Author Archives: Jentri

Jan and the Helicopter

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, more or less a people’s history of SoHum.

Jan Iris, in the 80s.

On a day more cloudy than not, I found myself running down a dirt road after a large hairy man who was more or less my boss, more or less a colleague and certainly a dear friend. It had started out a routine day at Briceland Community High School, the alternative school at which we both taught and, as we ran, I noticed that my running was calm and methodical. So was his. There was something almost uncanny about it, something dreamlike. He was not aware of me or anything except the helicopter flying over the dirt road down which we we ran. We could not now see the helicopter but the heart-thumping sound of it was all around us, bouncing off the canyons, coming from every direction at once. We had not entered the Twilight Zone—it was only the first day of CAMP.

California Against Marijuana Planting was a drug eradication program initiated in 1983 by former California Attorney General Van de Kamp, and named as a cute little play on his name. It spent a lot of California taxpayer money, about three million dollars a year, in the nearly 30 years of its existence, transporting members of various  agencies by helicopter to rural areas in California to harvest the marijuana crop early and sometimes to arrest those living in the nearest house, whether they were the cultivators are not. In the first years, it looked very much like a military invasion, flying so low over houses and homesteads that fruit trees and chicken coops were blown apart by the downwash. Livestock were spooked and owners sometimes injured trying to calm them down and prevent them from running into fences or over cliffs. Children were buzzed as they walked from the school bus. The resemblance to Vietnam at the height of the war was more than coincidental. Many of the pilots had, or so it was widely rumored, been helicopter pilots in Vietnam.

Now I ran behind this big man, two strides to his one, trying to keep him in my sight, compelled by some urgency I could not at the time have explained. Trees met over our heads, but I knew that the apparently thick brush at the side of the road only went a few feet horizontally, then dropped off sharply down the side of the Elk Ridge. I was supposed to have stayed with the truckload of high school students we had brought on this impromptu field trip to see our law enforcement officials in action. But somehow, when Jan pulled the truck to the side of the road at the top of the ridge, jumped out and started running down a branch road, I knew he should not go alone. I told the kids to stay in the two vehicles no matter what, short of an emergency, and took off after him.

We ran quietly, introspectively, through the green tunnel of tan oak and madrone trees. Suddenly, the road widened a bit, there was a break in the green tunnel overhead, a wide patch of blue sky. There was a change in the heart-stopping sound around us and the helicopter popped up from behind trees on the downslope side. I found myself watching one of the gentlest giants I have ever met, a man who named himself “Iris,” after the most delicate of wildflowers, a man I had seen display the most incredible calm in the most frustrating of situations—I saw this man begin to scream crazily at the helicopter as it first hovered, then buzzed him repeatedly.

It was trees, not marijuana plants, but it looked a lot like this.

I caught up to him as he ran at some trees behind which the chopper had just dropped. There was no name for the kind of rage electrifying the air around him. I knew it was a rage that went far deeper than marijuana issues or Humboldt County issues or bureaucracies or attacks on the Constitution. I knew that Jan’s rage had taken us back to Vietnam. There was no reaching him, no cooling him out, no talking him down. My assignment was to witness and to validate his rage.

I don’t know how long it lasted. A minute? Five minutes? The helicopter, most likely piloted by another Vietnam vet, hovered, buzzed, dropped, hid, teased, whipping the trees dangerously over our heads. The man on the ground shook his fists at it, yelling, “You bastards, you sons-of -bitches,” over and over. The woman on the ground witnessed, standing silent and awestruck. Finally the helicopter went away. Jan stood there in the middle of the road, staring at the sky, fists still clenched. I watched as, muscle by muscle, he relaxed. Then, he turned slowly and saw me for the first time. There was no need for either of us to say anything. I never told a soul. He never mentioned it. I only tell it now because Jan is dead, it no longer can affect him, and I know that he would understand why the story is important.

Me, at the time I was a teacher at Bri Hi.

As we walked in silence back to the children, the rain finally started. We hurried back into the truck and my car, drove back to the three-room schoolhouse and built a big fire to dry the kids out. What he said to them that day about the constitutional right to privacy or the sole right of Congress to declare war, I’ll never know as I had other classes to teach, but I know the image of Jan screaming at the helicopter will never leave me. It lives in the same mental file as my own memories of the helicopters of war—the ones that flew over Vietnam, which I only saw in footage, the ones that flew over Berkeley, the one that sprayed nausea gas on me and the entire campus of the University of California in 1968—on old people, sick people, children and other innocents. The rage I felt then brought me to SoHum. The rage Jan had just shown me brought him there, too. I know because he told me.

The first time I saw Jan was in court. It was my second Fall in the Land of Shum, long before the advent of either the bigtime marijuana industry or CAMP. The county sheriffs were busting small growers with their Marijuana Eradication Team. We heard that there had been a raid on one of the roads near Briceland. The sheriffs were going from house to house without warrants or probable cause, looking for marijuana, arresting men, women and children living on any land where it was found growing. Following instincts honed during my years in Berkeley, I wanted to drive down the road they were busting and see who needed help.

My new boyfriend agreed, so we piled our respective children into the old VW bus and took off. We passed several sheriff’s cars, waved at them cheerily and continued down the road. No one stopped us. About two miles in, we saw some children hiding in the brush. They interpreted our hippie van correctly as the arrival of help and ran out to us. The little ones were crying. The big one told us his mother had been arrested. She had put him in charge of his younger siblings at first sight of the sheriffs and told them to hide in the woods. He told us that their neighbors, the entire Hoka Hey Commune, recently arrived in the area, had been arrested—mothers, babies and all.

We brought the children out to the county road where they spotted friends in the anxious group of people gathered there. Thinking again of Berkeley, I remembered how glad I was when I was released from the Santa Rita Jail after being busted in the Free Speech Movement, to see, at 3 a.m. at the gates, a long line of cars driven by faculty members, waiting to take us home. I thought, do the new people have anyone to pick them up when they are released? No one knew. My friend, Sandy, and I called the court and learned that the Hoka Hey people would be arraigned the next day. The children would stay overnight in foster homes.

Next day, we drove to Eureka to get them. At the arraignment, they filed in, men bearded and long-haired, women in long skirts. They filled up the jury box where they had been told to stand to enter a plea. One stood out because of his height and bearing. Your eye I went immediately to Jan. He spoke to the judge without waiting to be spoken to, asking politely to address the court. The judge, perhaps expecting a group of acid casualties with burnt-out synapses in the language in areas of their brains, appeared surprised by the assurance of such an obvious misfit. Startled, he gave permission.

