In the late ’60s, Alicia Bay Laurel was living among the communes of Sonoma County, California. When her mother asked her to come back to the “real” world, she replied that nature is the real world.
Her parents had endured the Great Depression and World War II. Now they wanted to enjoy the novelties of planned obsolescence—savor the rare beef and fine whiskey and raise up children who knew their places.
Laurel is a celebrity among certain space cowboys and girls, who watched Paladin in their PJs and cap pistols, saw Neil Armstrong conquer the moon, and who briefly held out against war and absurdity.
In teenaged cursive with romantic line drawings, she wrote Living on the Earth, a handmade manual for reveling with like-minded people in the country. Build a kayak. Birth a baby. Take a warm bath when you’re short on water, with no 40-gallon AO Smith to heat it.
Whole Earth Catalog called Living on the Earth “the best book in this catalog” and called Laurel “alicia, alicia, alicia...our own Bradford Angier.”
Since its first edition in 1971, she has revised the book with help from an organic farming and sustainable tech expert, an herbalist, a clothing designer, a soap-maker, and a Maui pot farmer. Now there are vegan dairy recipes as well as the original instructions for dressing deer. The current edition includes an introduction by an academic who studies communal living.
Self-portrait by alicia bay laurel
Laurel lived on Wheeler Ranch, next door to Star Mountain, down the road from Morningstar, which Lou Gottlieb deeded to God. She rode into the commune like Tom Robbins’ thumb-surfing cowgirl.
“I was hitchhiking on Park Presidio in San Francisco and saw a group of six people hitching up the street from me. I asked them where they were going and they told me Wheeler Ranch. I had heard of Wheeler Ranch...and was intrigued, so I went with them.”
There were trench latrines at the ranch and improvised huts. Laurel was trying to live in a way that “would heal me of the trauma I carried from the abusive treatment I suffered from my parents.
“I felt that I could accomplish this by living close to nature, having lots of friends who hugged me and made music with me, eating food I grew, doing yoga naked outdoors, and being of service to a community that appreciated my services—helping to homeschool the kids, sewing new clothes for people out of the fabrics I found in the free store, and making a community manual so we all could develop our outdoor living skills.”
Cuervo Tequila wanted an Alicia Bay Laurel ad campaign: “Recycle your empty tequila bottle into a planter!” When Laurel, who did not drink, said no, the company found another artist willing to change her name to Laurel and “sign it with a lower case L, as I did.
“When Abby Hoffman saw the billboards with her copies of my illustrations and name, she assumed I had done them and declared in an interview that I was ‘the first great cosmic sell-out.’”
The characters in Laurel’s drawings were criticized for performing stereotypical gender activities. “So I wrote and illustrated a children’s book [Sylvie Sunflower] about a child growing up on a commune.
“I don’t like to ask my partner for help. It’s easier to just do the task at hand than endure yet another squabble over who does what. But I do ask and my partner is getting better and better at cooking and cleaning, in spite of decades of conditioning about what maleness supposedly means. Bless his sweet heart.”
Asked why hippie-dom didn’t thrive, Laurel points to Burning Man, the Beats, and Paris in the ’20s. “Bohemianism refers to a famous community founded in the Bohemian River Valley in the present day Czech Republic, in the 13th century, by the chancellor of the University of Prague, who noted that the feudal system of his times was contrary to teachings of Christ.
“Bohemianism is old, maybe as old as the Paleolithic revolution, when humans left behind their 100,000-plus years as egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes and created agricultural communities, which were hierarchical. As soon as there were hierarchies, there were people who wanted to opt out.”