The Free-Fall Chronicles:
Elsa Marley's life has embraced enough avant-garde movements and events, from American
painters Willem DeKoonig and Franz Kline in New York, to painting in China during the
killings in Tiananmen Square, to fill a small library of kiss-and-tell histories. I met
her, shortly after she had married Richard Marley, the Merchant Marine who had instructed
Sweet William not to patronize the whorehouses in Manila. She was a founding member of the
group which created of Black Bear Ranch, northern most outpost of The Free Family, the
loose confederation of communities into which the Diggers had evolved, and operating under
the rubric, "Free Land for Free People", she, Richard, Michael Tierra and others
were scrounging money to purchase land for a rural family site in Northern California.
Black Bear ranch was the dead-end of a nine-mile long dirt road, in the Trinity-Siskyou
wilderness, one of the most remote habitable places in California. Their goal was to
create a commune and "family trust" there, and they did. It exists to this day,
and I am still one of about 200 owners.
Born Elsa Collie, in Winnipeg, Canada, "on the cusp of Capricorn and
Aquarius", she had been a dedicated artist since she was six, referring to painting
and drawing as "her playmates." She graduated Art School in Vancouver in the mid
Fifties and migrated to the art-scene action in New York to "check out American
I have never understood the principal whereby kindred spirits find one another in the
vastness of the Universe, but however it operates, it functioned perfectly for Elsa. In
New York she met poet Diane DiPrima, then living with an intense and brilliant playwright
LeRoi Jones. LeRoi would change his name in the Sixties to Imaru Baraka and immerse
himself totally in black liberation politics to the degree that he could no longer remain
married to a white woman. Besides their joint literary accomplishments, he and Diane also
created a vivacious daughter named Minnie (DiPrima) who runs a contemporary
"art-scene" show on San Francisco cable television today.
Elsa and actor Steve McQueen became Greenwich Village coffee-house buddies. Franz Kline
and Willem DeKoonig loved her work, her pale personal evanescence, and loopy originality.
They became her mentors in the complexities of the New York art scene. Wide eyed, and
offering the impression of being continually surprised by the present moment, Elsa was
entranced to find jammed elbow to elbow with Norman Mailer and Marilyn Monroe at bright
and brittle, high-IQ social events.
She fell in love with the electricity and intelligence she found there, and
specifically with an elegant poet named Mike Strong, whom she married. Mike seemed to
represent everything about life which excited her - art and politics. Mike's father was
the leader of the Communists fighting Marshall Tito for control of Yugoslavia. Mike was
the man in the middle, courted by the FBI, the CIA, and Tito's own people. The pressure
got too great for the newlyweds, and they slipped back to Canada for refuge, where their
daughter Yoni was born.
Between 1960 and 1962 they traveled like prototypical jet-setters between Canada and
Europe. Elsa was working for an international young artist's project sponsored by Miro,
and her life changed from week to week with schizophrenic rapidity, traveling between the
calm isolation of Canada and a house in Majorca where she sipping tea and collecting
flowers with Robert Graves, to the burgeoning pop scene in London, where she lived on the
fringes of the Beatle's community.
The spy-counter-spy business was honing Mike to an unstable edge and his schizophrenia
was not metaphoric. In one of his worst episodes he raped Elsa, tied her to a chair for
three days, beating her intermittently, while he shambled through the house judiciously
bottle- feeding their little daughter.
Poet Robert Creeley, helped her escape from New York to Los Angeles.. Elsa knew people
in Topanga Canyon who would hide her from Mike. After feeling she'd imposed on them
enough, she moved to San Francisco one day, not realizing when she left that it was more
than four hundred miles North. She floated around Frisco, pregnant with one child and
nursing another when she met poets Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg, who advised her to
go home to her mother.
"They liked me 'cause I was this naive little Canadian who said what she
felt," Elsa says, and there is something inherently lovable about her. She is
ethereal, delicate as a spider-web and seems to have been constructed without predatory
instincts. Yet, like a spider, has an uncanny knack in placing the delicate web of her
intentions in the most fruitful environments to produce nourishment.
Due to all her traveling, she began having difficulties with the Immigration
authorities, and was called to their offices often, dragging Yoni along with her, and
forced to invent ways to occupy a child during the tedious waits in the stark environments
of a government office. Money was scarce, so one day, en route to an immigration hearing,
she responded to a classified ad for a housekeeper, arriving at the listed address near
Divisadero and Oak Streets, dressed to the nines for her meeting with the authorities. She
pounded and slammed the door until it was opened cautiously by a shirtless, string-bean of
a man with waist length hair and rimless glasses which made his eyes resemble an owls'.
This was Chet Helms, the Texas entrepreneur who was to found the Family Dog Dance Hall, a
less commercial alternative to the more famous Fillmore Auditorium. Perhaps more
importantly, for the music scene, he imported his friend Janis Joplin from her home town
in Port Arthur, Texas, to sing with his house band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Elsa moved in as a housekeeper, becoming the lover one of the house members, a black
sitar player named Oscar. She lived there until Aaron was born and remembers it as an
idyll. The house members loved little Yoni who by now was an adorable Shirley Temple look-
alike who could quote William Blake. She spoke fluent Spanish, and English with a British
accent, and house- members competed with one another to baby-sit, freeing Elsa for the
first time in many years.
Much of what transpired at the house was over Elsa's airy and innocent head. "I
didn't understand why people went to the bathroom all the time", she says,
incredulous at her naiveté. It took her quite a long time, for instance, to realize that
her lover Oscar was selling speed; that Chet was hooked on speed; and that the chemical
balances in the blood of many of Yoni's sitters were seriously unbalanced.
While living in Chet's house, Elsa took her first Acid trip, which she remembers as
less-than-totally- great, since most of her high was spent burrowing through the house,
looking for a misplaced can of baby formula.
"I didn't want to nurse the baby with LSD in my milk", she says, "But
there was this gargoyle, screaming, baby face following me around, demanding food. Finally
I nursed him and he went right to sleep. It queered the day," she observes drily.
Elsa's second trip was so good that she became a convert to this burgeoning awareness and
a proselytizer. It was she and her friend Ellen who turned on Janis Joplin for the first
After Aaron was born, she and Oscar moved into a house by themselves. Elsa was deported
but snuck back into the country. Oscar introduced her to Speed. "It was
fantastic!" she remembers. "Suddenly I could be a mother, a lover and an artist
all at the same time. America was so fresh! Pop Art! San Francisco! Speed!" she says
trying to establish the context and overriding enthusiasm within which she damaged
"I did it for six months" she says, "and permanently damaged my nervous
system, I'm sure." She has suffered from cycles of mild manic-depression ever since.
She was rescued from continuing this indulgence by a bad scare. While she was high one
day, her new baby Aaron fell off of a bunk bed and fractured his skull. There swelling
around his brain and the doctors said that she would not know for years whether or not he
was permanently damaged. An accident like this might have happened to anyone, but Elsa was
bereft and stricken to desperation, guilty beyond consolation. She stopped shooting speed
on the spot, left Oscar and the temptations of the City and moved to Berkeley in late
1963, or early 1964.
