Interview of Peter Coyote by Reinhabitory Institute

Peter Coyote

Peter Coyote

Reinhabitory Institute: Young people don’t know much about Freedom Summer or the Free Speech Movement and I think they know even less about the Digger Movement. What do you think the most important things for today’s young generation to know about the Diggers?

Coyote: One of the things about being young is you think you’ve invented everything. You think you’ve invented sex, you think you’ve invented political understanding, you think you’ve invented … everything because it’s all new to you. And it’s very hard to imagine that these old rheumy, crusty people sitting across the table were once edgy and sharp and hip and all that. So I would say the main dividing line between today and those days is was the sense of hopefulness.  And empowerment.  And that we actually believed that we could make a change.  And we actually on some level believed in the high school civics class definitions of how government worked and operated. And so it made all of our political engagement joyous. And heady. And another problem with being young, is that you don’t know what you don’t know. So what we didn’t know was how to take care of interpersonal relationships. We didn’t know that we embodied all the problems we were trying to solve. We didn’t know how to be skillful and gentle with each other. From the standpoint of the Diggers, we were the highest, farthest out guys on the planet. We were pushing the edges of the counter-culture as far as they could go. We acted as if you should be grateful to be in the room with us, which is not a way that engenders solidarity or relationships. And then, in the intense pressure of living communally, with no money, putting 25 people in a one-family house, little indulgences and things were heightened and they increased tensions. So if I wake up in the morning and I like to wash my face in a clean sink, and my brother sees nothing wrong with using the sink to clean off his transmission that he’s just pulled out of his truck, there’s no revolutionary ideology I can bring to bear on him. There’s no ownership of the property that I can bring to bear, there’s no authority that I can bring to bear. He either has to be willing to be sensitive to my concerns and voluntarily restrain himself, or we’re at loggerheads. And there was a lot of that. One of the things that really catalyzed situations like that was the arrival of children. The Digger houses were completely anarchic, completely lawless. But children demanded certain kinds of order. You couldn’t have Wino Eddie playing the tom-tom at five in the morning if the mothers were going to be getting up at 5:30 to nurse. And so the pressure to begin to take care of our children began to exert pressure on some of our foolish ideas of “freedom.” So if I could give the kids anything today I would remind them that first of all although we made a lot of mistakes, although we didn’t win our political agendas – we didn’t end racism, we didn’t end war, we didn’t end capitalism we didn’t end oppression of other people, we didn’t end a whole bunch of stuff–we actually did win many cultural battles. Young people today live in a world now where a women’s movement is not a strange idea, or alternative medical practices– naturopathy, homeopathy, acunpuncture are not strange ideas–where organic food raised locally is not a strange idea, where alternative spiritual practices like yoga and buddhism– and tibetan buddism, zen buddhism, Vietnamese buddhism – these are not strange. And so we succeeded in interjecting those ideas into the culture. And they’re now part of the culture. And that we didn’t know it at the time, I would suggest that culture is a stronger and more enduring force than politics.

So unfortunately we made such pains in the asses of ourselves that the succeeding establishment, the Ronald Reagan people, did not want another generation of activated, engaged students keeping them overly busy. So they set about very consciously doing two things: mopping up the surpluses, the garbage we used to live on, because our free stores, our free food, our free medical clinics, all of these things were based on surplus. And we felt that if you didn’t care about having the newest, brightest, shiniest stuff, which you’d have to work for, make money for, you could have everything you needed for a full life without working, and keep your time for yourself. Not have to be an employee so you could make money to become a consumer. So what they did is they locked up that surplus and the second thing they did was they set about redefining us as a series of failures. They pointed to Altamont, they pointed to, you know, a lot of goofy guys in bell-bottom pants and some clunky peace symbols and a lot of people being stoned and behaving stupidly as emblematic of who we all were.

And so the next generation of kids said “oh, ok well that didn’t work.” And so they went into materialism. They went into buying BMWs, they went into Wall Street, they went into business. And the parallel reaction to that was the punk movement. But the difference between the punk movement and our movement is that the punk movement is based on a kind of hopelessness. When you see people with their skin pierced and their eyelids: I see people who are telling me that they’re in pain. They no longer feel empowered. They no longer feel able to change the world. And with some reason. Is you look at the degree to which our democracy has been changed into a corporatocracy. If you look at the degree to which money has taken over the political process making wealthy people more equal than poor people – They have a lot to argue. So I think if I were to tell them anything it would be that we laid down a body of knowledge and skills and we’re still around. And if you want to set up an intentional community we can show you how to do that and not make the same mistakes. We’re taking care of ourselves and each other: we can show you how to do that. And there are some pitfalls and some analysis that you only come to understand as an old man and an old woman that might be useful for you to learn so you don’t reinvent the wheel. If you go to Haight Street now and look at the scene, it’s grim.

So what were the Diggers all about?

Just in shorthand, the Diggers were about imagining a life and making it real by acting it out. That’s what we were about. Most of the alternative solutions posed during the sixties were basically socialist and communist, at least highly inflected. And we were all artists. And we didn’t want to have to write plays about heroic bus drivers or paint heroic elevator operators. We wanted to build a world where we could be authentic in it and live as we were and we felt that Americans would never throw themselves on the barricades to be the lumpen proletariat but that if they developed lives they enjoyed, that were beautiful and supportive, they might defend them. So what the Diggers did is we created these theater pieces. Obviously “free” is not an enduring economy. But what we did is we went out and scavenged enough food to feed six hundred people a day for a long time. And to get the food, we made them pass through a yellow frame called “the free frame of reverence” six feet by six feet. And then we gave them a little one inch by one inch to get frame around a shoelace. And we invited them to look at the world from a free frame of reference. What if it were free? And we had doctors come down to take care of them once every week, medical students, and we had this free store where we took everything from bicycles to dresses to televisions and radios, made sure they were working, and set them up in a beautiful store to play with “store-ness”. So you might come in and say “who’s in charge here?” I’d say, “you are.” And if you drop the ball, if you just go “huh?” then there’s no sense blaming the “pigs” or the “man” or the system for your difficulties. You’ve been offered a gift and you’d missed the ball. But you could say “oh I am? Well, I hate the way these clothes are displayed I want everyone over here….” and if you came out with something fun we’d do it. So it was a way of investigating all these things artistically. And for my money, a lot of people turned it into a religion, so that years afterward I was getting flack on the internet for having gone to work. I didn’t inherit any money. And when we put together a group of a hundred and five people to take care of our aging indigent Diggers, there were a number of my really close friends who didn’t want any discussions of money on the Digger website, so we had to start a new website. So we’re actually doing it. I don’t know how these people were living before. They obviously were using money, they were paying rent, they were paying their utility bill. But it has such a grip on the imagination that it’s prevented some people from changing with reality.

There is something to breaking with the whole frame of reference that people that people grow up with about money, success, money-grubbing and all that – so it sounds like that was a main focus of the Diggers.

Yes, but what we didn’t understand was we have all those impulses inside us. And just because we’re breaking them in one realm, we’re not breaking them in the other. We had status competitions in the Diggers. We had people who would oppress a room full of people, screaming “freedom.” We had jealousy. We had covetousness; we had everything because we’re human beings and if we had looked more deeply we would have understood that the counter-culture condemned us to marginality. That our attachment to the style of long hair, free sex, feral children, whatever, separated us from a lot of people who might have been our allies. Who wanted a fairer shake from the economy but didn’t want their children growing up around kids like ours. Or didn’t want dope and craziness in their homes. So…you never see gum under a table in a Zen restaurant. You have to look at both sides.

Artists have an understanding about how their art relates to the world and to changing it. Could you talk about that? You do various things, and you “go to work.” And not every TV show is your vision of changing the world.


Emma Goldman once said, “no film will change your life unless you’re in it.” So when we were young, we ascribed to this very romantic idea that “the artist is the antenna of the race.” That was Ezra Pound’s dictum, that the artist reached out into the ethers and found the forthcoming changes before everyone else. And it certainly served to make us feel special and in the vanguard.But I think of it differently now. I think that everybody feels the changes, but it’s the artist who can express them. Because if they didn’t understand them, when you express them you’d just get uncomprehending stares from your audience. But we had people cheering and clapping and laughing and going “yay yay, go go go” so once again, I think we have to include ourselves within the larger population. Yeah, we were artists, we had special skill sets but everybody knew President Kennedy had been killed. Everybody knew Martin Luther King had been killed. Everybody knew the Vietnam War was a horror story. And maybe no one knew what to do about it, but people who came up and could express that were immediately perceived. But we were not separate from our audience. So by the time that I had to go to work and make a living as an artist I gave up the idea of using art to preach. What’s that going to do? So I thought, ok, being an artist, being an actor, it’s not exploitative, I’m not exploiting other people, I’m being exploited. I’m earning a living. But the way that I make the movie, can be enlightened. And what I mean by that is there’s no pure place to stand outside the world. The Diggers thought we were pure. We weren’t pure at all. We stole money, we used phony credit cards, we fucked each other’s wives. We were far from pure. That was a comforting notion that we could apply against other people who used money. So what I realized when I began Buddhist practice was that every environment is some admixture of pure and profane. It’s all mixed up together. You’re never going to get a pure world without evil, without greed, without anger, without delusion. So the best you can do is pick the most enlightened possibilities that are offered to you in any situation. And if you do that consistently, you’re doing the best you can do. So that’s what I tried to do as an actor – but within that, I picked the best of what I was offered. Sometimes I was just offered a variety of shit. But within that, what the absolute edict was, you treat everyone kindly, you do your best, you treat everyone equally, you show up on time, you don’t complain, you work hard, and out of a hundred and forty movies, in well over half someone has come to me and said, “Hey do you have some kind of religion?” and I say “Why do you ask that?” And they say, “Well, I don’t know, you never get uptight, you’re nice to everyone, you treat me they same way you treat the director or the star, and you seem really calm.” And I say, “I do, and if you’re interested I’ll talk to you about it.”

So it’s the difference between propaganda and ideology, which is the content of the story, what the story is about, and the way you live your life. The way I live my life touches people on the movie set who are rightwing, leftwing, Republicans, blue collar, high collar – no lines between us. My ideas about politics and what is right and wrong and acceptable and unacceptable is a series of lines drawn between me and other people.


