When Julia Heim and Tree arrived at The Garden, a 21.5 acre tract of land in Tennessee, they felt like they’d finally found the sort of community they'd been looking for. Two self-described “hippies” who met en route to a protest on behalf of the indigenous Sámi people in Norway, they'd been traveling together for over a year, documenting their experiences visiting different communes and land experiments and posting them on YouTube.
They wanted to learn about living more closely to the land, and the Garden, which describes itself as an “off-grid intentional community” with an educational focus, seemed like the perfect place to get their hands dirty. After the pair moved into a converted school bus on the property, Heim set about learning about construction. Tree initially planned to capture scenes of life on the farm for a documentary, then pivoted to making TikTok videos after he learned that other members of the Garden had seen success using the app to drum up interest around the place. What they didn't know was that within a few months’ time, they'd become two of the most visible faces of a viral conspiracy theory claiming that the Garden was a cult.
The story that unfolded, as chronicled in a new documentary by VICE directed by Molly Wertheimer, was a messy one—one that saw amateur websleuths unearthing all sorts of unflattering material on The Garden, from claims of alleged animal mistreatment (See: one story that circulated about residents shooting and eating a cat that was stalking their chickens), to past criminal charges against individuals with alleged ties to the place, to maps showing the Garden's apparent geographical proximity to a handful of historical sundown towns, a term used to describe all-white communities during and after the Jim Crow era that excluded people of color from living there or passing through after dark, sometimes using violence.
In an interview with Input, one former resident expressed concerns about The Garden's attitude toward COVID-19 safety (people are not required to wear masks) and said he worried about COVID denial and Qanon beliefs in the community. Other people on the Internet criticized The Garden for not subjecting residents to background checks, while posting what amounted to an open invitation for young people on TikTok to show up there.
Residents of The Garden have roundly denied the “cult” allegation, with some community members attempting to run damage control by posting explanatory (and sometimes, ahem, imaginative) videos on TikTok—with varying degrees of success. On March 26, however, the Garden announced that it was closing its doors to the public. Amid the storm of online attention, members of the community had started receiving threats of violence; at one point, residents say, Child Protective Services and Animal Control showed up. (In the VICE documentary, Tree claims neither found anything concerning).
Speaking to VICE's documentary crew, Milo, the creator of a TikTok account called @theculttokguy and one of the Garden’s most outspoken critics, maintains that it was irresponsible of the Garden to publish its address online while insisting that it was a safe space for everyone. “There's people with marginalized identities—LBGTQ people, women, people of color—who need safe places to go right now,” he said. “And marketing this as that safe place seems a) untrue, and b) potentially malicious. Thank god those malicious intentions may not have actually been there.” Eventually, he retracted his claim that The Garden was a cult; he even began encouraging people to stop harassing Tree. (As of Monday morning, the day after the documentary's release, Milo's @theculttokguy account has been taken offline).
In late May, VICE caught up with Tree and Julia to find out what happened at The Garden, and in their lives, after the cameras stopped rolling. One thing they wanted to clear up, off the bat, was that The Garden was always more of a revolving door for people wanting to learn more about things like permaculture and building outdoor kitchens and composting toilets than anyone's permanent residence. Accordingly, when we spoke, they were back on the road, co-hosting a series of educational workshops in Crestone, Colorado with a group of people from The Garden as part of The Permaculture Mutual Aid Network, a web of intentional communities, and agricultural projects across the U.S. united by a common goal of fighting climate change, sharing sustainable earth stewardship knowhow, promoting equality, and providing disaster relief. Though they were clearly rattled by the events of the past few months, they kept circling back to what they perceived as a much larger existential threat: The crises that will befall our planet if people don't take action now.
Nine days after the VICE team left, the Garden published a post on Facebook saying that it was closing its doors to the public. Can you tell me about what life there looks like now?
Julia: I think with so much attention on us, and also these people that were making it their personal mission to destroy the Garden—calling local officials—it was like, “Okay. For the long-term longevity of the space, maybe it’s better if there’s not a lot of people here right now.” We came to that decision together and decided, “Maybe it's a good time for us to disperse. Maybe it's a good time for there to just be less attention on the space. Let's stop posting on the internet and say that it's closed.”
The other thing was that people were showing up who nobody knew, and they were like, “Hey, I saw the TikToks.” [We were worried that there were] people online trying to infiltrate, or sabotage. We had to go from being a really open and trusting space, to being suspicious of anyone that came in. So that, honestly, was the main reason: How can we keep facilitating new people when we feel so under attack, and suspicious?
Tree: Right. It was real threats. People were saying they were going to light buses on fire and come and really hurt people. So just to live [with] everyone knowing your address and kind of not knowing who's who—[it was better to just close] for a little while, let it mellow down again.
