(That estimated reading time is for the full 12,689 words; the longest of these nine pieces, Part VIII, is 2,138 words; the shortest, Part I, is 231 words. The entire text is sectionalized to be read like a book, a part or two at a time. )
The second of two ruined A-frame dwellings at the wildly overgrown site of a wrecked and long-abandoned Back-to-the-Land commune I discovered while grouse hunting with my dog LeeRoy during a fall afternoon in 1992. The violence done to the communal structures before their abandonment and the extent to which they had already been reclaimed by nature suggest they were destroyed during the Vigilante War two decades earlier. Note the yellow Top can, inverted, as if in a final metaphor of the violence that sent so many of the rural Counterculture's unarmed pacifists fleeing back to the cities they had sought to escape. (Top was the era's universal choice for the most inexpensive tobacco and best dual-purpose rolling papers.) The density of the surrounding underbrush, nearly impenetrable even after it was stripped of foliage by frost, suggested no other human had visited the place since it was vacated. Scroll to Part IX for more pictures of the ruins and the vaguely eerie story of how LeeRoy seemed to lead me to them. (Photograph by Loren Bliss copyright 2023.)
Prelude: a Premature Expostulation
(I wrote the following in 2010 and have since revised it only with minor editing for clarity.)
SORRY I DROPPED out of sight: first there was the numbing despair of recognizing Obama truly is Barack the Betrayer, then there was an unforeseen frenzy including two all-nighters to meet a 24 May deadline, finally the four-day recovery mandated by old age.
The deadline problem was my fault, a classic example of the folly of assumption: Fairhaven College – of which I'm involuntarily a 1976 alumnus (long story for another time) – requested five submissions for a special edition of its lit mag to celebrate the school's 40th anniversary.
Without much thought I planned to send five photographs – the social documentary stuff I know I do well enough for inclusion in such a self-consciously artistic medium. Nobody of influence in this ever-more submissively fascist nation – least of all the academic bourgeoisie – gives a damn about the poor anymore, but if nothing else such work goads the local Ansel Adams zealots to heights of fury by its fuck-you retort to their morally imbecilic exclusion of the human condition from their Zone System cult of usable light.
But then when I queried the lit mag's editor for submission guidelines (jpeg vs. tif, pixel count etc.), I was told to my horror the magazine no longer has the capabilities to print photography at all – that it was text or nothing.
This created two immediate sets of problems: technical and psychological.
Though I have no doubts about my abilities as a visual artist – I was a painter before I was a photographer and have a strong (albeit pre-computer) design and graphics background too, and though my photographic ability was repeatedly confirmed by gallery shows and publication credits – I have always felt myself something of an impostor as a writer. Never mind three-quarters of my lifetime income is from writing and editing: photography is my passion -- "choreography of light sculpted in alchemical silver" – while writing is never more than an intellectual exercise, personally compelling, yes, often even an obsession, but always tainted at its core by the fact I'm dyslexic. Just as photography for me is often a wild and Zenlike sled-ride on the Tao, at its very best a face-to-face encounter with the Muse, writing -- because of its implicit battle against dyslexia -- is in large measure a war against myself.
As a result the whole “lit mag” concept with its oppressive hierarchy of values – “fine” art versus “commercial” art; “literary excellence” versus “mere journalism” – became again as hugely intimidating as it had been in my long-ago undergraduate years.
Plus atop this was as miserable a technological chore as I have ever experienced: the struggle to transform hyperlinks into footnotes without locking the result into formats unsuitable for transmission as manuscript: the necessary trial-and-error (which never really yielded the results I wanted) combining with other computer problems to burn up at least 60 of the approximately 80 hours eaten by this project.
The resultant rage of frustration lingers yet as elevated blood pressure, and once again I am reminded why the ruling class was so cottonmouth-quick to impose computers on journalism: computers reduced the intricate crafts of typographers, lithographers and stereotypers to the mind-numbing repetitiveness of minimum-wage clerical tasks, flung thousands of workers into permanent joblessness and afflicted us – editors, reporters and photographers – with oppressive doses of the insurance-office tedium we'd gone into journalism to avoid.
This was probably the greatest and most oppressive forcible workload increase in U.S. employment history – you either accepted it or got fired – and it was imposed without a penny's raise in editorial pay: its result not just the reduction of journalism to its present-day meaninglessness but a genuinely obscene boost in profits to the pigs who own the papers.
Here of course is the reason I so utterly despise computers and the clerical duties they inflict on writers – I am not a stenographer or clerk-typist nor do I have even a trace of the mandatory occupational submissiveness – and the fact I have to spend at least two hours wrestling with word-processing minutiae for every one hour of genuinely productive work never ceases to infuriate me. Nor is this 2:1 ratio even slightly exaggerated: I typically spend four to six hours writing my blog essays, then twice that time fighting the technology to post via my server: no doubt my neighbors have radically improved their vocabularies of vulgarity merely by listening to me bellow at my computer monitor.
So went most of last week, the entire weekend and all of this week through Tuesday morning.
But now I'm finally finished: four excerpts from Outside Agitator's Notebook revised into the lit-mag format plus something entitled “Doorways,” a condensation of experiences from several places into a text that evolved from a long piece of journalism, the result exhibited here if only to prove that even at age 70 one can encounter new dimensions of the creative process – or perhaps of new dementia to display one's utter foolishness – a possibility I cannot ever dismiss because I know as surely as nightfall that once we get into the lit-realm I am as hopelessly lost as London's doomed protagonist in “To Build a Fire.”
My first recognition of the Back-to-the-Land Movement and its role in the resurrection of the Goddess was of course visual rather than textual. I made this sandwich in 1968 or 1969, I suspect the latter, though I no longer remember which; it was to have been one of the key illustrations in "Dancer" and escaped the fire only because it was with me in my portfolio in Manhattan. (Photo by Loren Bliss ©1969, 2923)
I. A Door Slammed in My Face
THE BEGINNING OF “Doorways” in its submitted lit-mag variant is essential for context, and so I have included it here. But it and its companion submissions were never so much as acknowledged by Fairhaven College; they were neither published nor returned, and thus were rejected and apparently destroyed without notice or explanation.
Abandoned farms always seem like cries of sadness arising from the chaos of their overgrown landscapes, most no doubt harboring ghosts and nearly all inviting photographic exploration, but none I ever visited were more haunted by palpable despair than the remnants of rural communes that had been emptied in such terror the communards had forsaken all their possessions – undeniable testimony to the relentless malevolence of the Christian vigilantes who played such a huge but plausibly deniable and therefore subsequently concealed part in the war against the Counterculture.
Most of those monuments to ruling class savagery are gone now, mercifully reclaimed by nature or buried as if in shame beneath sprawling development, but for maybe a decade after the suppression of the Back to the Land Movement, which was mostly dead by 1973 (though a few die-hard communes would linger into the very early '80s), I'd occasionally find such places in the back country and whenever possible I'd not only photograph them but speak my impressions into a tape recorder as I worked.
II. Breaking It Down
(Note: I slightly revised everything beyond this point in 2012, and now in 2023 I have expanded it well beyond its original pre-lit-mag form.)
AS THE NOW-forever-lost “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer” took on its final form c. 1978-1982, the Back-to-the-Land material I had thus far collected became the core of its last chapter. Its sources included my research notes, photographs and tape-recorded impressions of the histories of five abandoned rural communes in Western Washington and similar material about urban or suburban communes in locales as far removed from one another as Seattle and Madison, N.J. It was supplemented by notes on others' descriptions of at least a half-dozen more such endeavors including the story of how a commune in the Cascade Mountain back-country preserved itself against repeated vigilante attacks in a night-long firefight that ended with the vigilantes captured and left in the custody of local law enforcement, an incident that initially seemed destined to become countercultural legend but was instead quickly suppressed by pacifists -- a telling example of how despite its claims of humanitarian intent, pacifism most often serves the oppressors by minimizing or eliminating reports of successful resistance to oppression. Particularly notable in this context is the fact there is now good reason to suspect the vigilantes who terrorized the rural Counterculture during the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s were among the paramilitary forces of Operation CHAOS (capitalization as in original).