In Berkeley, Elsa supported the family by modeling for the Art Institute and the
California College of Arts and Crafts, where artists like Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff
were 'putting her on paper'. She was splicing together her economic loose ends by selling
lids of grass to her friends, but her money was still too meager to finance a return to
One day, she had an imaginative epiphany which linked her "quick-action
posing" for artists with an idea she felt might make her some money. She met Ben and
Rain Giacopetti, a local couple who ran the Open Theater on College Avenue and something
in conversation with them triggered the image of a slow-motion nude dance under
psychedelic lights and slides. She designed a series of veils to wear so that the lights
penetrating the veils would expose her body underneath. While she danced, someone read
aloud from the Book of Revelations, and Revelations became the name of the show. It was
smash hit, attracting a great deal of attention and was featured in Playboy magazine. It
played every Thursday night for almost a year and people traveled to Berkeley from all
over the Bay Area to see it.
The show's popularity made it a successful agent of cultural cross-pollination. Through
it Elsa met Bill (Sweet William) Fritsch and Lenore Kandel. Peter Berg, John Robb and Lynn
Brown came by from the Mime Troupe, and by that happenstance, Elsa entered the
gravitational field of the Diggers.
Berkeley was blooming with art events, and the Giacopetti's Open Theater Gallery was
one of the centers. Through her ex-husband, Mike, Elsa was already familiar with the Bay
Area poetry scene and was present (along with myself, though we had not yet met) at the
seminal Poetry Conference held at the University of California in November of 1964.
Organized by poet Charles Olson, and Zen teacher Richard Baker, the Poetry Conference
heralded the existence and unique perspective of a relatively unknown but important group
of non-academic poets: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Kirby Doyle, Lenore Kandel and James
Koller were among those who read that night, presenting the poetry and perspective
indigenous to the well established bohemian community of the West Coast. While never
particularly recognized by East Coast media, the West Coast poetry community was
experimenting and turning over new ground as consistently as the colliding tectonic plates
along the San Andreas Fault, that gave the local geology its fractious and unstable
Despite lack of recognition by the Eastern cultural media, these poets were important
to our community. They were read widely and discussed fervently. Poetry readings were
jammed with people and charged with vibrant intellectual energy, as the poets struggled to
articulate the emerging moment and its pressure on language and sensibilities. The
ambiance of those rooms reminds me of a remark Francoise Gilot made in reference to
Picasso, in her book, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art:
"Apart from work and more work, Pablo's main preoccupation was the elaborate
cultivation of artistic friendships and the reflections that followed such
Without provocative talk, coffeehouses and good meeting places, artistic friendships,
and a supportive community, art cannot flourish. A second-rate poet may be a first rate
critic of another's work. While history tends to isolate and reward the luminaries of such
milieu's, it is the scene itself, the weltanschaung, from which the art is generated,
which should receive equal credit. Something is in the wind, or entering people through
the soles of their feet. Many feel it, but the artist gives it expression. Without
comparable receptors in the form of an audience, the artists' work would be an empty
exercise, and so the milieu must be nourished and respect if art and culture are to
Elsa began to see a great deal of Lenore and Bill at this time, and Bill's brother in
law, Richard Marley, came around often. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Ideas
flowed as copiously as wine and marijuana smoke, creative projects were engendered over
lunch and the world appeared waiting to be reconceived.
Elsa is illuminated when she remembers these times:
I was interested in seeking out people of creative genius. Imagination could solve
anything. Everything was possible. Potential for Instant change - always on the edge of
illumination. It was like standing on line in the Post Office and suddenly someone says,
"You're next." It was even more exciting than actually doing it.[That feeling
of] Being Next! And suddenly, too, your heroes are interested in what you're doing!
A friend gave up all his worldly possessions. In this materially fixated time, people
might be surprised at how often such things occurred, during the Sixties and Seventies.
When I left the Mime Troupe to move to Olema for instance, I gave away 1200 records - rare
blues and jazz discs, arduously collected since junior high school. I gave away my record
player and all my appliances because I was convinced I would never again live with
Elsa moved into this pilgrims Victorian house full of furniture on Eureka Street.
"Another perfect street for another Eureka experience" she laughs. Her roommates
were her two kids, Richard Marley's girlfriend Eva and a temporary lover of Elsa's named
Don who had two kids of his own.
Shortly after moving in to her new digs, Elsa attended a Sexual Freedom league party.
The League was one of those splinter groups of the counter-culture whose obsession was the
termination of sexual repression, believing it the most certain route to liberate
man-kind. To that end, they organized orgies to initiate the insatiable, the curious, the
revolutionary, and the merely randy Elsa was aesthetically offended by the event. "So
awful" she remembers. A huge dormitory type house. Aesthetically zero. I could do
better than that!" she thought, and did.
She countered with an artists' sex party at the home of Margo St. James, a big-time San
Francisco Madame and something of a performance artist herself. Margo loved flitting
around San Francisco in a nun's habit and once, as her escort to some function, almost got
me wounded or worse by pouncing on me on a very public street and kissing and
tongue-wrestling me in front of two large, Irish cops.
Margo had a big lush house in the city's plush Twin Peaks area that featured a rotating
tangerine colored bed and indoor pool. The night of the party, the door was opened by a
statuesque black woman draped in a flag that revealed one perfect bosom. At the end of a
mirrored hall, a room full of local artists were engaged in frenetic and imaginative sex
play in front of a jazz band. Most of a band, actually, because Elsa's most enduring image
of the evening was the moment at which the black saxophone player lost it completely,
stripped naked and shouting, "Wowie-Zowie- that's for me!" dove into the
orgiastic pile of white bodies, like the world's happiest grain of pepper in a pile of
The party continued all night and all the next day. Richard Marley was in attendance,
and when Elsa performed Revelations, he fell in love. The next day he called on Eva, his
girlfriend, who was out; stayed for a cup of coffee with Elsa and then another, and fell
in love with her.
The day after the party, Elsa took a trip to Sonoma with Janis Joplin to help Janis
solve some problem she was having with the band. Adhering to contemporary psychological
protocols, everyone took acid. Everyone - including her son, Aaron, then two, and the
dogs. She and Aaron spent a glorious day together chasing wild horses, romping in the
perfumed grasses, braiding daisies and playing kiss-here-kiss- there with each other,
until they stumbled on Janis sitting near a large pile of cow-shit humming with flies,
utterly bummed out.
Elsa laughs and reminds me, "That was so like Janis. Out there in the middle of
glory, sitting in the shit. I moved her next to some flowers."
As the group was coming down from the effects of the LSD, they were informed that a
neighboring ranch had just been busted for drugs and the rumor was that they were next. A
hasty, almost-sober conference was held, so that the visitors could decide whether to stay
and help their hosts clean the house and ground of drugs, thereby risking possible arrest,
or depart immediately and leave their hosts vulnerable.
"I'll be deported", Elsa wailed.