“The most important question to be settled here,” said Jan, “is the separation of mothers and children.” He went on. There were children who had been separated from their mothers with no explanation whatsoever and held in strange homes for 24 hours. The children had never been away from their mothers and were surely traumatized and frightened by the experience. Even an unweaned toddler had been separated from her mother, who was now in agony with overfilled breasts. Could those mothers be excused immediately to pick up their children? The judge was pissed, but not at the audacity of the hippie spokesperson. He was pissed at the cops for arresting the mothers and children with so little evidence and callously putting them through such an experience unnecessarily. He asked the mothers to step forward. As it turned out, there was only one, the mother of Jan’s child. She entered her “not guilty” plea on the spot and was released to collect her two-year-old daughter. I was entranced. Such self-possession on the part of someone who looked so completely out of it was an impressive sight to me.

They entered their pleas and were released. Sandy and I drove them back to SoHum, her pick-up truck filled to capacity. I rode in the back and debriefed one of the bearded men, getting the story of the commune, their arrival in SoHum and the bust. It was my first experience of marijuana busts in my community but there would be many more to come, equally unjustified and at least as traumatic, inspiring in years to come the concerted effort of the community to legally restrain the authorities from such unwarranted behavior in the future. The Hoka Hey commune went on to become the center of the drama world in SoHum, through the drama group, Pure Shmint, and Jan became a pillar of the community, the mover and shaker who founded Wild Iris Forestry, the Institute for Sustainable Forestry and his other brain child, Briceland Community High School. 

The all school cast of Briceland Community High School’s production of West Side Story. Although the high school only lasted 3 years, it was a monument to Jan’s tenacity, a loving experiment in education and, I believe, a memorable experience for most of its graduates.

My best memory of him, aside from the time he nearly broke my foot overturning a heavy burl table on it at an emotional parent-teacher meeting, was when we all went to Orr Hot Springs on a retreat to organize and plan the high school curriculum. After a session in the hot tub, my colleagues had all plunged into the ice-cold swimming pool, but I squatted meekly on the edge, unable to take the plunge. Jan walked by and casually tipped me in with a finger to the shoulder. As I came up sputtering, he smiled sweetly and said, “You looked like you needed some help.” It was love him or attack him. That was Jan.

More journalism, columns on war

Although my career in journalism only lasted five years, counting only years I made my living at it, I value much of the work I did as having a more than immediate value. I saved some of it–well, hell, I was only getting paid $7.50 an hour, I had to get some kind of emotional reward just to keep going. Below are some examples of my journalism work that I find just as relevant today as they were when I wrote them. Others may be found elsewhere on this blog under the tag “journalism.”

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“Stones from the River” a precious find

Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi, paperback edition, published by Scribner, 1994. Available at Orange Cat Goes to Market in Garberville

 Book review 

by Jentri Anders

In these days of publishing trends, of formula novels written by best-selling authors with an eye to the movie and television royalties, a truly good novel is a precious find.  For those who still value literature and are interested in an example of the real thing, let me tell you about this great book I just read.

“Stones from the River” will probably not be made into a movie, thank the goddess, though with the right director, it could be more powerful than “Schindler’s List.” Technically, it is a historical novel, but not so very long ago and not so very far away. Be ready for cold shivers of déjà vu.

We are in a small city in Germany, between the two world wars. The author does not give us the population of Bergdorf, near Dusseldorf and Dresden, but maybe it is about the size of Fortuna – or even Garberville.

Everyone knows everyone else and, though they follow social rules that seem rigid to us modern folks, the author skillfully makes the point that conformity, hypocrisy and a shallow form of tolerance can live side by side, as long as they all remain within the boundaries of the known and predictable.

The town has its code, it’s own rendition of deutscheordnung – German order.  Those who depart from it, genetically or socially, will know lonliness, but they will be “our own eccentrics.” Bergdorf thus has in its populace people who are insane, crippled, sadistic, mentally defective and pregnant without husbands, even if it does not always include those people socially. The town also has its Jews, the respected and the eccentric, and before Hitler, they are only slightly distinguishable from the good German Catholics.

Trudi Montag is born deeply German, of the Aryan type that will be increasingly lauded as she becomes a young woman. She is blond and blue eyed, born of German parents, with a war hero for a father. Though her coloring and parentage will stand her in good stead, there is nothing she can do about the fact that she is a genetic dwarf – ein Zwerg. The social structure of the town has a place for her, but her intellect, insight and courage are far too large to fit into it.

The book could have worked well if it were only Trudi’s story, and, at first, the reader comes to expect that it is the story of Trudi’s life. Trudi’s mother dies. Trudi’s few friends, including her Jewish friend, Eva, ultimately betray her when friendship with a dwarf becomes unwieldy. Trudi meets another Zwerg, a beautiful one who becomes her role model.

Then comes Hitler… so many novels have told that story, from the standpoint of the Jews, the Americans, the French, the Nazis, but none from such a unique vantage point within non-Nazi German culture, none with such delicacy and none with such inclusiveness.

But, most of all, the book benefits from the author’s utter refusal to hurry the pace and the uncompromising subtlety with which she links Trudi’s experience of the small town to the rise of fascism. The pace itself conveys how insidious, how inexorable, how seductive it must have been.

Bit by bit, through Trudi’s shrewd and somewhat prophetic eyes, we begin to see how it happened, what caused it, what was wrong with the premise. Hitler himself is only drawn with reflections, but we come to know the brownshirts well. We see the social threads begin to unravel. Not only Jews, but intelligent and artistic women, communists and homosexuals are increasingly at risk, as well as anyone who questions.

The town reacts, and often in surprising ways. Characters who were mean become heroes, heroes become cowards and former cowards find the underground. Some of the most patriotic and intolerant citizens fight the Nazis just because the Nazis are rude to their mothers.

Hegi, a literature professor who spent the first 18 years of her life in Germany, bursts our American war-based stereotypes of Germans in a slow explosion that reminds us just how close our own culture is to German culture, good and bad.

One closes the book looking at one’s own hometown through Trudi’s eyes, hearing the German in English words, remembering that America entered World War II over the objections of its own Nazis, and praying that, in our own culture, there will be more Trudis than Adolphs at the first book burning.   


Basic training:  Five hours with Brian Willson

by Jentri Anders 

On September 1, 1987, peace activist S. Brian Willson was hit by a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station at Port Chicago, California. He and others were demonstrating their opposition to American aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. It was not the first time that Willson, a Vietnam veteran, had risked his life to prevent another Vietnam in central America. He was one of four veterans who fasted on the steps of the White House to build support in the U.S. against the right wing rebels. Had there not been a sudden upsurge of activism in the peace movement, he would no doubt have fasted to death, following the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Brian lost both legs below the knee.