I cannot over-stress that because “Dancer” with all its 24 years of notes and tapes and nearly all its photography was destroyed, the pre-1983 material in this work is of necessity reconstructed almost entirely from memory, with small portions of it confirmed by papers that had accompanied me back to Manhattan and thus escaped the flames. Its credibility has already been challenged in response to the condensations for lit-mag brevity and the disguises of locales to protect the privacy of the present-day property owners that characterized its initial public presentation via this blog. Nevertheless each of these modifications -- disguising geography and shortening lengthy recitations of detail by condensation -- are forms of what might be termed truthful fictionalization, and when their use is announced to readers in advance, as indeed they were, they are therefore legitimate journalistic techniques.
The protective rationale for disguise is so obvious it need not be repeated; the rationale for condensation is usually brevity in the reporting of an event or series of events, and its journalistic success -- that is, its veracity -- is determined by how accurately it mirrors whatever actually obtained. In this regard, I cannot fault the lit-mag form in which I originally published this work via Outside Agitator's Notebook, as Dispatches was titled in 2010. I merely combined my experiences at several places and presented them as if they occurred in a single locale, itself a composite of their original venues. Essentially the same technique is often used without controversy by sportswriters in seasonal wrap-ups, as I know from my own sports-writing years, 1956-1959 and 1962-1964.
I can and do, however, severely fault myself for my failure to recognize the potential historical and perhaps biographical value of the Back-to-the-Land Movement material in its un-condensed form. For that I am most regretful. Thus, to make the amends demanded by any such act of contrition, the following restores as many of the omitted or disguised details as is possible given that its original sources no longer exist.
The result, even with my post-1983 discoveries included, is an admittedly far-from-complete chronology of a very small part of the history of the Back-to-the-Land Movement and the Counterculture in general. It is centered on events known to its local veterans as "the Vigilante War," a conflict since banished from public recollection primarily by two groups of ideologically motivated censors: the first group includes the disciples of patriarchy, capitalism and Christian theocracy who also suppress the Counterculture's often unwitting resurrection of the Great Goddess, its spontaneous embrace of Gaian paganism and its role as the first wave in a burgeoning global revolution against patriarchy and all its ecogenocidal offspring; the second group is made up of the pacifists and forcible civilian-disarmament fanatics outraged by the lesson implicit in the local triumphs of armed Back-to-the-Land communards against the Ku-Klux-Klan-minded bands of vigilantes. That lesson -- the fact armed self-defense is sometimes our only effective antidote to right-wing terrorism -- is why the pacifists likewise scheme to eradicate historical memories of the Battle of Blair Mountain and the Deacons for Defense. Fortunately these histories are now documented by publicly available text and film; Blair Mountain is also defiantly immortalized in song so poignantly powerful its first hearing often evokes tears.
I began documenting the vigilante terrorism in Western Washington with still-photography and text, mostly the latter, after the agricultural commune on which I was a long-term guest-participant permanently fended off a gang of vigilantes by armed resistance in the summer of 1970, a series of events in which I played a pivotal role, an intimidating but non-injurious display of rifle marksmanship. Before year's end, I would come to recognize the anti-commune effort was genuinely nation-wide, targeting not just the Back-to-the-Land communes that were taking shape throughout the rural U.S., but also -- and with equal vindictiveness -- attacking their ideologically kindred non-agricultural urban and surburban counterparts. In retrospect, what we were witnessing was exemplary capitalist viciousness against any and all forms of collectivism -- against any effort by the working class, 99.9 Percent of our species' population, to socioeconomically achieve effective solidarity -- even on the most limited local basis. Years later, long after the commune on which I was a guest had fallen victim to internal political conflicts, a man who had been a leading member of its ownership collective would publicly thank me for my vigilante-discouraging skill.
The significance of this work is thus that the fate of a single Countercultural commune -- whether a Back-to-the Land endeavor, a suburban housing enterprise or an urban collective of writers, visual artists and musicians -- is quite literally a microcosm of the fate of our entire species.
I should note too this is by no means my first attempt to compensate as best I can for the fire's destruction of the relevant material. I took it up first in 1985 while I was still in Manhattan, writing about the Vigilante War in a long poem the first line of which -- "It was that doorway, I guess" -- obviously shaped the present text. Much to my surprise, the poem, itself entitled "Doorways," was effusively praised by my Agence France-Presse friend Susan May Tell; nevertheless I eventually abandoned it (and all attempts at poetry) as a foolhardy effort to tread in a realm I know now I am neither intellectually nor spiritually fit to occupy save via the alchemy of silver emulsion. Later that same year I attempted it in prose, but abandoned that too in dyslexic despair, a reaction no doubt intensified by looming but then still unacknowledged post-fire depression. Though even at the depression's most miserable depth, my compulsion to write about the Vigilante War, however sporadic, retained its relentlessness. It was resurrected yet again by my apparently accidental yet pivotal finding of the ruins of another former commune, a place not so isolated it escaped the vigilantes but back-country remote-enough I did not happen on its remnants until I was hunting grouse there in 1990.
This (dare-I-say-it) Muse-driven process -- my 1990 discovery and my equally unsought, unanticipated discovery of another such out-of-the-way place during a 1992 grouse hunt -- often seems to have been so eerily guided, it still sometimes gives me a chill. In 1992 it led me to write a free-form riff to accompany a quartet of pocket-camera images including the photograph above (Kodak Gold 400 exposed in the Olympus RC that served me so long so well), and it thus became the embryo of a belated eulogy for the Back-to-the-Land Movement. It is also testimony to the vigilantes' methodically pitiless destruction of the pacifist, foolishly unarmed, anti-gun and thus utterly defenseless faction of the Counterculture's self-proclaimed eco-agrarian revolutionaries. That in turn was the basis of the lit-mag composite I wrote in 2010, the rejection of which merely confirms the extent to which the once-educationally revolutionary impulses of my alma mater have since been utterly suppressed by the forces of national nazification. I therefore hope what follows will fulfill the imperative so often implicit in my discoveries.
III. A House Filled with Pain
WERE I TO CHOOSE the one detail that convinced me to explore and photograph the abandoned farmhouse and its tragedy-haunted environs, I would have to say it was the structure's doorway – its gaping darkness a rectilinear equivalent of Edvard Munch's Scream.
For years I felt drawn to the old place – I drove past it whenever I went north or south on the two-lane blacktop of the state highway, but it was a good 75 yards up a steep slope away from the road, and for most of the decade I resisted its summons. Now though, southbound in mid-July of 1978, I saw how little time it had left: its cedar-shake roof half blown away by last January's blizzard and further deconstructed by April's storms, too many of its rafters already bare, some obviously broken, its walls striving ever more desperately to remain upright, their glass-less windows like eyes emptied by disaster – a perfect tableau of terminal urgency, as if before yielding to entropy the late Victorian structure demanded one last witness to its endurance.
