“Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” That 2019 tweet from @maplecocaine has become a mantra for the extremely online.
But what happens when you become the main character for a significant number of TikTok users? And not just the main character but the main villain in a conspiracy theory that casts you as the leader of an insidious, cat-eating, and potentially murderous cult?
That’s what happened to TreeIsAlive — Tree for short — a 24-year-old redheaded British man traveling across the U.S. with his partner Julia. He intended his TikTok posts about The Garden, a commune in Lafayette, Tennessee, to spread the word and encourage other people to visit. But they became the catalyst for what some see as a crowdsourced investigation into a cult and others consider a moral panic remade for the digital age.
Since he first posted on TikTok in late January 2021, Tree has amassed over 82,000 followers on the app. (I’ve agreed not to use his real name because of the ongoing harassment he’s been subject to.) Born in Liverpool, he’s spent the last few years travelling around Europe and Africa, and has also visited communes in Costa Rica. He and Julia have documented their experiences on their YouTube channel, Astro Kidz, and on TikTok.
In January, Tree published TikTok posts about climate change (3,000 likes), making a birdhouse (2,160 likes), and “showering off-grid” (6,487 likes) — all shot at The Garden. But it was his video from February 2 — a tour of the commune in which he shared its address and encouraged TikTokers to join him there — that went big. It has 57,000 likes at the time of writing and over 2,738 comments.
Julia tells me about the point at which the tour video started to take off: “It started off really positive, and TikTok showed what we were doing to people who were interested in this kind of community. But then we got to the next level of ‘viralness,’ and it reached people who were totally unaware of the idea of intentional living.”
Tree picks up the story there: “We didn’t take the criticism to heart originally, but at a certain point it definitely turned. I think my somewhat ‘charisma’ was turned around and represented as me being a ‘leader.’ I was just a guy making TikToks. I’d only been at The Garden for three months; this is a community that has been going for 12 years.”
The Garden’s origin story is knotty. Its founder — and one of the owners of the 21.5-acre plot of land it sits on — is Patrick Martion, who grew up in the utopian, bohemian groups the Rainbow Gathering movement and the Rainbow Family of Living Light. Just like The Garden, the Rainbow Gathering/Family is considered a cult by some and seen as (mostly) harmless by others. Tree and Julia say they originally met on the way to a Rainbow Gathering protest.
“I had this vision where we’d get this land and that people would flock to it.”
Beginning as an offshoot of the Rainbow Family’s Shut Up & Eat traveling kitchens, The Garden was originally called Shut Up and Grow It. Its stated purpose is to encourage people to sustainably produce food, and its website describes the endeavor as “an egalitarian, alternative, leaderless (leaderful) community propagating a culture of sharing freedom and cooperation.”
The Garden is governed through council meetings that try to achieve consensus and — when the space is open — new arrivals are given a 10-day pass, during which time they can be asked to leave by any community member. After 10 days, visitors who are still there can ask the rest of the group to be allowed to stay longer.
In a YouTube interview from July 2020, Martion explains the “very clear goal” of The Garden: “to enable and empower as many people as possible, as fast as possible, to no longer need money.” He adds, “I had this vision where we’d get this land, I’d put it out there on the internet, and let people know what we were planning on doing, and that people would flock to it.”
The number of people living on the site has been as high as 100; Rel has said there were about 30 residents at the time of the first TikTok. But the very attention that drew a steady flow of people from TikTok to visit the commune may also have broken it for good.
It’s not surprising that a community with a publicly promoted “open-door policy,” which has seen hundreds of people pass through it over the course of its 12 year history, has as many detractors as it has advocates. Former members who were asked to leave (“run off” in the commune’s parlance) tell stories of egos, cliques, and support for conspiracy theories. But others, some of whom are admittedly more recent community members, describe a supportive environment that had to tell dangerous or disruptive people to leave for the good of the community.
It isn’t hard to see why TikToks from Tree and others in the group made people suspicious. To a lot of people, the word “commune” is a synonym for “cult.” Other TikTok users quickly accused Tree of actively recruiting vulnerable people, and as more members of The Garden started to post — including often trollish responses to the cult accusations — the amount of material amateur TikTok sleuths had to analyze grew. They dug into the backgrounds of people posting clips and those featured in them, discovering difficult pasts, criminal records, seemingly disturbing YouTube videos, and a shocking story about a cat.
Emily Church, a British YouTuber who presents a series called Weird Reads With Emily Louise, was drawn to the community investigating the commune. She says that internet sleuths are split into two groups: “People like me on one side who think it’s not a cult, but could be dangerous in some ways, and the ‘investigators’ on the other who are convinced that it definitely is a cult.”
TikTok posts by Rel Gumson, the second-most followed person connected to the commune after Tree (61,000 followers), have played a big part in fueling cult talk on the social network. Her posts include a description of how she made the carcass of her dead pet dog into a skirt and video of a candle-lit “séance.”
