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Diggers: An American Alternative Movement Thirty Years Later

by Édouard Waintrop

   

Series of articles that appeared in Liberation newspaper, Paris, France, December 2000. Written by Édouard Waintrop (with permission to republish here.) Translated by Lisa Mercer. English-language version edited for context by Michael Wm. Doyle.

    

Index of the Series

  1. Peter Coyote and the Statures of Liberty

  2. Céline and Alice in the Country of Rebels

  3. The Green “Hun” of San Francisco

  4. The Guardians of the Mattole River

  5. In The Name of the Salmon

 

Article One

Peter Coyote and the Statures of Liberty

On the trail of some Californian anarchists with the multi-faceted actor.

Libération newspaper (Paris, France), Culture section (Monday, 25 December 2000), p. 20-21.
In 1966-67, unlike the hippies of San Francisco, they were revolutionary anti-establishment protesters. When nothing more seemed possible there, they disappeared into nature, founded communities, and took a new departure into radical ecology. Thirty years later, the Diggers have not abandoned their American dreams...

On location in Mill Valley

On this day at the end of October, Peter Coyote lunches close to home, in a little Mexican restaurant in Mill Valley, north of the San Francisco Bay. Slim, handsome, nervous, not looking his almost sixty years, the film actor (Kika by Pedro Almodovar, Bitter Moon by Roman Polanski) remembers the ‘60s in the Haight-Ashbury, the hippie neighborhood of San Francisco, and the Mime Troupe, the revolutionary theater company where he began his career thirty-five years ago: "Each of our shows was a frontal attack against the official culture and its fashionable and apolitical shows. When they accepted me among them, I was stunned. I had the feeling of debuting with the best, the most audacious of all.”

Coyote also recalls the Diggers, the most radical West Coast anti-establishment group that descended from the Mime Troupe and which he has been very close to: a group of militant anarchist actors who, after having been very active in the psychedelic years, suddenly vanished from the scene at the end of 1967. He himself knows what became of them. He was still involved with them in the 1980’s, when they reappeared under a new identity and still firmly convinced that society keeps changing.

In Sleeping Where I Fall (1), a book of his memoirs, Peter Coyote begins by going back to the very beginning of his experiences: he recalls his family whom he defines as “very leftist.” He recalls his mother, Ruth, a woman of Russian Jewish origin. In the 1950s, she witnessed the expulsion of a cousin from an American public school for being a communist; Ruth remained outraged by the experience. His father, Morris Cohon, of Uzbek origin, was a banker, but counted among his friends the founders of the Monthly Review, a monthly Socialist magazine. A few months before he passed away in 1971, he told Peter, who was then living in a radical community in California, "Capitalism is in the process of dying, son. It is being consumed by its own internal contradictions. But if you believe that revolution is going to take five years, you are wrong. It will take fifty years ....” Despite their shared political thought, Peter and his father didn't have an idyllic relationship. As a former college boxing champion, Morris Cohon would have liked his older son to be a competitor. He gave him boxing lessons, from which Peter always came out beaten. “A man who shows his son that he will never be able to win builds around him a world of terror and of violence,” thinks the actor today. Resistant to the spirit of competition, he writes, “My pleasures were solitary: reading, writing, watching people and animals .... The counterculture that I discovered by following it seemed to be made for me, even if I didn't understand all of its implications.”

In 1964, Peter Cohon/Coyote left for San Francisco from the East Coast when wasn’t even yet twenty-four years old. He had wanted to become a writer, but instead he joined the Mime Troupe. He was fascinated by Ron Davis, the founder of the troupe. Davis was trying to transform contemporary theater, which he found trifling and ornamental, by abolishing the distance between the stage and the audience, by political art, and by denouncing the racism of governments and police, American politics in Vietnam, and the repression of black movements. From this ponderous program, the Mime Troupe carried out its work with lively shows, inspired by commedia dell'arte and performed them with much fanfare in the streets, in parks, and on city squares. These spectacles, which the establishment found more than a little provoking, often landed the actors, as well as Davis himself, at the police station.

