A hippie highway to dialectics

Posted: July 24, 2014 by Admin in New Zealand history, New Zealand politics, Philosophy and dialectics, Vietnam & Vietnam War
Tucker time at Jerusalem, James K. Baxter on right

Tucker time at Jerusalem, James K. Baxter on right; photo from teara site

by Don Franks

James Baxter’s 1970s Jerusalem commune on the Whanganui river was a singular rural crash pad.

A place where all the social rules I’d previously known and thought to be set in concrete were either bent, bypassed or broken.

You could lie around all day and still get to line up for whatever passed for a feed at night. You could – within limits – exercise the option of ‘first up best dressed’. If you lit a cigarette it was expected that you’d pass it round the company so everyone could have a drag off it.

Once in a while one or two commune members would go to town, do a week’s work and bring basic groceries home for everyone else. Or we’d do small cash jobs for one of the locals. Not the basis for a lasting economic system but fun for a while.

Mostly we spent a lot of time just sitting round enjoying the beautiful bushy valley.

One day I was doing that after cutting up some willow for firewood and I thought for the first time: hey, everything’s moving.


The river, the clouds, the leaves, the birds. The sap and the cells in the cut timber and even the atoms in the steel head of the axe I’d just put down.

We’re moving too, all the time, all through the insides of our bodies, even if we’re just sitting on our arse. I’d never thought about it like that before.

A few months later, on a visit to town, I read a book about dialectical materialism and immediately recalled my musing outside the Jerusalem hut.

I forget which particular book it was, but it rang true with my experience. Everything philosophically fell into place for the first time.

Of course there is a lot more to dialectics than the fact that everything moves all the time. But it’s not a big step from that to see how everything is in a process of change and how change takes place.

I could have stayed up the river a lot longer, even after the commune finished. The few older people living at the Pa were very welcoming and tolerant.

I fell into a slow easy pace of life. Getting up whenever, with no morning brief but to wander round saying hi to the neighbours. Doing a bit of seasonal labouring for the farmer on the hill – docking, painting, scrub-cutting for a couple of dollars and a feed up at the house. Waiting and chatting in the milk shed for the truck’s once weekly visit with shop orders from town – tea, porridge, flour, tobacco and bullets. Shooting goats and possums, picking lemons, figs, apples and watercress for nothing.  Learning to weave kornos for a hangi the next time one was put down. Learning to carve a bit, from a guy who’d learned his own carving skill when he was inside.  Playing the guitat on the porch at night, showing the Pa kids some chords, taking an hour to make a billy of tea over a damp sullen manuka fire. Sticking rags in the holes in the hut before comfortably retiring on a winter night under all the available blankets, with three jerseys on.

Something permanently wafting in the air of the place seemed to encourage  serene idleness. Like that mythical Greek island – I forget the name of – the one that sucked passing sailors into a dreamworld.

None of us wore a watch at Jerusalem, there was no need to know the time. And when you’re younger, time appears to be unlimited.

I was finally drawn away from Jerusalem after visits back to Wellington.

There, I was cut to the quick by the force of the anti-Vietnam war movement. It didn’t seem morally right to veg out in the sticks while people were being torched with white phosphorous, so that millionaires could enlarge their fetid nests. So I stayed in town and tried to help build the anti-war movement and got permanently corrupted by the communists.

I sometimes think back to the impact of a hippie day musing by the river, when material reality suddenly seemed to assert itself in my head. And I hadn’t had so much as a puff on a joint.

The above piece first saw the light of day on Don Franks Music, Wellington Access Radio, 783AM.

  1. Interesting comments.. I read of James Baxter who I’d never heard of: two short biographies, searched lovely photos of the beautiful Whanganui river, listened to Baxter reading some of his poems – I like his voice. My 17 year old daughter also started poetry when she was nine, and still today bangs down the stair after writing her latest poem, interupting me, and reads it out, waiting for my now supportive and critical comments. Thanks Don for the story of your intro to dialectics.

  2. Don Franks says:

    Kia ora Steve

    A daughter is great and a daughter who loves poems I wish for everyone.

    • Kia ora to you Don – Lana is my youngest of three daughters and two sons. She now performs in front of hundreds of middle-class people at a time at the prestigious Barbican, Guildhall and elsewhere in the last year. Unfortunately under such influences she has become less radical in the last year, writing less of rebel youth, state oppression and homeless people on the streets, and I feel almost helpless at the transition.

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