My recent post on what I consider to be the dark side of SoHum culture, due largely to the effects of the marijuana industry, didn’t generate many comments from industry apologists. I have been treated with some off-the-record conversation however, and most of it’s been fairly nuanced and positive. Nobody who’s spoken to me disagrees with my overall concern, though they’ve challenged me on what they feel are some of my misconceptions, which I’ll discuss another time.

The conversations have moved into other areas in which the Mateel experiment has not panned out as the early pioneers had hoped. I received the following piece from a long time Mateel resident and cultural participant, and the person has allowed me to post it on the condition of anonymity. I was going to edit it down a bit, but there’s some very thoughtful material in here and I’m not sure what I’d eliminate.

It’s kind of an old story heard everywhere about reality setting in on a counter-culture on some precarious foundations from the beginning. On the other hand, the counter-culture created some enduring institutions that continue to make a positive difference. The revolution may not have made good on all of its promises, but hey, the old hippies aren’t all dead yet anyway.

Connecting with our ecological roots: What’s stopping us?

The reading and class presentation regarding the evolving discipline of Ecopsychology struck a deep chord in my personal experience. Yes, human beings evolved in a context of relationship to and integration with the environment. We were not separate from the natural world; we were a part of it. Yes, we are psychologically attuned to the lifestyle of early humans. Small groups of related families living a nomadic or semi-nomadic existence in a seemingly infinite world of relationships between humans, plants, animals and natural geographic realities and climatic events. We evolved to experience periods of intense physical activity and challenge, and periods of rest, reflection, and relaxation. The activities of our lives were responses to seasonal variations in climate. We were keen observers of natural history. Our survival depended on fine tuned perceptions of patterns in natural cycles and in the behavioral characteristics of various species of plants and animals. It makes immediate, personal, common sense that we humans are psychologically whole when we intimately experience the environment in which we evolved. Yes, our intellectual and physical dissociation from ecologically based prehistoric tribal/clan lifestyles does seem connected to pathological behaviors on individual and cultural levels.

Why have we ensconced ourselves in our built world? We live, to a large extent, both mentally and physically, within “manmade” constructs. The environment still exists and the resurgence of interest in “wilderness” experience underscores our desire to reconnect to a more primal relationship with “wild” (undomesticated?) nature. What is stopping us?

Childhood relationship to nature: adventure and privacy

Two and half blocks from the house that I lived in from age 8 to age 17 was a dirt road leading to the city water supply. For a half mile on either side of Six Mile Creek, extending several miles up the creek and including three dams, there was no development. You could ride your bike to “Second Dam” in five or ten minutes. In two minutes, (it was downhill) you were in the woods. In places the creek had cut deep gorges through the upstate New York shale. I knew this watershed well, but not as an ecosystem. We fished, swam, and challenged ourselves to climb the cliffs, jump the cliffs into the reservoir 20-50 feet below, and walk the slippery foot wide edge of Second Dam from one side to the other, water on one side, 30 foot drop to rocks on the other. I remember my uncertainty the first time I swam from one side of the reservoir to the other and the feel of the patch of “seaweed” that reached up to my chest and legs 100 yards out in the middle. We walked across it’s frozen surface in the winter, hearts in our throats as we heard the unmistakable sound of ice cracking and we lay quickly on the ice spreading our weight to keep from breaking through. In the creek above Second Dam we slid down waterfalls to the pools below. We got caught in territorial rock throwing contests with the boys from South Hill. When we got older we went there to drink beer and indulge in other frowned upon, illicit activities. We went there with our girlfriends and skinny-dipped in the dark.

In my teenage experience with the restrictive atmospheres of school, family and church, this watershed represented a kind of freedom. Not so much freedom to behave as I wanted (we were teenage boys, constrained by an ill defined behavioral code of our own interpretation) but, freedom from the strictures and structures of the social roles and expectations we faced every day. As a rebellious son of a Presbyterian minister, I suppose the puritanical characterization of the forest as a place of darkness, danger and evil had a certain appeal. My comfort there helped to promote a serious questioning of the theological paradigm I was raised in.