So it’s not that I give up. But I wait for a skillful opportunity after trust has been established. Because until someone trusts you, they won’t venture even a toe beyond the perimeters of their comfort zone.

Bioregionalism is an important core concept of Reinhabitory Institute, pioneered by people involved with the Digger movement, which developed into a movement itself. And you have been involved in different practical projects stemming from this core practice as well. How does bioregionalism approach helpful living on or saving the earth? Does bioregionalism address the bigger, more fundamental problem of a capitalist world that is despoiling the planet?


Bioregions are the way that the earth organizes itself…in other words, by watersheds, by plant/animal climate communities. That’s first, before any people arrived there at all. For instance, Northern California bioregionally, is attached to everything north, all the way up to the Cascades in Canada. Our bioregion is almost all fir, fog, salmon, raven, deer, heavy moisture – we have almost nothing in common with Los Angeles from a bioregional point of view.The Los Angeles bioregion is high Sonoran desert in Mexico. So what that means is that straight lines of counties and states cross all these varying climate/animal/people communities and they impose kind of one-size-fits-all solutions on very variegated areas of the earth. Bioregionalism is a kind of exhortation to learn where you live, to learn how it functions, and to protect it. Yes, it’s a roll of the dice whether you live in a wealthy area or not, but if you live in the deserts of Arizona it seems very clear that you should not be pumping a million gallons of drinking water every day to send coal to Los Angeles or to fuel golf courses. People in Arizona shouldn’t be having lawns.

By having people organize that way and having spokesmen begin to raise those issues, you begin to engender the possibility of people learning to take care of the place they live. Imagine how different San Francisco Bay would be? It used to be during the Gold rush, when you went into a restaurant, you got a soup bowl full of shrimp while you were reading the menu. Right? So much food. So many ducks and geese and eggs and mussels and fish, right? The Bay didn’t always serve as a dump for chemical effluents.

Bioregionalism is just a way or using the earth’s instruction as a guidebook for taking care of where you live and spurring you to learn about it. And you can see that if you took it all the way out, and if every bioregion in the United States was organized, and sent representatives to some kind of Congress that our dialogue would be very different. Maybe there are some places where it is okay to plant the chemical company. But maybe there are a lot more places where it’s not. And maybe there are places where you can plant a storm door factory, but maybe not on the breeding ground of salamanders and newts. So we didn’t propose to know all the answers, we just decided to put our trust in nature.

One of the things you learn as an older person that you don’t know as a younger person is what you’re capable of. How much of an impress you can make on life, in one lifetime. When I was twenty: revolution. Overthrow the whole thing. Turn it over. Start anew. It was such a simple problem because I had so few facts constraining my thinking. I had so little life experience of greed, hatred, delusion, treachery of people. As you get older you see, “Oh wait a minute. How could I have overthrown capitalism?” I couldn’t. But what could I do?

Well, I could diminish my requirements for a high income. I could keep stuff longer. Repair it. Share. Barter. It was never going to be a pure substitution for capitalism, but I could do that. And so I chose to do that as opposed to doing nothing. Like The Big Chill which was a movie I hated. A Bunch of people who flapped their wings a few times and said “Fuck. I might as well be a stockbroker.”

I think on the one hand, it’s fair to be realistic. We made all sorts of explorations around the realm of feminism. A lot of men like myself had a great deal to learn. To uproot thinking that was just self-indulgent. But my daughter is a feminist who wears lipstick and high heels and goes out dancing all night. And she’s a psychologist, she’s a PhD, a healer of people. The guy who invented television didn’t get to play with it. We invented a lot of this stuff that our children are playing with and are much more intuitive with than we were. I like to look at those cross-generational legacies. My father’s last words to me was that “capitalism is dying of its internal contradictions” but I thought it was going to take five years – it’s going to take fifty or sixty and I better hang in for the long haul, take care of myself and my family. Stay out of the way as it falls apart.

I understand you have a book project, would you like to talk about it?

Sleeping Where I Fall was my first book. My second book is about learning to identify and find the place for wisdom in this world that’s predominated by the quests for love and power. The book is about my various mentors, teaching me about the realms of love and power which I thought were the only two available realms until I was much older, in my fifties or sixties. And then I intuited that there was another realm: wisdom. I decided to set my camp up as close to it as I could. To heed its quiet little voice as attentively as I could. And I determined that this would be the most valuable thing I could contribute to the world and the rest of my life. So that’s what the book is about, it’s called The Rain Man’s Third Cure and it comes from a verse in a Dylan tune where he says

Now the rainman gave me two cures,
Then he said, “Jump right in.
The one was Texas medicine,
The other was just railroad gin.
An’ like a fool I mixed them
An’ it strangled up my mind,
An’ now people just get uglier
An’ I have no sense of time.

Yeah, the song is Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Bob Dylan is our Mozart. So I thought for my purposes “Texas medicine” would be peyote, and I’ll make it stand for the ecstatic, the cooperative, the counterculture: the world of love. And “railroad gin” is the go-juice of the robber barons, men and women who compete with one another for status, material wealth, power – so I’ll let it be, the world of power. It’s about getting the right admixture – you know, love without power is flaccid, and power without love is fascism or cruelty.

In my thirties I got introduced to Buddhist practice. It didn’t grab me at first, but it was just there, something I persevered in.

The last chapter of the book is about a big wakeup that I had during a seven day retreat where I got it. All my doubts were resolved, and I realized there was another world there available to everyone. You don’t have to be a Buddhist. It’s the human birthright: Wisdom. And I decided to stay there.

So from that time, I began becoming a Buddhist priest. I’m in the beginning of what’s called my transmission. By this time next year, I’ll have finished a year-long process of being made an independent Zen Master, free from my responsibility to my teacher. He decides “you’re cooked, you’re done” and sends you on your way. From that point on, I could create my own lineage of priests and so on if I choose to – I don’t know if I will.

This sounds like a very serious book….


No, it’s actually very funny in many parts because the mistakes I’ve made are very hilarious. Even if I’m trying to be serious, I’m unintentionally comedic.

I am writing something right now; I am thinking it might be a Ted Talk. It begins with an analogy: Your House is on Fire. And as the fireman rushes up, a man appears and tells him that the hose he’s using is not regulation. He’ll have to shut it down. And a Chinese man runs up and says “I can sell you a new hose for 30 % of the cost of the old one.” And a tax payer rushes up and says “You have to do it our way or we will sue.” And a union guy runs up and says “If you buy this hose from a non-union, labor exploiting shop we will sue.” What do you think the fate of the house is going to be?

The allegory has to do with all of the ideas, philosophies, theories, ideologies that stem from a certain kinds of thinking that makes the world impossible and unable to respond to critical problems.

In this piece, I describe two ways of looking at the world that are absolutely true, and… mutually exclusive. The normal way we look at things is that every grain of sand, every butterfly, every human being, every leaf, is a discrete, independent entity, unlike anything else. And I call that way of looking, “the relational.” Because discrete entities are always looked at in relation: I’m taller than you, I’m kinder than a cruel person. I’m meaner than a saint. I can’t go West without knowing where East is.

But there is another way of looking at things which is rarely looked at. And that is that the entire Universe is one interdependent, interpenetrating ball. If the Earth was any closer to the Sun, water would boil off. If it was any farther away, Earth would freeze. Life as we know it would not exist. So right there our idea of a separate, individual self is completely related to the Earth’s place in the Solar System.

And on this Earth, you and I have never been free of sunlight, we’ve never been independent of oxygen, of microbes in the soil that allow plants to dissolve the nutrients, of pollenating insects, of birds which control the pollinating insects and pests, of the thousands of humans who have planted, woven, carted, dyed, shipped – our clothes, food, whatever…. If you take it all the way out, you can see that the whole world is interconnected. I call that view The Absolute.

So the problem is that you cannot maintain both worlds at the same time. Language prevents us. The rules of syntax. The rules of words: a “tree” does not describe all the interpenetrating systems of that organism. It’s easy to cut down a tree. But if you describe a tree as all the interpenetrating systems, you might be a little more thoughtful.

Each of these realms has a certain way of thinking that is associated with it. The thinking that is associated with The Relational is intelligence. And intelligence is this acute, left-brain, problem-solving mechanism. Finds a problem, sets a goal, and sets about reducing the problem and doing it. And it’s brought us our wealth, our life-saving techniques, our medicines, our abundance of food, our free time. It’s phenomenally powerful.

But it’s also morally neutral. Intelligence can plan a hospital or a concentration camp with equal skill. It can be used by a race car driver, a pimp, a scientist, it’s just a skill. It doesn’t imply any morality or empathy or compassion. But because it’s so valuable to us, we privilege intelligence. We say this is the most important thing that there is. And we never look at this realm, The Absolute.

So because of that, everything we think in The Relational is always half wrong. It’s half wrong because it doesn’t account for the shadow. For the unintended consequences of what we do, which you can only see from looking at The Absolute. So The Absolute’s mode of operation is the intuitive. And the intuitive is the human way of understanding, which is much faster than intelligence and logic, where it collates a thousand disparate impressions into an actional picture, very very quickly.

There’s something about that which produces a kind of empathy for the world. By seeing all the interconnections, seeing how everything is changing, seeing how everything is passing, the world becomes precious. And there is a kind of built-in impulse to take care of it when you dwell in that realm.

And this is why all cultures all over the world, spiritual adepts have set up various forms of transcendental practice: meditating, fasting, prayer, ayahuasca, peyote, to try to get back to this wholeness where we look at both sides.

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Living on the Land and Off by David Simpson


David Simpson

In the early 70′s, David Simpson and Jane Lapiner moved to Petrolia at the top of northwestern California’s Lost Coast and the  mouth of the Mattole River. Old friends and collaborators Freeman House and Nina Blasenheim soon joined them.  Together with Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann, the men of this group articulated our ancient relationship with our home watersheds they called bioregionalism, one of our century’s Big Ideas that has put its stamp on grassroots organizing and watershed restoration. The Mattole Restoration Council and Mattole Salmon Group, organizations these former Diggers helped found are considered significant benchmarks for salmon and community restoration across the planet.