Since then, Garberville Post 6354 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Post 1494 of the American Legion raised over $800 to purchase a chainsaw to run an Alaskan mill in the village of El Cedro, Nicaragua, where Contras have destroyed the homes of villagers. As it turned out, the chainsaw and mill were donated and the money raised went for related tools, spare parts and accessories.

.On Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15, Willson came to Garberville to accept these items and a letter from the community in order to take them to the Veterans Peace Action team for delivery to El Cedro. As vice-president of the Women’s Auxiliary to VFW Post 6354, I accompanied John Adkins, VFW member, to the Bay Area to pick up Brian and bring him to Garberville.

S. Brian Willson. The article I wrote did not include a picture of Brian. This one is from the Oregon newspaper, Street Roots News, photo by Becky Luening. I could find no online pictures of Brian at the age when I interviewed him, but the mood of this one is very close to how I remember him.

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We waited in a small living room lined with bookshelves. The shelf near me was full of medical and midwifery books surely belonging to Holly Rauen, who is a midwife. If I looked to the right, I saw a wall full of political posters, one of which, the beautiful portrait advertising the movie, The Hopi Prophecy, Is on one of my own walls. If I looked to the left, I saw shelves full of videocassettes with hand-lettered labels. Brian told me later that he had been sent videos of the  train attack from all over the country.

There was a chorus of voices from down the hall.

“Are you sure you don’t want your pain pills?”

“No, I don’t need them.”

“Do you have everything?”

A large man wearing a wildly flowered tie and red baseball cap with his ordinary suit jacket, towered over the band of concerned women as he emerged from the hall and looked into the living room where John and I sat.

It was only a second of real-time, but long enough. Brian doesn’t glance at you, note your presence, file it away under “what is she good for,” and then continue with his business. He really looks at you and that kind of a look is hard to come by. It might be that what caught his eye about me, and maybe John too, was that I had a grin on my face the size of California, so pleased was I to meet him. I hadn’t realized this until I saw that grin reflected on Brian’s face.

The transfer of care for Brian from his family to us was almost ceremonial. As she handed me his sweater and made me promise to see that he didn’t lose it, Holly’s voice said, “Because he can’t carry anything, he needs his hands for his canes, you know.” But, her eyes said, “I’m counting on you to take care of him.” I learned later that I was looking at a woman of unbelievable courage. I knew at the moment that I was looking at several people who loved Brian dearly. I carried the sweater as carefully as I have carried my babies.

You can’t be in Brian’s presence without feeling his incredible vitality. He tells you he was an all-American-type boy in high school, athletic, patriotic, etc., and you have no trouble believing that. In spite of the half-inch deep, 2 or 3-inch long scar on his forehead, an artifact of the train attack, he is a handsome man—hazel eyes, graying hair and beard which I suspect must have been red or reddish before the gray, and an open-faced look that I somehow associate with freckles, although I’m not sure now if he actually has freckles or not. He would look, at any rate, all-American, in the stereotypical sense, with or without freckles, with or without the baseball cap.

He walks on his two prosthetic lower legs with what looks like complete confidence, only setting down his canes about every four five steps. At 1:30 the next morning, after a day which exhausted me just following him around, he handed his canes to the nearest person and walked jauntily across the large room at the Vet’s Hall, demonstrating his recovery, then turned around and walked back without hesitation or the hint of a wobble. This is a man who came through a situation four months ago which would have laid low most people for years, or a lifetime. How did you do it, we all wanted to know. “I just visualize my feet,” said Brian, with a shrug.

When I had learned that I was going to spend a 5-hour drive with him, I resolved not to even mention what had happened to him on September 1. Most particularly, I decided, I would not ask him why he didn’t get off the tracks. I needn’t have been so tactful. Brian brings it up and talks about it easily. He didn’t get off the tracks because he could not believe the train would not stop.

I said to him, “Brian, if you had asked me, I would have told you but the train would run right over you the moment it was expedient.”

He gave me one of those open freckle-faced smiles and said, “Well, you’ve been at it longer than I have.” It was the gentlest of challenges and my only reply could be to meet the challenge with an expression both chagrined and exasperated. We both knew that the first thing he did when he was able, was go right back to Concord and sit on the tracks again. I was so aware of the hard shell of cynicism I grew in the 60s to keep me sane for the duration. I could feel his love and energy dissolving that shell every time he looked at me.

He tells you he you didn’t move, then he tells you about Holly. Holly had been a teenybopper flower child. They met in Nicaragua. Brian doesn’t remember September very well but he has seen all the video tapes, which put together cover 45 minutes almost without interruption. He says that Holly ran beside the train and, as soon as he popped out from under it, before the train even stopped rolling, she was stanching the blood with her skirt and yelling instructions to everyone around. A former military medic on the scene and Holly saved Brian’s life, not the Navy paramedics standing nearby. They did not make a move and refused to help even when Holly, soaked with Brian’s blood, begged them. A local firefighter unit administered oxygen, but the Navy paramedics only watched. A county ambulance arrived 40 minutes after the fact. Brian says this all came out at the congressional hearing, much to the astonishment of the congresspersons.

Brian tells you all this matter-of-factly. There wasn’t much difference between that story, in tone, and the conversation we had about being almost the same age, both being former Baptists who attended Baptist colleges and just how conservative those facts might have made us. I told him I had come to terms with my Christian background. He said his had made him so conservative that he once gave a speech advocating the position that we should nuke Hanoi. Yet, a more Christ-like person would be hard to find. I’ve met only a handful in my life, and only two in the last 10 years. The other one meditates most of the time.

Meditating is not what Brian does. His mission is people and it is clear that he draws his energy from those around him, focuses it, magnfies it and broadcasts it back out. It is as if he has accepted that he belongs to people and has as little reservation about that as is humanly possible. He and John and I talked nonstop for five hours, Then he may have gotten in an hour or two of rest. Following that, he was live on KMUD-FM, our local public radio station, with Rick Thornegate. He talked with Thorngate for an hour, and spoke for at least another hour to the rapt crowd packing the Vet’s Hall. Then, when any other speaker would have retired to his private motel room, he sat down and talked to all comers until way past midnight, looking more energetic at the end than at the beginning of what was, to me at least, an exhausting day.

As I sat down, at one point, in the circle of people listening to him tell a story, he glanced over at me and, without missing a beat, said, “You’ve already heard this story,” and then continued with it. To me, that showed that he doesn’t just spout words, he Is actually there with you, watching your reaction and communicating with a you that is real to him.