Julia: There's a couple people there now kind of keeping up the gardens. We were working on a lot of bigger projects that now have come to a pause. If we kept trying to go how we were, something catastrophic could've happened that would've ended the place forever.
How many people are still there?
Julia: When we left, there were four people there. There's so many people that we've never even lived at The Garden with—people that come every summer to help out—so there could be 10 new people that showed up since we left. But, yeah, there could even be no one there.
How many people were there before it closed?
Tree: When VICE was there, [it] was probably like 45. And that was during the winter—usually I think at that point in the year, there's like six people.
Julia: When the TikTok thing was going really positive, we were on this steady incline of people. It's not like that anymore.
When all of the internet drama happened, you’d only been at the Garden for a few months—and not even continuously. What did it feel like to become one of the faces of a community that people were suddenly calling a cult?
Julia: I was really shaken up about it. I would have this really negative relationship with my phone. Feeling responsibility also—I was going back and forth in my head, waking up in the night, thinking about what could I say to explain everything, and then not having the guts to go back on TikTok because I was just sick.
Tree: We did try. There was a moment where people were like, “Oh, are LGBTQ people and people of color welcome there” And I make a video saying, “Yes, they are. Pretty much everyone is welcome at The Garden, as long as you're family friendly and you have a positive work ethic.” Then they spun that out to say that it actually wasn’t a place that was safe for people. It was almost like any time we fed into the accusations, it would just get worse.
For a good few weeks, I was pretty much dead inside. Feeling obviously responsible for just diminishing the reputation, as well, of the Garden—which has been a very good thing in the local community. I couldn't touch my phone for a few weeks. I was struggling to sleep.
What are some of the more serious ways that the other individuals at The Garden have been impacted?
Julia: I know Amill and Britt felt really, really scared. They received a lot of direct threats. They left. They definitely didn't even feel safe to be at the property.
Tree: They’re on TikTok. And they felt threatened—they were personally attacked. They couldn't be there anymore.
Looking back, which accusations against the Garden felt the most off the mark, and why?
Julia: I mean, I guess the cult accusation. In so many other projects [we've worked on], it's like, “Okay, this person owns the land and we all help him out.” In The Garden, Patrick [Martion] owns the land, but [he] works harder than anybody, has the exact same living space that everybody else has. Everybody is equal parts a leader—it was one of the most non-hierarchical spaces I've ever experienced. So to be called a cult, which is something [where] people are being forced towards a certain ideology or something, just felt so off the mark.
Tree: It’s completely the opposite of what the Garden was. You're free to believe and do as you wish, as long as you don’t hurt people, or hurt the space. Nobody can live in one structure for more than a year, to prevent the idea of personal ownership. It’s supposed to be kind of like a revolving door where people come, they get inspired, they learn, and then they expand out. People ask, "Why did you leave The Garden?"—thinking we lived there. It was always a transitory space.
I guess [also the accusation] that people of color were not safe there [felt off the mark]. We had multiple families of color there. It was a very inclusive and non-judgmental space. We had queer people there, we had trans people there, we had the whole spectrum of the LGBTQ community there at The Garden.
Julia: [Neuroatypical] people, people that maybe don't feel like they fit in. It's like here, you're accepted for who you are.
Are you saying many of those people have left because of what happened?
Tree: Well, they were directly threatened that people were going to come and burn down their bus.
Were there any other accusations that felt off the mark to you?
Julia: I mean, people would say, “Oh, anyone's welcome: That means that a pedophile could enter the space, so how could it be safe there?” I thought about that one a lot. [The Garden is] like a park. Anyone’s welcome at a park, right? Anyone's welcome at a library. But how do you keep your kids safe in a library? You look after them. It’s the same at The Garden. We’re all usually together, looking out for the kids. We have all these methods to look out for each other.
If there [is] an act of violence, we try to de-escalate the situation.
Tree: It’s not an open-door policy; it's a visitor pass. You can be a visitor for three to ten days, or just even for a tour. And on your tenth day, [you go to council] and [say], “Hey, I would like to stay longer.” And then we have a consensus, which means 100 percent of the people need to say yes about this person becoming a long-term member of the community. One person could just say no. [And] if someone comes into the space and someone feels really unsafe about them, they can immediately ask that person to leave.
Is Rel still there? What's the latest with her?
Julia: So [after a certain point], as a collective, we were like, “Hey, people are mad. They’re threatening us. Let's stop posting controversial stuff and just post positive stuff to show who we really are.” But Rel loves to kind of shock people with who she is, so she continued doing that. And then, because she wanted to continue doing that, and everyone else at the Garden decided that wasn't what was best for the space, she decided, “I'm going to just keep doing me. I'm just not going to do it at The Garden.”
Tree: She's an artist that believes in full expression of self. She didn't want to filter herself. So she decided to do that somewhere else basically.