Revolt

In the troupe, Peter met Emmett Grogan, a young New Yorker, who had known, from militant pro-IRA burglaries, an adventurous adolescence and who would later tell all of his story in Ringolevio (2). "Emmett was my brother; it was he who pierced my ears in 1968,” he says. It was also with him that the actor shot up heroin. "He was a difficult guy to understand — selfish and charismatic, vulnerable and charming. A sort of Robin Hood, even if, contrary to what he wrote, he wasn't the architect of the Haight-Ashbury revolt.” Cohon also met Peter Berg, alias “The Hun”: “the most eccentric, the most radical, and without question the most brilliant member of the troupe." He participated in discussions that Berg organized. "Each had his opinion about the way to throw out the system,” he says. Faced with Davis the Marxist, Berg saw himself as the Libertarian — the polar opposite of Davis. “The Hun and Davis were two intelligent, rebellious, politically committed guys. The Troupe was too small for those two.” When the dissidents — Berg, Grogan, and the others — left Davis, they founded their own group: The Diggers.

Psychedelic Parties

"Those who return to the earth,” the Diggers’ name comes from British history, from a 17th­century commune. Some peasants had cultivated a piece of communal property that they had appropriated. In response, Cromwell crushed this little group of bold agrarian reformers who had envisioned “scratching out forever from creation... private property... the source of all wars, of all bloodshed, of crime and of heinous and slavish laws that crush the people under the iron heel of misery." (2)

Peter Cohon didn't follow the dissidents. “I wasn't a purist like the Diggers,” he explains between bites of a burrito “al diablo.” He took a real interest in what his friends did, spent his evenings talking with them, rebelled like them against the assassination of militant blacks by the FBI or against the Vietnam War, demonstrated, and took part in the psychedelic parties of Haight Ashbury. In his book, he brilliantly describes this "incredible" time "when personal style counted more than pedigree ...”. San Francisco became the hippie capital to which hundreds of young people without money came believing they would find peace, harmony, and LSD. The Diggers were an exception. They weren't content to denounce American society, its egocentrism, the role of money; they also denounced the counterculture which was formed with its tidy words “peace and love,” criticizing those who profited from the situation, the little shopkeepers of Haight Ashbury who made money off of the backs of the new arrivals. They published offending pamphlets and posters, but above all they confronted reality, fed runaways who had no money, and organized free distribution of stew in the street under the slogan “Free Food for Free Life.” And they did these things day after day.

They also organized free stores. And to promote their ideas, they put on plays. In some of them, they worked with local rock musicians: The Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, or Jefferson Airplane. In others, they appeared by themselves. This is how they presented The Invisible Circus in a neighborhood church. The play, with its strong sexual connotation, made the San Francisco newspapers howl. Another time, they paraded giant marionettes on Haight Street to celebrate the death of money (a little hastily it seems). Coyote liked the Diggers’ sense of provocation. He describes them battling against established powers, such as the mayor of San Francisco, as much as against the self-proclaimed revolutionary organizations, inviting themselves to meetings of the growing new left and to the congress of student unions in order to bait their leaders.

The agitation of the Diggers attracted people from other areas of interest. The poet and novelist Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America; Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942) liked to share in their activities. They had allies; for instance they opened a free store “for the black man” with the Black Panthers Party, a radical Afro-American organization that had its roots in Oakland on the other side of the bay.

For their plays and their food distribution, they sometimes called on Hell’s Angels, a gang of Harley-Davidson motorcyclists, not generally favorable to revolution. It seems that each group was impressed by the freedom displayed by the other. By the end of 1967, however, the atmosphere of Haight-Ashbury had changed. Hard drugs had begun to wreak their havoc, and Grogan and Coyote were themselves victims of the drug scene. The anti-Vietnam War movement strengthened, as did police raids. Repression came down on the Black Panthers. On the 4th of July, 1967, the Diggers, who didn’t see themselves on the stage of armed resistance, renounced their name. They became the “Free Family.” In the months that followed, they disappeared, hitting the road. Some of them settled out in the country. Peter Cohon followed them and changed his name. “I had a dream in 1962 under the influence of peyote: I saw myself as a coyote. Seven years later, I went off into the desert with a Shoshone Indian friend, Rolling Thunder. I pondered the experience and decided to become Peter Coyote. That was thirty-one years ago. I have been Coyote longer than Cohon.”

The Diggers’ diaspora stretches to the north of San Francisco through several communal farms. Between run-ins over washing the dishes, lack of money, and stories of sex turned sour, these communal, rural experiences were difficult. Still, some of them succeeded due to strength of organization, conviction, and the help of friends. For example, “Black Bear Ranch,” situated in a lost corner of northern California is where a new political and ecological thought is developing. Coyote talks about a trip with Berg, who is becoming the theorist of a new ecology, to the home of beat poet Gary Snyder, in a community located on the Yuba River. There they found people who were trying to understand and respect the flora and fauna that surrounded them and who were trying to fight against mining companies, the felling of trees on too large of a scale, and insane real estate practices. This visit determined the destiny of the ex-Diggers.