As if it weren’t enough to have accomplished what they have, David and his partner Jane, a dancer/choreographer,  hold it as a tenet of the Digger brand of radical politics that one might move their ideals forward by engaging in agit prop theater. (Simpson and Lapiner met as members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in l966.)   With their company, Human Nature, they produced and toured, first. their mega-production, Queen Salmon, in which ranchers, rangers, wolves and deer all have their say with regards to the holy marriage of the salmon…and then The Wolf at the Door, a parlor drama which this member of their audience feels was their finest and funniest presentation of issues around the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone…to several editions of comic plays over the past fifteen years dealing with Climate Change, most recently Tripping at the Tipping Point. David and Jane have always been at the leading edge of an issue.

They have been persistent and faithful attendees  of the UN’s Climate Change Summits, from Copenhagen in 2009 to Durban, South Africa in 2011 and on to Poland last November most of them written up in riveting reports published by Planet Drum’s Pulse. Presented here are David‘s remarks on the most recent Climate Summit, in Warsaw Poland. The mood of that summit teased David‘s memory.  Here he calls up for us the parallel event that Warsaw evoked in him and why.                —Destiny Kinal

Living on the Land and Off

by David Simpson

Warsaw, 2013/New York, 2003


The National Stadium in Warsaw under a wan full moon; the scene of UN climate conference 19, November, 2013

Decamping last November 24th from Warsaw’s National Stadium where the 19th annual UN climate summit (COP 19) was in its last throes, my partner, Jane Lapiner, and I, were both struck by a particular sense of emptiness that was somehow deeply familiar but for the moment unattributable. The conference was ending with very limited accomplishment at best—as much as could be achieved considering the lack of commitment to strong steps on the parts of the wealthier nations. Given the stolid push and shove of contemporary politics, such inaction would have seemed closer to reasonable (many high human endeavors no matter how well-intended end with a whimper)had the barely hidden subtext of this event been other than the imminent demise of civilization.

The stakes were, dare we say, stratospheric. High enough so that it might automatically be assumed that any aggregate of humans with a claim to leadership of the species (195 governments were represented at Warsaw) would get right down to dealing with the issue.

The fact that they hadn’t was rendered more egregious, if not outright shameful, by Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines just three days before the COP opened. This great tropical cyclone had winds of 190 – 195 mph at landfall, making it the strongest storm of its kind in recorded world history. With gusts up to an unprecedented 235 mph, the typhoon raked through helpless, low-lying coastal communities killing thousands and rendering many, many more suddenly homeless.


There were13 official corporate business partners at COP19: ALSTOM Power, ArcelorMittal Poland, BMW Group Poland, Emirates Air, Europress Poland, General Motors Poland Sp, LOTOS Group, International Paper – Kwidzyn, Kaspersky Lab Poland, LeasePlan Fleet Management (Poland), PGE Polish Energy Group, Leroy Merlin Poland and IKEA

Despite this terrifying prelude, the only thing resembling decisive action that came out of Warsaw occurred three days before the event closed. That’s when over 800 civil society representatives (climate activists, representatives of environmental, clean energy and social justice organizations or of other NGO’s) held a press conference and then walked out en masse to protest the prevailing state of inaction and the expanded influence at the event of large commercial forces.

It might be more accurate to say that they ‘rode’ out given that it was a three-story escalator ride from the location of the rally to the level of the actual exit from the stadium. It’s challenging to try to maintain a demeanor of pained righteousness when you’re gliding in stately fashion down toward the exit like shoppers on sale day at the Mall who hadn’t found a deal. Everything about this conference came out seeming tame, even the protests.

To be fair, there had been a relatively important effort at Warsaw, which met with some small success, to add a third category—Loss and Damage due to climate events—to the two previously established goals of climate financing –(1.) Mitigation meaning reduction of carbon emissions and (2). Adaptation to looming changes already too late to avoid. There was, though, no new budget commitment and indeed nothing resembling effective financing  even for the original two categories. Countries with wealth were still keeping a tight hold on their purse strings through thick and thin—as if there might still be options for dealing with climate change that won’t require complete international commitment and open-hearted cooperation.

The irony related to the level of influence being wielded by companies with large stakes in the burning of fossil fuels was enervating. As corporate sponsors of COP 19—the first UN climate conference where such overt sponsorship had been allowed–their brands were visible all over.  The ubiquitous presence marked by their logos, like a scent dogs leave, was disorienting for many climate activists. For them, these corporate entities were more often associated with the causes of climate change rather than the solutions. There was no avoiding the reality that the UN climate directorate (UNFCCC) was allowing opportunities for corporate green washing. The enemy had crept more deeply into the House of Climate Change.

The dagger of irony took a deeper twist when another influence that had loomed large in previous COPs went altogether missing in Warsaw.


Press conference at National Stadium, Warsaw just before 800 walked out. Protesters in white to the left, press to the right. November 21, 2013.

North American indigenous peoples who had provided a strong, visible presence at earlier climate summits had come to a quiet collective decision. Because of the ineffectiveness of earlier COPs to reduce emissions or to commit significant assistance to the most endangered populations, and in light of the strengthened corporate role in the process, native North Americans would not attend.

Somehow the expansion of the slickly designed corporate presence combined with the absence of the overt, nature-based spirituality and down-home simplicity of Native Americans spelled out something painful about COP 19 and the whole UN climate process. Who was going to be there amid all the sterile, white temporary partitions  (the meeting rooms) and tailored black suits to remind us of simple truths that ‘educated’ elites find so corny and discomforting, like “We’re killing our mother”?

The UN effort seemed to be moving in the direction of larger engineered and financialized solutions (carbon storage, bioengineering, carbon-trading) and away from the wisdom gained from millennia living in place–toward enabling further indulgence and away from urgently needed forbearance. It was as if a trade-off had quietly taken place that gave even more control to the entities that stood to benefit from the basic problem by scrupulously not solving it.

So we fled the National Stadium, not exactly resigned to the outcome but still despondent in face of what was inevitably coming. Anthropogenic climate change remained once more virtually unchallenged at the international level. Other Haiyans waited in the wings, and we had to face the specter of a climate increasingly unleashed from long-evolved controls. Though full commitments to solid goals are supposed to be made by the Parties (countries) by COP 21 in 2015, too many COPs have ended without real progress toward reducing admissions to allow much hope.


The escalator walk out. 800 leave the UN conference in protest to inaction. November 21st, 2013

It was this sense of powerlessness in the face of great impending harm that reminded me suddenly of the earlier experience of emptiness and lack of hope that I couldn’t recall at first–New York City, Union Square, March 19th, 2003. Jane and I were in the city with a show, What’s Funny About Climate Change, our first climate change comedy. We had been touring around the country with the show along with our daughter, Joyful for 6 weeks and had witnessed the slow building of media and government’s engineered efforts to create the will to go to war in Iraq—or better, their steady wearing down of resistance to it.

We had encountered several organized protests against the war along the way and jumped into a few. They seemed relatively interchangeable. You could get your standardized protest—same chants and songs, same big puppets, same slogans on banners, same hard-eyed police standing by waiting for an opportunity—in locations all over the US, a kind of MacDonaldized protest movement. One we took part in was outside Colorado Springs on the day that 6 to 7 million protested world wide and who George Bush later dismissed as a ‘focus group’.

The event in Union Square turned out not to be a protest at all. Earlier that evening, George Bush had made his inept declaration of war with all its obviously unproven casus belli. It was just a matter of days or even hours before Shock and Awe was to be loosed. In light of this recognition and the agonizing corroboration of our powerlessness, the event in Union Square had turned outright funereal.

People stood in subdued clusters, gathered around single or small bands of folk musicians whose songs—even or especially those of courage and of prevailing over evil—seemed to fall into an air emptied of meaning.  The organizers had passed out candles in little cups to everyone. The thousands of little flickering lights, rather than providing a gentle and uplift of spirit, seemed mournful, a tribute to those who were soon to die.

Many of those gathered in the growing darkness were openly weeping.  Our protest was indeed over. A multitude of innocent lives were to be sacrificed. The world was to be further damaged. Great material wealth, desperately needed to face the combined planet-wide challenge of climate change and inequitable distribution, was to be squandered in the nonsensical delivery of pain. We knew all this as well as we knew our own names and we were helpless to alter the course of events.

A war-torn decade later as we pushed ahead into the chill evening in Warsaw with this memory now in mind, we knew that the climate’s shock and awe was upon us. It was just a matter of time and the luck of the draw where and when the next bomb would drop—the next shoe or the next many shoes. The great gathered powers had taken mincing little steps forward—far beneath the rate of growth of emissions–meager effort against a swelling tide of inconceivable magnitude. As who knows what tipping point after what tipping point were being reached, Humankind, organized into corporate-driven nation states, quibbled over picayune details and waved flags in order to dodge responsibility.  As if we still had a choice—as if we could continue to pursue wealth, profit or an indecent level of personal comfort without rendering the future unlivable.

Posted in Bioregionalism, Diggers, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Interview of Destiny Kinal by Reinhabitory Institute


Destiny Kinal

Reinhabitory Institute: I read what you’ve written about your political awakening, but there was a lot going on at the time. So what was it about the Diggers, or they the Digger movement or the free movement that particularly attracted you and compelled you to join that and not something else. There was a whole counterculture and a whole radical movement going on and so what was it that led you to the Diggers?


Kinal: It’s one of those accidental things in retrospect, but, you know, it couldn’t have happened any other way. I wasn’t a flower child, although that was very compelling, spending your days stoned and beautiful in Golden Gate Park.   I had been very active in SDS in graduate school at Indiana University but my political awakening really came through the first family that I married into, the Handelmans who were socialist, atheist, intellectuals with many artist and theater friends.

I was employed when I got to the Bay Area; I had a real job at Alvin Duskin Manufacturing which may not ring a bell. Alvin has gone on to be a political leader in many issues, but in the mid-Sixties, the Mod Movement in London came directly to San Francisco, missing New York. Duskin made really wonderful clothes at an affordable price, perhaps most famous for the peace dress that had the peace symbol woven in white against a black background. A second generation textile person, Alvin was a genius at stringing up a loom. At any rate I was the most junior member of management team and the folks at Alvin Duskin were very political, so I immediately fell in with that group socially and politically. Alvin introduced us to a lot of his friends who are still around and active like Jerry Mander. Nights, I worked at The Committee at night waiting tables, a satirical comedy club that launched a generation of comedians like Gary Sinise.

Even though I’d been in theater in high school and college it never, EVER would have occurred to me to try out for the San Francisco Mime Troupe; I was intimidated; it was out of my league. So I lived in the Haight, I had a two year old daughter from my Handelman marriate, and I was the only person in my household bringing in money. I traded rent for childcare.