In one of her TikToks, residents at The Garden pass around a wine-filled jug labeled “Kool Aid,” mocking the cult accusations. She’s said she wasn’t referring to the poisoned Flavor-Aid used in the mass murder/suicide at Jonestown but Ken Kesey’s LSD-laced Kool-Aid, as documented in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
But it was Tree’s story of how commune members killed, cooked, and ate a feral cat because it was killing their chickens — which he told via TikTok livestream — that really alarmed many TikTok investigators, who expressed fears that the cult could end in murder.
The cat incident occurred long before either Tree or Julia was present at The Garden. In a since-deleted Facebook post, Martion explained that the cat was shot after the group failed to catch it in a trap. He also commented that it “tasted like chicken.”
“If you want an internet hate machine, tell them you killed and ate a cat.”
“If you’re going to kill it, you should eat it,” Rel told Insider “I don’t see why somebody would kill an animal if they’re not going to eat it, if it’s edible.” It’s a viewpoint she’s shared in several TikTok videos, while defending both herself and The Garden in general.
Former The Garden resident David Guthrie says he had told the group before that they shouldn’t talk about the cat online: “If you want an internet hate machine, tell them you killed and ate a cat.”
Guthrie is a hacker, activist, and photographer who first started going to The Garden “about four years ago” and was “run off” the commune in May last year because, he claims, he told the group that they were not taking the Covid-19 pandemic seriously enough. (I’ve seen chat logs involving Guthrie and other Garden members that confirm he was part of the group.) He says he’s concerned about Covid denial and QAnon beliefs among Garden residents but doesn’t think it’s a cult.
“The Garden is a grand experiment in truth,” he says. “Running land that operates by general consensus for over a decade is impressive. But groupthink is one of those things that presages cult mentalities.”
Input spoke to three experts specializing in the study of minority religious and spiritual and political movements. None of them were comfortable with labeling The Garden a cult.
“Opinions are always going to be polarized,” says Dr. Sarah Harvey, senior research officer at King’s College London’s Inform center. “There are always going to be people who have different experiences and opinions — some positive, some negative — within the same group. One of the problems with applying a ‘cult’ label, which is not something we do, is the question of who gets to decide whether this is a cult? Does that then invalidate any positive experiences?”
Timothy Miller, emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas and author of The Encyclopedic Guide to American Intentional Communities, echoes Harvey’s sentiments. “In the academic world, we shy away from the world ‘cult’ because it imposes a judgment before the evidence has been heard,” Miller says. “While I’m not familiar with The Garden, I do know something about the Rainbow Gathering/Family, and I would imagine there’s nothing sinister there.”
The self-appointed investigators also dug into Tree’s past posts — deciding that a YouTube video of a dramatic improvisation in which a wide-eyed Tree talked to a seemingly imaginary woman named Margaret was yet more proof that he was an unhinged cult leader.
The virtual frenzy on TikTok translated into serious actions IRL. A prominent figure among the TikTok sleuths, Edie Santos — who posts as Book of Edith and has been promoting a forthcoming podcast series about cults — has said she called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report Tree. “He’s abusing our visa system,” she told Insider. “If you’re going to come here, be respectful. Contribute to our society, be a respectful person, but don’t prey on people during the pandemic."
There have also been death threats. Amil and Britt Livingston, a couple who had moved to the commune at the start of the pandemic and posted on TikTok about their experiences there for their 18,000 followers, left after saying that their lives had been threatened via online comments. Other residents of The Garden followed them, including Tree and Julia last week.
On Sunday, Rel posted a series of TikToks announcing that The Garden is, for the first time ever, officially closed to the public, “because no matter how many times we’ve proven, over and over again, that all the accusations are just straight misinformation and lies, people are continually harassing us.” She adds, “Y’all ruined it for everybody.”
Between its dwindling population and its closure to the public, the commune’s future has become cloudy. But the story of The Garden will no doubt make waves again soon because a Vice documentary crew visited the commune before the exodus. Tree believes the project will allow people to see The Garden as the good place he believes it to be: “Hopefully it will put the message out there about what The Garden really is.” Given how the commune has already been portrayed, he may be a little too optimistic.
Emily Church compares the entire episode to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. “There are some interesting points to be made about communes in general — like are they safe places for marginalized people?” she says. “But people are jumping from that to ‘This ginger dude from Liverpool is the next Jim Jones!’”
Whatever your conclusion about The Garden, it’s clear that Tree — who only spent a few months on the commune — is no cult leader, either there or anywhere else. He’s a young man who’s very enthusiastic about sustainability and occasionally a little naïve, who posted some videos. There is no evidence that he intended anything beyond that or that he’s responsible for what The Garden is or isn’t. He and Julia are still travelling around the U.S., visiting other intentional communities, and posting new videos on YouTube.
The problem with the story of TikTok and The Garden is that it’s one of conflicting opinions, competing worldviews, and a very messy community. None of that can be solved or summed up in a 60-second TikTok.