New Ecology

Since the end of the 1970s, Peter Coyote has returned to his work as a professional actor in the heart of the system. “My daughter was growing up, and I owed her a good education.” He has been an actor in Hollywood with Steven Spielberg (E.T.) and Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich), in Madrid with Pedro Almodovar, and in Paris with Roman Polanski. But he still considers himself a member of the Digger family. For example, he voted, like them, for Ralph Nader in the November 6th election. “The Democrats are only interested in the Left when it is a matter of taking our votes. We are going to refuse them our votes.” In the last pages of Sleeping Where I Fall, Coyote does some personal reckoning. A good number of his friends from the ‘60s are dead: Grogan of an overdose in 1978, Brautigan of suicide in 1984. Others have succumbed to cancer or beaten it. Certain ones have become informers. And then there are those who have turned radical ecologist and continue to want to change America and the world: Peter Berg in San Francisco — “He no longer speaks to me, but we cross paths at funerals and marriages,” Nina [Blasenheim], Jane Lapiner, Freeman House, and David Simpson, who have moved onto the banks of the Mattole River.

Notes: 

(1) Sleeping Where I Fall, Counterpoint, Washington, D.C.

(2) Ringolevio (Noire Gallimard).

(Tomorrow: Céline and Alice Rediscover the Diggers)

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Article Two

Céline and Alice in the Country of Rebels

Two women from Nîmes return to the trail of veterans of the revolt in order to make a film.

Libération newspaper (Paris, France), Culture section (Tuesday, 26 December 2000), p. 30.
In 1966-67, unlike the hippies of San Francisco, they were revolutionary anti-establishment protesters. When nothing more seemed possible there, they disappeared into nature, founded communities, and took a new departure Into radical ecology. Thirty years later, the Diggers have not abandoned their American dreams...

In December 1998 and June 1999, the cable channel, Planet, broadcasted The Diggers of San Francisco. The film tells the story of the group between the years 1965-68, but also reveals what has become of its main members. The first part shows several former Diggers, some of whom still live in the counterculture capital and others who have chosen to get back to nature in northern California. In addition to actor Peter Coyote, the film also features Ron Davis, founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which originally spawned the Diggers. The film also includes contemporary footage from films and news reports showing the Mime Troupe, the marching Diggers, and several police raids.

Expressing Desires

One can appreciate what separated the hippies from the Diggers: the hippies contented themselves with their message of “Peace, love, and nature,” their joints and hits of acid, while the Diggers wanted to radically change society, even if they didn’t turn up their noses at the drugs. There was much contrast between them and leftist groups. The agitators rejected all politics on behalf of people without agitators. Rather, they hoped that those who saw their subversive “happenings” would refuse to surrender control over their lives to anyone else. To Ron Davis, who reproached his former disciples for having vanished at the end of 1967, when the movement against the Vietnam War needed leaders, Peter Berg, Digger theorist, responds that the Diggers “didn't have ambition beyond expressing ideas and desires — it certainly was not their ambition to lead movements." So the Diggers unobtrusively left the scene, and, according to Peter Coyote, their discreet departure made it easier for them to succeed in retaining their individual identities.

The second part of the film follows contemporary political movements inspired by the Diggers (Food not Bombs, for example). In this part, one can sense the libertarian atmosphere of the anti-WTO (World Trade Organization) demonstrations in Seattle and their persistence in the pursuit of the “American dream.” In the third and most moving part of the film, we meet the ex-Diggers today. Most are flirting with sixty, but still have not given up on changing society. They are activists for “bioregionalism,” a grass roots variant of deep ecology against the “mercantilism” of the world. The Diggers’ activism shows that the revolutionaries of the ‘60s haven’t all passed over into the camp of stock-option holders.

Anti-hippie Aggressiveness

The other interesting aspect of this film comes from the personality of its authors: two young women barely over thirty and young enough to be the Diggers’ daughters. Originally from the Gard, Céline Deransart, film producer, and Alice Gaillard, journalist, are two friends who, since middle school, have had a passion for revolts and revolutionaries. "In 1994, we wanted to direct a film covering anti-establishment culture from the 1960s through rap. And then Ringolevio, Emmett Grogan's book, fell into our hands in the first incomplete translation. (1) We had read about the adventures of this modern Robin Hood and his band, and we loved his anti-­hippie aggressiveness that redirected our interest away from all the tedious wide-eyed nostalgia. We practically fell in love with Grogan. We learned that he had been discovered dead from an overdose on 1 April 1978, on a New York subway train. Our dream collapsed, so we started to write a documentary that would still include Ringolevio. But we didn't have any money.”