I considered myself a Digger because all of those printed pieces that came out of the street like The Oracle and the Berkeley Barb spoke to what all of us were feeling on the street and  honestly, this was my first experience of this. I don’t even know if it has a name  –collective unconscious or zeitgeist os something like that. Just as we, the anonymous Diggers on the street would start to feel one way or another about something, it would be reflected back to us from the press and so we were all wired into the same thing, whatever that simultaneous synergy was, and it was very political.

When the National Guard came and occupied the Haight from Kezar Stadium, they would come out into the streets swinging their billy clubs when I would be walking with my two -year-old down to the grocery store. It was very frightening. Yeah, but I was invisible. I was a woman with a small child and they were after, mostly, the men. In the meantime, my friends back in the East who were with SDS were involved in the Democratic national convention which again, you know, I heard about it from my first husband and it sounded really bloody and awful. Read Charlie Degelman’s Gates of Eden for a highly accurate description of what occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago at that time.

So we’re talking about 1968? What did you do activity-wise with the Diggers? did you distribute blue milk? Free clothes? What kinds of things did you do?


I used the free services. I first met Peter and Judy Berg at the Free Store. My friends at Alvin Duskin were declaring San Francisco a Free City, cut off from the peninsula like a city state. I was in charge of lining up the free music, an obligatory part of a successful event. I went in there with Gilian and asked Judy if Peter was around. He came rolling out of a bed closet along the wall and gave me Danny Rifkin’s number. Danny managed the Grateful Dead. I called Danny from the wall pay phone, who agreed to play our Free City event. Judy Berg had a little boy Aaron, who was Gilian’s age and looked like Gilly: pale skin, dark hair, blue eyes. When we would go in the store, Aaron and Gilly would play, friends by proximity.  I think they went to the Shire School together during those times as well.

I went to the Free Clinic once, young doctors who worked for free seeing patients on a walk-in basis. We also had a free job bank, quite innovative. You could go in there and find out what kind of work there was. And it wasn’t work for free, it was work you could be paid for. Of course, every weekend Diggers served free food in the park and one of the bands popular at the time–Janis Joplin, Country Joe, Grateful Dead–would be playing free in the Panhandle across the street from our apartment.

Was this all in the Haight Ashbury area?


It was all in the Haight Ashbury, even though I was working at third and Mission and playing in North Beach a lot because a lot of my friends were in North Beach.

And The Committee?


I was a cocktail waitress there, in my early 20′s, but my group at Alvin Duskin introduced me to older friends who were more involved in San Francisco radical politics. Despite the fact that I had read Saul Alinsky when I was working as a community organizer with Johnson’s War on Poverty, had read and digested Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and the anarchists of the early part of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe, despite the fact that I had trained others during my years with SDS in graduate school, designing teach-ins to educate the public about the War in Vietnam, I only began to meet, first hand, seasoned community organizers after I moved to the Bay Area. Diggers were just one flavor of resistance that were cooking in the Bay Area, the most appealing flavor to me because of what I brought with me to the Bay Area. But in those days, San Francisco and Berkeley seemed like small communities with overlapping circles. Everyone you knew knew everyone you knew.

I want to return for a moment to my experience with Johnson’s War on Poverty, before I got involved with SDS. This was my first experience with a government program and I actually bought the cant. I had no experience with these kinds of things: they told us “we want you to talk to poor people, disenfranchised people, and we want you to find out what they want, because what they want is what we’re going to fund.” I was naive about the way government programs work and so I went out into the rural South– Southern Indiana is the rural South–and began telling people that the government wanted to know what would make a difference in their lives. And that they would give that to them.

After, it reminded me of the time I was an encyclopedia salesman, telling people they needed these books for their children to succeed, paying on time, like an insurance program, a pyramid scheme costing way in excess of the cost of the books. After my first sale, I quit, seeing what a shtick it was, that I had not only suckered the people I sold to, but I had been suckered.

I have never, before or since, seen such poverty as I saw during my time as an organizer with the War on Poverty in southern Indiana. People living literally in hovels, you know, tar paper shacks, dark with three or four generations living together in there.  An old woman rocking in one corner, someone who was not in their right mind, drooling, in another. A baby in dirty diapers on a cot. Johnson’s people had read their Saul Alinsky too. I was selling this notion of self-determination to people and they were buying it more or less. We were all betrayed because the War on Poverty went down the tubes when Johnson went out of office, a powerful lesson for me.

And so you took that with you to San Francisco?


I did. And found that the community organizer in me couldn’t be uprooted. Another singular and watershed event for me was taking acid (LSD) for the first time. I had an earlier similar experience like that when I had my tonsils removed at four years old. Right? So I knew about that, but no one was able to tell me what it was going to be. So we went down to Big Sur in the fall of 1966 and took my first acid trip. I sat in this brilliant white light for about eight hours until the sun started setting, a typical first trip, I was told afterwards. And then when night came, sitting on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean and Highway One, watching the sound of a motorcycle approaching and receding in colored concentric circles. Seeing the plant life around me going through the lifecycle of that species of plant at what appeared to be the molecular level. I wasn’t like some of my friends who were associated with Millbrook for instance in the early days and who took literally hundreds of acid trips. I’m a Virgo and will try anything once. While I took acid a few more times, it was never as powerful as the first one. I preferred natural psychedelics like peyote and mushrooms to facilitate my spiritual development. At the same time, in the decade before gurus, we sampled widely from religions and mystical experience from all over the world.

So how was the acid trip a watershed?


I’d been in graduate school, which was this very rational environment. People would come from our SDS chapter to see me in the Haight and say, “What are you doing and why are you doing it?” I would look at them and say exactly the same thing back. I just couldn’t relate to speaking in academic jargon. And the anger that they felt, politically. The were the culture of the discontented and I was deep into the mellow groove of California, accepting of the beauty of the day, confident that everything that was happening was happening for the best.  Having found my place, my time, my people, I had left behind that corrosive anger and critical way of looking at the world of the New Left…which I picked up again later, when the women’s movement came into its own. (Laughter.)

So let’s fast forward to the current era. And what is Reinhabitory Institute?


I was invited to an academic conference in Le Havre, France, a couple of autumns ago. The subject was the Woodstock years and I was the only non-academic presenter. I had lived that era and so I prepared a slide show that spoke about the evolution from the counter-cultural Diggers to bioregionalism.

Bioregionalism, which expresses the personal relationship you enjoy with your home watershed, was the critical piece in my founding Reinhabitory Institute. I married into the Digger family in 1969 and met a core group of people who I’m still very close to, a second family. In the early to mid- 1970s, these friends began to develop a theory about our relationship to our home watersheds, which they named “bioregionalism”. They didn’t really discover anything new so much as they discovered something really ancient in us, articulated it, and brought it back. I called it the first, second and third waves of bioregionalism.

The first wave was when these guys including Freeman House, Raymond Dasmann and Peter Berg developed a theory about the importance of our relationship to our home watershed. All of us who were in their intellectual penumbra, so to speak, got it, and read widely and felt the same way.  That was the first wave.

The second wave was equally astonishing because in very short order, as soon as people got the philosophy, the practice spread out all over the country and to other continents, with a hundred thousand small and large watershed organizations rising in the wake of this rediscovery.

So Berg coined the term “reinhabit” which I practice in my writing.  In recreating a historical time, my imagination allows me to re-inhabit a time  in which real people, some of them who are based on my own ancestors, inhabited a period of time and place in which certain realities became clear to them, and from which they made certain decisions.  Our mission for Reinhabitory Institute is to reinhabit our home watersheds, this time in harmony.

Let’s talk about your writing, you have published a novel, Burning Silk, which is the first book of a proposed trilogy, and you are about to publish Linen Shroud, the second book in the trilogy? Tell us about this and how does this connect this to the reinhabitory theme?


I got my MFA at Bennington as I was just about to turn fifty, where I began to learn how to write better prose with more muscle and less romanticism. The Textile Trilogy occurred to me not only because textiles have been an important theme in my life but also because textiles represent women’s work, those friable everyday things that don’t survive in the archaeological record like stone and iron.

Every serious writer who uses history to build their theme tells of a similar search: how they found their story. Arthur Miller poured through transcripts of the Salem Witch Trial to find his inspiration for his play The Crucible which he used to talk about the McCarthy era witch hunts. He would have been blacklisted if he spoke of the evils of McCarthy-ism and HUAC (House Unamerican Activites Committee of the 1950′s) directly. I am among those writers like Milan Kundera who speaks of unearthing values in history that lie “buried in that vast cemetery of forgetting.” My subject in the Textile Trilogy is the nineteenth century.

In pursuit of my story, I went to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and sat in their library looking through the archives. My characters are loosely based on my own maternal line who came into this country through Bucks County. I sat there looking through the archives until I came across the fact that they had produced silk there, and that was it, my a-ha! moment. I had found my subject matter: silk. From there I went to the Cevennes Mountains in France and researched the Huguenouts, the protestant Christians, who–in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and their religious freedom–fled for the borders. The Huguenots–which is not their name for themselves but means “shadow people” –held trade secrets in many of the guilds. Producing silk was one of them. And so when they fled for the borders, those that got out took their secrets with them, for making fine steel, for producing silk and other crafts, settling all over the world where they disappeared into the population, one of their qualities. Odds are, you wouldn’t know if you had a Huguenot relative.

It was Peter Berg who first called my attention to these people, by circulating the stories of the Albigensians, or Cathars in France, who were consider heretics by the Catholic hierarchy and who–in medieval times–were burned and put to the sword for their beliefs, centuries earlier, the ancestors of the Huguenots. Berg had this way of calling things to your attention that would wind up being highly seminal when they had germinated.

I won’t take this time to tell you about silk, and why it is a marker in my life, why I recognized that I had come across my story when I saw they had produced silk in Bucks County when my female relation lived there in the early 19th century.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I had been highly struck in graduate school when I read Engel’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and his study of Iroquois matrilineality. The Textile Trilogy is about a matrilineal people–native people in the Eastern US–meeting a patrilineal people–my European ancestors– and in many cases coming into conflict, because the two systems of calculating lineage have diametrically opposing value systems.