Julia: But there's really no hard feelings, I would say.
She seemed to be a target for a lot of the negativity on TikTok—do you think that was fair?
Julia: I think I know who Rel is from living in community with her. I know that she’s the first person to cook a huge meal for everybody, or give up her bed because new people showed up and they want a comfy spot. I know who she is in terms of her actions. I think in terms of how to speak eloquently about racism and all these things, she’s maybe even more behind with those things. But she's not any of those things that they were [making] her out to be.
Some of the videos she made, I'd be like, “Oh, no,” because I know how people are going to see it. [But] I kind of had more time to normalize it. I was like, “Oh, I would never make a skirt out of my dog, but I can't think of any moral reason why you shouldn't.” Other people just see that and are like, “Who is this psycho?” She would defend herself, but she also likes to keep it going. I think she's not bothered by the hate as much as we were.
It seemed that people were cherry-picking details like that and then weaving them into this cult narrative. Still, I'm curious: With that video about Kool-Aid, were you trolling?
Tree: When we first got accused of being a cult, I was like, “Wow, this is really funny. People think we’re a cult. This is the least [culty place] I've ever been in my life." So I went around with my camera like, "Oh, hey, guys. Are we in a cult?"
Julia: I think Rel's approach was just like, “Make a mockery of it. Mock the Kool-Aid thing.” She made those scary videos. I didn't know which tactic was going to work. I was like, “Maybe TikTok will respond well if we just make fun of it.” And it ended up all being used against us. You see people put it together, and they're like, “This is what it looks like when you're a cult. You don't have to say you're not a cult if you're not a cult.”
Were there any points raised or criticisms that were made about the Garden that you think were more valid, especially when it comes to using social media to promote the place?
Tree: I have always [a believer in] showing truly who you are, and being honest. That's how I’ve always been presenting myself online—as who I am. Definitely going viral, there's a lot of scrutiny and hatred out there, especially in this social justice kind of space online. So I’m definitely questioning now, what do I say? Because it seems like nowadays you can’t have an open discussion, an actual dialogue, with people about things. It's definitely changed my trust in social media and trust in [the idea of presenting yourself honestly online].
Julia: I think we were maybe a little too trusting and we should've maybe met people where they were at a little bit more and not just shock them with full honesty. I also believe that we kind of got carried away with the algorithm: Seeing that giving the address got us more views, and so then we gave the address more, and then it kind of snowballed.
Tree: Once our videos started to go over a million, we ended up being on people's For You pages that had never experienced or understood this way of life before other than watching a horror movie. And so they're going to run with it, you know what I mean?
One criticism was that it wasn't a good idea to post the address, or put out an open call for anybody to come there. Was there any merit to that argument to you?
Julia: I think we always kind of knew that that was a really radical thing to do. We kind of thought, Worst comes to worst, too many people show up and we just send them where they need them to go, [to] other communities. The way the state of the earth right is now, radical action is needed. We can't just keep living within the system and making little changes and reusing a water bottle. It's going to get to a place where millions of people are going to be displaced and need to know how to survive.
Within the scope of that issue, it made sense to be radical and say, “Come.” And maybe even put ourselves more on the line, like we are willing to be that filter to get more people involved in this movement. I think before VICE came, I remember there being a conversation where it was like even if it goes badly, still more people will see what we're doing here.
Was there also a hard realization in that? That even when good intentions are combined with the world of social media and how algorithms work, there may be unforeseen dangers that arise?
Tree: No, it's actually the best approach you can go for. There's nothing more impactful than saying, “Hey, you. Come here. Let's do it.” This is the approach that we need, because we need radical change right now. We need to use our physical hands and bodies to create that change. We need to grow the seeds for a sustainable future. And we're going to do that by inviting people to spaces. We need more addresses that want to be open to people who want to come and learn how the heck to do this.
But it also clearly did affect you [and others at the Garden] in a negative way. How do you hold those two truths together?
Julia: Yeah, I think it was eye-opening in terms of where the current mindset is at. There's a multitude of tactics within the whole movement, and this was our tactic. Even though we experienced a lot of negative and feeling afraid, someone who stopped by said something like, “It's difficult work, but it's the work that needs to be done. People have got to wake up to what's really going on in this world. Even if they're going to hate it at first, and they're going to demonize us, maybe that's just the burden we have to bear for the sake of showing people a more sustainable way to live.”
So after all you've gone through—all of the drama, the strife—you still feel it was worth it?
Tree: 100 percent. And I'm not going to stop. We're not going to stop. We're going to have to figure out ways to ultimately make it more sustainable, but ultimately we need to get this message across to the whole world.
Do you think that the Garden will be open to the public again eventually? Julia: All the people that worked to make it what it is over 12 years did it with the intention that it is free land for free people. So, yes, I think that intention still holds.