In Nîmes, the city they now call home, a day after Feria (an annual festival with bullfighting in Southern France), Céline and Alice learned from one of their friends that the ex-Diggers could be contacted via the Internet. At the same time, they discovered how to contact actor Peter Coyote from an American edition of Ringolevio. He himself was in the process of writing a book about this era. He told them his version of events and gave them some recommendations. Tape recorder in pocket, Céline and Alice bought themselves a trip to New York. They didn't find much in the megalopolis and soon set out by bus, heading for the West Coast. "We had sent an e-mail asking for a meeting with Peter Berg, the man who knew what had happened to all the ex-Diggers. He was surprised that two young women wanted to bring up the old times. We met and interviewed him. He understood that we would be making this story a personal affair, and he opened up his network to us. We had to drop the story of Grogan. Especially since most of the former Diggers thought that, in Ringolevio, he had taken too much credit for the venture for himself.” Céline and Alice left for northern California to meet the ex-Diggers who had settled in the heart of the countryside more than twenty years ago. They learned how the Diggers organize their life in the country and about their present involvement in a local form of ecological struggle.

Shooting the Film

"After more than a month, we left California with thirty hours of interviews. Back in France, we translated all of it and started to solicit producers.” They finished by finding a company that was interested in their project. But they would still have to wait until 1998, four years after having written the first script, in order to leave for the Haight-Ashbury, the former hippie section of San Francisco. Their cameraman and producer Jean-Pierre [Zirn] went with them. “The shooting lasted three weeks and the archival research two more. The Diggers had shot their own films about their activities, and there were some news reports. All of this was available in universities. At television stations, there was also some footage, but at a prohibitive price. Finally, we returned to France, and we edited the fifty-two minutes that Planète broadcast.”

Then the film had a second life. Thanks to Hésiode, an associative film distributor from Marseilles, The Diggers was shown in Paris, in Nîmes, and in Montpellier. “I have new documentary projects about the alternative economy that is, in a way, a continuation of the Diggers’ spirit today,” explains Céline Deransart. And for Alice Gaillard, now project head for an Internet site, “if directing a documentary now seems to me less complicated than before, finding a subject that sustains me as long is another story....”

[On location at Marseilles]

Notes:

1. Flammarion, 1973; in this edition, the book is 352 pages, as opposed to 683 for the Gallimard version, “la Noire,” 1999.

2. www.diggers.org; www.planetdrum.org

3. Yesterday's Libération

4. His catalogue includes films on Chiapas, the anarchist Spanish women, etc. (telephone: 04 91 46 04 87).

(Tomorrow: The Hun of San Francisco)

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Article Three

The Green “Hun” of San Francisco

Peter Berg, the brains behind the group, has evolved in the direction of environmental defense.

Libération newspaper (Paris, France), Culture section (Wednesday, 27 December 2000), p. 28.
In 1966-67, unlike the hippies of San Francisco, they were revolutionary anti-establishment protesters. When nothing more seemed possible there, they disappeared into nature, founded communities, and took a new departure into radical ecology. Thirty years later, the Diggers have not abandoned their American dreams....

On location in San Francisco

He is not very tall. His gray hair is pulled up in a bun, and he has laughing, almost slanted eyes sheltered behind big glasses. Peter Berg reads his e-mails on a salvaged computer while Judy Goldhaft, his partner, a fine-haired brunette with pale skin and pale eyes, rummages through a file. They are working on the floor below their apartment in the offices of Planet Drum, the environmental foundation that they created a quarter of a century ago In the 60's, they were the most prominent activist couple in San Francisco. She was a dancer and an actress in the Mime Troupe. He, nicknamed “The Hun,” was the brains behind the Diggers movement. At the artistic level, Berg advocated a more radical rupture with mainstream theater than did the Mime Troupe — he advocated an eruption of the theater into life. At the political level, "I dreamed of a world where each person cooperated with his neighbor. I dreamed of a society without oppression or money. My heroes have always been the Wobblies, the anarchist-unionists of the revolutionary union IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), these hoboes who tramped up and down the country in the 1910's and helped workers organize themselves against their bosses.”