Throughout my time with Brian, I kept looking for the catch. (Old skeptics never die, they just fossillize.) Where is the bitterness, the anger, the frustration? He’s got a great story for that question. Brian knows the psychology of grief; he counseled Vietnam veterans at one time. He says that he once traveled through Nicaragua with Holly, visiting all the Nicaraguans maimed by the Contras with guns and landmines we sent for that purpose. He grieved for every one; he cried for every one. He said, “At some point, my legs and their legs became the same,” so that when he lost his legs under the train, he had already grieved for them.

No untouchable holier-than-thou, Brian leaves it open whether he will sometime have the depression all the psychologists tell him he must experience in order to heal. Brian leaves a lot open. All he claims is that he’s waging peace now and he’ll wage peace whatever happens to him. And he’s not asking you to do anything he did, only to wage peace however you can.

My favorite memory of Brian’s visit is the circle of children who surrounded him at one point, all quiet smiles, listening and talking to him and finally, one by one, hugging him before they went away. I thought, this is a man you want to touch. I had poked him playfully once or twice on the arm during the ride, but because I’m an adult, I was very concerned not to bug him or to presume on someone trying to cope, as he told me, with sudden fame. The kids, being kids, had no such hangups and did it for me, for all of us. I can only hope Brian takes those hugs with him down to Nicaragua and passes them out to the Nicaraguan children, along with the chainsaw and our letter.

From Star Route Journal, 1988

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Who’s driving the train?  Opinion

By Jentri Anders

If we are to expect recurring déjà vu as a result of the harmonic convergence, I definitely got mine watching the news footage of recent events in Concord. Here we go with the trains, again. It was maybe a little special for me personally because trains figure prominently in my own neurosis. From conception to sometime in my toddlerhood, I am told, my family lived right beside the railroad tracks in Cleveland, Ohio. On the wrong side, I’m sure. My father was a steelworker, transplanted from the South to what the history books tell me was a sort of a cracker ghetto during World War II. Later on, at a certain point in my 20s, I experienced hallucinations, probably malnutrition induced, in which the sound of trains would swell and block out all other input. My heart would race and I would feel a horrible sense of overpowering, immediate danger.

When the Vietnam War reached the point of escalation wherein long unused train tracks in Berkeley were reinstated to transport troops to Vietnam and the protesters of the war decided to block those tracks, it took all the courage I could muster to simply go and stand with them.

The first day we stood beside the tracks with signs. The train went on by. The second day we decided to stand or sit on the tracks. I walked a few miles that day beside a Buddhist woman who told me she felt as one with the indigenous Buddhists of Vietnam. The immolation of priests protesting the war had greatly impressed her. She said she would sit on the tracks.

I asked her, “What if the train doesn’t stop?” She said, “I don’t want to live in a world where the train doesn’t stop.”

Which brings us to Brian Willson, who did not get off the tracks in Concord while protesting arms to Nicaragua, was hit by the train and lost both legs below the knee. Why was he on the tracks? Why didn’t he jump? Why didn’t the train stop? None of them are new questions. Just the same old questions a generation later. The woman I walked with sat on the tracks to stop the Vietnam war. Brian, who fought in that war, sat on the tracks to stop another just like it.

The train came bearing down on us that day, blowing its horn, and yes, picking up speed as it approached, shooting out a cloud of steam some 30 or 40 feet in front of it. When the steam hit me, I jumped. I was well prepared to jump. My companion was sitting crosslegged on the tracks and I saw her disappear into the cloud of steam.

During the eternity it took for the train to pass, I believed she was under it. My world came apart then and I understood that my little brushes with racism, intolerance, but mostly just plain greed, had only been glimpses of the whole picture. Now, I really felt just how big, powerful, mindless, blindly mechanical and inhuman, how inflexible and one-track, how overwhelming, are the forces that lead to war. And, I could not imagine what could possibly stop them.

As it turned out, my friend was snatched off the tracks at the last minute by plain clothes policemen. Brian Willson was not. Some people think he is a lunatic. Some, including myself, think he is that incredible modern rarity, a person willing to die for what is right. In the last analysis, it doesn’t matter if he’s a lunatic or a model of courage for modern times. What matters is what drives the train. You cannot be so irrational as to believe what happened to Brian was an accident. A rational person listening to the facts must assume that at some point, somewhere in the chain of command leading to the engineer, there was a decision made to run the train no matter what or who was on the tracks.

Who made that decision? Was it the engineer? Was it the Navy? Was it the president? Was it those who elected the president and whose philosophy he represents? Was it those who created the atmosphere in which the engineer knew he would not be brought to justice? Was it those who failed to convince the electorate to reject the current government? Was it those who, like some victims of the Third Reich, drew the line only when tyranny advanced into their own lives, their own jobs, their own community?

Whether Brian Willson is a man of courage or a fool who deserved what he got, what happened to him has reminded us what the priorities are for those who make war. I think Brian was on those tracks and didn’t move because he wanted us to know that nothing will stop the train but enough people with the courage to live peace.

September 21 1987 Star Route Journal

UPDATE:  I learned only within the last few years that the woman on the tracks was the renowned Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron. I am bemused by the fact that what she said to me about not wanting to live in a world where the train would not stop is so similar to what Brian said to me about not believing that the train would not stop. I almost think Brian also said he did not want to live in a world where the train would not stop, but it was a long time ago and memories are fallible. If he said that, I did not write it down. I have no explanation for those similarities except the adage about great minds work in similar ways.

Introduction to the Land of Shum

The following is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript written in the 1990s, the beginning of a second book on the SoHum community.  It presents some of the material that appears in Beyond Counterculture: the community of Mateel, and will provide a starting point for those who have not read that book.

SoHum view. Photo by Stephanie Johnson.

SURE, WHY NOT? A HISTORY OF SOHUM

                                               by Jentri Anders

Who they are

Just past the middle of the 20th century, Western society developed a huge crack. Thousands, maybe millions, of newly formed and forming citizens fell into it. Some experts called this event “the generation gap” and saw it as the inevitable result of dropping the Big Bomb at the end of World War II. Others blamed the later advent of television or the allegedly “permissive” childrearing methods promoted by Dr. Benjamin Spock. Most people called it a collapse in morals and blamed the fallen themselves—an ungrateful bunch who simply had been spoiled rotten by Spock followers or post-war abundance or both.