Janis made a small blues aria out of the words "My career", but Ellen of the
Family Dog was adamant, and so they stayed to launder the place of contraband and save the
ranch. When Elsa returned home to the city exhausted, she found a small shoe-box on top of
her bed. On top of the shoe-box was a tiny pair of earrings and inside the box were
Richard Marley's worldly possessions. He stayed until 1980.
Elsa's life changed when Marley entered the picture. Bill and Lenore began lecturing
her on marital propriety. "Jewish boys like to eat well" Lenore told her. Bill,
sat her down, and detailed intricate ceremonial instructions about which behaviors
constituted being a "good woman."
"Jesus", says Elsa, "the day before they were my friends, and now,
suddenly, they're my in-laws!" But, if Bill and Lenore were serious about this
relationship, so was Elsa. She told Richard that she was not fooling around; that she was
searching for a life-time partner and if his intentions were not that serious, he should
leave. She must have known what she was doing, because even after separating fifteen years
later; after Elsa's living in China, and Richard becoming an American D.J. on a
Czechoslovakian radio station, they remain the closest of friends, caring parents, and
intimately entwined in one another's lives.
Elsa began art classes for Bill, Lenore and Richard. Her daughter Yoni, 5 by now, was
writing precocious poetry. Bill read her poems aloud over a local radio station, including
this small, haiku-like sample:
Wonder the bell, rings twice,
All the time
Until Your sky is as blue
As my moon.
Richard and Elsa had not fully entered the Digger community yet, but their domestic
arrangements were definitely in our manner. They were sharing their house with the
Bat-People: Billy, Joanie, Jade, Hassan and Caledonia and friction due to differences in
temperament produced an anarchic boil. Richard raced around the upstairs wired on speed,
and Billy Batman rested downstairs, sculpturally zonked on Smack while the children raced
between the two levels like fluids in a heat exchanger.
Peter Berg pestered Richard to join the Diggers. Bill Fritsch was doing Digger garbage
runs for our households, picking up the garbage in his truck to avoid local garbage
company fees, while Brooks Butcher, Kent and others were delivering free vegetables to the
same Digger houses.
The Digger women, and specifically, Nina Blossenheim, Judy Goldhaft, Phyllis Wilner,
Siena Riffia, and Vicky Pollack at the core attended by a rotating `staff' of allies, had
perfected the art (and arduous effort) necessary to glean surpluses from the various
grocers at the Farmer's market. The stalwart Italian greengrocers who controlled the
market simply would not give free food to able-bodied men, consequently the women became
our community's conduit to basic survival necessities.
"We had so much food" Elsa says, "that we were using squash for
doorstops." While they had doors, that is. Eventually, the landlord tired of their
communal experiments, and in a futile eviction effort, removed not only the doors, but the
toilets from the building. Responding to this ploy required effort to train the children
to aim their various evacuations down the open drain pipes, and aside from the smell which
wafted through them from the sewers below, the landlord's actions did not inconvenience
daily life all that much.
Marley's natural cynicism led Peter Berg to award him the uncannily accurate nickname
of Harpo Bogart. His curly blonde hair and physiognomy greatly resembled Harpo Marx, and
his raspy, dead-panned voice and unflappable attitude was pure Humphrey Bogart. "I
don't get this free shit" was his choral litany. Richard was still employed as a
longshoreman in 1965, taking speed to wake up and go to work on the docks. He would return
at night, worn out, and enter a house full of babies, flutes, feathered fans, lace,
bangles, beads, crystals, and Elsa and her airy-fairy friends stoned on grass or acid,
blissful as little elves, saying "Oh hiiii, Richard. How nice to see you." He
would have to take downers to go to sleep while the fun and games continued in the other
rooms. "It's a good thing we were in love", Elsa observes.
Slender, tuned, and foxy Tracey, and her husband Scott Hardy, a psychedelic light show
artist, moved in that winter. They lived on the road, perpetually, in transit between New
York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, crashing with friends wherever they went. Kirby
Doyle, an archetypically mad Irish poet, moved in too. He had just published his novel,
Happiness Bastard, and although he was not yet fully certifiable, he was working towards
it, shooting speed, and spending his nights discoursing in stormy, erudite, epic, rambles.
Before long he and Tracy were keeping company and Scott had moved on. Ten years later,
after Tracy died of an overdose swallowing the evidence while she was jailed for a minor
traffic infraction, Kirby went to pieces and disappeared for a time. He spent his days on
street-corners in San Rafael exhorting people to consider their Christianity seriously,
referred to himself as Radio Doyle, and claimed that he had been driven mad by the
tensions between the cultural avowal of Christian ethics and the Nation's practices. By
1985 he pulled himself together again. Elsa remembers passing him in a park in North
Beach, with his clothes clean, but held together by safety pins. He was brilliant, and
calm, she claims, living on some sort of grant for the disabled, but writing.
I saw him last in 1993 at a major poetry reading in San Francisco, and he was fit and
hale, just beginning a series of public readings, that hopefully will introduce a new
generation to his wondrous, wild and funny poems. With experience, one learns never to
write people off. There are second and sometimes third acts in America - each trough of a
wave is seamlessly attached to a crest.
Marley finally began to help with the garbage runs - a bit. Richard was never overly
keen on manual labor. Elsa was expecting their child, Indira, (a mother herself at this
writing), and was spending much time with Sharon, a gorgeous and very brilliant runaway of
14 or 15, pregnant with the baby of Richard's best friend, sound man, methedrine
impresario, who we'll call simply Uncle John. Richard and Elsa crossed the line into the
Digger fold at the "Invisible Circus" Event, where Elsa appeared as one of the
nude (and, in her case pregnant) belly dancers. From that time on they were family.
In the late Spring of 1967, the "Summer of Love", Elsa and Richard left their
house in charge of Digger friends ( a big mistake) and headed North to the Klamath River
to have their baby. They settled into a little cabin with friends, and had not been there
for ten days when she went into labor.
An hour after her labor began, the police broke down the doors and arrested them all.
Luckily, they had no drugs in the house except for one joint of very powerful grass under
the pillow that Elsa was saving for her delivery. She asked the police for a glass of
water, with huge, little girl tears glistening in her eyes, and swallowed the evidence, so
that she was high as a soaring bird for what transpired next.
The police found some Rasberry Leaf Tea, which is a long muscle relaxant and very
useful for childbirth. They assumed that it was marijuana. They found a birth kit, given
to them by their doctor, which had a syringe in it, and some powdered vitamin C which they
assumed was cocaine. They arrested everyone for possession of dangerous substances and,
without any tests on the substances, or howdy-do, took Richard to jail, Elsa to the local
hospital, and the children, Yoni and Aaron, to a foster home.
Elsa was under lock and guard in the hospital but she had a phone. She called Bill and
Lenore and told them to make bail for everyone else because she was okay for the time
being. The hospital insisted on x- raying her. They tied her down to the bed. The x-ray
technician was four months pregnant and apologized for having to leave the room while she
operated the x-ray. "It's dangerous for my baby", she said without irony. Elsa
was screaming, "What about my baby?", but no one listened to her. She was only a
One forgets today, that brutality and lack of common decency was a normal experience
for "freaks", more the rule than the exception. outside of the `safe' areas of
major metropolitan areas or university towns. When one considers that Richard and Elsa
were white and highly educated, had committed no crime;, yet treated in this manner solely
for appearing different than the norm, White people might want to review their attitudes
towards the complaints of people of color routinely facing such misanthropic behavior
today. It is too easy to dismiss the experiences of others until you have faced reality
from their perspective. It was illuminating and unforgettable for all who have.