People confuse matrilineal with matriarchal. Matriarchal means that women rule instead of the men whereas matrilineal people enjoy equity between the genders. You inherit your mother’s name, clan, heirlooms, stories in a matrilineal culture, almost unimaginable to Europeans who count their ancestors, name, belongings through the paternal line. With the Iroquois/Haudenausaunee and Lenape, men are the chiefs and speak for the tribe in public while women elect the chiefs and take them out again, if a chief is not behaving well. In a traditional matrilineal society, women hold the relationship with the land. Violence against a woman was punishable by banishment or death in earlier times when matrilineal cultures held to their traditional ways, before the influence of the European values.

The more I explored it, the more I realize that the European silk workers were also matrilineal people, people who had a similar division of labor, where the men marketed the silk to the outside world and were in charge of the mulberry, while the women were in charge of the secrets of raising worms who would produce a fine silk. Women silkworkers passed their secrets down generation to generation; I met a maitresse in France who told me this, that their secrets were passed down mother to daughter to daughter over many generations.

The closer I looked, the more the traces of an earlier cultures emerged, before it was erased by Christianity and the concommitant patrilineality those chauvinistic religions produced.

And the book was the impetus in your deciding to start a small press?


At a certain point, having shopped Burning Silk around, I became aware that the publishing industry was going through profound changes in terms of corporate takeovers with values unfriendly to literature. Friends of mine told me that I would have nothing to say about the cover of my book, for instance, and that–from the time I signed the contract–my book would be out of my hands.

I have always had this feeling that my books will be well known posthumously. I’m okay with this, happy to write the best books that I can, less concerned about what happens to them now. I have been a book artist and worked in creative roles in advertising and marketing, so I care deeply about the aesthetics of a book. When I saw a piece of pre-Raphaelite art by Thomas Waterman [sic], I realized that my book had to have that cover. So a small group of us formed sitio tiempo press with the purpose of publishing books that had a reinhabitory or bioregional message. My book Burning Silk was the first book we published, as is so often the case with people who found small presses. It gave us great pleasure and satisfaction to have Burning Silk win a First Book award from Independent Book Publishers Association’s Ben Franklin awards.

What I’ve learned from Robert Olen Butler, Carol Maso, and others among my teachers, is that the subject matter of a written piece should influence the form. Burning Silk is about the sensory world, like silk, and the prose is very sensual. The second book, Linen Shroud, which is with my two editors now, back and forth between us, takes place with the same two families, Huguenot and native, twenty years later. I am at the point now of trying to decide whether my readers will let me get away with a writing style after the war that is very shell shocked and stripped of sensory detail.

Why do you have two editors?


Lois Gilbert has been my editor since Burning Silk. She really gets my writing and challenges me to rethink my scenes, my themes, and my characters. To take risks. My other editor, JoAnne Grandstaff, is native American and challenges me to appreciate a native point of view.

Linen Shroud is tough, like linen, like the Civil War. I did the research on linen production, way back when I was still in the early stages of writing Burning Silk. The subject is conflict, and linen is a fiber that struggles to be born: tough to produce, tough to grow, and–as my business partner Judith Thomas tells me–easy and supple to weave IF you meet certain conditions that linen insists on. For me, flax production is an excellent metaphor for conflict.

I’ve read deeply into every single war that has occupied me since the Vietnam War, the Civil War and World War I in particular, two gruesome wars with unimaginable losses of human life. Aside from the Spanish Civil War, I’m still too close to write into World War II or even to read deeply into it. I have a powerful and painful family history in Ukraine, which–if I am able to finish the Textile Trilogy, may come later in my writing career. I’m a late bloomer as a writer and it takes me the better part of a decade to write a novel that I am confident I will be pleased to outlive me.

For an antiwar activist, it has been very difficult writing this novel. I’ve been able to see, as the theme of this Textile Trilogy begins to dawn on me, that certain things came to an end during the Civil War that then could not be reversed, like the end of the guild culture and the triumph of the industrial revolution that happened so much later in the country than in England for instance.

As a feminist, I am very aware of the course that the women’s movement took during the 19th century. The women who came to this country from European countries became aware that the matrilineal native women, their neighbors, not only had the same rights as men but were the most valued members of the culture, whereas a European woman couldn’t own property and had no rights to her own children. Her husband could beat here with impunity. And so this tension between men and women really draws on the tension I felt from my years inside the Digger family…which no one wants to talk about and everyone wants to say is over. I have to wonder if we experience hard times in this country again, if an ugly chauvinism won’t raise its head again.

So, I’m allowing my anger just to rip in this particular novel. These women are realizing how they have been silenced and disenfranchise if indeed they ever were enfranchised.

In a matrilineal culture the women holds the main relationship with the land. They farm the land and their ways, rights and duties, are passed down through the female line. The well-meaning Quakers, in trying to be liaisons to the federal government, demanded that the native people–the Seneca in this case, from Western New York–reverse their ways and that the men begin to farm. These were the terms the Quakers set for the Seneca, to be their advocates with the government, that the men farm, use the plow, plant monocrops in straight lines instead of the mounds women build to grow the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash.

I have no idea whether they knew how destructive that was, how they broke that matrilineal relationship with the soil. How plowing the land was a capital offense equivalent to abusing a women, such a serious offense that no one ever dreamed of doing it. But my editor right now is telling me I have too many themes going on in Linen Shroud. The truth is all of these themes are important. They came to a head during the Civil War and were buried “in that vast cemetery of forgetting,” in the immortal words of one of my literary heroes, Milan Kundera.

The central theme of the Civil War is slavery, and the fight to end it. Does this play a part in your book?


You know it hardly does at all. My dearest African-American friend wanted me to create a character and I tried, but it was just taking the book too far out beyond the milieu that I was able to deal with. So no, the enslavement of half the population, of women, absorbs my characters more than the plight of black folks who don’t really appear in this novel. The treacherous promise that Quaker men made to their sisters and wives that if they helped free the slaves first, after they would fight together for women’s rights is still an ignominious chapter in gender history, a chapter that resonated bitterly again during the Sixties and the silencing of women that occurred during those radical movements, hard to talk about, too close for comfort.

I intend Linen Shroud to shed new light historically on the alliances that swirled around mechanization, particularly of textiles, and that moment of moving from wind and water sources of energy to extractive unsustainable sources like coal and wood, largely to meet demand for uniforms and gear during the Civil War. Revisiting this moment in time will give new meaning to the work of Luddites and saboteurs.

Luddite has become a derogatory term. We use these derogatory terms like Luddite, Hippie, Liberal, Redneck to keep the discussion from becoming richer about what was really going on there. Luddites, I have come to see from my research, were the people who said, “This is where we should stop. We shouldn’t cross that particular line, we shouldn’t be using extractive fuels to run our machinery. We shouldn’t be putting everybody under one roof, the same roof of a factory and working three eight hour shifts largely on the backs of women and children as well. We shouldn’t break up the communities that way.”

And so these people we’ve come to think of as Luddites had a lot of different names, saboteurs, anarchists, all saying the same thing : there’s a line here that we shouldn’t cross. They lost the moment, during the Civil War, because the demand of capital to produce equipment to support both armies was so powerful that the old system of production, which was much slower, and cotton which was much easier than linen though not as strong, won out over linen and hemp and other fibers.

This moment reminds me a similar moment in recent times with GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). I was operating in the foundation world at the time, working on the sustainable agriculture committee. The precautionary principle was being urged: given the consequences of GMO’s spreading through pollen drift, shouldn’t we test GMO’s, containing them before we release them? This was only fifteen years ago in the offices of the Ford Foundation. Today, they say, you can’t find corn or soybeans even in health food stores that aren’t infected with GMO genes.

The period of time in the first half of Linen Shroud relates back to my experience living counter-culturally in the Sixties and Seventies. In the mid 19th century in Western New York, my home watershed, there was this phenomenon they refer to as the “burnt over district,” a derogatory term applied ex post facto to utopian communities that were springing up like mushrooms everywhere. This utopian upswelling grew out of a spirit that considered all things to be possible in the new world.

Linen Shroud is set in Cottage, one of these utopian communities and the story becomes a case history of how the Civil War put paid to this utopian spirit. Fifty years later, at the turn of the century and after, Tolstoy and Chekhov in Russia, the Bloomsburys in England, Yeats in Ireland, and other members of the arts and crafts worlds in Germany, Austria and Scotland, Russia and Japan made an strong stand for utopian values against the upswelling of capitalism that was occurring at the same time. Arts and crafts movements in this country in Pasadena and Berkeley on the west coast, the Roycrofters on the east coast, were also creating what they intended to be more resilient utopian communities, based on arts and crafts values, resuscitated from the 19th century, before the Civil War.

In another fifty years, the Sixties countercultural communities arose, which in its turn have had a lasting impact on our culture in medicine and wellness, childrearing, childbearing and dying, textiles, organic food, farming, politics.

Many of these utopian communities of the past century and a half were founded by people trying to find a new way of life, to explore differences between the genders, how food was being raised, how childcare could be shared, forward thinking practices. And yet the word Utopian has taken on a really sinister meaning, even among the left. And certainly the fringe of any movement can discredit the mainstream, how we Americans discredit things that have had value by trivializing them and taking the part–the lunatic fringe–to stand for the whole. Thus, many will remember the black ski mask anarchists who destroyed property when it comes to the Occupy Movement. I fervently hope that the Occupy Movement, the first youthful movement to challenge corporate hegemony after our countercultural activism, is only experiencing a hiatus in the systol/diastole way organic movements ebb and flow like a tide, like blood flowing through our hearts in concert with the rhythm of the breath.

Now that we’re at the end of the Petroleum Age, of this love affair with modernity and progress and technology that we’ve enjoyed, we are just now looking around in dismay to find the wreckage of a planet that has been the consequence of this century of unbridled capitalist exploitation of people and resources. My books ask if it isn’t time to go back and look into those cemeteries of the nineteenth century and see what we jettisoned that might be salvaged for new building material.

And what do you think we’ll find?


Well for one thing , arts and crafts values. This idea of creating something between the union of the eye, the hand and the heart has not seen its day yet. It keeps welling up in for our consideration and people keep returning to these crafts and folkways that valorize sustainability.

