The Digger Archives presents:
Black Bear Solstice Reunion 1987
by Don Monkerud
Greyish blue folds of mountains recede into the distance, one atop the next, like waves in the ocean, wisps of light fog still clinging to the early morning peaks. The slopes are covered with evergreen forest and distant slashes of dirt mark roads which wind their way between the bare earth of clearcut logging blocks, along river highways and cut knife-like up jagged mountain ridges.
At a lookout point on a ridge, the mountains make me feel on top of the world; a world that stretches below me and offers a maze of peaks and ridges requiring a map to sort out the jig-saw puzzle of wilderness names like Grasshopper Ridge, Haypress Meadows, Chimney Rock and Bear Valley.
My journey into the depths of the mountains has just begun. I'm returning to a place where, almost 20 years ago, a collection of hippies, draft dodgers, old beatniks, anarchist, drop outs and space cadets moved into a mountain commune. They sought to escape the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, the draft and the Vietnam War, overbearing parents and a culture many of them considered corrupt and hypocritical. Over fifty adults and children collected money from welfare checks, inheritances, savings, and extortion from rock bands to buy 80 acres surrounded by national forest, four hours away from electricity and the nearest hospital. The locals claimed they wouldn't last the winter and, if it hadn't been for dope runs to San Francisco, hikes through the snow to replenish the tobacco supply and their dedication to creating what they called "a new culture," they wouldn't have lasted.
But they did survive the winters at what is called "the Ranch." Although many have returned to the city or moved nearby to integrate with the local towns, the place continues to survive. On solstice over two hundred people will celebrate the creation of a land trust which will pass the ownership from an individual to legal collective ownership. The land will be protected from lawsuits, the children who grew up there will be added as owners and, hopefully, the Ranch will continue to provide space for people living outside the mainstream of corporate America.
On the way into the Ranch I pass the richest hard rock mine in Northern California which gave Black Bear its name when established in l860. By l869 over 300 miners -- some with families -- lived and worked here but now, only sounds of the creek greet me as I park among the trees and walk down to the mainhouse. Hidden behind apple trees and surrounded by a six foot high wooden fence, the mainhouse yard is filled with tall green grass, barking dogs and children playing hide-and-seek. A lone hawk catches an updraft and hangs motionless above the old schoolhouse down by the junkyard.
Directly across the dusty road looms the barn, its post and beam framework held together by pegs and the weathered siding fastened with handmade iron nails. A vast patchwork of salvaged tin covers the roof and one skeleton-like corner hangs, unsupported, above a crumbling rock foundation. A light shines from the doorway and goats bleat while being milked. In the barn loft the first baby boy, Shem, was born 19 years ago. Thirty people packed into the loft, smoking dope, stoking the woodstove, laughing, and singing songs during the birth. Some twenty babies were born here and all but one, three months premature, lived. Many of those kids will return and I'm anxious to meet them again.
In the front room, a figure in a black hat plays the piano and small knots of people laugh and talk, renewing old friendships and greeting people they haven't seen in years. A table filled with food sits to one side holding a heaping basket of whole wheat bread sticks, a ten gallon bowl of salad and army-sized trays of apricot cobbler. In the back room, along one wall of the kitchen, stainless steel sinks are kept busy with people washing dishes, brushing their teeth or filling tea kettles. Like when I lived here, several 5 gallon buckets of garbage just below the sink are overflowing.
Tom, who lives in Seattle, greets me with a hug, pushes his glasses back and talks of the trips he has made to Nicaragua to improve the utilities. "We've cut the average blackouts in the electrical system from six hours a day down to two," he says, placing his arm around his girlfriend and taking a swig of beer. "But you heard about the American being killed down there? We worked with him. I've reevaluating whether I'm going to continue working there. I've been doing this so many years."
Tom turns to another acquaintance and I greet Brian, who has come from Fort Worth, Texas. His upper body is husky although he admits to growing pain from transporting his polio crippled legs on crutches. He pushes a Greek sailor's hat back on his head and smiles as he explains his research to build exact scale models of Civil War battleships on the Mississippi.
The mainhouse was always a place where the most intimate and deep conversation occured instanteously. In the old days, I often went from one intense discussion to the next, each lasting minutes or hours. The subjects ranged from self-doubts to jealousy, from falling in love to the collective issue of the moment: the kids' collective; a food run to the city; the women's house; or whether to kill a goat for dinner. During periods when we worked on collective projects like digging new irrigation ditches or terracing new gardens, we missed "getting in touch with our feelings;" when we concentrated on our feelings, we complained about lacking collective energy to begin new work projects. The precarious balance between what some called the emotional sink of feeling and our workaholic heritage see-sawed with the seasons, the amount of food in the larder and some claimed, the phases of the moon. Tonight some of the same intensity remains but we have matured; by ll P.M. the house is almost deserted.