Elsa was sent to jail and her water broke 20 minutes later. The matron panicked and did
not want a delivery to occur on her shift so packed Elsa off to the sick bay. In the
hospital ward, Elsa was bracketed on either side by two girls doing 30 days for writing
bad checks. One had been a mid-wife in the South. The matron had been so flustered by the
pending birth that she forgot to lock them in, so the two women bustled around the ward
making things ready for the arrival of Elsa's baby.
Normally, Elsa had babies quickly. Aaron had been born in 3/4 of an hour, but when the
girls informed Elsa that the baby would be taken away from her, she was shocked and sat
bolt upright in her bed. Her contractions stopped. She remembers thinking, "They
already had two of my kids", referring to Aaron and Yoni, "they're not getting
In the meantime, all tests of the police seizures proved negative and the charges had
been dropped against everyone. Richard had been released a day earlier, and Elsa's jailers
told her that she was now free to go. "I didn't even know what town I was in",
In fact it was Eureka, California, and she had been in the Humboldt County jail. She
went back to the Hospital to have her baby there, but they refused to admit her because
now she was not in Labor. She sat down in the waiting room and refused to move. About six
hours later some nurses took pity on her and brought her some sandwiches and orange juice.
Finally her friend whose house they were using, Don Crow, found her sitting alone in the
waiting room and brought her to Richard. (Richard was not allowed into the hospital to
retrieve her at this time, because hepatitis had made him yellow as a sunflower.)
Indira (named after the East Indian Queen of the Gods) Star (scientists had recently
discovered a new star) Marley was born on December 27, much to Elsa's disappointment.
"We wanted the first Christmas baby, to show those fuckers," she said.
Richard's mother was one of England's most famous Communists. Several years ago she
received a National award for a life-time of social activism. Obviously, nursing at that
bosom, and being schlepped to demonstrations, strikes, and organizational meetings, had
embued Richard with a deeply practical sense of street smarts he employed to release Yoni
and Aaron from the Foster home. The county had tried to retain them (not being funded for
children they don't possess) arguing that the fact that the kids did not have their own
private bedroom demonstrated the poverty and insufficiency of their domestic situation.
The authorities did not want hippies in Humboldt county. They could not know that
within ten years, Humboldt county would lose its logging industry and be crushed by the
national recession, and that today's upright local merchants vociferously supporting the
harassment and expulsion of the hipster, the owners of the local hardware stores, car
dealers, lumber yards, banks etc. would be tomorrow's welfare clients of the billion
dollar market in illicit marijuana. It is, in fact, California's leading agricultural cash
crop - produced largely in the deep woods and hidden recesses of the State's rural
counties. Soon, those good-ol-boy redneck sheriffs and supervisors were crawling to
solicit campaign contributions from the growers even while they were milking Uncle Sugar
for Federal handouts from the CAMP Program (Campaign Against Marijuana Production) to
eradicate the same marijuana which was underwriting the local economy.
Given the essential benevolence of marijuana, many suspect that the real reason for our
government's ardor against marijuana production and its disproportionate sentencing of
small time users and dealers to terms longer than murderers and rapists, is to ensure that
the oligarchy's fanatically anti- Communist cronies in Latin and Central America win our
domestic marijuana markets in return for abetting American foreign policy aims in their
own countries. It can hardly be coincidental that during the Vietnamese war when our
allies were Opium growers, we had heroin epidemics in the United States, and that later,
during our repression of liberation struggles in Latin America when our allies were Cocoa
producers, the nation was beset with Cocaine epidemics.
No more or less opportunistic than anyone else, sheriffs took the Federal money,
obliquely warned local growers they knew to be good people and busted outsiders who were
trying to invade the territory, parading their confiscated crops before the media as
evidence of their general success at stamping out drugs. As a part of this general
quid-pro-quo there is a general "no-shoot" policy at least informally in place,
and while a bust may cause a person to lose everything he owns, the physical dangers to
locals were from outside growers moving up from the Bay Area and Oakland, not from the
police. By 1985 or so, things had gotten downright cozy. Sometimes familiarity breeds
respect, and local law enforcement learned that, despite their predilection for getting
high, most of these newcomers were not bad people. If the sheriffs were not actually
smoking pot, some of their old-time friends were definitely growing it, and they
understood, that like bootlegging in Kentucky, it was the mainstay of a very depressed
local economy, and did not require overly vigorous prosecution. After all, business is as
American as Apple pie.
The irony of this situation is compounded when one considers that prisons are presently
so overflowing with people who were busted smoking or selling light- weight amounts of
grass, the overcrowding is forcing early release of strong-arm robbers and creating a new
industry of prison construction and excess-people detention as the basis of an economy for
middle-class professionals. It costs twenty to thirty thousand dollars a year to keep a
person incarcerated, and the capital costs of constructing a prison was about fifty
thousand dollars a bed, the last time I looked. Attempting to stem this passive revolution
of altering personal consciousness with the leaves of a ubiquitous plant has eroded civil
liberties, militarized the criminal justice system, and reamed the already mined pockets
of citizens, to pay for what is now the largest prison system in the world.
There is no people on earth that does not have some mechanism for temporarily
transcending the vicissitudes of daily life. Whether they utilize fasting, coffee, prayer,
peyote, dance, marijuana, song, alcohol, kief, yage, nicotine, ayahuasca, cocoa- leaf,
betel nut, or inhale the effluent from their steam-iron, the common denominator is that
every culture uses something in its pursuit of spiritual balm. I would argue that such a
ubiquitous practice be considered a basic part of human nature. Attempts to thwart such a
fundamental impulse are futile and as bound to fail, as trying to stem the tides.
It would be more profitable (and enforceable) and less socially destructive to make
distinctions between substances which grow naturally (tobacco, marijuana, peyote, coffee,
tea, hashish, etc) and those which require chemical interventions for effect (alcohol,
cocaine, LSD, etc.) Deregulating and taxing the former, might well pay for regulating the
latter. Decriminalizing the issue would liberate large sums of money from the police
services, (the powerful lobby for current practices) where they currently have no effect
and allow transfer to medical and social programs which have the potential to resurrect
this otherwise lost and maladapted human potential. Finally, it is unclear why advocates
for the decriminalization of drugs have allowed themselves to be walled in by the
assumption that legalizing a drug would make it carelessly available. The middle ground of
such debate is called regulation, and within the definitions and understandings of that
term, lies the hope of a saner and less costly social policy.
Richard and Elsa left the hospital and returned to San Francisco to find that the
Diggers had not only liberated their house, but all their personal possessions. This was a
definite down side of life in a free family, but they took it in stride and moved in with
Sweet William and Lenore.
