FREE-FALL CHRONICLES by Peter Coyote
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 painting."
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 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 dryly. 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 time.
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 herself.
"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 Europe.
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
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 electricity.
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 salt.
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
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
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
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 Raspberry 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 hippie.
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
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 this one."
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", she says.
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
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
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 $22,000.
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 annual income.
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,
bespectacled 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 omelet. 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,
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
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 blackboard 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 interpreted 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 dropped.
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
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 bourgeois 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 Nembutals 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 time.
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 vesicles, 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
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 fancy.
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
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 returned.
"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
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 Ridge.
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 requirements.
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 cultures.
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