KQED hired me as a television producer because I had worked in radio with audio tape. Portable videotape cameras were brand new, cumbersome and not very good. Real filmmakers refused to touch them. I said I’d be happy to use videotape. KQED sent me out with a portable unit made up of a two-inch tape deck mounted in a Samsonite suitcase, which the poor cameraman carried on his back along with a modified studio camera. Its cumbersome weight limited the images you could capture in the field. You could only shoot for three-minute before changing tape.
My other limitation was subject matter. KQED had been made aware of my past, and the station manager wouldn’t let me cover anything political. I agreed to report only on cultural issues. I did a series on sailing in the Bay and probably the first television series on organic gardening, why it was important and how to do it. We visited the experimental organic garden at UC Santa Cruz. It was just four years old and still struggling when I arrived with a video camera crew and talked with the founder Alan Chadwick who taught students French intensive horticultural techniques, the use of composting and the complete elimination of pesticides.
The series focused on Lucy Hupp, whose marvelous garden of luscious vegetable and spectacular flowers became an inspiration for organic gardeners in the Bay Area.
What made the cultural beat so interesting, however, was the fact that it included one of the biggest story of the early Seventies, the growing counter-culture back to the land movement. The young people who took Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” were leaving cities and moving to free land communes. Nobody know how many, but best estimates are at least 100,000.
My introduction to rural communes was through Alica Bay Laurel. Alicia had lived on Wheelers Ranch for over a year, kept a note-book and drew wonderfully simple, elegant line drawings of rural communal life. She turned her notebooks into a self-published “how to” book called Living On The Earth. I heard about it after her first edition sold out 10,000 copies and Bennett Cerf picked it up for Random House. Living On The Earth eventually sold 150,000 copies.
Alicia threw herself into our documentary project. She took me up to Wheeler Ranch. It sat on a ridge with three sides falling into canyons. We drove in on the one passable but treacherous road, about a mile a half off the main highway, through stands of pine and oak. The road was later closed by a Sonoma County judge to all but Bill Wheeler and his family. After that, people had to walk to the ranch from a neighboring ridge.
There was running water and a large vegetable garden that Alicia seemed to keep going. The land was about four miles from the ocean. It was often fogged in, usually in the morning, but like most of coastal California, relatively mild.
Alicia introduced me to people, most of whose names I’ve forgotten, although they probably weren’t their real names anyway. Everyone wanted to get “back to the land” and live a life free of the phoniness and rigid time constrains of mainstream America. Little kids roamed freely over the ranch, living the kind of childhood I lived on Rosedale Road, playing in the woods and fields. There were lots of artists, musicians, poets and painters. There were old and young, hippies and bikers, drunken low lifers and even a cowboy or two. Clothing was optional. The night I stayed there was music. Alicia with her pure voice and guitar, Ramon Sender with his accordion and someone called Snakepit Eddie who played the drums.
We wanted to animate Alicia’s illustrations for television, and Alicia sketched the trip through Wheeler Ranch on a long roll of paper. We slowly unrolled the paper scroll before a stationary camera and intercut actual images of the Ranch.
The free land movement in California began at Morningstar, sometimes called the Digger Commune, north of San Francisco, just outside of Sebastopol. Lou Gottlieb bought the land. He had made a lot money as bassist and comic spokesman for The Limeliters, a musical trio that produced fifteen albums in the Sixties. Gottlieb held a Ph.D in musicology. Some critics considered him an equivalent of Mort Sahl, Nichols and May, and Lenny Bruce. Gottlieb bought Morningstar in 1967, just as the fist wave of Bohemians abandoned the Haight.
Gottlieb said it was “Land Access To Which Is Denied No One.” Anyone could live there. No one would be kicked out, but people assumed that “if you told no one to leave, the land selected the people who lived on it.”
Many of the locals hated Morningstar. Sonoma County finally placed a permanent injunction forbidding anyone but Gottlieb’s family from living there. Gottlieb resisted. The county bulldozed the houses three times and charged Gottlieb for doing so. He received multiple contempt of court charges, many fines and was even jailed for a week.
Bull dozers finally destroyed Morning Star in 1973. Wheeler Ranch was destroyed the same year. On May 20th, the big Cats leveled homes and everything in them, tearing up and mangling the landscape. To save the land after the bulldozers were shut off for the night, people burned the remaining houses to the ground.
Other free land communes, like the Hog Farms in New Mexico and Vermont, were active at some point during the decade. In addition to struggles with local communities, free land communes had their own internal problems. Along with idealists came free loaders, kids usually, who had everything to take and nothing to give back. They drank, partied, slept and left a mess to clean up just as they had in the Haight. But others who passed through the free land communes learned essential skills and went on to homestead on their own.