The occupants of the crack themselves, however, experienced it as betrayal. They were, or had been, the most American of Americans. Their problem was not ingratitude or immorality. Their problem was that the American values they had been taught actually rendered them unsuitable to survive in the reality that America was becoming. The greater their allegiance to the loftiest ideals of America, the less competitive they were in the corporate workplace. American to the marrow of their bones, they had believed that every little boy could become president if he tried hard enough. (Rare were the little girls or children in shades of brown who consciously questioned the inequal premise of this belief. After all, who had ever seen a female president or one whose skin was dark?)

They had believed that, in the words of the Sunday school song, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” They had believed that Americans were the good guys who saved Europe from the bad guys in the last war, as seen in the war movies, and that Americans would always be the good guys. They had loved John F. Kennedy and many had actually joined the Peace Corps or wanted to. Their problem was that they had failed to grasp that they were only expected to give lip service to the ideals of equality, self-reliance, personal freedom and personal merit. No one really expected them to sacrifice anything for those ideals and, indeed, doing so was a quick path to tribulation.

They were born into a time when, for all but a handful, mindless conformity was becoming the only way to survive industrial civilization. It was as if the world were collectively holding its creative breath, lest any change precipitate still another unspeakable horror—perhaps this time a nuclear war to end all life on Earth. The prophet of this social stagnation was Joseph McCarthy, who was most active when the more precocious of the early and pre-baby boomers were just starting to read newspapers. The vehemence and comprehensiveness of his attacks on freethinkers and suspected freethinkers, working from the very core of a government ostensibly founded on the notion of liberty, was a paradox that became increasingly obvious. Though the influence of the committee he led, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, began to lose its influence long before the counterculture got started, its influence was felt well into the childhoods and adolescences of future dropouts.

Many future dropouts were preset to question the conformist paradigm by some particular condition that made it difficult for them to fit into the homogenized ideal family depicted on TV or in their schoolbooks. Maybe they were too fat, too thin, too poor, too disabled, too gay (to use today’s word). Maybe they were girls too smart to be “a real woman” who could catch “a good man,” or boys too sensitive or poetic or thoughtful or musical or artistic to meet the exacting standards of fifties masculinity. They may have formed controversial political opinions, such as being in favor of integration in the South. Whatever their secret difference, many knew early on that there was some lie behind the golden picture. The emotional impact of the assasination of John F. Kennedy was, for many, a most dramatic validation of that suspicion, nevermind the political explanations for that event that were established much later.

During the mid to late 1960s, demonstrations against racial inequality became demonstrations against the Vietnam War, as the draft claimed more and more young men, particularly those without the financial or political means to escape it. Those who had bought the American values of tolerance and equality now felt betrayed by the refusal of parents and teachers to even admit that anything at all unusual was happening in America. Discontents were dismissed out-of-hand as normal adolescent rebellion, in spite of the unprecedented nature of the historical situation and the fact that neither the civil rights movement nor the anti-war movement were by any means the exclusive purview of the young.

Universities and other duly constituted authorities scrambled to restrain students from their escalating efforts to expose the lie that all was well. That those authorities did not leap to assist the young in their defense of the highest American ideals was experienced as the profoundest betrayal, the ultimate in rank hypocrisy. Instead of being hailed as the courageous and honest idealists that they were, students and other young activists were expelled, arrested, evicted, ridiculed, fired, divorced and disinherited.

When marijuana and psychedelics were added to the mix, at home and among soldiers in Vietnam, the break was complete. If the catchphrase “this does not compute” had then been in use it would have become “and furthermore, it’s absurd.” What meaning remained for them at all, whatever shreds of personality had survived tear gas, riot guns, attack dogs, combat and the monolithic hypocrisy of formerly respected elders, was now dissolved or reworked by the deep cleaning power of LSD and marijuana. Some died here. Some were permanently damaged, by anyone’s standard. Others wandered in limbo for hours, days, years, sorting through the shards of their exploded lives looking for something that worked. Some found it.

Especially for those who had believed most in America, who had fought in the streets for justice only after all else failed, the messege of the psychedelic was—forget it. Discussions took place everywhere as to whether it was productive to “become a Nazi in order to fight the Nazis.” The graffiti “off the pig” became “off the pig in you.” Better to abandon the old way, stop trying to beat them at their own game. It’s too big and they own it. Your game is inside your head. You can rearrange that freely, choose what to toss, what to keep, what to nurture.

The Cold Duck Commune and Band sets out from Minneapolis in an old school bus, headed for northern California in 1969. Among them, Vietnam vets and others who had been at the Chicago protests against the war. Photo by Lloyd Hauskins.

The revolutionary Weathermen went underground politically and began engaging in tactics consciously rejected by those who became the counterculture; the newly forming counterculture went underground spiritually. There was a bumpersticker that said, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” A bumpersticker for the counterculture could have been “What if they gave a society, and nobody came?” That’s what “dropping out” was. Children of affluence and poverty alike saw that working for the war-machine, even if the war-machine would employ you, meant losing all hope for meaning or integrity in your life. For the draftees, working for the war machine could well mean losing your life, period.

Sometime in the mid-sixties, it all reached a breaking point: fighting the war, stopping the war, being gassed and shot at, being stonewalled by people you were supposed to worship as your professional superiors, their reaction when simple questions were asked. For thousands of people at the same time, the whole social structure of America came crashing down at once. Careers, marriages, futures, inheritances and all predictability disappeared. It was painful, but it left a more or less clean site to build on.

Members of the Cold Duck Commune on the road. Photo by Lloyd Hauskins.

Having bid farewell to their futures, they saw no point in staying put. Cities had become unbearable to people made keenly conscious of their environments by psychedelics. Bob Dylan asked bitterly, “You ask why I don’t live, here. Honey, how come you don’t move?” Former political activists and, mostly younger, apolitical runaways did move. They hit the road and kept on trucking. They became known collectively as hippies.

There were nomadic hippies and sedentary hippies, communal and individual hippies, religious and secular hippies. Some ended up going back to what they had left, maybe with new insight, maybe with a lifelong hatred of hippies. Some became “acid casualties,” never having managed to reconstruct their minds after deconstructing them with LSD. Others were drawn or tricked into more lethal drugs. Some ended up in drug-free ashrams following gurus, perhaps as mindlessly as the LSD had made them, perhaps not. Some formed communes or intentional communities of which some, perhaps, still exist. This book is about the ones that settled in northern California, 200 miles north of San Francisco, near the town of Garberville.