I don’t mean to idealize this experience. In our noisy ways we saw few animals, we had little sense of responsibility for this watershed. Although there were still trout and smelt in the lake the watershed drained into, and there were bass and sunfish in the reservoir, the fishing in the creek was generally lousy. You could see 12-18 inch golden carp swimming near the surface (discarded and overgrown pet goldfish) in the first reservoir. This was not an undisturbed habitat.

One fall day, I was 18 and in the woods with six male friends, we had been climbing the waterfalls, and we came crashing and sliding down a steep slope littered with leaves recently fallen from the 30 or 40 foot tall canopy of hardwood trees. No doubt there were mushrooms, ferns, herbs, and saplings that I failed to notice. You could definitely see the path we had followed down the hillside. At the bottom of the slope was a friend of my family’s, an ardent conservationist and biology professor from the university. He lit into us with an fierce lecture on the different life forms we had so cavalierly trashed and disturbed on our way down the slope and the potential for erosion we left behind. This man was a conservation biologist and the source of most of what I knew about the woods in upstate New York. Our families camped and fished together on the Beaverkill river every year. He could answer almost every question we asked about the fish, trees, berries, fungus, insects and the strange, interesting growths we found on trees and bushes. I was chagrined, my friends were merely indignant, or so they behaved.

Later on in college in southern Ohio, as I watched the built world apparently melt before my eyes, during a brief but intense period of experimentation with psychedelics, I often retreated to the safety of the woods. The concurrence of patterns generated in the psychedelic experience with organic patterns of growth and decay in the nearby forest reinforced a growing affinity with the processes of the natural world.

In the context of the Ecopsychology readings I see this relationship with the local creeks and forests as a response to the alienation from nature experienced as a teenager in suburban upstate New York. I see the risk taking activities as both an unconscious and conscious drive to experience the ontological challenges common to young men in hunter-gatherer societies which I was prone genetically and psychologically, to emulate.

Early adulthood: Back to the land

I dropped out of college 1972 for a variety of reasons (lack of financial support and an unwillingness to commit to debt to pursue an uncertain career or educational path, among other reasons) and I hitchhiked to California for the second time. I gravitated to southern Humboldt County around the same time a number of counter-cultural refugees from college campuses and the street scenes in Haight-Ashbury and on Telegraph avenue began to establish a presence in the recently harvested (50’s and 60’s) forest lands around Garberville. I was in the woods again.

I was part of the back-to-the-land “movement”. We shared a distrust of the “system” that functioned through relatively rigid patriarchal hierarchies limiting creative initiative. This system produced the Vietnam war, cities shrouded in smog, rivers so polluted they burned, ghettos, segregation, race riots, poverty in the midst of plenty, repressive and tortuous economic and military relationships with “developing” countries, and a large middle class living a hollow Leave-it-to-Beaver lifestyle: seemingly devoid of meaning, jingoistic, damaging to the environment, and emotionally phony. We would not be plastic people, we would be real.

We were hippies. We didn’t believe the stories our culture told to explain the realities of our lives and the actions of our leaders. We came to the forest, because we didn’t fit, or didn’t want to fit, into the society we knew. Or perhaps, we came to search for a collective relationship to the natural world which would heal the damage we held inside ourselves and, we hoped, heal the culture we came from. We were arrogant enough to believe that we could show the way, wherever we were going.

We aimed to be “self-sufficient” and to divorce ourselves from the “military industrial complex”. Ideologically and culturally, if not in fact, we rejected consumerism, professional careerism, and technology in general. We wore beads, leather, sandals, long hair, shells, feathers, buck knives, leather pouches, and amulets. The appropriation of the trappings of tribal culture was no accident. Many of us wanted to live by the old ways, which we did not know.