Erosion on the Equator

Today, Berg keeps himself busy with ecology. He just spent several weeks in Bahia of Caraquex, near the equator: “The earthquake of August 1998 and the flooding rains that fell on the region in the following months provoked an erosion that affected the tropical forest.” He talks about the local officials who seem to have become aware of the problems. “The town council has started a tree planting campaign, and it is developing an ecologically-minded tourism industry. The council has also made contact with laboratories specializing in ecology and with other associations to create an ‘estuarium,’ a foundation devoted to the study of the estuary which waters the town and to the life of fish and crustaceans — especially the shrimp that support the population.”

Berg tries to understand the structure of the society that he discovered. "It is very unequal. 5% of the people own almost everything. 10% are members of the middle layer, and the rest work for two dollars a day.” In such a context, interest in ecology is fragile. "Bioregionalism, that's it. You live in a natural context and a given culture. It is necessary to take these things into account, to imagine the consequences of human activity on the flora and fauna, but also the social relations and the frame of mind of the people on their willingness to fight pollution. Without the daily participation of the people, no preservation of the natural environment is possible. When I was younger, I believed that we had to be independent — that by giving the example, we were helping people to change. Today, I know that the master word is interdependence — with the ecosystem, with culture, with others.” A scholarly work (1) describes how Berg and the majority of the Diggers evolved into this way of thinking. The Diggers, like other movements of the counter­culture born in the 60’s, were influenced by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other critics of modern life. They spoke with, listened to, and read Gary Snyder, “beat” poet of San Francisco. Snyder was committed to protest against the Vietnam war and against anti-black racism. He also advocated a return to a natural way of life and was a supporter of a different type of political action, one that takes place on a local basis and has a strong social and ecological conscience.

Since the 1967 publication of his manifesto Trip Without a Ticket, in which he criticized industrial ideology inherited from the 19th century and its “culture-machine,” Berg has continued this argument. Before long, he left Haight-Ashbury to flee police repression and the hippie spectacle there. With some of his Digger friends, some Blacks close to the Black Panthers, and some radical feminists, he settled in the Klamath region of northern California. There they built a rural commune called Black Bear Ranch. And there, around the working of the earth, they developed a new political thought. They want to promote another kind of agriculture and social organization that were no longer oriented toward the state but rather toward regions.

Bioregionalism

In 1972, Berg left to observe the first conference [on the environment] of the United Nations in Stockholm, and he discovered that his concerns were shared by militant Green Party supporters all over the world. In 1973, he came back with Judy Goldhaft to settle in San Francisco because the counterculture was still powerful there, and because this was a place from which one could spread ideas. He talked with Snyder and founded Planet Drum, an intermediary association linking numerous other groups. (2) The expression “bioregionalism” appeared. "It emerged as a new field in which to study the complex relationships among communities, humans, governmental institutions, and the natural world, particularly through environmental politics. Bioregionalists believe that as members of distinct communities, people cannot avoid thinking about their interaction on their surrounding environment, or the influence that it has on them. This is what they call a bioregion, because, despite technological progress, we are not isolated from nature.” (3) Berg explains: "This term came from a philosophy aimed at life out in nature. We need to adapt it to a complex reality and develop principles that are also applicable to cities.” Berg is helped by Judy and by his old friends, Freeman House and David Simpson — ex-Diggers who have settled in the Mattole Valley in northern California. In 1979, Planet Drum began publishing Raise the Stakes. This biannual magazine serves to coordinate experiences that give expression to the still vague concept of bioregionalism. In Raise the Stakes one can read news about the Kansas Area Watershed, militants of the Northwest, those of the state of New York, [and] from the Gulf of Mexico....

Heritage

Detouring from the direction of the conversation, Berg mentions the hippies of his youth. "We give them a hard time, but I have to admit that with their nature cult, they were sort of proto­ecologists. The articulation of ecological discourse has turned out to be, along with feminism, the great societal gain of the 70’s — but it had its roots in the preceding decade.” And it will have ramifications in the following generation as well. Anyway, Planet Drum works toward this goal by increasing its interventions in schools.

Today, Berg is delighted to see young people coming to him who are set on fighting not only NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], but pollution and the domestication of politics by large industrial groups as well. "Bioregionalism is not a movement,” he adds. "It is a multiform network conceived around this attention to ecosystems, and born of imperatives like sustainable development, biological diversity, stability of the environment, and cooperation.” The following Sunday, Berg and Goldhaft take a drive into the Napa Valley to visit the big wine cellars with friends, journalist Martin Lee, a specialist in European and American fascism, whom Berg likes to consult on political questions, and Peter Bennett, a British specialist on virgin forests, who comes from Sri Lanka. Together they sample Pinots Noirs and Chardonnays like connoisseurs, lunch outside, talk, and laugh. Peter Berg enjoys these friendly pleasures. This is even one of the reasons for his ecological commitment.