I saw too that since I had driven past it two years before -- that is, since the last time Interstate 5 traffic was so unnervingly congested I chose to journey to or from Bellingham via the relative tranquility of back roads -- someone had built a one-room cedar-shake cabin on the far side of the yellow dirt road that seemed to promise access to both structures, its passage maybe 35 yards to the immediate north of the long-abandoned dwelling. Ascertaining the emptiness of the highway behind me, I braked, reversed and turned my red Honda Civic off the blacktop onto a roughly eroded, obviously mostly jeep-traveled two-rut climb into the wooded hills beyond. I downshifted to first gear for the ascent; noted by the cabin's open-door condition it too had been abandoned; turned left into the adjacent and rapidly fading trace of the house's driveway, drove no more than five yards before my passage was blocked by an outburst of blackberry brambles and exclamations of brash young alder; parked; dismounted; performed a just-in-case confirmation of the loaded-chamber condition of the .45-caliber M1911 Colt Government Model I legally carried concealed in a belt holster beneath my forest-green bush jacket; shrugged into a worn and faded World-War-II-surplus musette bag containing camera and tape recorder; cautiously and with upraised arms navigated another 25 or 30 yards through an overgrown plot that had obviously once been a substantial garden but was now a chest-high jungle of stinging nettle, thistles, the emphatic thorns of still more blackberries and of some aggressively ankle-grabbing species of vine I had not previously encountered.
Soon standing in the weedy clearing that contained the ruin of the house itself, I saw now that its entire front porch had collapsed, that the rest of its structure was in far worse condition than I had seen from the highway. Long without paint, much of its exposed wood had weathered bone gray. Its gaping, hollowed-out combination of door and windows suddenly reminded me of bleached skulls at backwoods crime scenes and left me wondering what dreadful memories it might contain. Reflecting on the skull image and the botanical obstructions provided by the thorns and nettles, I briefly wondered if this was the sort of place that preferred to retain its secrets undisclosed and was thus better left unexplored.
But I am journalist enough -- and agnostic enough -- to set aside such apprehensions, as indeed I did. Wary of the fallen porch's many protrusions of tetanus-rusty nails, I carefully stepped up over its rubble and through the doorway onto the erratically slumping remnants of the floor within. There I paused, fearing the planking might collapse even beneath the relative slenderness that was mine at age 38. To my left, most of the flooring in what had obviously been the living room was already gone, rotted, fallen into the crawl-space below; from between its ominously sagging joists the fungus-blackened corpse of a sofa protruded diagonally like a horror-movie creature climbing out of a grave, its leather upholstery reduced to shreds of putrescence. To my right, the floor seemed intact, sturdy enough to support a huge rain-sodden mound of litter so diverse it suggested the malicious dumping of all the household's possessions in a single heap, perhaps as the prelude to a somehow-thwarted plan for arson. The pile was waist-high; it filled nearly half of what had obviously been the dining room and seemed to beg for investigation.
Thus curiosity once again overcame reluctance; I tested the surviving floor-boards by pressing them with my feet, carefully stepped further inside and began to mentally catalogue what I saw: a shattered Buddha, a cast-off sandal, a faded black silken slip with an East Coast label, other garments that suggested the place had housed at least two women and two men, a sodden, moldering pile of books obviously hurled from adjacent shelves – The Whole Earth Catalog shredded dead center by a close-range shotgun blast, Kahlil Gibran ripped apart at the spine – contents that quickly identified the place as the former commune I had always assumed it to have been. Its walls were violently axe-marked, the windows likewise, their panes reduced to tooth-like shards in broken frames, the magnitude of rage that had fueled its destruction undeniable. The kitchen had been similarly trashed, its floor intact but its plumbing sledge-hammered into uselessness. I had never seen a dwelling that had been so hatefully wrecked, its devastation all the more grotesque in the happy-face afternoon sunlight shining through the remnants of its roof, a fury yet so residually frightful I felt a momentary surge of relief I was armed and a lingering sense of gratitude I could find no evidence there had been children amongst the victims of such undeniable terrorism.
For most of the next two hours I explored the ruined house and grounds; at some point I fetched my 35mm-Summicron-lensed M2 Leica from my shoulder bag and began recording the heart-wrenching evidence on Tri-X I would push to 800 ASA; I shot one 36-exposure roll of film, what in those days we called "a heavy take." And heavy it was, in every sense of the word; though I had a half-dozen more rolls of film in my canvas shoulder-bag, one was not just all I needed to document what had happened here; it was also all I could emotionally bear to shoot.
Then I was done; I departed through the back doorway that led outside from the kitchen, climbed further up the forested hillside to bypass the obstructive botany of the former garden and descended to cross the road and explore the tiny cabin. It was barely big enough to serve as a one-person bedroom. Its cedar-shake walls were yet new enough to yield a faint trace of their original perfume, but its contents -- a scattered stack of newspapers -- told me nothing about its builder or its occupant. The newspapers' dates indicated the place had not been occupied since mid-1977. I wondered if perhaps one of the ousted communards had sought to reclaim the land.
Back in my automobile I groped my cassette recorder from a separate pocket I had sewed inside the musette bag's sturdy government-issue canvas, ascertained the recorder's electronic readiness, switched it on, placed it on the Honda's passenger seat and -- as I resumed my drive south toward a blessedly lake-fronted dwelling near Seattle I would soon exit in the sad aftermath of a relationship destroyed not by incompatibility or spite but by the clash between my own scoop-the-world reportorial ferocity and my lover's equally fierce commitment to the feminist notion only women should be allowed to expose the misogynistic atrocities of Christian theocrats -- I began speaking unabashedly into its auxiliary microphone, preserving without shame or any other self-censorship my impressions of what I had documented on film and what I felt the ruin and the contents of its rubble-heap were telling me, a process that twice prompted floods of tears so dangerously blinding they forced me off the road to wait for my eyes to clear.
That night in my temporary dwelling I carefully stashed the tape in the filing cabinet that contained two drawers of research and the first but unintentionally final draft of a proposed Fairhaven College senior thesis I had written two years earlier -- a work ostensibly rejected in retaliation for my allegedly ignorant assertion the era's rock-festivals and be-ins should be viewed as rudimentary rituals -- but more likely because I had not realized the feminist members of my concentration committee felt I was trespassing in a realm that should be reserved for women. My ex-lover felt the same way about my latest scoop -- an investigative report that had ended a local Christian hospital's decades of bigoted, women-get-what-they-deserve misogyny self-righteously inflicted as zero-tolerance refusal to treat rape victims in its emergency room. Even if a victim were dying of injuries, the hospital's Christian fanaticism demanded she (or he) be sent someplace else -- and the nearest elsewhere was a potentially fatal 20 miles away. Thanks to excellent sources in the police and ambulance services, I had exposed the hospital's theocratic malevolence via a story banner-headlined across the top of Page One; within a day, the resultant public outrage forced the hospital to reverse its policy and secure rape-treatment training for its emergency-room doctors and nurses, bringing to a triumphant conclusion a hitherto-hopeless battle a feminist group led by my former lover had been fighting for at least five years. But for her and her fellow gender-warriors, the fact I was male rather than female turned victory to defeat; the astounding vindictiveness of their anger included the retaliatory termination of our relationship. Such was my eye-opening encounter with the identity politics by which our capitalist masters ensure the perpetual disunity of the 99.9 Percent -- and which, given the psycho-anthropological accuracy of my definitions of Woodstock and its related events as ritual, in all probability revealed the real reason my thesis was rejected. All of this -- facts, hypotheses, impressions, emotions -- would eventually coalesce into the final text of "Dancer."
IV. Sorting the Debris
THE SOCIOECONOMIC RESEARCH that became part of the contextual footings of "Dancer" had already taught me how many of our nation's abandoned farms and rural dwellings had been confiscated by local governments for accumulated unpaid taxes dating back to the Crash of 1929 or even to the fatalities of the First World War; given the stable, relatively inflation-free dollars that existed before Nixon destroyed U.S. currency by severing it from the guaranteed worth of its gold standard and thus reducing it to the implicitly inflationary fiat-money by which we of the 99.9 Percent have since been socioeconomically subjugated, these properties could often be bought for mere down-payments on the tax debt, which made them attractively easy purchases for money-pooling collectives of otherwise-relatively impoverished young adults. Abandoned buildings in many cities and towns, including the gold-rush-era structures that became countercultural enterprises and a Back-to-the-Land community center in Bellingham's Fairhaven District, were similarly obtained.
