by Ben Best
Tom Marshall was a reclusive libertarian of high moral caliber who sought innovative ways of evading the inherent fascism of governments. Ultimately, this led to efforts on his part to pioneer a lifestyle he called "wilderness vonu". (Vonu refers to a lifestyle that emphasizes finding ways to live outside of the "sight, sound and mind of those who will not live-and-let-live".) My own hatred of power (state-power in particular), my apocalyptic visions of social disintegration due to government economic or nuclear mismanagement and my inability to adapt to conventional life led me to look for "A Way Out". There was no one whom I had ever met whose integrity or rationality impressed me as much as Tom Marshall.
I first met Tom in Los Angeles. A tall, slender and bespectacled electrical engineer, he was in many ways a picture of what is commonly recognized as a "nerd". He was what you might call inhibited and at a loss for "small talk". He had an element of formality about him, even in casual social situations, but it wasn't severe. He was much more at ease exchanging information or making plans for action.
But Tom's urgent desire for freedom was drawing him away from Los Angeles. He published PREFORM/INFORM to document his gypsy lifestyle as a camper nomad. Then he published VONU LIFE to describe his and his freemate's lifestyle off the roads and into the wilderness of Oregon.
Several years later, I met Tom again, this time attending his "Vonu Week" program in Oregon. This program was designed to train others in how to lead the Vonu lifestyle Tom was developing. I believe that only two Vonu Weeks were ever given, the other to a father & son. What follows is an attempt to reconstruct my memories of that week. I must admit that personal and psychological factors stand out in my mind more strongly than technical details.
My companion for the trip was a woman named Lynn, an attractive person in her early twenties whose orientation was back-to-nature, healthful living, simplicity and "austerity". I had met her at a Free University encounter group and had been favorably impressed when she spontaneously offered a story describing her attempt to build on her own a shelter/retreat in the woods.
Tom mailed me a list of code names corresponding to actual names of creeks, roads, etc. in the area I was to meet him. He later sent a description of how to find his rendezvous spot which made reference to the code names. I had some trouble finding the initial turn-off and considered enquiring at a local store. Lynn suggested that that would not be a very "vonu" thing to do. So we ended up driving around a bit more until we convinced ourselves of the correct turn. Later, when I mentioned my difficulty to Tom, he made reference to the store where I could have enquired.
I also had trouble driving "1.6 miles" down the road with a car whose odometer had no tenths of miles. I ended up driving in circles to zero the thing and then trying to estimate. By following a treasure-map-type series of pacings and turns at various code-named landmarks we managed to be at the rendezvous spot at the pre-arranged time. Tom whistled a pre-arranged tune from the bushes and I whistled a pre-arranged tune in reply.
The rest of "Day 1" was as described in the "Programme". Both Lynn and I were impressed to the point of being awe-struck with the speed and efficiency with which Tom went about building our shelter. It was basically a horizontal bed-frame built on the side of a slope, with a polyethylene top and mosquito net. Tom spoke quickly describing what he was doing, but I'm not sure I learned very much. After Vonu Week I was to express the criticism that I probably would have learned more if there had been more "guided doing" rather than just watching and listening.
I will interrupt the story here to backtrack for some background about Lynn. I had barely been on a "date" with Lynn, despite the rapid intimacy that develops during an encounter group. In fact, my main interest in the group had been another woman. But at the end of April I asked Lynn to go with me to Vonu Week and she agreed. I then spent the month of May at "Outward bound" which I had hoped would complement Vonu Week. The emphasis of Outward Bound was almost entirely on building stamina — on pushing a person to the "breaking point". I didn't break, but I may have been too exhausted to use Vonu Week to full advantage.
In any case, the situation was that Lynn and I had just assisted in building the frame for a double bed. Tom left. Lynn had come with me to spend the night alone in a remote section of the wilderness. She was a very sexually attractive young woman. Yet she let me know that while we could sleep together, she did not want to have sex.
On the surface was her story that as a follower of the guru "Baba Ram Dass" she believed in chastity except for the purpose of reproduction. Religion, however, often serves as a rationalization and defence for underlying attitudes. I believed that she had some basic psycho-physical problem because she would have very irregular menstrual periods — frequently going for months without any flow for no apparent reason. I now know that that missed menstrual periods is a frequent side-effect of extensive fasting or calorie-restriction.