They are a particular instance of that part of the countercultural movement that came to be known as “back-to-the-landers” or the “voluntary simplicity” movement. What makes them unique in the back-to-the-land movement is that, rather than living in isolation on parcels of land interspersed within a mainstream community, the back-to-the-landers in southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties were able to settle whole watersheds previously undeveloped. The rapid concentration of great numbers of people who shared overpowering experiences resulted in their creating a community of their own from scratch. This community not only resulted from the spirit and flavor of the sixties, but inevitably made the sixties viewpoint its foundation. The community had values and goals, in spite of itself. One of the values was to not have goals, but that was a sophistry soon made moot by the rapidity with which social connections were formed to meet social needs unmet otherwise, such as appropriate schools and medical organizations. The community, for a time, was a vast laboratory where social experiments were “kitchen testing” possible routes of change for the wider culture, whether the wider culture wanted it or not, whether the testers themselves realized it or not.

The geographical area in which there may be found people who subscribe to the ideals of the back-to-the-land movement covers northern coastal California, much of Oregon and who knows how much of the West in general. There are, or have been, in addition, many similar communities all over the United States. The community described here, however, very probably had, at one time, the densest concentration of sixties idealists of any population in the world. There was, in other words, a higher ratio of self-identified countercultural individuals to mainstream individuals in that area than could be found anywhere in the world.

Members of the SoHum community, taken in the 1980s by Kim Salloway.

This high concentration of similarly oriented people produced the most cohesive non-intentional community of sixties dropouts there was and perhaps still is. The historical waters were greatly muddied, starting in the 1980s, by the growth of the marijuana industry and the cross fertilization between sixties dropouts and local mainstream residents, so that whether the community as I described it in my book “Beyond Counterculture” still exists or not leads one into a great semantic bog. What community? Who’s a member? Where is it?

Muddy waters notwithstanding, a picture of the community as it once existed is still informative to students of culture change. How did it fail and why did it last as long as it did are still relevant questions to anyone hoping to make culture change a tool in addressing the near hopelessness of the current picture of the human species and, indeed, the biosphere.

Much controversy has centered around what words to use in talking about this community and the mainstream community that predates it. The word “Mateel” was coined about 1980 to refer to both a geographical area and those residents within it who subscribed to the values outlined by the poet who coined the word, the late Jim Deerhawk. The word combines the names of the two major watersheds in the general area occupied by the countercultural community, the Mattole and the Eel. I used it in the past to describe a geographical area that included those watersheds, and certain others, and the cultural system generated by the countercultural residents of that area.

I have used the adjective “Mateelian” in the past but have since tended to not use it. This is a word coined in my previous work for discussion purposes only and was never used by Mateelians themselves. The word “Mateel,” insofar as it was ever used by Mateelians, came into question early on and then increasingly because the one organization that permanently incorporated the word into its name, the Mateel Community Center, kept it only after an agonizing showdown between those who took the purist position that it was a local organization formed for locals and those who wished to seek funding from non-local sources. Though the name was ultimately retained, the organization has appeared to many to have strayed from the original values that word hoped to describe.

For those reasons, I will use the word “SoHum” here to refer to the same geographical area I described in Beyond Counterculture. This is a commonly used shortening of the phrase “southern Humboldt County,” but everyone who uses it understands that it includes parts of northern Mendocino County as well. I will refer to the countercultural residents of SoHum as  SoHummers and to non-countercultural residents of SoHum as the local mainstream population.

I do this with the caveat that the two communities, once easily identified by their values, are now not so easily identified. I will leave it to others to decide whether it is still accurate to speak of a SoHum or a Mateel community separate from the now somewhat merged community that has been created by the interaction of SoHummers with mainstream residents and the non-countercultural emigres who came later, drawn directly or indirectly by the marijuana industry.

Mutually perjorative terms are “redneck” and “hippie,” but more tolerant individuals from either side recognize these words as loaded and use them accordingly. They will usually refer to themselves that way ironically, or to the other group by the pejorative, only among themselves. Some people, including second-generation SoHummers will joke that they are both and the intermingling of the two groups in agribusiness partnerships, employment situations and Romeo-and-Juliet marriages makes this joke closer to reality than outsiders might realize. Complicating the picture is what I have called in the past the “we-are-not-here” syndrome, the reluctance of hippies in general to accept any kind of label, suspecting that labels themselves are a source of misunderstanding.

In most areas of contemporary America these days, the word “hippie” has significance only in a historical context. Any reference to a contemporary reality must be preceeded by a qualifier that indicates the writer or speaker’s own youth or modernity, such as “aging hippies,” “freeze-dried hippies,” “unreconstructed hippies,” all of which have appeared in the media, including “hip” media founded by hippies.

The existence of some kind of unusual social situation near Garberville is well-known to the California public, indeed, the international public. The media has extensively covered the marijuana industry, which it often portrays as centering there, though what few statistics have ever been produced to support that assertion are open to question. The press has mentioned the community as well in the course of covering the “timber wars” between environmentalists, largely countercultural, and the timber industry. Because of  these journalistic biases, SoHummers are viewed by the public as being hopelessly behind the times, clinging to long-debunked sixties values and/or caught in some kind of Twilight Zone time warp that makes them irrelevant to current affairs.

Hippies on retreat, 1970s.

This view is based on the assumption that the hippies of Humboldt somehow froze time and never went beyond their sixties incarnation to something new. This, in spite of the many concrete successes achieved by local environmental and civil rights groups and the fact that, at least in the past, SoHum lived and breathed social change and progress. Had it not been so, the word “beyond” would not have appeared in the title of my former work.

If you call someone a “hippie” in SoHum you are using a word that is vigorously alive in the language. Whether it will be received as a compliment, an insult, a joke or a simple statement of fact will depend entirely on the motivation of the speaker and the self-identification of the receiver. Pretending the word is passe is, for the most part, another sophistry. SoHummers may disagree on the value of their tenure as hippies or the validity of those values, but only a handful would seriously deny that hippies or their values never existed. Even their enemies, with some notable exceptions, will admit that hip values were at one time alive and well and, what is much more important, were being manifested.

One of the earliest founders of the SoHum community, the late Larry Bliss, unreconstructed hippie to the end.

Many whose hippie credentials were pure in the early seventies now actively seek to deny that there ever were two distinct cultural communities and to erase any lingering obvious differences. Others adopt the attitude “hippie and proud of it.” The latter group sees the former group as a bunch of opportunistic cop-outs, especially since the more outspoken members of this group are often running for public office, opening new businesses in town and/or joining local mainstream organizations such as the Garberville/Redway Chamber of Commerce or stand to profit in some other way by sacrificing the original values in lip-service to tolerance. The former see the latter as “separatists,” who draw unnecessary lines between people and thereby perpetuate hostility between the two groups.