On the formerly abandoned farms so purchased, the communards often built A-frame cabins to live in while they resurrected the land's long-fallow agricultural capabilities and restored abandonment-damaged but traditionally built and therefore structurally sound houses into their communal halls, often transforming them into compellingly bright and comfortingly airy spaces for meeting space, kitchens, dining rooms, libraries and offices -- each project an assertion of their healthiest dreams and aspirations. From the litter I found in the hate-savaged interior of the state-highway place, I cannot doubt this was the purpose of those who were ousted from it. But the vigilantes reduced it all to desolation, and so it had remained, every year slumping further into midden.
The relics in the isolated ruin I discovered while searching Cascade Mountain foothills for archeological anomalies in 1977 likewise revealed a former commune the violent denouement of which was indicated by the bones that shone palely in the obviously polluted waters of its antique well; killing communards' ubiquitous goats and chickens, then weaponizing the corpses to poison their wells was a favorite vigilante tactic
Maybe in 1975 -- I am no longer certain of the year, and the fire-loss makes it impossible to confirm -- I drove to a place colloquially known as "Hippie Hydro," where enterprising communards had dammed a creek and installed a water-powered dynamo to generate their own electricity, creating a notably troutly pond some eight or ten feet deep. A few friends and I had standing permission to (easily) catch that era's six-fish limit from the pond and afterwards feast accordingly, just as I intended doing on this particular day. But, as I would soon discover to my astonishment and dismay, the pond had vanished; now as if in lamentation the creek gurgled somberly between the steeply barren banks of its former depths, and the adjacent house, though intact, was abandoned. The dam, I soon learned, had been dynamited by vigilantes, and its communal foursome had retreated back east to the more familiar oppressions they had sought to flee.
Urban communes and many related countercultural enterprises often suffered similar fates, inflicted not by vigilantes per se, but by vigilante-minded cops or so-called "developers" who often inexplicably acquired impossibly huge sums of money sufficient to enable their seizure of tax-indebted properties by paying the full balances owed and thus nullifying the time-payment agreements Counterculture folks had negotiated with the taxation authorities. This is how the countercultural enterprises of Bellingham's Fairhaven District were destroyed; a Bellingham police officer memorably informed me in 1972 much of this money came from "secret" sources.
Given the combination of my Marxian politics, my professional background and my recognition of the revolutionary implications of the resurrection of the Great Goddess implicit in countercultural aesthetics, I was never surprised by the ubiquity of anti-Counterculture atrocities. In 1969, near the end of my two-year tenure as news editor of the Morristown, N.J., Daily Record, I supervised the coverage of the irreparable destruction inflicted by local police to make a Victorian-era mansion occupied by an emphatically drug-free housing collective permanently uninhabitable. During my first years as the founding photographer of The Seattle Sun, 1974 and 1975, star reporter Bruce Olson and I twice visited abandoned single-family Victorian-era houses that had housed urban communes shut down by mass arrests and vandalized by police to ruins fit only for demolition. Bruce and I also wondered if the perpetrators of such destruction had been bribed to do so by developers who wanted the properties as sites for more profitable housing, though neither of us ever unearthed any evidence of such scheming.
Less obvious forces also plagued the communards. The Oyster Creek Commune south of Bellingham thrived on its commercial oyster-harvest until 1981 but was bankrupted by an unprecedented outbreak of red tide, an environmental affliction to which the Sailish Sea had hitherto been immune and which some folks thus suspected may have been environmental warfare. Other communes, including the one in which I was a guest-participant, were rent asunder by early manifestations of the carefully conditioned, self-obsessed egotism I would in 1972 label "terminal communitis" -- typically the irreparable divisions fostered by the bottomless contempt with which the class-traitors who cling to petite-bourgeois moral imbecility view those of us -- often Marxians -- who properly acknowledge membership in the 99.9 Percent is also membership in the working class. In its present-day, methodically intensified identity-politics form, I would watch the same conflict repeatedly undermine the potential solidarity of the Occupy Movement. But just as there is no doubting the magnitude of the brute-force and secret-police campaigns the ruling class unleashed against Occupy, neither is there any doubt the vigilantism that destroyed so many avowedly pacifist Back-to-the-Land communes was part of a much broader national assault against the entire Counterculture. See again the above link (in Section II) to Mae Brussell's disclosures about the aesthetic and spiritual warfare implicit in Operation CHAOS; note also the more conventionally focused COINTELPRO (caps as in original). And for a potential shocker, contemplate in the context of Richard Belzer's disclosures in Hit List the number of feminist activists who have been slain by cancer.
Since we are now briefly venturing into realms typically tabooed as outré, I should mention the Vigilante War was not without its psychic after-effects. In 1980, still a member of the working press, I chanced to spend maybe 18 hours at a former commune as the guest of a Tacoma woman, a social-worker friend with whom I shared a 1940 birth-year and an abiding interest in sociology. She had inherited the house, land and attendant outbuildings; they were accessed by a short drive off a graded dirt road just outside the western border of a Washington national forest. The dwelling was a well-maintained 1930s-vintage cottage beside a troutly creek and shaded by a pair of cottonwoods, its good condition all the more surprising given how its communal occupants had been terrorized into permanent departure by local vigilantes on a rainy June night seven years beforehand. My hostess's benefactor was the commune's founder, a close relative -- let's call him Huber -- whom she said had died under mysterious circumstances soon after he announced his intention to press charges against the vigilantes; the woman believed he'd been murdered. She said she had never been a member of the collective but was their guest "almost every weekend" and now as a kind of memorial to their efforts hoped to make the house her vacation refuge. But she was well aware of the vindictive sadism of the white Christian fundamentalists who were the majority of the area's sparse population, and she wanted to be careful not to do anything that would attract more hostility. That's why, she said, she'd never invite more than one or two friends to accompany her to the place. In fact I was the first man she'd ever brought there.
I thought her vacation-refuge plan a good idea, not the least because I enjoyed her company and relished the notion of fishing the creek. During our initial hours in the house, the warm glow of its fireplace and the comforts of its furnishings seemed to welcome us and encourage our already established intimacy, but as night came on, we were each increasingly troubled by an ever-more-intensely eerie ominousness, its consequence one of the most fretfully sleepless nights I've ever experienced, after which she admitted she never dared occupy the place alone because she believed it haunted by Huber's less-than-friendly ghost. But she'd hoped it was just her "over-active" imagination; she'd invited me, she said, not only because of our mutual fondness, but because she knew my agnosticism included sufficient open-mindedness and sensitivity to things unseen I'd let her know if anything was actually psychically amiss. Needless to say, I warned her accordingly, admitting I'd glimpsed the ghostly figure of a child -- a boy maybe age six or seven -- pass through the kitchen when I'd gotten out of our bed to get us a glass of water.
Stunned and tearful, she told me something I could not have known; another of the communards, a divorced man, had a seven-year-old son who'd spent most of July here the year before the vigilantes came. The boy "dearly loved the place," she said; "loved us all; we loved him too." But a couple of years later, she'd heard the boy had died. "I never knew how," she said, explaining his father had moved "someplace back east" and she'd never met the boy's mother, who "lived in one of the big mid-western cities, Minneapolis or maybe Chicago."
"So it's not just haunted by Huber," she concluded. "There's more than one ghost here. That's really what I was afraid of..."