She seemed somewhat innocent of sexual feelings. A few years earlier she had dressed in an attention-getting manner (see-through blouse) and had ended up getting raped. She had also submitted to sex without a "go-along-to-get-along" attitude with some boyfriends, but evidently felt comfortable enough with me to present her true attitude. It was enough to make me resent my own libertarian personality, but it was true that I would not force her in any way despite the intense lust she evoked in me. So we would sleep naked and I would press us close together — and I would have an erection all night.
On Day 2 Roberta came to tell us about foods. Tom and Roberta used a division of labor to some extent in the cultivation of their vonu skills. Tom worked on the construction of shelters while Roberta worked on nutrition and the preparation of foods. Although they recognized that this was in keeping with stereotypical societal roles, it was nonetheless quite satisfactory for both of them. Lynn, too, seemed to like the idea despite my desire to obtain personal mastery of everything. This is perhaps the ultimate vonu. A desire to not even be dependent on — or feel obliged to — a "free-mate". Lynn took over the sprouting.
Lynn and Roberta seemed to have a lot in common in their nutritional interests. Both had done ten-day fasts. For Roberta it was associated with overweight and her desire to economize on food. With Lynn it was more a matter of practicing religious austerities and occultistic health ideas with the hope of ameliorating her physical problems.
We set up a grinder and there was discussion of ways to prepare hard red wheat for eating. I never did adjust to that diet. I got diarrhea and it was evident to me that my meals were exiting my bowels in the same form as they entered my stomach. This may have been one explanation for my listlessness during the week. I had not had digestive problems with any other food before, that I could remember.
At one point a tick crawled onto Roberta during our discussion. I taunted Lynn about her religious ideas concerning respect for life when Roberta went to kill it. Lynn was peeved that I brought the issue up, and Roberta still thought the best thing to do was kill it so it wouldn't crawl back. Lynn didn't want to take responsibility for the decision. I believe that Roberta killed it.
Later, by the creek, I made the suggestion that slugs might be a good high-protein vonu-food. Roberta found the idea grossly unappetizing and I admit to the same response myself. Nonetheless, I have since heard of people who do eat slugs.
We were left with a pile of survival books. Many were checked out of the local library, which I had thought was distinctly "unvonu". I regret to say that I spent my free time on Day 3 and Day 5 plodding through these books in the listless heat.
On Day 4 Tome came to tell us about camouflage. This involved a lengthy and insufferably boring (for both Lynn and I) lecture-demonstration of camouflaging our polyethylene tent by covering it with a tarry substance and then sprinkling pine needles, leaves, small sticks, etc. on top. I had a sense of Tom lusting over Lynn as I was doing which I found a bit amusing and which I thought made him self-conscious, though we didn't discuss it.
Our campsite was on the borderline between public and private land. Tom suggested that in the event of being discovered by park rangers or private owners one could say he/she had intended to camp on the opposite side of the border. Tom also had a very sharp eye for private planes — when one passed overhead he would tell us to hit the cover. He suggested that we go for nude walks to help develop vonu self-consciousness about planes and possible confrontations with people from "that society". Lynn seemed to like the idea and I now curse myself for not having done it. It would have been a good way to help Lynn get over some of her hang-ups and to help me get over some of my hang-ups about her hang-ups. She was actually afraid, I came to realize, of my erect penis.
Tom also gave us a few cock-and-bull stories which we could give to park rangers if they came upon us. They seemed so ridiculous I didn't bother to remember them. I don't think he had much ability to identify with the psychology of park rangers.
I commented to Tom about the fantastic weather and the beauty of outdoor life, but he said "it's not that great". Later, there must have been some overcast or light rain, I was startled to see a circular rainbow over our heads. It almost seemed like a supernatural halo, a "sign". But Tom was unimpressed and had no interest in the physics of the phenomenon despite the fact that he had never seen it before.
Tom also mentioned the possibility of letting me use a rifle with a silencer with which to shoot a deer. Lynn, being a vegetarian, would not eat it, but she did not want to be responsible for influencing my choice or conduct in the matter. I decided against shooting a deer. I asked Tom many theoretical questions. These were matters he only dealt with in print, he said. Meeting with libertarians almost always dealt with questions of "nuts and bolts". I remember asking him about the problem of the vanishing wilderness. I also asked him why a person who avoids human contact should have such high ideals for social relations. He replied that in a big city people can move from one person to another until each gets wise to his/her "game". But vonuans value their relationships, which are necessarily few. He said the ultimate basis for his libertarian morality was his desire for the best possible relationship with Roberta. I asked about him and Roberta having children. He said it wold be too dangerous in a community of only two, but in a community of four, one person could be safely pregnant.