New arrivals sign in at a table in front of the mainhouse and transfer interests in the Ranch to the Black Bear Family Trust. Fifty "settlors," who had a collective obligation for the purchase and maintenance of the land, are signing over their ownership rights to the trust. According to the legal document, the trust will perpetuate the forest community to preserve the water, soil, wildlife and forest resources in ecological balance. A list of "beneficiaries" may visit or reside at the Ranch according to rules established by the collective. A board of trustees, consisting of six past and present residents, will manage the property and the beneficiaries will vote on important issues. Votes to change the rules can be called by ten percent petition of the beneficiaries. The trust will last for 60 years.
The Ranch has always been a loose affiliation, more or less sharing a common outlook and purpose, but never following a leader or a particular creed. We used to joke that at any given time you could ask people why they lived here and you would get as many answers as people, most of them having to do with living collectively in the wilderness, being self-sufficient and rejecting the "rat race." Now only a dozen residents remain, living much the same way we did back then.
After meeting to plan ceremonies for Saturday night and Sunday morning to formally transfer the land, I volunteer with Doug, who runs his own forestery outfit out of Eugene, Oregon, and Gail, who is now a CPA, to build a portal for the evening's procession to pass through. Doug and I walk up the road to find Gail and Peter, who runs a custom cabinet making shop in San Francisco, cutting alder poles in the creek. We carry the poles up the road, use bailing wire and nails to erect tripods and hang the jawbone of an ass, deer antlers and a bundle of mullen from the cross piece. Peter grabs a ladder to climb the precariously balanced tripod and the three of us yell that he'll break his neck. He ignores us and magically drives nails without toppling the whole structure.
"Things are just like they always were," he comments after climbing down. "Everybody tells you what to do and you just have to ignore them and do what it takes to get the job done."
We return to the mainhouse to a lunch of three kinds of cheeses, cases of avocados, mounds of whole wheat bread, huge bowls of potato salad and a 25 gallon crock of marinated bean salad. The food anxieties we experienced when we lived here are gone; then you feared that if you missed a meal no one would save you any food and there wouldn't be enough to go around. Food runs were vital links between the city and the Ranch and had to be made regularly to replenish 55 gallon barrels of oil, 60 pound tins of honey and 100 pound sacks of wheat, rice, beans and powdered milk. Now there's more than enough food for everyone. After lunch I talk to some of the kids who were born here and are now young adults who are the same ages we were when we first came to the Ranch. Laura is a junior in political science at UC Santa Barbara and will intern for a congressman in Washington this summer. Yoni has a new baby and manages a boutique in Yreka. Shem is working part-time in a health spa and attending S.F. State studying philosophy. Many of the kids still visit the Ranch every summer, continue their friendships and several of them arrived early to organize the weekend festivities.
The kids are different than we were: we rejected material success, they embrace it; we rejected our parents and their values, they accept us. We isolated ourselves in the woods; they are able to freely move back and forth. Although we didn't create an isolated culture, seperate from the rest of society like the Amish, we did isolate the children in the wilderness during their formative years. Yet today, they have open and accepting attitudes, cosmopolitian outlooks and close communal bonds. We always claimed the future belonged to our children and now we see the truth of that statement.
We walk to the meadow where small children splash in the shallow end of the pond and a sweat lodge releases a thin column of wood smoke. On ceremonial occasions in the past, like solstice and equinox, 40 to 80 of us took steam baths in a plastic covered pole dome next to the creek. Now a new Indian-style sweat lodge has been constructed; a trench was dug into the ground, a barrel stove placed in one end and the top covered with earth.
Crawling through the narrow opening, I immediately feel claustrophobic and break out in a profuse sweat. Darkness erases all reference points and the hot air stings my lungs. Allegra, a 4 year old Black Bear native, makes up melodious songs which she calls angel's songs and several women sing peaceful and comforting chants.
Incense cedar boughs are placed on the floor for their scent. We rub cornmeal over each other and this becomes a religious experience; the heat, the chanting, the sweating and the darkness conspire to strip all visual stimulation; the darkness becomes a world of spirits. Slowly I feel cleansed as the city food, air and stress rolls off me in sweat to drip into the earth.
Star sits next to me in the darkness and says a man's presence is unusual for she lives in a women's world; her social activities are with women; her friends are women; she has nothing to do with men. "People used to be threatened by us, but that antagonism is gone now. I guess we've made some progress in the past 15 years."
Star explains that women had held "healing sweats" for years; women gather to heal each other by singing songs, talking in groups and meditating on those who are ill or need strength. Earlier in the day, the women gathered on the knoll and everyone spoke: remembering people who weren't there; stating the significance of the solstice and the trust; accepting the death of Meredith, who is dying of bone cancer in San Francisco; recalling past events; and projecting a fulfilling future. She says the women have a collective strength and support each other's personal development.
Before the women asserted themselves, the Ranch, copying the larger society, was male-dominated. By holding women's meetings, forming a women's house and taking leadership roles, Ranch women established their independence. At first, they worked on trucks, handled rifles and wielded chainsaws. People sought their own level of activity based upon preference and ability, not sex. The results can be seen today at the Ranch. Men are cooking and caring for the children, women hold full-time jobs and, while conflict remains, the old stereotypes are gone.
