  It was capped with a new metal roof, in a soft shade of brown.   The lower level had been divided into a few rooms.  Everything, including the dedicated tool room, was neat and orderly.  The walls were covered in rough cedar boards, with all vertical and horizontal beams exposed.  The ceiling (the floor of the upper level) was 2×6 tongue and groove fir with a linseed oil finish.  It was an unpretentious rustic ambiance that I found very appealing.  A wooden ladder led to a corner of the upper level.

The upper level walls had also been covered with the rough cedar, with all beams exposed.  The beams also appeared to have been treated with linseed oil, or something of that nature, bringing out the patina through enduring years of structural integrity.  He was pleased to point out that he had purposely kept intact an Om symbol in pink chalk on the first overhead beam as you enter from the driveway level to the upper floor; a fitting artifact of the gentle folk that had preceded him.  Well done, Randy.

Though I was loath to leave the soothing confines of this favored structure, we moved on to the small cabin.  I lived in the cabin during the few weeks that I remained on the farm to do some work for the new owner in early 1977.  It looked very much as it did then, inside and out.  A small portion of the original cedar shake roof remained, encrusted with bright green moss – nature’s date stamp on this tiny abode.  And, as was the case with the barn, everything inside was kept in a clean and orderly manner.  A far cry from the chicken coop it had been prior to the renovation in 1974.  The original version had been home to Steve Jobs during his early stays at the farm.  Though he was just Steven back then.

The old garden plot was still there and had been active up to a few years ago. The tool shed was still standing and now had a ground level deck in front made from the old floor planks from the barn.  I had lived in it for a short time when I first arrived at the farm, as had others.  Dharma (Greg Fegel) had lived in it for his entire stay, and stayed on as Randy’s caretaker for several months.

Next on the magical mystery tour was a walk up the road past the main house through what had been the fir farm and on to the apple orchards.  The fir farm was no more, having been decimated by four days of high winds as a result of some root rot that left them with weakened foundations in the soft wet soil.  They had grown from around 10” to over 30” diameter in the years since we had pruned the lower branches, thinned out many trees, and cleared the planting rows of debris.

The little orchard on the left had only a small remnant of a single tree remaining; a lone sentinel of the once vibrant stand of apple trees that had been the inspiration for the naming of the now iconic Apple Computer.  Steven’s time at All One Farm had left an enduring mark that he carried with him into his storied future.  The devotees from the Portland Krishna temple sometimes came for the day to pick apples and just kick back a bit from the busy routine of their daily lives.  The big orchard, a little further along, had fared slightly better, with a few scattered stalwarts remaining from our time there.  We had brought them back from years of prior neglect with careful pruning and management.  Randy explained that it was just too much for him to keep up with alone, but he had plans to replant between the prior growth for the benefit of future generations.

We continued on the loop road that led gradually down to the open area adjacent to the sauna.  Looking inside the weathered structure brought back fond memories and a sense of pleasure that it had endured so well the years.  The adjacent cedar grove, with its wooden platform and simple shower-head attached to one of the trees, was still the cool serene sanctuary it had always been.  Looking out from it, the cattail-lined pond is just a few yards away. The spring fed-water is refreshingly cold on hot summer days. It’s fifteen feet deep at the center and large enough for swimming.

At this point it was difficult to know if the tour was officially completed as we walked back toward the house.  Though he had been reluctant to allow a visit initially, it was clear at times that he was enjoying the tour himself.  But at the same time I wanted to be sure not to impose on his privacy by trying to extend our visit.

We sat for awhile in the old section of the house, which had been reconfigured and done in an understated rustic motif.  The wood stove was in the same location, though walls had been removed here and there.  The kitchen table was in the same location as the platform and low table that we had taken our meals at.  It was somehow satisfying sitting in this particular location as we chatted a bit before leaving.  That is where those of us at the farm would come together for simple hardy meals and, to one degree or another, share a common bond.  At least that’s how I related to it in those days.  Though I suppose I could justifiably be labeled a bit of a romantic.

As we reluctantly walked toward our van to depart, my mind was whipsawed by the enjoyment of the visit and the need to respect Randy’s privacy.  I would have loved to stay a few hours more and perhaps sit alone for awhile in the barn to reflect on the past.  Not just the activities of the past, not just the physical location, but rather the deep feelings and emotions that were part of the experience, long ago.

But it was not to be.  The joy of anticipation was now shrouded in melancholy as we drove the long, forested driveway back to the main road.  Like leaving a dear friend knowing you’ve seen them for the last time.  Sweet sorrow, indeed.

Bill Angel

3706 E Sweet Pea Ct
Boise, ID  83716
208 389-7896
[email protected]

Note: I’m sure that Randy would not welcome further contact from others.  I’m ever so thankful to have had the opportunity to return to All One Farm and ask that we all respect his privacy.   I’ve enjoyed this chance to share a bit of it with you.