The next morning, before we left to return to Tacoma, the woman showed me the former commune's garden-space; a fenced square maybe 50 feet per side. She said its productivity had been "mind-blowing," its companion-planted beans, corn, pumpkins and squash had yielded three times the anticipated harvest; its tomatoes had remained free of the late blight that so plagues Pacific Northwest gardens; its beets and carrots had resisted both insects and moles. "Tastiest vegetables I ever ate," she said. But now every inch of it had been overwhelmed by nightshade beneath which, half hidden by its foliage, were scattered chunks of jagged-edged white stone. I asked; the woman said the garden's centerpiece had been a concrete pedestal topped by a marble statue of Venus, placed there "because, well...it just felt right." She hesitated, tossed her shoulder-length blonde hair, raised her sky-blue eyes to mine; "actually, it felt protective. Powerfully protective. That's why we danced around it naked to celebrate the harvest" -- yet another commonplace example of the Counterculture's typically spontaneous role in the often-unwitting resurrection of the Goddess and her ancient rituals. But the vigilantes -- "so very glad I was at a conference in California when they attacked," she said -- had sledge-hammered the statue to rubble. For a moment the anguish conveyed by the Venus-fragments seemed almost audible, stifled whimpers, pleas for help silenced by the red-berried toxins of poisonous green vines. I thought again of the violent hatred evident in the destruction of the state-highway abode; such was the fury of patriarchal vengeance, agitated to maximum viciousness by a ruling class educated well enough in its private universities to be terrified by the revolutionary potential of the Goddess's return. Quoth a then-favorite Pacific Northwest bumper-sticker: Goddess Is Coming and She Is Pissed.
V. Once More Locked Out
BY 1987, I WAS essentially hiding in the rural Pacific Northwest; the previous autumn, post-fire depression had encroached to the point it was impossible for me to continue my work in Manhattan as the editor-in-chief of Art Direction, a top-quality magazine that had begun its multi-decade life as advertising's primary international trade-journal, dedicated to the learned exploration of the aesthetics and techniques of visual communication. Despite its history of excellence, it was in danger of drowning in the ever-expanding extermination of print media that is one of the many apocalyptic consequences of the intentionally fatal undertow of capitalism-cum-nazism's methodically imposed ignorance and electronic-media-inflamed self-obsession and moral imbecility. The magazine's owner and publisher had together paid me the supreme compliment of hiring me to attempt its resuscitation, and I had at least been able to re-energize it enough to stop its circulation loss. Meanwhile the metastasizing intellectual and emotional malignancy of the wounds inflicted by the fire -- no doubt precisely as those who commanded the arson intended -- were making it increasingly difficult for me to sustain anything approaching the responsive mindfulness that had originally so impressed both the magazine's principals. Rather than fire me, in October of 1986 they had mercifully abolished my position. Though I did not know it at the time, it would be the finale of my 30-year working-press career. The magazine itself would die in 1993.
Now, surviving on New York State's uniquely non-retributive unemployment compensation, I was living in subsistence-gardening poverty as I sought to somehow patch my faculties back together enough to either turn my successful 1982-83 tenure as engineer/deckhand aboard a 96-foot seiner into another fishing-boat job or -- as I would unsuccessfully attempt two years later -- gain acceptance to a vocational-rehabilitation program I had learned was desperately seeking applicants to train as sonar operators to do salmon-counts and off-season bottom-studies for the state fisheries patrol; apparently most potential applicants were repelled by the job's requirement of two or three weeks per month at sea, a condition by which I would not have been the least bit troubled.
Meanwhile the local economy remained so traumatized by Ronnie-the-Nazi's shock-doctrine Reagonomics, the former annual turnover in the fishing fleet had become nonexistent. And the venomously anti-male, anti-military-veteran bigotry of a feminist-dominated welfare bureaucracy was -- as a state superior court judge would reveal via The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1993 -- methodically excluding substantial numbers of eligible men from many of the government-managed rehab opportunities.
VI. Summoned Through Another Doorway
LeeRoy and I c. 1988; born on the vernal equinox of 1987, in this picture he's a year-and-a-half old. A selfie made with the Olympus RC on a tripod. (Photo by Loren Bliss © 2023)
ON THE 1990 AFTERNOON of what would become my penultimate discovery in the depressing series of violence-savaged communes I chanced to explore between 1969 and 1992 -- eight such places in all -- I was subsistence-hunting grouse with my beloved dog LeeRoy. It was mid September; LeeRoy was three years and six months old. Raising him from puppyhood, I had quickly discovered him to be an irrepressibly intelligent and perceptive creature with a playful sense of humor and so strong an impulse for voluntary helpfulness, he learned by observation to unload groceries, laundry and many other such items from my vehicles. He was a half-Rottweiler/half-Golden retriever boarding-kennel accident; in his prime he weighed a muscular 110 pounds. He looked like a Rottie with an intact tail -- I consider tail-docking a form of sadism -- and somehow as if by seeming telepathy he had taught himself to flush birds and rabbits and fetch their carcasses as reliably as any hunting dog I've ever known.
By then the ruin beside the state highway had vanished, its acreage cleared, graded, re-contoured and seeded with a carefully tended lawn to accommodate an attractively tidy manufactured house. Witnessing its transformation as I had driven past the site on the way back from a trip to Seattle the week previous, it seemed to me the land itself had become forgetful, that perhaps what had happened there was such an accurate microcosm of the apocalypse that now afflicts us all, an event so dreadful, Nature herself had chosen to purge it from memory as quickly as possible, and as she sometimes does -- as she is so obviously doing in tolerating the 6,000-year-old patriarchal revolution and thus fostering capitalism's methodical extermination of our species by its relentless destruction of our habitat -- she enlisted human assistance.
Even so, the fate of that one commune had come to represent for me -- as it yet does and probably always will -- the methodical destruction of an entire generation's solarium of dreams.
And with LeeRoy I soon discovered fate would not allow me to abandon the story; my grouse-quest hauled the Vigilante War back into sharp focus; our search for birds brought us to a scarcely discernible former clearing surrounded by a stand of mixed Big-Leaf maples and Douglas firs on a hilltop that contained a mostly overgrown rectangle of charred and crumbling masonry and heat-cracked stones I would later learn were the fading remnants of a Victorian farm-house that had been a communal dwelling when it was torched by vigilantes in 1968 or 1969.
Its communards -- about whom I could learn nothing (as 20-odd years later, my sources could recall only the scantiest details of the commune's fate) -- were thus probably among the Vigilante War's first Western Washington victims.
The sad remnants of their endeavor were in the middle of a much larger tract of older second-growth mixed deciduous and coniferous forest near the Canadian border. I had driven my yellow 1981 Datsun pickup truck maybe a mile into its woods along one of the region's ubiquitous unpaved logging road and parked where the road ended at an earthen barrier; I had then followed LeeRoy's eager nose-to-the-ground leadership along what I thought was a game trail northward through the roadside underbrush and into the potentially grouse-productive forest beyond. Probably 15 minutes from the road, we emerged from the deeply shaded density of old second-growth timber to discover a surprisingly open-sky area of firs and maples so widely spaced they appeared to have been formally landscaped; by their size they were probably at least a century old. Now I could see what I had assumed to be a deer-and-elk trail was actually the trace of a road so long unused it remained visible only as a slight linear depression through the curiously low-growing underbrush of its surroundings; the only traces of any structure's former presence were the foundation and a small, obviously ancient, grotesquely unkempt orchard, three pear trees and three apple trees crouched over a densely thriving patch of weedy sod on the down-slope beyond the charred masonry and crowded together in a tangled embrace, their horror-show branches begrudgingly displaying a few specimens of prematurely rotten fruit, the area ominously silent and strangely devoid of the tracks and scat that normally evidence the irresistible attractiveness of pears and apples to wildlife of all breeds and sizes.