For another, many of the practices we unearthed during the Sixties countercultural movement. How will the European and African and Asian populations who have immigrated to this continent for instance, become reabsorbed into this continent with its watershed-driven ways of life. How will we become native if not by observing the practices of those who have been native on these watersheds for millennia? Who understands how to live in harmony in this particular place, your home watershed, better than native people? We were native to our homelands on different continents. Don’t we remember how that intimacy over millennia plays out? I pray we have the strength to oppose a capitalism that continues to use globalization of markets to justify the destruction of native populations across the planet.

Like my editor said, too many themes. Too many important themes and I just can’t stop teasing them apart for my imagination to reinhabit.

Posted in Bioregionalism, Books, Diggers, Indigenous, women writing | Leave a comment

Gunnison Collins interviews Kent Minault


Kent Minault

Kent Minault, one of the original members of the SF Mime Troupe, a satiric theater troupe which has performed for free in Bay Area parks for the past fifty years, has created a show called Diggerty-Do. Surprisingly, despite having lived as part of the Digger Family for 45 years, Kent’s show is the FIRST time I understood how all the pieces came together, a true history, that Minault acts with a great deal of animation and verve.
–Destiny Kinal

Gunnison Collins interviews Kent Minault as
part of the series MESS (Media Ecology Soul Salon) – Gerry Fialka

Posted in Diggers, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Interview with Charles Degelman by Reinhabitory Institute

Charles Degelman

Charles Degelman

Last month Reinhabitory Institute had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Degelman, a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. He is co-founder of Indecent Exposure Theater Company and teaches screenwriting and communication studies at California State University, Los Angeles. His latest novel, Gates of Eden is published by Harvard Square Editions and won a Silver Medal for historical fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Reinhabitory Institute: The multiple protagonists in Gates of Eden are young people coming into adulthood in the 1960s. The novel captures this time of great changes and especially the political awakening of these characters who come from different backgrounds but who are all swept up in the turmoil and possibility of the times. Can you say something about how you came to create these different characters and why you tell the story this way?


Degelman: In order to set a context for our discussion, let me tell you about Gates of Eden and the characters who inhabit the novel. Gates of Eden follows a handful of young rebels who grow up crazed in the conformist claustrophobia of 1950s America. As they grew into awareness, they begin to notice the injustice and inequity in the society that loved to call itself “The American Dream.” They began to notice that the dream often resembled a nightmare, if not for themselves, then for others. Individually and in groups, they began to share their awareness and joined the trickles and torrents that flowed into the resistance, rebellion, and power of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Gates’ protagonists hail from every class and from everywhere — Texas and Manhattan, the South Side of Chicago, a middle-class Massachusetts suburb. Madeline, a young Greenwich Village poetess from a well-off NYC family, dives underground to muckrake the exploding military-industrial complex. Louis, born to a school teacher in the ghettoes of Chicago, abandons a hard-won education to register voters in Jim Crow Mississippi while his Freedom Summer girlfriend Connie twists her naïve bourgeois idealism into real-world rebellion.

Eddie Carpenter, a working-class kids with a dead end future, joins the Marines. ‘Nam transforms him from battle-hardened Marine to shrewd anti-war strategist while Texas misfit Roger struggles between the jaws of a blackmailing cop father and his dedication to the anti-war movement.

As they become aware of the injustices around them — racism, the threat of nuclear war, the assault on tiny Vietnam — Madeline, Louis, Connie, Roger, all in their early 20s choose resistance over apathy.

As the call to resist brings our comrades together, their paths intertwine, split up, and re-converge. During a time of sexual revolution, they experiment with wild abandon, fall in love, hit the road, sneak across Eastern Europe to Vietnam, all united by their vision of rebellion that will lead to… yes, a revolution that jams the System that brought us the nuclear nightmare, My Lai, and the military-industrial complex.

That being said, I decided to write Gates of Eden after a young theater colleague responded to a reference I made to the anti-war movement. “You guys really did all that?” she asked. “Wow. I just thought you hung around, smoked weed and fucked each other.” Okay, we did plenty of that, too, but this young woman’s cavalier response made me angry, then thoughtful. She was an intelligent, skillful, even talented artist and her ignorance of the anti-war movement was – in some way – not her fault. She had been more than misinformed; she had been disinformed.

I decided to set the record straight, to write a chronicle that might capture the excitement, terror, exploration, dedication and focus that brought millions of students, workers, professionals, children and WW I veterans together, under the greatest of danger. We weren’t beatniks, we weren’t hippies, and we weren’t commies. We shunned labels and became dedicated radicals. I wanted to remind people of that, to cut through the trivialization, the dismissal of a passionate and thoughtful rebellion. The result, years later, surfaced as this novel, Gates of Eden.


The novel captures the ethos of the time when middle class youth like your characters in Gates of Eden — David, a folk singer turned SDS leader, Connie, a civil rights activist and community organizer, and Madeline, a Greenwich Village poet turned underground news reporter — were compelled to question everything about the “American Dream”, and come to grips with the real nightmare, especially racism and the Vietnam war.  This was true for millions of people here in the belly of the beast. What response have you gotten from young people today who have read your book?


Harvard Square Editions published Gates of Eden in the aftermath of the first great surge of Occupy Wall Street and I found astounding similarities, differences, and attitudes between our movements and those of a younger generation who took to the streets. The political activism and civil rights movements of the 1960s grew out of the post-WWII power and hegemony that reached its zenith — at least for middle-class America — during a time of prosperity and consumer madness.

This prosperity and the contradictions between wealth and poverty, imperialism abroad and neglect at home, the obscenity and hypocrisy that we came to understand in the ’60s raised our awareness and enabled us to live in a huge junkpile of excess. This excess allowed many of us to live on the fringes of society and turn the mid-century age of consumerism and industry to our own advantage.

In contrast, the conditions seem harsher, the stakes higher for young people today. In the ‘60s and the collapse of the 1970s and dark ages of the 1980s, many of us could fall back into the society, for better or for worse, even after the most radical endeavors came to an end. This was as it should have been. Instead of “selling out,” many of us brought our knowledge, skills and purpose, our highest values and purpose back into society as teachers, environmentalists, community activists, and socially conscious artists.

For today’s young people, I see harsher conditions: The obscene gap between rich and poor has directly impacted their current and future lives. The end game of planetary pollution and global warming, the trivializing of the media, the exploitation of education, the crumbling economy and today’s obfuscating and distracting culture is more sophisticated today than it was back then. The cost of an education is sky high compared to what it was mid-20th century. As in the ‘60s, I think the System’s violent response to Occupy Wall Street showed us how quickly the corporate oligarchy, stripped of its earlier power, will lash back at those who resist. I think it’s a tougher time for young people and many are fighting back. They are a clever group with — if possible — a bigger battle to fight.

Young people who have read Gates of Eden may have a core understanding of what they are up against; I admire that greatly. It’s as if — in the time since I decided to write Gates, to tell that young woman that we weren’t all just dope-smoking hippies — the world changed rapidly and young people get it. The fight is on, Gates or no Gates.


The book also portrays the young people trying to forge new ways of relating to each other. Sharing everything. Sexual freedom, etc. But it also reveals some of the limitations of these new ways, including around the roles of women in the radical movements which is brought out through the characters of Madeline and Connie. This seems like an important secondary theme in the book, can you talk about that?


Okay. Sharing everything. Absolutely. Even without an ideology, sharing became second nature. Sexual freedom, yes, but also — and perhaps more critical — gender equality. We learned early in the movement that those in power don’t give it away. Those out of power must grab it. Women began to do that within the movement in an effective but different same way we were fighting to take power from The Man.

In Gates, I wanted to capture — and celebrate — the depth and intensity of the second front in the war at home — the rise of new left and counterculture feminism. In the late ‘60s — at the same time that we battled ‘The Man’ — the antiwar movement was led (and often misled) by men. I’ll hazard to say the civil rights movement was somewhat different. Although I’m speaking broadly, women had often been more central to the leadership and inspiration of the civil rights movement.

In the antiwar movement, men felt secure in their liberator identities but — in fact — men were perpetrating many of the patterns of their enemies. We could call The Man a fascist pigs but it was the women who came to awareness first. Of course they did. They were the ones being oppressed, by their brothers, their cadre, their lovers.

They coined the phrase male chauvinist pig” and — although the term has been ridiculed — they were right. Many men in the movement were chauvinistic and the “pig” part went along with it. In Gates of Eden, I attempted to follow Connie and Madeline and Diane as they become aware of their own oppression and declare their right to speak, to control their own bodies and their right to act on the powerful notion that — at the core of the relations that powered the liberation movements — the personal is the political. Many of us struggled with this notion, with varying degrees of success but the reality spoke truth — women like Madeline, Connie, and Diane opened a second, critical front in the war at home.


The character of Eddie is a white Vietnam vet from a poor or working class background who must live with what he did in Vietnam as he fights to oppose his former commanders. I could not help thinking about the U.S. veterans from of Iraq and Afghanistan wars today. Any comments?


A friend once told me, “It took almost all of us about two weeks in country before we understood how rotten this war really was.” In Gates, I tried to capture the feel of the returning vets in the character of Eddie Carpenter. Although he carried open and unrecognized wounds from his experience in Vietnam. Many of them learned — as they Vietnamese taught us — to turn their rage into action. Eddie Carpenter, in Gates, became ingenious and dedicated antiwar activists.

We supported our troops in Vietnam by demanding they be brought home. In fact, as in Gates, many Viet vets were instrumental in launching the G.I coffee houses that sprung up around military bases during the war. Here, G.I.s could lounge around, mingle with other G.I.s and their antiwar cohorts, read underground newspapers. In my experience, despite the myths of baby killer epithets and of soldiers treated as targets for peacenik hatred or scorn, no one with any political savvy, who understood the draft or how war exploited racism and poverty, ever insulted or assaulted a Vietnam vet.

Describing the difference between Vietnam and Iraqi/Afghanistan vets and their response to their differing experiences would take volumes. However, I can provide anecdotal experience regarding returning vets from the Middle East. The Joiner Center for the Study of War and Its Consequences holds an annual writing conference at its center in Boston. The Joiner Center was founded by returning Vietnam vets who used writing to tell the world about the war and to give expression to their own experiences.

I was invited to lead a panel discussion using Gates of Eden as a focal point for the discussion. Due to an injury, I was unable to attend, but the Joiner Center held the panel discussion with Gates and without me. The novel and comparisons between veterans’ experiences aroused a great deal of curiosity and discussion.