A Digger from Los Angeles, a lusty, voluble Italian, trained in classical piano and
composition, named Michael Tierra had taken a place in the northern town of Shasta.
Richard and Elsa went to visit him there in the Spring of 1968, in search of a country
base; their motto, "Free land for free people" emblazoned on their mental
banners. One day, en route to a camping site, they passed the Big Sky Realty Company, and
on impulse, Elsa said, "Stop the car" and entered. She elucidated to the realtor
a list of their criteria: 8 to 100 mountainous acres; idyllic; isolated; good water; a
house and outbuildings. The fellow never hesitated, but went directly to his file and
pulled the information about Black Bear Ranch, an abandoned gold mine in one of the area's
most remote canyons.
The ranch and mine originally belonged to John Daggett, Lieutenant governor of
California during the Gold Rush. Appropriately, he was also director of the San Francisco
Mint. Due to the size of the Black Bear strike, and his exalted political position, he was
able to claim 300 indentured Chinese laborers to build a nine mile long road from the
one-store town of Sawyer's Bar up to the crest, and then down three hair-raising miles of
descending, reverse camber switchbacks, dead ending at the Ranch: 80 acres of forest,
buildings, gold, rushing trout streams and a few spacious meadows. It was for sale
Elsa, Redwood Kardon and Phyllis Wilner camped there for a weekend, poking around the
old but serviceable house and outbuildings, the abandoned orchards and meadows, cooling
themselves in the frigid creeks, and came to the conclusion that the family had to own it.
The down payment was $2200 and while this amount of money seems minor today, it will place
things in perspective to realize that collectively they were having trouble raising their
monthly rent of $35.00, or that between 1966 and 1975 that amount was my approximate
Elsa possesses an optimism which exists independently of objective criteria. "I
believe that if I have a righteous need for something, it will come." she says. The
group drove nine hours without stopping to rest to San Francisco and spread the news of
their glorious find to friends at the Willard Street house. Dour, be-spectacled Eva
"Myeba" Bess, listened in silence and left the room. Preternaturally grave,
highly intelligent and observant, Myeba is one of those people who often make substantial
contributions and achieve recognition through facilitating others. She returned moments
later, stone-faced, and handed Elsa a $2,000 check. Richard was unhinged. Selfless
generosity was so foreign to his tough-minded and cynical Marxist orientation as to be
inconceivable. Eva's simple act permanently anchored Richard's belief in the Free Family
as a concrete reality, and he left immediately to seek the rest of the money necessary to
outfit a homestead. With the fanaticism of the newly converted, perhaps he took things a
bit too far by leaving Elsa and the new baby as collateral with a dealer who advanced him
a large amount of LSD to transform into cash.
Schemes for raising money proliferated in our group like legislation in Congress, as
our various subsets and clans began the search to make Black Bear our own.. Michael
Tierra, Redwood, Marty Linhart (who stars in his own saga shortly), Peter Lief, and Elsa
went to LA to fund-raise. Elsa was ecstatic. "They all became my lovers" she
remembers, "except Peter, who was stoned on acid every day and never came out of his
room. Tierra had a list of celebrities who were either sympathetic to their goals or
terrified of invasion by these wild people and paid them to leave. When actor James Coburn
was recalcitrant about supporting this vitally important revolutionary endeavor, Michael
burned a flag in his house. The ensemble was royally received by designer Charles Eames
who took a particular fancy to Elsa and her work. Peter Tork, of the Monkees, generously
offered a place to stay while they worked the town. "He was sweet", says Elsa
with some chagrin, "and I felt bad because the boys ripped him off for everything
that was liftable."
Film director Michael Antonioni wrote them a check in an elevator; Steve McQueen gave
something. Their rap appeared bullet-proof. Elsa, wild-eyed and idealistic as a hippie
Marianne prophesied "That a new world will be born." The boys came on hard,
relentless and mercenary. Even Grogan, not even traveling with them, scammed a great deal
of money in the name of Black Bear Ranch, which, predictably to those of us who knew him
well, never reached ranch coffers.
This peripatetic dog-and-pony show epitomizes the confraternation between idealism and
selfishness that charactered many Digger activities. Elsa believed her vision in all
innocence. It was unsullied white, undiluted from the tube; what painters call
nonatmospheric tones- pure and unaltered by perspective. I'm sure some of the boys did
too, though their colors were not as clean. When ideals are thoroughly admixed with
material incentives, it is as difficult to separate the parts as picking the flecks of
egg-white from an omelette. How facile we humans are at the double-juggle of entertaining
noble objectives, and, measuring ourselves solely by these aspirations, concluding that we
therefore are noble as well. Once assured of our own personal goodness and nobility,
reflection is placed solely in the service of strategy - "steal a little they throw
you in jail/ steal a lot and they make you king." (Dylan)
Exactly like countless civilians and governments, our group behavior initiated the
processes which guaranteed our eventual destruction. The people who supported our
endeavors were not fools. Many were successful hustlers in their own right who believed or
wanted to believe in higher ideals and a better future, or perhaps simply wanted an
interesting diversion. They saw in us what they chose to see and were never wrong because
so many qualities coexisted simultaneously. Those who saw altruism were no more mistaken
than those who saw cynicism and personal opportunism. Our contradictory behavior was, like
Penelope, wife of the absent Ulysses, holding off her suitors by unweaving at night what
she constructed by day. The difference between her and us, was that we were not aware of
our own handiwork.
Elsa's group raised about fifty thousand dollars; serious money and hard work at any
time., Because the title had to be in someone's name, Richard signed all the papers in
his. They assembled tools and supplies, bought an repaired old Coors beer truck to
transport it all, and prepared to depart for a new life.
When the core group, Richard and Elsa, Mike Tierra and Gail Erricson, John and Inga
Albion, Eva Bess, Rose Lee, Redwood, Peter Lief, Ephraim and Carol Korngold rolled down
the dirt road and parked at the ranch house, they were shocked to find 40 people already
camping there who refused to budge. It was after all, Free land, wasn't it?
It would be hard to overestimate either the isolation of Black Bear Ranch or the
collective inexperience at wilderness living for this initial group of pilgrims. With the
exception of John Albion, who was a miner's son from Colorado, no one possessed even the
most fundamental information about rural living, let alone primitive rural living.
Richard decided to take the bull by the horns. He called a meeting in the main house
for the next morning. Donning an old school band uniform, for authority, he placed a large
black-board at the head of the room, and, reprising his experience as a labor- organizer,
set to work detailing committees: shitter committees, food prep committees, janitorial
committees, planning committees, etc. He blue-printed a model enlightened community,
cleverly as a latter-day Jefferson, and, pleased with the design, order, and probity of
his model, left the room, awash in optimism and rested.
By the next day, the blackboard had disappeared and Richard was crushed. It was bad
enough that the title to this impending disaster was in his name, but winter was
approaching and the idea of being snowbound in this isolated canyon, with this crew set
Richard's mind to generating spontaneous imagery of the Donner party.