Suddenly the place felt not just forlorn but somehow malevolently so. My mind brought up repugnant images of the commune's demise that took shape much as D-76 would have retrieved them from photographic paper; I have no idea whether these were products of imagination or an actual reading of the site's history, though I have long suspected many of our so-called hauntings are the non-supernatural product of the environment's yet-unexplored ability to somehow record and spontaneously reveal pivotal events -- witness the more blatant examples of so-called psychic phenomena associated with Gettysburg or British highways built over Roman roads -- in any case a process in which individual belief (or non-belief) is seemingly irrelevant.
Soon the elongation of shadows as the mid-September sun sank toward an adjacent ridge intensified the locale's aura of hostility; I briefly wondered if one of the communards had been murdered there, though I could find no evidence -- and believe me I searched for it -- of slayings committed during any of Western Washington's vigilante raids; there were said to be beatings aplenty, yes, and a few rapes, but no killings. Pondering what in the era's lexicon were called "bad vibes," I noted LeeRoy also seemed to feel the sense of menace, and I had learned in my boyhood never to dismiss canine perceptiveness. Now LeeRoy glared at me; reading the urgency in his eyes -- "nothing for us here but danger, boss; let's move on while we still can" -- I let him lead me back to more welcoming surroundings. We returned to the road, crossed it, found another path or game-trail through the woods, no doubt the trace of yet another long-forgotten route for hauling timber, its margins edged by bracken, blown thistles and pearly everlasting.
We continued our hunt, pausing at a tiny brook, crystal-clear water that bubbled from a nearby spring, murmured soothingly through rounded clusters of moss-greened boulders, pooled briefly in a moss-free circular depression atop a flat gray slab as if to offer passers-by a refreshingly cold drink, then crossed the path in a colorfully pebbled passage scarcely a child's step wide and continued on its boulder-marked way to the river a quarter-mile distant. LeeRoy lapped the water as I mentally immersed myself in the wild beauty of the place. Looking about in the notably golden-hued late-afternoon light, it brought to mind poignant memories from 1970; at that time, an emigrant from regions long ago settled, I had never before witnessed such prophetic autumnal color, so new and yet so eerily familiar, coniferous greens turned stygian by their stunning contrast with the implausibly bright yellow of the Big-Leaf maples, a cautionary vision of the encroaching magnitude of winter darkness, a summer-god's last warning before yielding the land to that vague sense of post-Hallowe'en emptiness that annually declares the inevitable victory of his winter twin. Such was my first autumn in the Pacific Northwest and the conclusion of those blessed months I spent on the commune -- days gardening or fishing or cutting firewood or hunting, evenings conversing with my comrades, with Robert Graves' White Goddess as my bedtime reading and early morning meditation. Now a decade later I was momentarily startled by an eerie sense of having suddenly fallen backwards in time. I remember I glanced to see how LeeRoy was reacting and was profoundly relieved to note his demeanor was unchanged; he had finished his drink, gazed at me as if perplexed I too hadn't drank from the brook, impatiently awaited my signal to resume our quest. Which we did: by the end of legal hunting hours he had flushed two birds and we had scored a two-grouse feast.
VII. Inside a Tiny Sanctuary
THE FOLLOWING SUMMER, driving from Bellingham to my rented cabin near Nooksack on the Sumas River, I passed the more recently abandoned structures of a commune to which my comrades and I had sometimes transported hitch-hiking pairs of women during that oh-so-promising summer of 1970. I knew the place had survived the vigilante war, which prompts the supposition its members were armed, though I have no specific knowledge to confirm that; our conversations with the women were typically exchanges of information about subsistence gardening, places to cut firewood, that sort of thing.
Wondering what its vacant buildings might tell me, I turned my Datsun pick-up truck into its still readily accessible driveway, left LeeRoy behind to guard my truck or alert me to any unanticipated arrivals and proceeded to explore. The main house was locked; there was nothing I could spot through its un-curtained windows save the uncommunicative barrens of empty wallboard walls and equally mute plank floors, and of course I had no intention of breaking and entering.
But a smaller dwelling behind it -- a place I vaguely remembered had been erected by some of the women to whom we had given rides -- remained accessible, and inside were a few indicative items that identified its former occupants as female but offered no clue to the reasons for their departures. One of these items was a white enameled crescent-moon earring made of some metal I could not identify, the sort of Goddess-symbol so many countercultural women had instinctively acquired and worn despite their conscious-mind's unawareness of its ancient significance. Recognizing it as a genuine relic, I plucked it from the floor and pocketed it, cherishing it as a memento of a genuinely blessed time, thinking I would include it in the medicine bag I was contemplating making as a gift to myself, a private celebration of my discovery my mostly Celtic genes are seasoned by a long-ago First Nations ancestor, a maternal foremother who was most likely a Mohawk. I did just that. Today, 32 years later, I am again wearing that same medicine bag, a comforting talisman that sometimes seems to ease this writing.
Though it has no particular relevance to the conclusion of this story, eventually I would discover the property where I found the earring had been sold after a multi-year vacancy, that its structures were being remodeled by an obviously yuppoid man and wife who had no notion of its history or of the women who had dwelt there in harmony eventually interrupted by the hostile forces that assailed us all. Remembering their smiles, their fearlessness in the company of fellow communards, the body language that spoke so clearly of so many female Back to the Landers' characteristic combination of freedom and sense of obligation to our Mother Earth, I wondered what had become of them. For an instant my mind's eye saw them as they had been in 1970, clothed in brightly colored ankle-length homemade dresses reminiscent of far more ancient times and laughing in the heartfelt joy that follows the banishment of patriarchal shame. I wish them well; they and I and everyone like us shared that revolutionary ethos first expressed by Nat King Cole in the 1948 song entitled "Nature Boy," its lyrics written by Eden Ahbenz and decades later performed more fetchingly by Cher, a seemingly secular incantation that assures us "the greatest thing you'll ever learn/ is just to love and be loved in return." Some of us, myself among them, yet hold to it as our species' ultimate truth, wondering with no small degree of awe how a commercial enterprise in a capitalist world dared popularize a message so profound.
VIII. Back to the Land
I WAS AGAIN grouse hunting with LeeRoy when I found what would be the last of the abandoned communes I would discover. As I said, this was in 1992, and the place yielded four telling photographs including the one with which this memoir opens. It was, I remember, an encouragingly sunny, comfortingly cloudless, emphatically azure-sky afternoon in early October when I turned my yellow Datsun southward up an unpaved, sometimes steep but annually graded logging-truck route the era's topographical maps showed bore a name suggestive of suburban development and which climbed deep into the aged second-growth deciduous and coniferous forest on the northern end of one of the more westernmost Cascade mountains. (Though the troubling fact the forest road had been named suggested the region's potential reduction into the environmental toxicity of suburban housing, I write this in the past tense because by '93 it had been gated closed, seemingly permanently, and present day satellite imagery suggests it is no more.) But this was '92, when some of the mountain's northern heights were still being cleared of timber and the road was regularly traveled on workdays by loggers, though we were there on a Saturday or Sunday, when there were no logging trucks to raise choking clouds of yellowish dust from its unpaved surface or crowd me off its single lane as they thundered past, the drivers often blasting their air-horns and jeering, cursing me for daring drive a rationally sized, responsibly fuel-conserving import into a realm presumably reserved for limitless consumption, run-amok xenophobia and triumphant anti-environmentalism. Perhaps two miles beyond the beginning of the road's ascent, it angled abruptly eastward to cross a bridge that spanned the five-foot width of a clear, cold, swift and dependably troutly creek; then the road abruptly turned due south again to continue its climb. Just before the road veered onto the bridge, the deeply rutted remnant of an older, pre-bridge, west-side-of-the-creek version of the same route continued south but abruptly ended within 50 yards, permanently closed where a section of the steep-sided valley's slope had collapsed into an already overgrown barrier.