According to the Joiner Center’s Director, the presence the draft (military conscription) in Vietnam Era vs absence of the draft in our modern campaigns occupied much of the discussion. Along with many other analysts, the vets at the conference believed that the U.S. government has been afraid to reinstate the draft because of the antiwar sentiment it generated during the Vietnam War. Viet vets were only require to serve one tour of duty. Without the draft, the government was forced to re-deploy its troops for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The reality of living in America, and the stakes of taking up resistance are harsher and higher for Louis, Sophie and Diane, black characters in the book, can you talk about this?

The anti-war movement of the 1960s could never have become as powerful as it did without the resistance, tactics, and leadership of the civil rights movement. In addition to adopting civil rights tactics like passive resistance and civil disobedience, many of antiwar activists had first joined the civil rights movement. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for example, came out of the civil rights movement after 1963. SDS’s original efforts were to address racism and poverty in America. It adopted its antiwar platform and strategies only after fierce debate about its original social-justice mission.

Although including the civil rights movement expanded Gates of Eden’s horizons, I felt it crucial that we visit that scene through the characters of Diane Thomas, a young crusader from the Congress of Racial Equality, Louis Guillory, and Connie Moore. All three characters risked their lives in the Freedom Riders’ attempts to desegregate public transportation and in the Mississippi Freedom Summer’s voter registration drives. It had to be included in any exploration of the New Left and its anti-war stance.


Switching from the characters to their author, tell us a little about what your political and artistic history is, I understand you were in the Digger movement. Who were the Diggers? And you were also involved in cultural/artistic activities as a young person?


I grew up as a Red Diaper baby in an intellectual family. In short, I was the kid of a couple of communists who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Therefore, I never experienced that loss of innocence that impacted so many New Left and anarchist activists. I knew who the FBI was. I knew my father couldn’t find work. I was influenced by folk music in the early 1960s. As with Michael, the folk singer turned SDS leader, the music I learned to play taught me more about American history and culture than any classroom could have. I read Paul Krassner’s The Realist an anarchist rag for sure and sucked up Kerouac and Ginsberg hot off the press.

I had the rare privilege of coming of age at the beginning of rock and roll and listened to the transition the blues made from race records to Top Forty hits, to fodder for the Rolling Stones. I began acting as a child, then in college, but my theater art never intersected with my politics and culture the way folk music did. Then I came across the San Francisco Mime Troupe on a summer excursion to California. Instant shock of recognition… These people were trying to say something with their art and their audiences were responding. I auditioned, made it into the troupe. I was in red diaper heaven, surrounded by an amazing crowd of bohos and characters like Kent Minault, Peter Coyote, Peter and Judy Berg, Brooks Bucher [sic], David Simpson and Jane Lapiner, Nina Blausenheim. Even Destiny Kinal appeared somewhere in the blur. Bill Graham had left in a huff but the momentum had been building.

I was thriving on this new and better planet until Ronnie Davis, the Troupe’s visionary leader found out I was prepared to quit college after my third year at Harvard. He slapped his forehead and kicked my behind down the stairs at the old studio behind the Chronicle and told me to come back next year. “After you graduate, you dummie.”

A long year later I was back. No graduate school for me. Hell no, there was a war to stop and I had found the tool to stop it: The San Francisco Mime Troupe. I moved into a Digger household on Diamond Street or somewhere above Market and Castro. That fall was one of the Mime Troupe’s most explosive years. R.G. Davis had set up a network (we only had phones and mimeographs machines of course) with SDS chapters on campus all over the United States. So, the Troupe, with a powerful antiwar play called L’Amant Militaire, toured major U.S. campuses, landing on campus that had been organizing war resistance events for months ahead of time. It was an incredibly powerful and effective use of drama.

When we returned from that tour (1967) the Diggers in the Mime Troupe left. They were sorely missed but they wanted to follow their own agenda (or lack of it). I stayed with the Troupe (I strongly believed in its manifesto) but stayed in touch with Digger enclaves for years after, in Petrolia and Olema California and on Turkey Ridge Farm near the Delaware Water Gap. By that time, most of the Digger clan were truckers, as was I. At the Petrolia enclave, Freeman House and others were organizing a reinhabitory approach to the planet and the encroaching ecological threats that we know so well. They were also developing positive models to test reinhabitory theory, using the Northwest salmon population as a totem instrument to measure the overall health of ecosystems such as the watershed surrounding the Mattole River that ran below the spectacular ridge top perch of the Petrolia Digger enclave.

But who was a Digger? What was a Digger? What was digger? Nobody knew. Nobody cared, nobody wanted to care. Although the name had a history, there were no corrals where Diggers grazed. My own life drifted, sliding through the aftermath of the antiwar movement and my work in political theater. Environmentalism was growing now, as was feminism. Liberation movements were growing among minority populations and politicos, Diggers or not, we bonding with indigenous liberation movements on reservations.


What projects are you working on now?


Two projects come to mind. I recently competed a screenplay that is based on a remark that reinhabitory theorist and Planet Drum publisher Peter Berg made at a kitchen table somewhere in Maryland in 1971. We were talking about Buckminster Fuller, the co-option of the first Earth Day rituals and other grim but prescient topics. Peter, remarking on the devastation of mother earth’s resources by the consumer machine, said “One day soon, these bastards will have drunk the earth dry. Then they’ll crumple it away like an empty Coca-Cola can.”

“No deposit, no return,” someone else mumbled. That notion stuck with me for three decades before I manifested Peter’s observation in a film story. No Deposit, No Return depicts the overthrow of a dystopian corporate-driven society by an egalitarian, multi-species utopian society dedicated to reinhabiting the planet. Major research areas include origins of and artistic treatments of dystopian thought and emerging technologies relevant to the imagining of a future utopia. By writing No Deposit, No Return, I hoped to create a character-driven cinematic adventure that projects a future for the planet and all its creatures.

I’m currently finishing revisions to project number two, an earlier novel I wrote called A Bowl Full of Nails. This story, as with Gates of Eden, explores the Vietnam-Era but from the POV of the collective back-to-the-land movements and the complex interaction of the personal with the political. Vaguely autobiographical, Nails explores these ideas through the eyes of a young, burnt-out activist who attempts to run away from his now-paranoid life in the city. In a way, A Bowl Full of Nails picks up where Gates of Eden, my inaugural tale of anti-Viet protest, leaves off.

When radical theater freak and antiwar activist Gus Bessemer takes a load of birdshot in the butt, he learns that to get shot in the ass means three things: one, you’re running away; two, they got the guns and you don’t; and three, despite your ingenuity, passion, and resolve, the revolution isn’t gonna to happen today.

Nursing his rage and disappointment, young Gus heads for the hills to get away from it all. It’s only a matter of days before he discovers that — even amidst the rugged beauty of the Colorado Rockies — there’s no escaping the war at home.

The fictional town of Montgomery mentioned in Nails is modeled on the mountain town of Ward, Colorado. When I was in Ward, a caravan of gypsy truckers including Peters Berg and Coyote and familys, the Pickens, and other communards stopped by. I won’t tell you more for fear of spoiling the story for readers, but another author who joined with the Diggers at Black Bear Ranch describes A Bowl Full of Nails this way:

“In A Bowl Full of Nails, Charles Degelman reminds us that the ‘60s weren’t just flowers, stoned hippies, and Be-Ins; but a time of serious political struggle by a generation dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam. If you ever thought you could get away from trouble by running from the big city, she says, “Degelman has news for you.”

That’s the story and — with artistic license thrown in — that’s the way it was in 1971.

Peace out,

Charles Degelman


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Digger Reinhabited: Conversations with Sixties Utopian Anarchists…

fifty years later

In the mid-1960s, as the New Left expanded and rose to its antiwar apogee and countercultural movements had begun to stir, a nucleus of poets, politicos, artists and philosophers converged in the culture cradles of the Haight-Ashbury and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Whatever they called themselves–Provos, Motherfuckers, Diggers–a leaderless, anarchistic movement found expression on the streets and storefronts of New York, San Francisco and Amsterdam.

Without taking discernible shape, the Digger nucleus radiated creative energy. It published poetry and stories, drafted explorations and manifestos and printed artwork in alternative organs like the San Francisco Oracle and the Berkeley Barb.

Digger working groups like the Communications Company dis-organized spontaneous events on the street and de-materialized Human Be-Ins, the Summer of Love, concerts, screenings, and readings at the Straight Theater and the Fillmore.

Diggers became the progenitors of Free — Free Food in the Parks, Free Stores, Free Clinics, Free City Puppets, 1% Free, an initiative to make one percent of San Francisco’s goods and services free of charge.

Diggers were not hippies. They were not flower children. They eschewed easy definition and media-jacket constraints, but the Diggers were not random. Many had come to awareness in the civil rights and antiwar movements, many just appeared, while still others sprang from a highly evolved avant-garde-turned-radical theater culture with roots in the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

Moving from the stage and proscenium, Diggers took theater to the streets and translated it into real life, where every event, every moment had significance. They reorganized reality by capsizing frames of reference. All the Digger world was a stage, and they the players. The audience was invited to take what they could — or join them.

As tour buses invaded the Haight-Ashbury and the Lower East Side, hard drugs hit the streets, the cops raided the Haight and Stonewall, and free concerts were co-opted by the Woodstock syndrome, the Diggers began to feel the urgency to change more than their frame of reference. They decided to put the Digger thing to rest and morph.

After a grand finale street event, the Death of the Digger, the loose confederacy now known as the Free Family generated mass meetings in which they proposed to leave the city and take to the road. Many built fantastical homes on the backs of trucks and buses and began their exodus.

During this circumnavigation of the forty-eight states, Digger truck caravans drifted from commune to commune, sharing news and developing a new vocabulary that spoke to the remarkable advances being made on many fronts — alternative energy sources and social experiments, holistic medicine and organic cultivation.

By the mid-1970s, the Digger diaspora had begun to generate comprehensive worldviews rich with theory and practice. Bioregionalism posited an ancient relationship between man, culture and a homeland watershed, an interspecies relationship uniquely characteristic of each watershed. During the next two decades, ten thousand watershed organizations sprang up across the continent and around the world, inspired by the work of Peter Berg, Raymond Dasmann, Freeman House and other writers and practitioners.