At 11 o'clock that night, we began the solstice ceremony by following a heavy wooden totem and dozens of candles in cans called "Salmon River bugs." Strung out on the road like fireflies, the soft haloes of light bounced across the road and into the dark forest. We walked beneath a cold, clear sky, the forest towering above us, an owl hooting in the distance. At selected intervals we stopped, bindles or hobo bundles were unrolled and various objects were revealed to tell stories from Black Bear's history.
Efrem and Jeff's bundle held a plastic bag of herbs, resembling marijuana, to recount the first spring when the Siskiyou County sheriff busted the Ranch for dope. Jeff told of awakening one morning l9 years ago when John tossed a joint out the window directly in front of a sheriff's deputy. After days in jail, Jeff appeared in court handcuffed to thirty other hippies busted around the county and was released due to insufficient evidence. The sheriff posed for the local newspaper holding evidence from the raid, a tomato plant.
On the knoll we gathered before a huge crackling bonfire, much differently than we would have 20 years ago. Then we gorged ourselves on roasted goat, drank homemade wine, smoked dope and ran off with someone else's mate. Tonight such behavior would precipitate a crisis. We listen to a '60's poem by Mary praising the wonder of free sex which, with the threat of aids, may be gone forever. Several songs were sung and poems recited, setting the stage for the following day. By 10 A.M. the next morning, everyone had gathered around a new bonfire on the knoll and children carried boughs of burning incense cedar around the circle to let the smoke waft over each person in a purification ritual. Geba blew a greeting to the six directions with a small reed flute and read an Indian poem reminding us that we cannot own the land; the owls, the coyotes and the wild things own the land. Statements of purpose from the trust were read. Efrem read a manifesto from the first winter at the Ranch; the "Get With It Party" rejected society's rules and promised to create a "new culture." Michael talked about sacred herbs, sprinkled some into the fire and we formed a circle and clasped hands.
When we returned to the fire the six new trustees sat on a log next to the fire and people in the circle rose to give counsel on preserving the Ranch. Jeff wanted to preserve the ecology and sacredness of this special place, Sala wanted to use the Ranch for healing seminars and several voiced a desire to provide a place for Central American refugees. The historic sites should be preserved and the trees should never be clearcut. Leslie rose to claim the 60's should not be forgotten and the spirit which originally brought us here should be continued. If we were serious about ecology and preservation, Carol said, restrict the goats which have destroyed the native vegetation. Clarence claimed if the goats were gone, all the vegetation would return in a year. Deed suggested the real specialness of this place was not the physical land but the people, the current and past friendships and our collective energy which should be maintained when we returned to the city. Again we rose to hold hands in a huge circle.
Richard, in whose name the land was registered for l9 years, paced the fire circle . "So the truth is out, some of you knew and some of you didn't," he said. "I never owned the land, I only held it in my name for all of you." He read a poem Lew Welch wrote when he lived on the Salmon River in l962, entitled "He prepares to take leave of his hut," concluding with the lines,
"Why should it be so hard to give up seeking something you know you can't possess? Who ever said it was easy?"
The documents have been signed and the Black Bear Family Trust is now officially the owner of the Ranch. In conclusion, each person had collected some token which represented the Ranch and we circled the fire dropping herbs, pine cones, special rocks, sticks from the old Salmon smoker, and walnuts from the tree at the mainhouse backdoor into a large bowl. Carol deposited a huge iron screw, Missy a goat turd and Martine an old bent clock face. After lunch, most people would be leaving for their homes and work the next day.
So what has changed in twenty years? Most of us have turned grey, gotten heavier around the middle, given up drugs and settled down. Some live nearby; their hair remains long, they live in the country and eke out a living working in the woods and growing vegetables. They are involved in struggles against the CIA's Contras, clear cutting and herbicide spraying. Others have moved away and now work as nurses, scientists, businessmen, building contractors, teachers, midwives and lawyers. The majority continue to hold egalitarian, anti-war and ecological political attitudes, deal with others in a real and humane way and continue Ranch friendships.
But in many ways the Ranch has not changed. The physical place, although cleaner and more tidy than when 80 of us lived here, hasn't changed in over a 100 years. The mainhouse garden has benefited from 20 years of mulch and compost and the irrigation systems still works. There is no money or time economy here and basic survival continues as it always did; feeding and milking the goats, gathering firewood, preparing meals from basic ingredients, planting and harvesting the gardens, and entertaining each other.
With the creation of the trust and the land paid for, the question of what will happen in the next sixty years passes to our children. Will the land trust alter the human ecology? Will new people move here to follow the same vision we had twenty years ago? Will the survivors sell the Ranch in sixty years and go their seperate ways? How long can the Ranch continue as a semi-subsistance, agricultural and ecological community?