Richard and Elsa's party were forced to set up housekeeping in the barn because the
main house was already full. Kirby Doyle arrived with a truck full of plywood and geodesic
dome materials. He spent his first night in the barn with the Marley's, high on acid, and
told everyone the next morning how he had spent the night listening to the spirits of the
old miners weeping. He interpretated that as an omen meaning that the spirits of the dead
had refused them permission to stay.
Despite Kirby's gloomy premonition, Richard and Kirby assembled a geodesic dome in what
had once been the garden area of the main house, and Elsa, Richard, Yoni, Aaron, Indira,
Jeannie DiPrima and her dog, spent the first winter in the fifteen foot diameter dome
which also served as the family kitchen and art studio.
By January, they had run out of kerosene for the lamps, and even matches. The house was
freezing. They did not know how to chop wood and only one or two people knew how to cook.
Everyone complained about the cold. The babies were sniffly and ill, and people were
crabby and miserable. Oblivious to such trivial temporal concerns, Michael Tierra would
wander into the kitchen in his silk dressing gown, hungry after a mornings' practice at
the piano, and wonder aloud, "Where's my breakfast?"
Redwood walked in to the main house one morning and announced, "I've just re-lived
10,000 years of Jewish oppression." When questioned, it was determined that he had
taken Acid the night before. The comment seemed self-evident therefore and the subject was
At the first thaw, County crews plowed the road, and Richard and a couple of fellows
took the old Coors truck into Sawyers Bar for the first mail run since the snow had
trapped them. When they had not returned three days later, the ranch panicked, imagining
them lost over the cliff-edge in one of the innumerable canyons along the route. In fact,
they had driven to Frisco, where other Diggers raised money, and loaded the truck with
grains, cooking oils, flour, raisins, dates, nuts, granola, kerosene, corn meal and enough
staples to get them through the winter. When they returned, six days later, they were
celebrated as heroes.
It was one of the worst winters in California's recorded history, with over four feet
of snowfall. The roads were so impassable, Mark was forced to walk out for kerosene and
matches on home-made snowshoes, and he did, completing the grueling 18 mile round trip in
one day, returning home lugging twenty gallons (about 120 pounds) of kerosene, which
leaked en route, burning his skin painfully.
Emergency situations are often utilized as the excuse for suspending democratic
processes and Black Bear was no exception to this tried and tested political tactic. The
general population was aware that something needed to be done, but didn't know how to
start. Richard joined forces with Ephraim Korngold, at that time, a dyspeptic, critically
analytical fellow who is prominently featured later in this story. They enlisted Marty
Linhardt, another of their original group, and formed the "Let's Get With It",
political party. Using combinations of revolutionary rhetoric, blandishments and threats,
they organized fire-wood crews to fall, and split wood for heat and cooking. (And sex for
that matter, since the women had begun withholding their favors either out of general
disgust with group ineptness, or because they were simply too cold.) In similar fashion,
clean-up and responsibilities for kitchen and childrens' duties were assigned. Things
became more organized, however organized, in this context, does not mean normal.
Since the inhabitants of Black Bear were urban people and had never lived in the
country before, their imaginations were occasionally prey to horrible inventions. The
surrounding country was truly wild; the canyons brimming with black bears, cougars, and
lynx and the presence of such carnivores became magnified into dire threats. Some people
were afraid to let their children out of sight, others spent all day, every day, indoors.
Gradually a consensus emerged that they had moved to the country and ought to be out in it
occasionally. Timers were set and once every hour, the coffee-klatching and the bitching
was suspended and people poured outside to run around the house, screaming at the tops of
their lungs to drive away potential predators.
the group survived the first winter somehow, acquiring skills and knowledge, necessary
to survive outside the cushions and support systems of city life. As it evolved and
prospered in the next years, Black Bear became a functioning part of the Free Family
network, a situation not always to its advantage. Because the ranch was so isolated,
"family" members would often arrive like invading birds, dropping seeds of
conversation and random political ideas from the distant city , which, in that extremely
isolated environment, sometimes rooted and flowered into mature political movements, that
appeared like the genetically mutated kin of familiar issue to those of us living outside
of that microcosm.
There was, for instance, a period of time where everyone abandoned their tiny single
family dwellings and individual rooms to move into the main house for a season, to subvert
what was perceived as " growing factionalism." Everyone's clothes were hung on
pipe- racks in the center of the room, and everything was free for anyone else to use. (No
private property.) I think it was during the same time that couples were disparaged as
decadently bourgeoise by a women's faction that held sway for a season. They announced
that henceforth no one could sleep with the same person for more than two consecutive
nights because that would encourage "coupling." My personal reaction to such
ideological tampering with my biological urges was to ignore all alien orders. I was
visiting then and smitten with Gaba, a magnificently zoftig Earth-mother who, to my
fevered imagination, might have stepped directly from the an R. Crumb illustration. She
maintained an outside bed on a hill she called The Eagle's Lair. It was lovely to be
there, under the stars and rustling, and the idea of having to report, in two days time,
to the main house as a sexual was unappealing, to say the least. My problem was compounded
because while Gaba might share her liberated bed with me on occasion, she was alternately
in love with Myeba, which did not bother me particularly or Danny, which did.
Consequently, she was sometimes remote and a little distracted. I sought refuge with
Richard and Elsa one day in their diminutive creekside house. They somehow managed to
float above all institutional rules, and I spent a heartbroken day in bed with both of
them, making love to Elsa and taking Nembutols with Richard. Elsa insists with more good
humor than I would have been able to muster had the situations been reversed, that I spent
the majority of my time with her moaning about Gaba and the unjust apportionment of her
Blackbear was becoming famous in the counter- culture. Sociologists visited.
Psychologist and social thinker Herbert Marcuse's daughter, Yeshi lived their with her
husband Osha and their daughter Rainbow. Sociologist Don Monkerud was preparing a book on
the fledgling community, as was John Salter, one of our own. There was certainly no
shortage of interesting events for them to ponder.
For instance, the interesting day a group left to gather herbs in the woods. We filed
downstream, past the Black Bear cow, our symbol of rural domesticity, tethered to a stake
and grazing happily on top of her small hill. We were gathering Oregon Grape root,
Trillium, Elderberry and a host of other medicinal plants, since in that remote place,
learning the basics of home-care and cure were essential. When we returned at days end,
toting our stuffed collecting sacks like happy little elves, the cow was laying on her
back, legs erect as fence-posts, dead as road-kill. She had slipped on her mound, skidded
downhill and strangled in her chain. Being the resident poacher, I organized the
butchering party, and soon we were arm-pit deep in blood and entrails, wielding axes and
hack-saws, transforming Bossy into dinner. Waste not, want not.
Children were born there; gardens planted and tended seriously. Local Indians, Karoks,
Yuroks, and Hoopas, attracted to the novelty of this zany community, bare-breasted women,
and the copious amounts elderberry wine we made, brought salmon as trade and gifts, and
generously taught people how to smoke it. Once they brought a dead cougar, which aroused
group paranoia, because it was a protected species and consequently as illegal to possess
as drugs but much more difficult to hide. We destroyed the evidence by eating it.
"Not so many people have ever eaten cougar" Elsa points out fairly.