Diggers have always been a group characterized by powerful writing: poetry, plays, manifestos, novels, nonfiction and essays. Many writers who grew out of the Beat Generation journeyed out of the 1950s into the countercultural years of the ‘60s and ‘70s and beyond. Poets Gary Snyder and Diane DiPrima and Ronnie Davis, theater visionary and bioregional practitioner, continue to make strong creative statements that reflected the evolution of Digger.

This year, several Diggers will be releasing new books and plays. This series conducts interviews with Charles Degelman, Destiny Kinal, and Peter Coyote, each of whom will see books released within the coming year that continue a commentary that began with earlier works set in the New Left, the Digger-born Free Family, and a communal and bioregional legacy that dates back centuries. Anthropologist John Salter, who co-authored Mavis McCovey’s Medicine Trails, will reflect on his years recording the Yurok medicine woman’s memoir.

David Simpson, co-founder of the Mattole Restoration Council and one of the earliest successful salmon restoration projects in the world, writes biting social satire theater pieces through his collaboration with choreographer Jane Lapiner. Human Nature’s productions, which have focused in recent years on climate change, arise from material gleaned from the global Climate Conferences attended by Simpson and Lapiner over decades. Simpson’s piece, which will appear here, opens the door for Simpson to talk about the subject without the constraints of objective reportage.

Kent Minault has been performing his one-man show Digger-ee-doo to rapt audiences in Southern California…for free.

Is a new spirit being born that will refresh the tenets of the Free Family as they come together, to age together? Could it be contagious?

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Worst Flood in Penn-York Valley history

On Thursday September 8 and my birthday Friday September 9th, the Penn-York Valley where Barry and I live, suffered from the worst flood in history.

Take a look at the video below (less than 3 minutes.)  You will see why everything has changed, especially in the momentum of our/Reinhabitory Institute’s goals here.  Acceleration!

Penn-York Valley, Susquehanna Flood

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A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area – a book review

A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1769-1810 by Randall Milliken

Review by Laura G

Dotted over Northern California are streets, schools, creeks, towns and even shopping centers with names like “Miwok”, “Ohlone”, “Suisun”, “Costanoa”. How many non-native people stop to think about the peoples behind these words? How many have felt, as I have, that the narrative one is taught in California public schools is sorely lacking in substance?  I recently checked A Time of Little Choice out of the Oakland Library. I kept the book until it was overdue and I had re-read many sections. What I found in its pages not only educated me on the subject, and it filled me not only with knowledge, but with rage.

Randall Milliken’s book reminds us that the land that makes up the present day San Francisco Bay Area was once part of a “mosaic of tiny tribal territories” which existed and flourished. Flourished, that is, up to 1769, the time of initial contact with the Spanish.

Milliken has  mined, compiled, compared  and analyzed Spanish Mission and Military records and individuals’ diaries to chart 40 years of “the disintegration of tribal culture”  – from 1769-1810 in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area. There are a couple maps that show the location of over 50  tribes (pp 228, 229). There is also a map showing 8 language groups of native peoples in the Bay Area.

By 1810 these same “tribal territories” were empty of  these tribes. Milliken’s book tells what happened.

When I told some acquaintances about the book, they asked if it was “balanced.” I told them, that I thought the book was a scholarly project to uncover the decimation of tribal culture which was meticulous, but the truth is, there is no “balance” to the history. Whether fully intended or not, the result was near-genocide.


The book quotes passages where the Portola, Fages and other expeditions describe first contact with the indigenous people of the area. The first contacts were experimental. Milliken observed that these people treated the “visitors” and their powerful and new technologies with interest, and sometimes fear, and that gifts were exchanged: beads and food from the Spanish, and baskets and accessories decorated with shells from the  Bay peoples. The Spanish saw that kindness toward the children was noted and appreciated by their native parents, and did their best to foster this. Without editorializing Milliken gives us a glimpse of what the native people were encountering and, while they were trying to learn about these new people and were using the experiences to size up the strangers, nothing had prepared them for what would follow. They had no inkling.

The Missions

In 1776 the Spanish built the first mission in the area and the Presidio at the strategic site of the opening of the Bay. They brought their animals and fenced off land for crops. They “punished” people who “stole” their possessions by whipping and flogging, and finally by demonstrating their power and shooting them.

Spain, competing with the Russians was compelled to do what it could to insure it controlled the California coast.

There is an interesting part where Milliken describes the superstitious worldview of the Spanish: their belief that the world was a setting for the struggle between God and the Devil in which all non-Christian customs and beliefs were actually the work of the Devil and must be wiped out. On the native side, Milliken speculates based on the Spanish observation that there was a practice of respect and of incorporating the new people and their technology into their own belief system.

The ideological framework of the Spanish missionaries was backed up and enforced by the army. The priests wooed the peoples, and at first children and teenagers went to the Mission to be baptized. Once baptized the priests felt they were responsible to guard the “Christian Indians” and had a  (god given) right to keep people from returning to their “savage” ways. Sometimes they would allow children to continue living with their parents, but the older people who were baptized would be forcibly brought back by soldiers when they left the Missions to go back to their villages.

A Time of Resistance

A Time of Little Choice also unearths the fact that as time went on, in this period there was repeated resistance by the peoples of the area to the Missions, and that this resistance was always met with brutal and overwhelming force. The Spanish implemented a divide and conquer method to set the “Christian Indians” against the “heathens”. The patterns of Indian villages changed as some moved closer to the missions for protection, or convenience, and others were entirely absorbed. Milliken says that this was not “forced” but that is too generous an interpretation, as the lands were overrun, and the native food sources compromised, there was an occupying force of priests who used whips and soldiers who used guns, a much higher technology than the weapons developed by the tribes peoples. There was also the important ideological takeover of the culture by the Spanish, who preached Christianity, damnation, etc.

Milliken documents increased resistance over years as the new generations now knew what the Missions and mission life brought about. There was especially prolonged and fierce resistance from the Saclans. But the different tribes did not unite to resist and thus stood no chance of defeating the Spanish. Milliken notes that the loose and informal structure of these peoples’ societies did not lend itself to unity. And before the Spanish came the different tribal groups did not see themselves as “Indians” but as separate peoples who had some relationship to each other through trade, marriage, etc.

The book also gives a chilling and detailed account of the mass death that escalated over the Mission period.  Epidemic outbreaks of diseases that the Europeans were immune to, outbreaks of syphilis, and the food and water diseases brought by the Europeans and their animals and concentrated in the overcrowded conditions in the Missions. One particularly horrible detail that sticks in the mind is that when Indians were dying of these diseases in the Missions, some of them ran miles away to native villages in outlying areas to try to escape the epidemic, thus spreading it to those villages and killing many more.

A Time of Little Choice is an important contribution that deserves inclusion in any course on California history. Not only an in depth look at the “disintegration of … culture” this book is a detailed and chilling record which vividly exposes the Mission Period as a criminal one, guilty not only of crimes against indigenous people, and but against humanity itself.

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Sic Transit Gloria: A Eulogy for Peter Berg, the father of bioregionalism

Sic transit gloria:  And so passes one of the most intriguing, profoundly influential men I have met in my life.

tarot card seven of swordsI first met Peter Berg in the spring of 1967 at the Digger’s Free Store in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco, where radical politics met the counterculture.
My daughter Gilian and I lived on the Panhandle on Oak. I was 24. I waited table nights at the Committee, a comedy club in North Beach.  Days, I worked as an entry-level garmento at Alvin Duskin, which made mod-inspired dresses at affordable prices.  Our working group was planning a free city event and I was assigned to line up some free bands.  Those were the days when everyone knew everyone in San Francisco, at one or two degrees of separation at most.
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Susquehanna flood, community organizing: Underwater in East Sayre

My partner in Reinhabitory Institute, Judith Thomas, was visiting the Penn-York Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area. I had told her my valley was a bioregionalist’s dream: in two states and three counties, between the Susquehanna and the Chemung Rivers. this community refers to itself as “The Valley,” and has a culture everyone who lives here understands. Judith was visiting here for a handful of days to let me take her on a tour to help her understand this community where I have been organizing for the past 26 years. Our organization is in the earliest stages of starting Project GROW! to involve young people from both sides of the border to learn how to grow and process food, an art form that was widely practiced in East Sayre and throughout the Valley until just a decade ago.

We visited the Ukrainian Community Center in East Sayre on the last day of August. Judith agreed with me: the center is an ideal place to organize from. Our infant Project GROW!- for disaffected and unemployed young people not going to college–could have its first garden right in the backyard of the vacant lot that comes with the building. We’d call it The Grange Hall and share offices there with other 501c3′s working in the community like Carantouan Greenway, the river organization I founded 16 years ago.
We’d invite collaborators when we had a better grip on how to get control of the building and purchase it with the State’s help. “These deals can take years to put together,” I had told Dan Polinski, representing the Ukrainian church community in the sale of the building. “We’ll all have to be patient.”

Dance floor and stage on the first floor, dining room and kitchen on the ground floor, the center had allowed us, Carantouan Greenway, to host several successful spaghetti suppers there. We’d featured the gardens of East Sayre on our annual Garden Tours where men of Italian and Ukrainian descent raised vegetables in the rich soil at the foot of the levees, in their backyards, canning for big extended families.

I’d had my eye on the community center for a decade. When it came on the market recently, I began laying plans to acquire it for the community. The bricks-and-mortar project was admittedly down the scale of priorities behind, 1) getting at least one garden on the ground by summer 2012 and securing funding to put kids to work in it during the growing and harvest season, with paid jobs. Training a new generation of leaders was slated for the winter of 2011-2012, to take over from aging shrinking boards and pick up fresh ideas for the Valley and run with them. The dozens of people I had interviewed mentioning this piece of our plans will smile reading this. I was candid with them; that community center was a perfect place, in the old ethnic neighborhood of East Sayre with its gardening tradition, right next to the river. We’d reinaugurate the summer festivals that spilled out onto the side lawn: Christmas tree lights, tables, beer garden, music.

Judith and I toured the center with Dan Polinkski’s back up the last day of August. We stopped down to meet with Tim Phinney then, Sayre’s genius at packaging public private deals, who opening his calendar on his desk at the Enterprise Center suggested we see it Thursday morning 9/8, after Labor Day weekend.

A long Labor Day weekend passed. In the Valley, it started to rain and was still raining on Monday. Reports of flooded bridges and section of I-86 closing started to circulate. Continue reading

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