And, we smoked marijuana. Rightly or wrongly, many of us felt that marijuana was a “mind expanding” drug, that it had opened our minds to a keener or deeper aesthetic and spiritual appreciation of music, relationships, art, sex, and the beauty inherent our natural surroundings. Marijuana was credited with improving the capacity to perceive connections between apparently disparate concepts and phenomena. And, perhaps, it did break down the ability to maintain rigid, logical boundaries between conceptual categories and disciplines, and enable one to perceive the world more directly. Sometimes to the detriment of whatever project you might be working on. Of course many people also used marijuana as an escape from responsibility, as a way to avoid facing unpleasant personal realities, as a pleasant way to relieve stress, and as a defense against intimacy in relationships.

We had lots of ideas, and even more opinions, but most of us knew almost nothing about what we were doing. Just being there was an act of faith and vision, or disgust and desperation, depending on what opportunities or constraints we left behind. We were primarily suburban and urban refugees with little, if any, experience in farm or homestead skills. We bought cheap land and built cabins from found, natural and recycled sources. At the time, we called it “scrounging” materials. We planted gardens and fruit trees, used kerosene lights, heated our cabins with wood, got our windows from U-Needa-Window used windows and doors in Berkeley, ran gravity fed cold water through plastic waterpipe to our scrounged sinks, and stopped wearing our watches. We had no electricity, no stereo, and no radio reception: we made our own music. We became aware of the phases of the moon and celebrated when the moon was full. We swam naked and often, we worked outside, we ate when we were hungry, and slept when we were tired. We could tell time by the position of the sun. We spent naked days camped at the beach eating surf fish, mussels, and abalone.

We wanted community and we wanted isolation, privacy. While mostly young, white, and middle class we were not necessarily a homogenous group. We were college educated and high school dropouts. We were wealthy scions and unemployed laborers. We were draft dodgers and Vietnam veterans. We were pacifists and we were anti gun control. We were Buddhists, Christians, Pagans, Taoists and agnostics. We were apolitical and we were democratic, socialist, anarchist and libertarian. We believed in new age philosophies and we were cynics and skeptics. We believed in communal lifestyles and we were individualists (often in the same person).

Some of us arrived single and some as couples, but many couples did not last the first winter together. Summers could be idyllic, but winters were rainy, dark, and difficult. Wet or green firewood, frozen waterlines, small cabins, broken cars and washed out roads taxed the endurance, finances, and homesteading skills of us all. The concept of “cabin fever” took on substance as a kind of forced withdrawal from the constant social and technological stimulation of “civilized” behavior patterns. Single parent families and multiple family children were common. We needed each other and we knew it.

No one I know succeeded in being self-sufficient, I rarely hear the phrase today. There were certain technological products few of us managed to do without: roads, cars, chainsaws, propane stoves and plastic water pipe. Our efforts were financed in various ways including: savings, equity from previous homes in the city, low-paying jobs in the local economy, seasonal work, periodic spells of work in more populated areas, parental support, welfare, commodities, and food stamps. Rarely was anyone able to make it off the resources on their land.

And we grew older. We learned carpentry, gardening, auto mechanics, and road maintenance skills. We made jewelry, leather goods, pottery, hand-carved pipes, wooden boxes, spoons and ladles, macramé, and all manner of crafts. As our homesteads became livable our attention turned to building alternative institutions: a health center, schools and community centers. We learned about forest rhythms of growth and recovery on the cut-over lands we purchased. The scars from recent logging (stumps, skid trails, and silted up streams eating away at their banks), viewed from the perspective of the remaining stands of old growth, were graphic reminders of what had very recently been lost. Often the roads we drove in on were old haul roads and themselves the most vivid scars on the landscape. We felt this loss, and eventually this responsibility, and began the process of recovering what we thought had been.