There I parked and locked the Datsun. The size and shape of the blockage indicated a smallish landslide, a minimally disruptive example of much more ruinous disasters, substantial sections of barren slopes and sometimes entire mountainsides collapsed by the symbiotic combination of the region's sometimes-torrential winter-monsoon rains with the environmental ruin heedlessly inflicted by clear-cutting, crippling highways and railroads for however many days, weeks or months it took to reconstruct them and occasionally obliterating entire communities. The height of the fir and alder saplings that had sprung from the obstruction suggested it was at least a decade old. Beyond the barrier, the old road had closely paralleled the creek for several hundred yards upstream, but now the mixed forest and its encroaching underbrush had shrunk it to a path so overgrown I doubted even a dirt bike could have traveled it. With abundant deer and elk tracks evident in its few remaining bare spots, it seemed well on its way to becoming a mere game trail, a common evolution for the region's abandoned roads, and -- no surprise -- its first maybe 300 hundred yards had proven so dependably productive, we had never explored it further; LeeRoy and I had taken a half-dozen grouse there in September, October and early November of '90 and '91, and this year it had already given us two birds and a rabbit. But in his eagerness, LeeRoy sometimes ignored my repeated reminders to "stay close." Today he'd flushed a grouse out of a path-side blackberry bramble too far ahead of me to shoot, and now -- as if in embarrassment and by way of apology -- his body-language made it clear he intended to find the bird again and this time flush it close enough for me to bag it.
For those unfamiliar with firearms, I should digress a bit to explain that the effective range of a shotgun is determined by a quality called "choke," which controls how much its shot spreads sideways -- how it "patterns" -- in its passage down-range; that's why open-bored shotguns loaded with bird shot are useless much beyond 25 yards. I was 13 years old when my father began teaching me to hunt quail, grouse and pheasant with his traditional side-by-side double, a 12-gauge Fox Model B he'd mail-ordered from Montgomery Wards, which sold this excellent gun under its Western Field house-brand name; its right-hand barrel was choked slightly ("improved cylinder") and its left barrel moderately ("modified"); at 25 yards the right barrel patterned most of its shot into a 30-inch circle, the left into about 20 inches, and I quickly learned not to shoot at any bird flying much beyond that approximate range.
Apart from a 1830s-vintage Hudson's Bay trade-musket I bought for $15 in 1955 and often used during my high-school years simply because a couple of dollars worth of powder and shot would provide me the same season's hunting as $10 or $15 worth of modern ammunition, and a $50 Savage Model 24 over-under combination gun I used in rural Washington when I was an impoverished undergraduate c. 1971-1976 -- it had a modified-choke 20-gauge barrel surmounted by a .22 magnum barrel, the latter especially useful for shooting grouse perched in backwoods trees -- I never carried anything but traditional side-by-side doubles on bird hunts.
Of all the shotguns I would own, the percussion Pedersoli 10-gauge with which I routinely hunted c. 1990-2003 was undoubtedly the most dependably accurate and versatile; charging it with genuine (never replica) black powder, I loaded it with number eight shot to (reliably) bust clay pigeons during wing-shooting practice; with number six shot for (reliably) taking grouse and/or rabbits; and when both deer and small game were in season or news of local bear or cougar emergencies suggested LeeRoy and I might find ourselves on somebody's menu, I loaded the un-choked ("cylinder bore") right barrel with its usual charge of number six, but loaded the slightly choked left barrel (equivalent of modern "improved cylinder") with a 72-caliber, 1.25-ounce lead hollow-base slug cannibalized from modern shotgun ammunition or a .75-caliber, 630-grain patched lead "pumpkin ball"; the former projectile expanded to fit the bore, and paper-target work proved it usefully accurate out to about 75 yards; the latter was less accurate, and I'd not have attempted a shot beyond 50 yards. Though I never took a deer or slew an attacking predator with either load, comparative testing on water-filled one-gallon milk jugs backed by seasoned fir planks indicated the slugs from the Pedersoli were every bit as devastating as comparable projectiles fired from modern guns; the patched round balls were notably more so.
It was the obvious hope of flushing that same grouse again, this time within my shotgun's limited range, that seemingly prompted LeeRoy to urge me much further up the mountain into an area I had not hitherto explored. Following the path another few hundred yards, I discovered the creek had cut itself a trench five or six feet deep, probably its response to the environmental disruption of a clear-cutting maybe a half-century earlier; the path that had evolved from the road-remnant continued in close parallel until it reached the two-foot-diameter trunk of a fallen conifer that conveniently spanned the trench; here, though a depression in the overgrown terrain indicated the abandoned road had proceeded upstream on the west side of the creek, the path itself now zigged eastward across the gully via the log. We followed its route; LeeRoy backed up a few paces for the running start of what became a breathtakingly graceful eight-foot leap; I crossed far more cautiously, balancing apprehensively on the barkless, treacherously slick surface of the log, using my shotgun like a tightrope-walker's balance pole. The path, here so frequently traveled by elk and deer it was suddenly mostly bare earth, then zagged south again, once more paralleling the creek.
Maybe another hundred yards up the mountain the path dwindled to its end amidst a stand of alders on a curious little hillock, a plateau perhaps 50 yards wide and no more than twice that distance long. The creek at this point was in an open meadow maybe 75 yards to the west, flowing through a slight depression in a more serpentine version of the same sort of trench it had eroded for itself parallel the abandoned road, all traces of which had now vanished.
The alders seemed no more than three or four decades old; beneath them was a tiny pond, a near-perfect oval maybe 10 feet long, four feet wide and no more than two feet deep, remarkably clear water with what its outer margins indicated was an always constant level; its depth apparently regulated by its source, as are some spring-fed pools I had known in Appalachia, it had no discernible outflow and was thus oddly well-like. Nor could I see any visible life-forms therein. Its bowl-shaped bottom was coated by the same crop of brown leaves that uniformly carpeted the entire grove, its covering everywhere thick enough to prohibit the growth of any underbrush, obviously several years' undisturbed accumulation of the foliage shed by these alders.
To my surprise I realized I could not dismiss a feeling this place had some unique significance, as if it were trying to tell me something I was yet too dense to comprehend. I repeatedly circled the little pond, wondering what its message might be and how it might appear or if I were merely being a foolish old man. The clear, slightly copper-hued depth of the pond evoked fond memories of how in the vernal months of my East Tennessee school-years, such realms were invariably the trysting-place of frogs, loudly loquacious subspecies that ranged from inch-long spring peepers to 18-inch bullfrogs and sang at truly astonishing volume, their waters soon brimming with gooey tell-tale strings of frog eggs, then with tadpoles we caught and kept in Mason jars as they matured into frogs, which the peepers did in two or three months. I recollect I was vaguely disappointed this tiny body of water held no discernible traces of life at all.
LeeRoy, nose to the ground, moved down the slight slope into the dense underbrush that resumed east of the clearing; obviously he had not forgotten our quest for the grouse he had prematurely flushed beyond the range of my shotgun. And there amidst the brush just a few yards beyond him was the visual surprise of a ruined truck cab that appeared to have been painted in colorful psychedelic anarchy, an exclamatory relic I soon identified as the fully stripped remains of a full-sized 1940s-vintage pickup truck -- a vehicle I vaguely remembered as a driveable restoration proudly shown me by some Back-to-the-Landers in 1970. It was deeply perplexing too; search as I might, I could not find so much as a single trace of any passage to explain its presence. Then I discovered the collapsing A-frame I would soon realize had been deliberately wrecked; beyond it in even more dense underbrush I would find the second A-frame and the evidence it too had been trashed, the pair defined by their contents as the former dwellings of communards. I groped into my shotgun bag for the Olympus RC I had adopted as an always-carry pocket camera; I photographed what I saw, silently cursing myself for having neither cassette recorder nor notebook and pen to preserve my impressions of the place.