The SoHum community was born out of the conflict of the sixties and founded by people who made the choice to go to SoHum based on their individual experience of that critical time. Today it also consists of two major secondary groups. One was drawn to the community after it became large enough to support them. The other came, irrespective of values, solely to grow marijuana.

The first group includes professionals who generally are sympathetic with sixties ideals, but prioritized their careers over the rewards of dropping out. They are, to varying degrees, analagous to what political activists in Berkeley in the 60s used to call “teacup liberals,” a phrase coined by University of California anthropology professor, Gerald Berreman. They could only come when the community of dropouts was large enough to support them. They largely include health professionals and attorneys, two groups welcomed with open arms by hippies tired of the intolerant treatment they often received from local mainstream health professionals and attorneys.

The second group includes organized criminals, tenant farmers and legal or illegal immigrant workers, all drawn to the area after news of the marijuana industry spread. As a group, they are distinguished by economic, rather than spiritual motives. Though it is possible that many that came only to grow marijuana subsequently were influenced by their countercultural neighbors, it appears more likely that their influence on SoHum was greater. With them came robberies, murders, guns, fast cars on dirt roads, fires started by ignorance and carelessness and the reintroduction of a “me first” attitude, in contrast to the semi-communal worldview of the original hippies. In response to these factors, many is the peace-loving hippie grower who reversed his or her position on guns.

There are also parents, children and siblings who came to SoHum to be close to their hippie relatives when it became clear that their relatives were here to stay. The flow of dropouts of all ages continues. It came to include more persons from foreign countries than originally, though not any more persons of color,* a criticism that has been leveled at SoHum by its various observers. It has also included new arrivals in their twenties who are often  indistinguishable in appearance from the dropouts of the 60s and 70s. They arrive in Keseyesque vans and old schoolbuses, wearing  granny dresses, buckskin and fringe, offering beads, candles, pipes and crystals for sale on the street and looking pretty much like the hippies of yore.

Where they are coming from

The history of SoHummers begins where the history of SoHum and the general counter-culture intersect. It started when and where it did because certain SoHum ranchers discovered there was a category of buyers who actually needed land that anyone else would deem worthless. The economy of SoHum, having boomed and busted its way through a series of industries, hit another slump with the exhausting of the timber resource. The population was declining; unemployment, rising. The only resource left was the logged over land itself, but any fool could see it was unsellable. It was steep and brushy, full of poison oak. Water sources and building sites were erratically distributed and there were few access roads and no electricity or phones.

Logged over hillside typical of much land owned by hippies

 

Meanwhile, thousands of dropouts were driving around the country in old vans, pickups and buses looking for somewhere to settle. Mainstream SoHum residents needed a new source of income and dropouts needed a cheap place to live. It took more than complementary needs, however, to start a symbiosis as unlikely as this one. It took a lucky, some might say cosmic, connection. This connection was made by rancher Bob McKee.

McKee is a near-mythological figure in the history of SoHum, in that hundreds of people who never had direct dealings with him know that he is the father of the counterculture in SoHum. The descendant of a family of oldtime SoHum ranchers, he became a real estate agent in the mid-sixties, at a time when real estate was not a hot item there. His contribution was to take the dreams of the dropouts seriously and take a chance on their ability to make the change from urban to rural living, given their abyssmal lack of knowledge of what this change entailed.

Once the word got around on the hippie grapevine that McKee had broken his ranch into parcels and was selling them cheap, dropouts began to arrive. They came in communes, individually and in families nuclear and, by their own definition, extended. They came in old schoolbuses, caravans of pickup trucks with campers and on foot, hitchhiking. Those first years, they lived in tents, tepees, abandoned tool sheds, tree houses and the chicken house they built first, after kicking the chickens out when it started raining.

The yurt/trailer combo or shed/tent/trailer combo was a common early home arrangement.

Cold Duck Commune bus lands near Miranda, September, 1969.

Interior of an owner built one room tiny cabin.

They lived in their vehicles, funky old trailers, abandoned sheds and barns and long-deserted bunkhouses. They lived under large pieces of plastic stretched over pole frames. In the early 70s, the number of “homesteaders” reached a kind of critical mass and they began to organize themselves beyond the family or commune. A community began to emerge from what had appeared to be a very large refugee camp.

Encampment at a retreat attended by about 300 hippies in the late 1970s.

Stories of “how I got to SoHum” often resemble each other, even now. Nonconformists, in families, communes or individually, are traveling around the country looking for a place to live inconspicuously, peacefully and productively. They find SoHum most often by visiting friends already there or because someone they trust to understand what they are looking for told them about it, often someone they picked up hitchhiking or who gave them a ride.

This is, of course, a perfectly rational and predictable way for a community of likeminded people to form itself. There is, however, a surprisingly large number of people whose story has a cosmic element, an opportunity that appeared for them just as they arrived in SoHum, an event that insisted that they stay, a dream or vision that could not be denied or ignored. An enormous number of people simply stumbled into the community while wandering around and knew they were home.

One couple, for instance, had left the unsympathetic atmosphere of Texas with their three children and headed off into the unknown to find a place where their unusual history would not dog them. The man had been a middle-aged priest/philosophy professor at a Catholic college, whether celibate or not, he would never tell me, when he fell in love with his freshman student, who asked him pointed and unanswerable questions after class. Their affair resulted in the loss of his job and vocation and the birth of their three children. Several years of living with the moral disapproval of their Texas neighbors decided them to seek a more sympathetic climate.

After months of traveling, camping out, living in their car, they followed the suggestion of a hitchhiker they picked up in Arizona and headed for northern California. Their car broke down in Miranda. By the time it was fixed, they knew they were home.

Another SoHummer had just been released from San Quentin after six years. In a daze and completely at loose ends, knowing only that he really didn’t want to go back to jail, he was picked up hitchhiking by a carload of hippies. He ended up living with them in Marin County. By the time they decided to check out SoHum, he was well on the road to rehabilitation as a hippie and went along with them, to live a happy and productive life in the land of the redwoods.

 

Daryl Cherney, one of those led to SoHum through a random contact.

 

Daryl Cherney, the well-known folksinging environmentalist, famously tells the story that he had left New York and was hitchhiking cross-country when he was picked up by a Native American spiritual leader who did not live in SoHum, but was a frequent visitor. After hearing Cherney’s views on the spiritual importance of the environment, he suggested SoHum, then proceeded to drive him there and drop him of at the Garberville office of the Environmental Protection Information Office. It was there that he would find his vision, and he did.