Ironically, and quite naturally, one of the main flags of our rebellion was the instrument that co-opted our idealism. At the same time that we began this community building and restoration effort we discovered that marijuana grew quite well in this region. When we learned that pulling the male plants and leaving the females to flower without fertilization created a very tasty bud with a high THC content, the nature of the community’s relationship to marijuana began to change. This development was almost inevitable. Marijuana seeds, tossed into the compost or dropped outside the cabin sprouted easily. Planted in a vegetable garden “weed” out produced everything else, except, perhaps, zucchini. Cannabis is a hardy plant and even a poor gardener can reap a decent harvest. As the prices for high quality home grown began to rise, the entire socioeconomic foundation of our community changed radically.

If there was ever an opportunity to recreate community on a more holistic model and to integrate day to day community activities with an ecological awareness and progressive social commitment, this was it. It was a compelling and hopeful time. The community was potentially funded to set itself up for a sustainable and equitable future.

Access to capital provided by marijuana funded numerous visions, dreams, and ambitions. Cabins became beautiful hand crafted houses. Gardens flourished, tools, generators and well equipped craft shops began to emerge all through the hills. Artists of all kinds pursued their art, a successful travel agent appeared in town, dance classes and elaborate amateur plays and dance productions were presented. We organized arts and crafts fairs where we sold our hand thrown pots or hand woven rugs and we danced and we sang.

Benefit boogies thrived and raised money for various non-profit efforts. Community centers and alternative schools found the support and involvement necessary to experiment and thrive. A health center was founded, committed to alternative therapies, preventative medicine, and patient centered care. As the community became more involved in creating institutions we searched for non-hierarchical models of organization, we made decisions by consensus, we paid everyone equally, and we took our organizational memberships seriously.

Businesses started up offering alternative, environmentally responsible, power sources: photovoltaic panels, water wheels, and wind generators for electricity, and wood fired and solar hot water heaters, even a wood fired hot tub.

People committed time and energy to salmon rearing projects and stream restoration efforts. Watershed based organizations began to appear and efforts to protect remaining intact habitats began to bring our concerns to government regulatory and public land management agencies. We learned words like biodiversity and mitigation. We began to learn more and more about place, the forest we had come to live in.

And, we thought we were really cool… funky, righteous, and cool. Being somewhat out of touch with the rest of the world, we, quite naturally, began to believe we were the counter cultural center of the known universe.

We grew older. We became established. Our family relationships, whether traditional, step-parent, or same sex, became more stable and nuclear. Our children grew older and many entered the public school system. We became well acquainted with our property lines. Fences, gates, and no trespassing signs began to appear. We no longer needed each other in the same ways. Some of us became quite well off. Those of us who did not grow weed benefited from the multiplier effect of the general prosperity. We built shops and additions, and bought new vehicles, tools, inverters, satellite dishes, stereos, TV’s, VCR’s, and all manner of consumer items. I don’t mean that we had no restraint, but we sought comfort and the security of some type of means of production. Because we had items of value, rip-offs began to occur. Some of us felt compelled to defend property with guns. Conscientious tracking and distrust of outsiders was endemic to the area. There were accidents and people were hurt and killed. In a very real way, we, as a community, lost our innocence.

This community was sandbagged by marijuana, the perfect vehicle to deconstruct our idealism. Because marijuana was already a part of our culture we had little inherent resistance to growing it. It was low-tech, natural, and organic and the production of marijuana was consistent with the parameters of our needs for economic support. We could stay where we were, work flexible hours, work outside, stay close to nature, earn a living, and remain apparently separate from mainstream American society. As it turned out the money itself and the access to status, respect, power and material well-being that it represented was enough to actuate and dramatize our own internal inconsistencies. And then intense, annual aerial community surveillance and repression of marijuana cultivation by local and federal law enforcement began.

Obstacles to our holistic eco-community building efforts presented themselves. Our buildings effort were literally and metaphorically red-tagged by the building inspector. Our stream and fish restoration projects were undermined by upstream logging. Watershed advocacy groups met with powerful opposition from large timber companies who appeared to have undue influence on government regulatory and management agencies. We saw that we could not remain isolated as a community even as we were becoming more distant from each other. We sought funding from government agencies and foundations for restoration efforts, for our health center, and various other non-profit activities. Our institutions, in the process of striving for competitive funding resources and coping with the responsibilities inherent in organizational growth and development, began to assume more traditional hierarchical structures as a part of our efforts to overcome financial and organizational obstacles to the realization of a (we thought) shared vision.

