Who Do I Think I Am?

Since the publication of “Beyond Counterculture: the Community of Mateel”, a book version of my doctoral dissertation, I have been approached eagerly by persons from outside the Land of Shum (what I now call the place I used to call Mateel) for more information. I know that some people since then actually moved to the Land of Shum because of my book, seeking to be a part of the cultural experiment I described. Others, residents of Shum, many of whom came long after the marijuana industry had distorted pretty much everything I described, have attacked me angrily for “providing information” to various agencies of the government. This, in spite of my great care in providing no specific information the government did not clearly already have.

My attitude on that charge is that what happened in the Land of Shum, now distorted and distilled though it may be, is of enormous concern to any persons seeking to change industrial civilization in a direction that will reduce or eliminate those trends now threatening to destroy all life on the planet. Our mistakes, our successes, what our lives were like are an example from which others concerned about the planet can learn and I happened to have been ejected from mainstream society at exactly the right time with exactly the right training and tools to present the most informed and objective picture possible at the time. Those concerns, to me, far, far outweigh any conceivable assistance anti-marijuana forces might obtain from information in my book.

To those of my colleagues or other persons interested in anthropology who charge me with “going native” I have said many times and will say again, I’m not an anthropologist who went native. I’m a native who went anthropologist. In addition, as I argued successfully to my committee, composed of very highly regarded anthropologists and the head of the Environmental Science Department at WSU, the whole concept of participant-observation was and still is in great need of reworking to bring it out of the 19th century and rid it of imperialism, sexism and racism and I view my fieldwork as part of that effort. Had I not been an integral part of the culture I was studying, given the importance of subjectivity and the great value placed on privacy in that culture, I would never have been able to describe it as accurately as I believe I did. The full version of this argument can be found in the book.

The intrepid anthropologist paddling upriver through the jungle to encounter an illusive and secretive tribe. . . not. Its a gag shot at a SoHum swimming hole. I had taken, with permission, shots of nude women who said I could photograph them nude if I allowed them to photograph me nude. Then we all got silly with the bee hat and the inflatable canoe. Since I never used their photos, I feel released from the deal and photoshopped myself a top.

The intrepid anthropologist paddling upriver through the jungle to encounter an illusive and secretive tribe. . . not. Its a gag shot at a SoHum swimming hole. I had taken, with permission, shots of nude women who said I could photograph them nude if I allowed them to photograph me nude. Then we all got silly with the bee hat and the inflatable canoe. Since I never used their photos, I feel released from the deal and photoshopped myself a top.

 

Yet, it is legitimate to ask who the hell do I think I am to be the one to archive, analyze and describe it. Thus, a small wrap-up of the personal history that led to my writing about the culture of southern Humboldt County. After dropping out of anthropology graduate school at UC Berkeley, in direct response to six years of unremitting turmoil there, I became one of the people I later called “refugees.” I landed in the place some call SoHum but which I have always in my head, especially when in a Biblical mood, called the Land of Shum, with all my anthro training alive and well in my head and at the exact point in my academic career when I would have gone to some foreign land to do my fieldwork. I had hoped to go to India, but Fate placed me in Briceland instead. In some ways, I could say that I didn’t need to go to India because India came to me.

The anthropologist at work on revising a doctoral dissertation into a book, late 80s.

The anthropologist at work on revising a doctoral dissertation into a book, late 80s.

So, I remained an anthropologist, took notes, interviewed people, took pictures, attended meetings and events from the moment I landed to the time I became convinced that the world needed a scientific, objective, accurate account of just what happened in SoHum, starting around 1968 and ending around 1985. This is the time period I stipulated as my “ethnographic present”, ie, the period of time during which I claim to have been studying this culture. For purposes of the book, and later for journalistic purposes, I have maintained the level of objectivity and professionalism I deem appropriate. For purposes of this blog, however, I make no such claim and feel free to just show you what I’ve got and tell you what I saw and how I feel about it and to offer opinions related to current matters. As a reporter, I wrote opinion columns for the various small newspapers I worked for and I view this blog through that lens as well.

(Below, my campsite in the meadow adjacent to a rental farmhouse on Briceland Road occupied at that time by members of the Shummian drama group Pure Shmint. From this location I did three months of intensive and traditional ethnographic fieldwork, only a small part of the 15 years of participant-observation on which my book is based. At that time I drove a Dodge van I had rigged for use as a field office and in which I could sleep if I was in the field and could not for some reason get back to camp before bedtime. Alternative Energy Engineering had rigged for me a DC electrical system for the tent, run off the van battery. I cooked on a propane hot plate, bathed in the nearby creek (soapless so as not to contaminate the creek) and, once or twice, in the farmhouse. The building in the background is a shed, one of the outbuildings of the farmhouse.)

I did the fieldwork because there was no helping it. There was no way I could not have done it. And, as it turned out, I believe what I was given the opportunity to describe is of much more practical value to those wishing to save us from extinction than anything I could have seen in India. In spite of the sneers I endured from my editor at WSU Press when I used the phrase, I consider the 20 or so years I spent both participating in and observing back-to-the-landers in Shum and my subsequent interest and writing on that subject to be my “life’s work.” That’s a phrase you evidently aren’t allowed to use without ridicule until you have both tenure and professional fame, but I’m going to ignore that rule because of all the injustice that has prevented me from obtaining tenure and professional fame. It has been my life. It has been my work. And it still is.

Only a fraction of what I learned appeared in my dissertation and only a fraction of that was accepted by my doctoral committee, although I did manage to sneak a chapter rejected for the dissertation into the book. As other anthropologists have done before me, albeit in their case with financial support, I will continue to make available to other scholars as much as I can of the material I collected during my decades of fieldwork and here is one place I can do that.

Over the years since the publication of my book in 1999, I have been and still am frequently contacted by students and researchers wanting to know more about the culture I described in my book. The current blog is intended to provide from my archives answers to the questions I have been asked and/or expect to be asked in the future.

Beyond Counterculture: the community of Mateel is available to download for free through the Humboldt State University Library’s Digital Scholarship Program.  The electronic edition has been edited to reverse some problems that were created when Washington State University Press decided to edit my manuscript with a chainsaw. I have reinstated material that was edited to remove any feminist language or that was banished into the footnotes for reasons beyond my comprehension. At last editing the book that represents my life’s work, after years of being edited as a writer and a reporter by people not qualified to do so, has been just incredibly therapeutic.

1 thought on “Who Do I Think I Am?

  1. doug1943

    Thank you so much for your work. People who live through extraordinary times are usually too busy living to document them, even if they had the skills to do so. So the future generations learn about them only by ‘official’ sources. If the extraordinary times embrace enough people — as a war does — then there will usually be enough diaries to give a personal view. But the ‘counterculture’ doesn’t seem to have produced much of that, and even where it has, it’s mainly the political side that gets written about. So thank you again for this.

    Reply

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