I wasted Day 5 much as I had wasted Day 3. Lynn went off by herself for a long while which gave me cause for worry. But it was just a long walk and a swim. Lynn was thoroughly enjoying herself. She would have lived there if I had chosen to, I am certain. She indicated as much.
Day 6 proved to be more social than the schedule implied, probably because of Tom and Roberta's great trust and affection for us. And Lynn seemed more positive about them than she was about anyone she had known in "that society".
We went for a swim in the local swimming hole. We all stripped naked. Roberta was the first in the water. Tom bragged about the high durability and comfort of the shirt he had found in a public dump. He also made remarks about libertarians and hippies being alike in their practice of nudism. (Tom had practiced "social nudism" prior to meeting Roberta or breaking with "that society".) After our swim, as we were getting dressed, Tom let rip with a long, thin fart. Roberta commented that in "this society" farting in public was not a faux pas.
We were allowed to visit Tom and Roberta's base camp — something definitely not in the schedule. It was a large polyethylene tent on flat ground. I only vaguely recall their "famous" foam bed. Roberta outdid herself by the preparation of a variety of tasty "vonu foods", including forms of candy. Tom conceded that one of the hardships of wilderness vonu is the absence of ice cream. Considering that they ate a great deal of stored food, I asked Tom if they had enough money to live in the woods indefinitely. "It's getting to be that way", was his reply.
For some reason, the day ended in Tom's camper. We all sat at a kitchenette table where I talked about Outward Bound and Lynn mentioned her negative first impressions of me, which amused Tom and Roberta. Tom said that we could remain at our campsite for several days if we wished, but I replied that I was scheduled to begin a welding course. After Lynn and I had left the camper, Lynn commented about what an "empty" feeling she had gotten when leaving.
Lynn never really understood the "libertarian" aspect of the discussions Tom and I had, and insisted on classifying it as "political". I think that Lynn felt threatened by the intelligence of her associates. She made comments about the "slowness" of Tom and Roberta, which I took to be a cheap attempt to impress me. I was also resentful of my own sexual frustration and her religious excuses which removed the matter of sex from the field of discourse. When we got back to town I parted company with her permanently. I admit I didn't even discuss it with her — I left it for her to figure out.
I got back to town a day earlier than I needed to. Somehow, a mere week away from "that society" had thrown my awareness of time off a day. Of course, Vonu Week was only six days, but I just hadn't thought about it. I never thought, "this is Day 3". I had asked Tom how he would be aware if there was a nuclear war. He said something about having radio.
My own "subthreshold" impulse toward vonu living in the wilderness was related to a sense of people offending me, boring me, hurting me, or being too dishonest. Also, I have long had a deep sense of alienation from others which I don't understand very well. I found it hard pretending to like people when I didn't (there were few people I liked) and felt this was one reason why I would not be able to sustain a job and survive in "that society". And I had doubts about the politico-economic and military stability. I suspect Lynn's sexual problems and her view of men as "wolves" had a lot to do with her search for a way out. Unfortunately, the path she chose seemed to incorporate the wishful thinking of religious evasion.
Tom's intense rationality and integrity are what inspired those who knew him. Even his seemingly irrational fears had substance at times when nearly everyone had a sense that the world was changing radically and quickly in unpredictable ways.
Tom stopped publishing VONU LIFE in 1972, evidently (in part) because he
was tired of "libertarian bullshitters" who were all talk and no
action. In his last letter, he wrote: "My thinking has undergone major
changes in the last several months on interfacing, 'alternate economics',
interrelations in general... I, too, am becoming very dubious as to the
value of all the 'libertarian club' involvements... We do not intend to
use the 'libertarian club' in the future as an avenue for gaining
non-anonymous friends or associates." That was the last I (or anyone I
have known) ever heard from Tom Marshall.
Tom Marshall's Vonu lifestyle included his attempts to divorce his name
from his activities. I respected his anonymity, just as I respected him.
So why have I Web-published his name? Most of the above text was published
in Jim Stumm's magazine LIVING FREE. It was Jim who decided to use
Tom's "real name" because Tom had not been heard-from for ten years
(since my last letter from him, following Vonu Week). Still, I feel
responsible for the revelation because it was my memoir and I could
have protested more strenuously against Jim's decision. Then
R.W. Bradford decided to do a reprint (with some re-writing) in
LIBERTY magazine, which took the revelation to a wider audience. Again,
I did not protest. If Tom ever sees this document, I hope he will accept