From my perspective, inherent dichotomies in the community began to express themselves at this time. In the face of obstacles and uncertainty, and given the opportunity, we began to act on the assumptions inherent in our childhood social contexts. When we had nothing or very little we recognized our common ground, and maintained a commitment to changing our relationships to each other and the environment. As our vision confronted the sources of power in our remote communities: private capital, corporate influence, local government , law enforcement, and state and federal government agencies, and as the stakes grew higher in terms of private property, career development/advancement, and organizational growth and influence, we displayed a tendency to revert to models familiar to our heterogeneous backgrounds. Those of us able to articulate issues in a language understood by businessman, foundations, scientists, courts, politicians and bureaucrats formulated strategies for moving our agendas forward and rose to leadership positions within our businesses, our organizations and our communities. Paradoxically and rationally, we began to recreate the business, social, and organizational models we intended to leave behind in order to further the development of our vision of equitable sustainability. Although significantly different from more mainstream efforts, our institutions no longer represented a paradigm shift. These models of our own creation now stand between us and a direct relationship to each other, and to nature, the sources of the sustenance we originally and instinctively sought in coming back to the land.

What stopped us?

We instinctively attempted to escape a downward spiral of participation in, and association with, increasingly pathological social behavior. We tried to heal ourselves through a commitment to creating a way of living that honored community and environmental integrity. Out of our alienation from and disenchantment with modern industrial society we reached for a connection to what was real and grounded: a direct relationship to a natural environment. Our efforts ran up against two powerful obstacles:

the political, social and economic clout of the dominate interests in our remote area, our own world views and ambitions which we inescapably and unconsciously brought with us.

Although, society as a whole is much more complex, the basic dynamics operating in this experience demonstrates the way that the “benefits” of technological prowess, and rational, dualistic, enlightenment appeal to our personal needs for comfort, security, status and respect. Our inability to develop the personal power to articulate effective, coherent alternatives capable of resisting the combination of temptation, coercion, and entrenched hegemony wielded by elite corporations and government representatives leaves our best intentions vulnerable to co-optation.

We want to develop community strategies for socially equitable, and ecologically effective, restoration and renewal. Such strategies must have the political and economic clout to counteract vested interests in our culture. This process is inherently and necessarily a personal healing process in which we confront powerful motivations integral to our own psychological and paradigmatic vested interests in the status quo which act to undermine our efforts.

To heal the personal distress, grief, and alienation we feel as members of an industrial society which is deconstructing the natural world, we want to create healthy community relationships to our immediate ecosystems. This is an inherently political process in which we encounter powerful external vested interests which act to subvert our efforts.

The power of external vested interests is a direct expression of our personal participation, which we cannot evade, in the paradigm we want to change. We cannot confront one without confronting the other. When we challenge them both, it is our highest expression of psychological health and wholeness.

As the Doonesbury comic strip character said in one of the panels about the Vietnam war, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

As we protested, humans, dressed as salmon, swam up the road to Fisher gate on Pacific Lumber property in an attempt to spawn, and were arrested. Then the highway patrol dove into the crowd looking for leaders and cameras. We drove home in our fossil fuel powered vehicle, past the old stumps, the old growth, and the second growth up the old logging road to our wood framed house. We ate some chicken raised in Petaluma, and watched a video made from petroleum by-products. The next day we gathered oyster mushrooms from the woods around our house and watched the mist, drifting through the valley, draped over the saddle in the ridge between our watershed and the next. We checked in on the Pacific salamander that lives under the plywood over by the garden. We mixed some of the acorn mush we made into a cookie recipe and had some ice cream made in Vermont. We went to bed early, the next day was work and school. A direct experience of relationship to nature is not a simple thing.