John and Sarah Glazer, two rotund and indefatigable Digger foragers appeared one day
with their old Chevy pick-up cargo bed filled to overflowing with quivering, red,
whale-meat, donated by the experimental whaling station at Point Richmond. Black Bear
chefs must have concocted more ingenious recipes for whale meat than all other locales on
the planet combined, and for months people ate whale-a-cue, canned whale, broiled,
steamed, sliced, diced, chopped, ground, pressed, smoked and sun-dried whale until some
people imagined that they were living underwater and the swarm of gnats before their eyes
was krill upon which they should be feeding.
"We ate a lot of placenta", Elsa muses idly, as an afterthought, referring to
the group custom of ritually tasting the after-birth of infants born on the ranch.
Ranch had a way of eroding standards scientific objectivity. Don Monkerud, the visiting
sociologist, once became so incensed by Kirby Doyle's ceaseless Christian sermonizing
(Monkerud had fled the South to escape evangelicals) that he shattered a gallon jar of
honey over Kirby's head.
Things could get out of touch there. Marin County Free Family people (and after the
exodus from the Haight-Ashbury this was more or less how we referred to ourselves) came
and went to bring food and drugs, stop to visit and help out, but we remained somewhat
immune to the site-specific madness there by virtue of a) our own site-specific varieties,
and b) that by leaving occasionally we received more and varied perspectives about issues
and events than were available to Ranch long-termers.
The collision between the inside and outside realities became markedly obvious one
Spring, when Marty Lindhardt appeared in the city after a long, uninterrupted stretch at
the ranch, in a dress, covering his long pig-tails coyly with a scarf tied as a babushka.
Marty was a muscular, very hairy, bearded Jew with a broken nose, curiously illuminated
eyes, and manic enthusiasms. There was absolutely nothing effeminate about either his
appearance or predilections. He just happened to be wearing a dress. Conversing with him
at length, City family members were reassured that he had not lost his mind, but only
"exploring his gender" under the tutelage of women at Black Bear. They had
collected money, quite a lot of money actually, and sent him to the city to have a
vasectomy. Under their influence, Marty thought that this was a capital idea. He was
fucking his brains out up there, and if the price tag was snipping his seminal vessicles,
he couldn't wait to pay it.
In the same way that one behaves so as not to startle a sleepwalker, several of us took
him around the city, trying gently to help him remember "normal" life, in a not
too sudden or precipitous manner. We smoked dope and ate Chinese food. We visited friends
and remarked obliquely how perhaps he noticed that he was the only man among us or in any
field of vision for that matter, wearing a dress. He met some women who considered him
charming and attractive and seemed prepared to sleep with him without insisting that he
banish all possibility of his future genetic transmission. Our perspective prevailed, and
we convinced him to use the money to get his teeth fixed, which he did. He also threw away
that stupid fucking dress and returned to Black Bear like any other ordinary, fucked-up
man, to face the wrath of the women whose money he had misappropriated.
In 1993 I was swimming at the Salmon River, visiting Black Bear alumni who live in the
environs, or return there every August to read books, discuss politics, browse in the sun,
and keep family bonds tight. One day Marty appeared sans beard, hale and healthy, with an
effervescent and charming wife, and a dazzlingly precocious and physically beautiful sloe-
eyed daughter whose presence provoked my nine year old son into a frenzy of attention
getting activity, which culminated with his holding court before ten bemused adults
attempting to thread their way through a convoluted litany of injustices he had been dealt
from the hands of Marty's daughter. Despite my son's temporary discomfiture, I enjoyed the
event immensely and read into the existence of this blithe girl a stunning rejoinder to
all those who would be too quick to trade the future's possibilities for a momentary
The ranch will appear in this narrative several times, but one story in particular
exemplifies for me the combination of passion, foolishness, and essential magic that
attended our apprentice efforts at creating a new way of life.
On one visit, I learned that a bear had been marauding through the ranch, violating
food-stores, scaring people and generally making life miserable. Ephraim was planning to
shoot it. I didn't know Ephraim well at the time; had not yet learned to love and respect
him. He always affected a blue Chairman Mao hat which lent him a rather official air. His
nose was fevered and red like an alcoholic's and his mouth seemed a thin, judgmental
crease. He appeared grim and bitter to me then and there is a possibility that Ephraim did
not hold himself in too high esteem either, because not long after the events of this
tale, he changed his life radically.
I felt that killing the totem of the ranch could only bode badly for us. Furthermore,
it seemed like a poor way to announce our intentions to the other species we were learning
to cohabit with. I volunteered to do something about the obstreperous bear. The problem
was that I knew nothing about Bears. I elicited a promise from Ephraim to give me three
days, and I jumped into my truck with, Tattoo Larry, to find some Indians, who, I felt,
would know, if anyone did, the appropriate thing to do.
I had made some good friends among the Tripps, an old and established Indian family on
the River. Hambone, in particular, had taken a liking to me since the night he had almost
killed me. Short and stocky as an Eskimo, Hambone's face looked as if it had been beaten
in with a shovel. On the night in question, he arrived at the ranch with his cousin
Willis, loopy drunk, and asked me if I wanted to "Indian wrestle." I was at
least ten inches taller than he was and thought it would be fun until I took his hand and
realized I had seriously misappraised the situation. Something in his body settled
inexorably and his center of gravity shifted to somewhere below his knees. When Tierra
yelled "go", I felt myself fly through the air. I landed on my back about six
feet away, and Hambone was above me, kneeling on my throat, arm cocked in a fist above
him, with the craziest, crooked-tooth grin and an expression in his eyes which demanded,
"Whatcha gonna do now?"
Willis, crowed triumphantly, and sought confirmation from the witnesses. "Hambone
dropped him like a bad habit!", he announced to the startled audience, laughing and
slapping himself. I've never looked at a drunken Indian in the same way again.
So I began my mission to save the bear by visiting Hambone then Willis. Each person
referred me to someone else and everyone we encountered seemed shy and diffident about
advising me. By the end of the second day, Tattoo Larry, and I were tired and frustrated.
On the third day, we were referred to a small hardscrabble farm where an old Indian man
was milking a solitary cow. He heard our story in silence, got up and walked away and we
waited there an hour, uncertain whether or not he had even understood us, until he
"The bear doesn't have any sense of danger in the noise of a gun", he said.
"That's why you can't frighten him away. Fill a shotgun shell with rock salt and
shoot him in the butt. He'll get it then." Larry and I were elated. because at last
we knew what to do. We leapt in the truck and began returned to Black Bear.
When we arrived the bear was dead. Ephraim had spotted it grazing on berries and killed
it with a rifle shot. I was crushed and angry. All our efforts had been for nothing, and
to my mind, our family claim of being other than exploitative settlers had been seriously
compromised in my mind.
Infuriating me further, Black Bear people were flaunting Bear claws, teeth, and fur as
talismans, as if they were hunters who had felled the creature with a spear and earned the
right to display its power. I was sick. Only Zoe had thought of Larry and my efforts and
had wanted us each to have a tooth of the bear we'd tried to save. She had buried the
skull to hide it from the others, but when she searched to find it again, she could not.