Notes: 

(1) In Bioregionalism, book of collected writings edited by Michael Vincent McGinnis, Routledge, London, and New York.

(2) Join today at www.planetdrum.org.

(3) Bioregionalism, cited book.

(Tomorrow: On the edges of the Mattole River)

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Article Four

The Guardians of the Mattole River

Jane Lapiner and David Simpson Defend Nature with Theater

Libération newspaper (Paris, France), Culture section (Thursday, 28 December 2000), p. 25.
In 1966-67, unlike the hippies of San Francisco, they were revolutionary anti-establishment protesters. When nothing more seemed possible there, they disappeared into nature, founded communities, and took a new departure into radical ecology. Thirty years later, the Diggers have not abandoned their American dreams....

On location in San Francisco

In order to get from San Francisco to the mouth of the Mattole River, in the heart of the lost coast of California, it is necessary to drive six hours north, crossing dark forests of sequoias and follow mountain ridges, then heading down toward Petrolia, a town of a dozen buildings. The house of Jane Lapiner and David Simpson is not far off and is suspended on a hill facing the mouth of the river on the Pacific Ocean. There one will find a half-dozen riding horses, turkeys destined to a lugubrious fate when Thanksgiving time arrives, chickens, cats, a big curious dog, vegetables, flowers, and several pine trees surrounding a wooden house...

David Simpson, former member of the Mime Troupe and ex-Digger, proudly looks at the clear oak wooden floor that he has just finished: "And to say that the people from around here are so crazy about sequoias that they regard the oak as a weed!” Jane Lapiner is also there, smiling. Lapiner was born into a New York Jewish family of Polish origin which she describes as progressive, and perhaps even communist, although she doesn't know for sure. In 1961, when she arrived in San Francisco, she was twenty years old. In those days her husband was a French and Italian teacher. In 1964, Jane joined the Mime Troupe, becoming one of the most famous dancers in San Francisco. In order to avoid going to Vietnam, David had enlisted in the Coast Guard before the draft was issued. He had had the luck of being assigned to the west coast. Once demobilized, he had joined the Troupe. An actor, an author, and a Digger, David also wrote for the Free Press. It was in the Mime Troupe that Jane met David, whose family was from Chicago, and the couple had one daughter.

Wooden House

At the end of the ‘60s, Simpson and Lapiner, who, from then on lived together, joined a community farm. In 1974, when the commune era had died off, they drove up to Humboldt country, near Oregon, and settled on the bank of the Mattole River. They are now in the process of restoring a wooden house which they had been living in until 1992, when it was destroyed by an earthquake. “The mouth of the river is situated on the friction point of three tectonic plates: the Pacific, the North American, and the Gorda,” says David. "The landscape is not very stable. We have since moved into the adjoining barn nearby which hadn't been damaged,” says Jane.

Night falls. Jane goes onto the narrow strip of sand which separates the river and the ocean. "It is the 6th of November; the salmon's trip up river should begin.” Jane and David have been interested in the salmon since they arrived here. Salmon are funny fish. Those of the Pacific are notably so: after a long voyage in the ocean, they swim back only one time (while other salmon make the trip three or four times), in order to spawn in the mild waterway where they were born; then they die. Their bodies run aground by the thousands on the high banks of the Mattole, a fact that pleases the bears, vultures and coyotes. "This is an especially excellent ecological indicator,” clarifies Jane. "In order for everything to go well for the salmon, it is necessary that the river be clear and the gravel on which they reproduce be clean so that the erosion of the surrounding hills is slight — deforestation has to be brought under control....” Next Tuesday David will discuss this issue with his biologist friend, Gary Peterson. In the meantime, he mentions the recent problems that he and other bioregionalists of the valley have had to face.

"After WWII, California experienced a housing boom for which numerous forests were cut down,” continues David. "Between 1947 and 1987, three-fourths of the valley’s trees disappeared. The erosion has been phenomenal. The wild salmon were in danger. The state had started to realize the seriousness of the problem, but we didn’t wait for the state in order to involve our neighbors in safeguarding the fish. We aren’t environmentalists: for us, defending nature cannot be accomplished by edicts handed down by centralized authorities. It is necessary to mobilize the people who are in contact with it. There will be successful results only if everyone begins there. We try then to demonstrate the necessity of controlled forest management and the necessity of long-lasting development.” This is not easy. The land owners hold prejudices against reformers and other bioregionalists stemming from the ‘60s, even if they have adapted, even if they know how to build a house with their own hands .....