What they think they are doing

The counterculture got its name from social historian Theodore Roszak, who observed, accurately, that sixties dropouts were doing more than simply withdrawing. They were actively trying to change industrial civilization, what Roszak called “the technocracy,” by seriously altering the way they lived their everyday lives. To the extent that anyone had a goal, that goal was to reverse, or counter, the effects of the technocracy, aka The System, the military-industrial complex, the war machine, the corporate state.

As these appellations suggest, the bottom line in dropping out was always economic. Sacrificing one’s earning potential was the most drastic action to be taken, short of suicide. The extent to which one had taken this action was also the litmus test applied by the counterculture to anyone claiming dropout status. It was the countercultural equivalent of putting your money where your mouth is.

Roszak’s observation and the word he coined to describe it was and is “right on” for outside observers and inside intellectuals (“intellectual hippie,” strange to say, is not necessarily an oxymoron, at least in SoHum.) However, the vast majority of SoHummers I interviewed and observed have vehemently denied they were countering anything.

They have said, with the greatest of truth, that they were looking for personal freedom. Personal experience being the paramount source of knowledge leading to the dropout and informing the post dropout period, they often used to deny conscious political motives and said they simply wanted to live as freely as possible. It was only when critical mass had been reached, when enough peope seeking personal freedom arrived in one spot, that they began to consciously work on finding a better way to meet needs that had formerly been met by the state.

Dropping out was a highly individual action. You did it when the time was ripe for you and to the extent that you were able. Making a new society, on the other hand, was something best done with a little help from one’s friends. The universal problem was how to survive after you’ve quit your straight job,  dropped out of school, turned down the graduate fellowship, refused the inheritance or run away from parental or spousal support and whatever strings might have been attached to it. The counterculture approached this problem in several ways.

Lowering the overhead was the first approach, reversing status markers so that poverty was more respected than wealth. Sociologists referred to this procedure, often snidely, as becoming “downwardly mobile” or joining the “nouveau poor.”  To the extent that this experiment was shortlived for the children of the middle class, the snideness is perhaps justified. However, there were many on whom the new image “took,” at least as an ideal. At the very least, the spectacle of a large portion of the upcoming generation saying “no thank you” to their anticipated share of the nation’s riches served to throw the connection between money, status, power and exploitation into clear relief.

One overhead-lowering strategy was the commune. Housing is cheap if it’s four to a bed. Rice costs less if you pool your money or food stamps and buy it by the 50-pound sack. Transportation is cheaper if it’s six to a car rather than one or two. Better yet, stay home with twenty of your closest friends, call it family night and party down. When communes began to disappear, the communal strategy lived on in the form of food cooperatives, “food groups” wherein people not otherwise economically connected bought food together in bulk to save money.

Other ways of lowering the overhead included scavenging, bartering both goods and services and stealing from large corporations or the state. Opinions varied widely on the righteousness of this latter method and a lack of clarity on the concept was responsible for many bad vibes. One suspects that the prevelance of the concept “right livlihood” emerged as a reaction to this strategy. Right livlihood is however one can survive economically without ripping off someone else or contributing to a part of the mainstream system that rips off someone else.

The significance of communalism in SoHum, however, does not lie in the continuing existence of communes, but in the continuing existence of the social bonds formed by fellow communards and the retention of the values and skills learned during the communal experience. There are at least two reasons why the communes themselves generally did not survive the move to SoHum. The first is what social scientists might call structural. It has to do with the conflict between existentialist freedom on the one hand and the communal diminution of the individual on the other.

The first Mateelians consisted of those countercultural individuals who found it hardest to submit to any formal authority, including that of a rigid or hierarchical commune.  The uniqueness of the Mateelian community stems largely from the fact that its members are such rugged individualists. The community is not only nonintentional, but, because of this emphasis on individualism, it was, perhaps, even inadvertant. It resulted, like a spontaneous combustion fire, from the failure of collective energy to dissipate, not from any great master plan.

Evidence of this is that the communes formed by those who later became Mateelians were almost universally chaotic, egalitarian and tolerant of nonconformity. Former communards in SoHum can seldom even specify what exactly was communal about their commune.  Implementing the communal ideal is not at all that easy in a capitalist context, no matter what kind of commune it is. Maintaining a commune composed of people who value personal freedom over almost everything else is well-nigh impossible.

The structural reason for the demise of communes in SoHum is that, ironically, once they became established in SoHum, the all-American individualistic ideal with which they had been raised, even though it may not have been practised around them, reasserted itself. The individualism of the communards had been redefined to include environmental, egalitarian and cooperative values but, in the long run, only a commune with a narrow, overriding goal and some rationale for discipline, like religion, can survive the materialistic, competitive climate of America.

The second, psychological, reason for the decline of the communes is that, as the counter-cultural community became increasingly visible, it began to supplant the commune as a source of emotional and moral support. Early communes offerred emotional sanctuary for the new dropouts, who were often under severe attack from non-dropouts. That kind of emotional support is not so necessary in SoHum, as it is in places where hippies are in the minority. The countercultural ambiance was at one time so pervasive in SoHum that the need for “courage in numbers” was greatly reduced.

Over the years, as many casual observers have noted, the original values of right livlihood, voluntary simplicity, communally oriented social strategies, alternative ways of meeting social needs and even environmentalism, have been merged and submerged with the predominant mainstream values. Although many of the earliest hippie-founded organizations still exist and their founders can still point to their achievements in the face of impossible odds with great pride, many are the former SoHummers who abandoned the community, unable to bear the disappointment of seeing it fall so short of its original promise.

Many are the current residents of SoHum who came only to grow marijuana, brought hard crime with them and were never motivated by anything but greed in no way distinguishable from the greed of corporate America. Many are the original hippies who traded their alleged values for money the very instant marijuana growing made that possible. Many are the mainstream locals who did not hesitate to invest in or indirectly benefit from SoHum’s latest boom industry while either recasting themselves as hippies to learn the biz or while denouncing hippies and keeping their own biz a secret. The ethnographic study I conducted between 1971 and 1985 could not now be done for these reasons. The current book is an effort to reconstruct the spirit and flavor of those days from interviews with the participants, done in the early 1990s, when that time could still be remembered with joy.

Good friends comfort each other after a funeral. 

View of Bear Butte from Elk Ridge. Photo by Jerry Pruce.

*This statement was still true when I wrote in the 1990s. However, as I post this essay in 2018, I feel obliged to say that there are now visible in SoHum many more persons of color than there were in the 1990s, as well as persons speaking languages other than English. Without statistics I cannot assess the degree to which complaints I heard from persons of color in the past about feeling isolated are still reflected in the numbers, i.e. the ratio of white residents to persons of color. I can only report my observation that I see many more black people in town than I used to.