I felt estranged from Ephraim for some time after that, and we never discussed the
event. In time, he separated from his wife Carol, and moved in with Harriet Beinfeld, a
radiant woman, wealthy with optimistic good humor and deep intuitive perceptions. I lost
track of them for some time when I left Black Bear.
When I saw them next, I was living on my family farm in Pennsylvania, been attending to
affairs relating to the death of my father. They arrived on a blustery winter night in
1972 or 1973. I learned with astonishment, that they had been in living England
assiduously studying acupuncture with a man named Wormsley, who was one of the few
Westerners who understood this ancient and delicate healing art. Ephraim appeared
radically transformed. The angry redness had disappeared from his nose, and he was calm,
self-collected and gentle. They explained the history and theory of acupuncture to the
group of us living there and treated each of us for whatever was our current complaint.
Their manner was professional and very assured, and the results so effective, that since
then I have relied primarily on acupuncture for most ailments.
Ephraim and Harriet returned to California and began a medical practice which expanded
to include the sale of Chinese herbs. Ephraim became a member of the State of California
board which certifies acupuncturists for State licenses. He helped found and taught at the
College of Acupuncture in San Francisco. He and Harriet traveled often to China, to study
and arrange for masters of healing to teach in San Francisco. They have written a seminal
book on Chinese medicine and its application to psychology and health, called , Between
Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, and continue their practice at The Chinese
Medical Works in San Francisco, not far from the neighborhood I returned to after Turkey
In 1975, I returned to California from the East. I inherited a tiny flat from Michael
Tierra over a garage, that was directly behind Ephraim and Harriet's orderly flat.
The Symbionese Liberation Army had seized the front pages of the Hearst Newspapers with
their kidnap of Hearst heiress, Patty, and stories of their bank robberies and copies of
their revolutionary manifestos astounded me on the front pages of the local paper. I
anticipated total social upheaval, but Patty Hearst and was captured later, right around
the corner from where I lived, and the others were burned alive in a shootout with the
police which was televised.
Ephraim and Harriet had a son born with a hole in his heart that required surgery.
Furthermore, he had a curious maladaption of his hands that bonded his first and second
and third and fourth fingers together in pairs. Ephraim and Harriet were anguished about
the impending surgery their child required; the shots, tubes and suffering they would
inevitably inflict on a child too young to be even offered explanations or comforts for
the pain he must endure. I was sitting with them one day during this crisis, wordlessly
present in what I felt was a pathetically inept gesture of support, when Ephraim turned to
me and indicating his newborn said softly, "Did you know his name is Bear?" He
turned away, and something about his dry restraint struck me so forcibly I had to catch my
breath to choke off a sob.
I was ashamed of my bitter thoughts about Ephraim; ashamed at how easily I had judged
him and imputed to him motives less beneficent and noble then my own. I too, had used the
Bear, to some degree, as a way of suggesting that I cared more passionately and deeply
about living in harmony with other species than he did. Without ever referring to it
directly, Ephraim let me know that he sensed some synchronicity between killing the Bear
and his son's difficulties. By dedicating his son to that Spirit, he had acknowledged his
error and apologized to the Bear itself. The generosity and humility of his act made me
ashamed of my harsh and self-centered stinginess, which had been totally unnecessary. This
gesture between Ephraim and the Universe, did not require the insertion of my judgments
and indeed, his grace in the matter far surpassed my own. He has remained my doctor for
many years even after I moved away from the city. Often as I lay, wincing at his needles
he inserts to repair systemic imbalances, I marvel at the curious karma that has connected
us, not only him and me, but all the various factions and sub-sets of the Free Family, and
the bizarre and unpredictable routes have we lived and died, groping our way to maturity.
Year after year, like a tree accumulating mass, including scars and torsioned twists,
Black Bear became more organized; relationships lost their adolescent raggedness.
Homesteaders overflowed the borders of the Ranch proper and migrated along the Salmon and
Klamath rivers; taking individual houses there, creating smaller cooperatives to
facilitate the childrens' schooling Some hired on with the Forest Service, while others
staked small gold-mining claims, panning or digging just enough gold to justify homestead
Recently, the Forest Service has been merciless in driving people off those claims they
have lived on for years, trampling gardens, burning the houses, and as for extra measure
even destroying the bridges to them over the turbulent river. They have specious legal
excuses, but the real reason is that this community has become the backbone of
environmental resistance to and criticism of Forest Service policies which have raped the
environment there; allowing logging on totally inappropriate soils and slopes. The
resultant run-offs and siltation have collapsed roads and decimated fish and wildlife
habitat, and the Black Bear people were articulate and educated witnesses to this
betrayal. Of course, many Forest Service professionals, biologists by training, feel as we
do, but are helpless before the political pressures of legislators in the pocket of the
logging industry which views the National Forests as its own private stockpiles. Employing
the fear of the soon-to-be displaced-anyway mill-hands and fallers as political leverage
against environmentalists, these corporations haul billions of board feet annually out the
public lands, on logging roads which have been paid for by taxpayers. The logging road
network in the United States is larger than the public highway system and it has been
estimated that 90% of timber sales actually lose money if the cost of the road systems and
maintenance were factored in. Rather than observe its own laws, the Government uses its
muscle to remove witnesses to its malfeasance.
Black Bear people were active in the struggle to stop the Gasquet-Orleans road, an
asphalt spike piercing the heart of the country most sacred to the Hupa, Yurok, and Karok
Indian people. Incredibly enough, in reviewing the case, the Supreme Court, rejected the
concept of land as a basic spiritual necessity protected by the Constitution. It would be
interesting to know what a spiritual necessity might be, and why, if an edifice can be
protected as a source of worship, why the land it stands on should be exempt.
Elsa is a grandmother now. One of her children lives in Paris pursuing a Masters Degree
in French. Her two daughters are both mothers, and Elsa has recently returned from three
years living in the People's Republic of China, where she has been painting with a Chinese
artist named Chen KeLiang. They work together on fine Chinese paper, he with traditional
inks and exquisite Asian brushes, and she with acrylics and oils. They call their large,
abstract, intensely beautiful canvases, Joint-Projects, and see them as a marriage of
Eastern and Western sensibilities, precursors of deeper understanding between the two
Elsa is still an edge-dweller. Her eyes have never lost their excited optimism about
the very next moment. She dresses stylishly and imaginatively, with bohemian traditions
visible in her choice of clothing. Her hair is grey, and she appears grandmotherly and
plump as a succulent blueberry muffin. I am certain that her young art students have no
idea of the wild life their delicate and presently decorous professor has lived.
Date of last modification: June 8, 1996
The Free-Fall Chronicles is a "loose" memoir of the '60's by Peter Coyote,
actor and one of the earliest members of the Diggers. It is a "loose" memoir
because every third or fourth chapter is about another member of the community. The book
traces the experiences, the lessons and the costs of the pursuit of absolute freedom, and
ponders the utility of limits. This chapter is about one of the Diggers whose life
intersected many of the events that defined this period.