“Stolen from the Indians”

“Most of the ranchers here were born riding horses,” says David. "Their grandparents took this land from the Indians. Mattole is the name of the people who lived here and who were totally destroyed by the settlers.” The problem of the forest got complicated when a local forestry operation company was taken over by a “[corporate] raider.” In search of quick profit, he had the woods cut completely down. The owners of the forests, who were well-paid, accepted it. The fishermen and farmers, who didn’t have an investment in the deal, and the defenders of the salmon and nature objected. The valley was split. Workers unions, furious to see the lumberjacks deprived of union rights, joined the Green faction. They demonstrated with the bioregionalists. “To see metalworkers cry ‘Save the Earth!’ was a wonderful surprise for us,” admits Jane.

In order to reduce the tension, Jane and David, who have never renounced their passion for interventionary theater, got their company, Human Nature, on its feet, writing and editing the comedy Queen Salmon. It renewed the dialogue even if nothing was resolved. The two former Diggers have edited some other plays: in 1996, they performed La Frontera (The Border) with some students from the Petrolia school where Jane teaches yoga and dance classes. “It was about denouncing the state of California, which refused to provide public education for the children of illegal immigrants.” Its success enabled the show to travel throughout the American West and even into Mexico. In 1998, David and Jane presented The Wolf at the Door, a comedy for which their friend, cartoonist Robert Crumb, created the poster.

In 1999, they were in Seattle for the protest against the global market and the WTO (World Trade Organization) and also to put on some performances. Last September, they left for the Great North, the country of the Inuit and the Guitch'in, to write a play called Global Warming, the Musical. David still considers the stage and laughter to be weapons.

Pro-Nader

The telephone rings. It is a call concerning the urgencies of the moment. It is the evening of November 6, the eve of the presidential election. One of the couple’s four children (ages 22-­38) calls. Who should he vote for? Throughout the evening, they all telephone each other. David, Jane and their tribe are Ralph Nader and Green Party supporters. But the Democrats, who are campaigning for Al Gore, have launched “a veritable internet bombardment,” says David Simpson. "Former radical militants are sending us dozens of insistent e-mails. Why should I vote for a candidate who is in favor of the death penalty? Who says nothing to condemn a racist penal system, and who only sees ecology from afar? Under the pretext that Bush is worse? When they are elected, Democrats cut social budgets just like Republicans.”

Notes:

(1) "Bioregionalists take into consideration the fact that, as members of distinct communities, men can neither avoid thinking about the impact they have on their changing environment nor the influence the it has on them. This is what they call a bioregion, because, despite technological progress, we are not isolated from nature.” In Bioregionalism, a book of collected writings edited by Michael Vincent McGinnis, Routledge.

(Tomorrow: Totem Salmon)

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Article Five

In The Name of the Salmon

Freeman House fights against deforestation and the destruction of the ecosystem

Libération newspaper (Paris, France), Culture section (Friday, 29 December 2000), p. 30.
In 1966-67, unlike the hippies of San Francisco, they were revolutionary anti-establishment protesters. When nothing more seemed possible there, they disappeared into nature, founded communities, and took a new departure into radical ecology. Thirty years later, the Diggers have not abandoned their American dreams....

On location in Petrolia

When he arrived in Petrolia in 1980, with his “partner,” Nina Blasenheim, Freeman House already knew about salmon. For several preceding years, he had hired himself out on a fishing boat that operated on the open sea of Alaska. The fish that he pulled into his nets were, in his eyes, simple prey that allowed him to survive and pay for equipment and loans from his employer. In 1980, he again made contact with the animal. These salmon, which make a counterclockwise tour of the North Pacific, return to the Mattole River where they were born. Part of a greatly endangered species, they will survive (for how long?) because of a little team which Freeman House helped develop. It is this experience, with quite a few other stories, that Freeman House recounts in Totem Salmon, a superb book conveying the spirit of the vastness that exists there but also conveying an awareness of the fragility of the natural phenomena the author witnesses. Totem Salmon is described by poet Gary Snyder as “serious and delicious, at the same time both personal and cosmic.”

In Extremis

Freeman House recalls that originally, each salmon was adapted to a specific river against whose current it swims, confronting natural obstacles, first to spawn there, then to die there. But deforestation has led to erosion that contaminates the waters and causes an increasing numbers of floods. It has also led to the deposit of numerous obstacles in the river due to rock slides. These negative environmental factors have almost deprived the Mattole, whose mouth is on the lost coast of California, of her [native salmon species]. Elsewhere in the Northwest numerous sub-varieties of salmon are disappearing. In confronting this danger, local inhabitants could, as the state of California did, breed salmon in large aquaculture facilities. But this option sacrifices biological and genetic diversity, and therefore it weakens the species, writes Freeman House. Luckily, the Mattole was too small and too far from the center of power for those at the top to take notice of. The situation was certainly not good, but at least they were able to cope with it at a local level using adapted means to safeguard the genotype of the local salmon. They survived and prospered.

In his book, which merited translation into French, Freeman House tells lots of stories about the Mattole River; he analyzes the relationship between the Indians — the Yuroks, the Karuks, and the Mattoles (the word “mattole” means “clear water” in their tribal language) — and their fishing. He explains how the rituals of these peoples, destroyed by settlers more than a century ago, helped them to conceptualize nature as a long-term life reserve. He also describes his friends, passionate like himself about preservation of the region: David Simpson, the resident comedian of the river, Gary Peterson, the bearded biologist, drawn away from the Humboldt University by his love of the valley, and Richard Gienger, an ex-­New Yorker who has worked on the Bear River, an area a little farther to the north, since the beginning of the ‘70s.

The author of Totem Salmon is one of the rare original Diggers of California. A chain smoker now in his 60s, slim and naturally distinguished looking, House manages the Mattole Restoration Council, the MRC. While his partner Nina works as a nurse in a hospital in Eureka, a town to the north, he coordinates groups of volunteers who work in specific areas such as “the salmon group,” “the reforestation group” (since 1986, it has replanted 350,000 trees), “the valley school intervention group,” etc.

Social Mill

Freeman House talks with everyone from forest owners (including those hostile to his initiatives) to school children, “so that the upcoming generation doesn't make the same mistakes ours has. I have learned to negotiate with state bureaucrats to get financial and legislative support. I have also learned to organize fundraisers by private individuals, to negotiate contracts, and to invent new strategies. At the beginning, there were only a handful of us to face the stupidity of man; today, of a valley population that borders on 25,000 inhabitants, 200 volunteers belong to organizations that revolve around the Council. We have succeeded in keeping up relations with the ranchers who, significantly, we contact to establish our maps of erosion and deforestation. Even those who don't share our ideas know that their lives depend on the state of the ecosystem, and they are willing to discuss it with us. The MRC is a big social mill, a point of contact where it is possible to peacefully confront the property owners with the tenants of civil disobedience.”

But it is not yet time for self-satisfaction. When he compares the aerial photos of the region in 1942, on which one can barely see the river because so much of it is hidden by the forest, to those of the ‘70s on which the waterway is perfectly visible because the trees have practically disappeared, Freeman House trembles. In his book he writes that "modern technologies have enabled man to destroy in twenty years what had taken an entire geological era to construct.” And it continues. The knowledge is fragile and incomplete. The danger of seeing this 300 square mile (about 900 square kilometer) corner of California destroyed remains unresolved. "Bioregionalism at work is just this: the collecting and counting of objective elements (the damage report), subjective (the local culture, the relationship between political and economic forces), the prescription (for a lasting development which respects biological diversity), and the means (discussion with others). The future of this doctrine is more vague. For example, on what level should we work and fight? In order to safeguard rivers and their adjoining ecosystems, it is certain that the local level of the hydrographic system is the right sphere in which to work. For global warming, it is necessary to consider questions on another level. But then how do we coordinate the local battles and the global wars? Each time we have wanted to coordinate organizations like ours within the U.S., we have run into insurmountable, subjective problems. The resolution of this problem will be the task of bioregionalists of the future.”

Victories

House is still optimistic. Not only does he think that this battle has allowed the surviving Diggers to overcome their possible despair, but he also sees young people joining the struggle in significant numbers: "Some are sons of rural people who have become technicians after having studied in the best universities; others have become biologists and computer scientists to research a different life. Some are city kids who have refused to accept the future that we have prepared for them.” Certain people are already collaborating with him within the MRC. They share the opinion of Brave Buffalo, an old Sioux Indian, whom House quotes in the heading of a chapter in his book: “I have noticed that each man is drawn to certain animals, trees, plants, or places on Earth. If he paid more attention to these preferences and tried to be worthy of the species to which he is so attached, he would have dreams that would purify his life.”

Notes:

(1) Totem Salmon, Beacon Press, Boston.

(2) Read yesterday's Libération.

(3) Internet address: www.mattole.org

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