LeeRoy watched me, obviously pleased, and when I shot the last of 24 frames and cranked the 35mm film back into its container -- the only film I had that day was the roll within the camera -- he turned about as if to go home, looking over his shoulder as if to ensure I followed.
The truck-cab to which I was led by fate manifest as LeeRoy's quest for a prematurely flushed grouse and what I then saw beyond it; forcing my way through the underbrush I encountered the first of the two vigilante-destroyed A-frames I would discover that sunny fall day in 1992. (Photos by Loren Bliss © 2023)
As we returned to the Datsun, it occurred to me the fact the commune was adjacent to a named road -- that it probably had been accessed by that same road's earlier, landslide-obstructed route (which at the commune-site was merely so overgrown I could find no visible trace of it) -- suggested tracts of land along its length were already the properties of individual owners. As I said earlier, the fact a logging road has been given a name is often the harbinger of suburban development -- which means the communards may well have owned the property from which they were ousted. Whatever; Nature had made her message undeniable: the land does not wish to remember.
WRITING THIS AS I recover all-too-slowly from Covid in the summer of 2023 resurrects poignant recollections of all for which we yearned and all that was so hurtfully stolen from us.
As soon as I can muster up the determination to endure the gravely vexing tedium of typing it into electronic space, I will post here an intra-Dispatches link to the (foolishly) optimistic essay I wrote for Northwest Passage in July 1970. (Yes, "gravely vexing" is an understatement: for me, severely dyslexic, writing on a keyboard is relatively easy, but copying an existing manuscript by typing or longhand is an hour-per-page fight against genetic inferiority that invariably rekindles the conditioned self-loathing imposed by the capitalists' hatred and contempt for any working-class person whose exploit-ability promises less-than-maximum profits -- which, dear readers, is precisely why the moral imbecility at the core of capitalism mandates we be taught from birth to despise disabled persons and culturally less-exploitable exploitable minorities.) Meanwhile, those of you who wish to undertake the chore of searching Western Washington University's public archives can find it here by scrolling to Page 16. By-lined "Aengus L. Forsythe" -- a pseudonym I chose to honor my heartfelt empathy with the protagonist in Yeat's "Song of the Wandering Aengus" (here performed by Judy Collins) -- it is the only (serious) writing in which I protected myself by a nom-de-guerre, which I did because my creation of a fictional, more-dangerous-than-Weatherman, "crypto-radical Seismology Faction" intent on faulting the bedrock of patriarchy was a ploy to aggravate the omnipresent plague of federal secret-police agents into intensifying their already oppressive efforts and maybe thereby accidentally exposing themselves, and I preferred not to invite the reprisal of an alleged "heart attack," being given a lesson in terminal ballistics by some asset-vigilante or "accidentally" drowning while wearing a cement life-jacket.
Recalling the above brings to mind the incident I briefly referenced above in "Breaking it Down." The story as repeatedly told in the Bellingham area c. 1970-71 was a band of vigilantes recruited from fanatically evangelical churches had attacked a commune of a dozen members -- six couples who'd bought substantial acreage deep in the backwoods near the vicinity so named. They had cleared it for a soon-thriving subsistence garden and a raised a communal cabin that included lumber hewn from the trees cut for the garden; the men were said to have all fought in Vietnam as members of the same U.S. Army Special Forces team, and like so many of their fellow veterans, they had returned convinced it was not only the wrong war in the wrong place, but that we were on the wrong side. They were also said to be so disgusted by the atrocities they'd been forced to commit and the additional horrors they'd witnessed, they'd adopted an Amish-like mode of living, rejecting modern equipment and appliances and even weapons, arming themselves with replicas of Civil-War-vintage muzzle-loaders and traditional archery gear instead.
It was the communards' choice of antique armament, or so the story goes, that prompted the vigilantes to assume they'd be easy targets and jeeringly attack them on a July night in 1970. But the response -- the lethal whimper of .58-caliber Minié balls, the splatter of buckshot, the rapidity of fire achievable with percussion revolvers and the flights of broadhead arrows the women arced from behind the dense clouds of white smoke generated by their men's firearms quickly convinced the vigilantes to attempt retreat -- only to discover they'd been trapped in what I've always supposed, assuming the tale were true, was a classic ambush formidably executed with well-known Special Forces skill. Then the smallest of the male communards called out the biggest, burliest vigilante, challenged him to a weaponless, man-to-man fight and gave him an ultimate "ass-whupping," the most merciless non-lethal thrashing of his life.
The next morning, or so it was said, the local sheriff found the vigilantes on a grassy shoulder of a state highway; they'd been stripped naked and roped together neck-to-neck like prisoners of war, their hands bound uncomfortably behind their backs. Their clothing was supposedly nowhere to be found, their nakedness said to be vengeance for the vigilantes' forcible stripping of communards. The stories differed as to whether there were any wounded; most said the communards deliberately shot to frighten not wound or kill, but a couple of the versions claimed some of the vigilantes were wounded but all had been given emergency medical treatment adequate to preserve their lives, a skill in which Special Forces soldiers were in fact trained.
While I was never able to authoritatively confirm the story's details, I've no doubt it is at least partially true, as I know from personal experience the vigilantes had by that year's August adopted a policy of carefully scouting the communes to determine whether we were armed, and if we were, devising methods to test our skills with weapons. Hence the sequence of midnight alerts where I was a guest, our dogs warning of multiple prowlers invading the commune's 33 acres and rousing us to arms. A few days later a stranger showed up at a community-solidarity gathering we were hosting and challenged us to a shooting match the commune's men and women quickly won, my own display of rapid-fire accuracy with a straight-stocked Marlin .30-30 Texas carbine a pivotal part of the victory. Afterwards, with our guns back on their racks and the stranger's .348 Winchester Model 71 returned to the trunk of his grotesquely tail-finned mildew-green 1959 Plymouth sedan, he promised to buy us all a case of beer, then drove away supposedly bound for a local store. Of course he never returned. But neither did the midnight intruders.
Too many other communes -- those that were denied the means of self-defense by pacifism or urban innocence -- were not so fortunate. While the .01 Percenters and their political puppets damned all communes as doorways to communism, I cannot doubt they were particularly terrified by the Back to the Land Movement, for there the resurrection of the Goddess was taking shape within a definitively communal agrarian context, which foretold the eventual coalescence of its seemingly disparate elements into not just the secular eco-socialism already embryonic in the cities, but a genuinely revolutionary eco-socialism rooted in the real-world spirituality of our species' oldest and and most spontaneously enduring religion. And if I, a largely self-educated journalist, could recognize what thus obtained, surely the far-more-officially educated members of the aristocracy could do likewise, especially those who served in the analytical branches of the national secret-police forces, typically advised by Original (N.S.D.A.P.) Nazi war criminals. It is therefore highly probable the Vigilante War was agitated from somewhere on high -- and quite possibly commanded from the same level. The jargon of the anti-commune vigilantes identified them as fanatical Christian fundamentalists, their mentality that of the southern "Saturday Night Men's Bible Study Class," aka the Ku Klux Klan, metastasized throughout the nation. And we already know the ruling class, having failed to nazify the nation via the 1933 Bankers' Plot, began in 1938 to co-opt white protestant fundamentalism as its future sturmabteilung. Thus the great likelihood the anti-Back-to-the-Land-Movement decrees I photographed on the reader-board of a Western Washington church originated from the same venomously nazi sources. "God Hate Hippies" was already a national proclamation; "Organic Is Satanic" and "Environmental Means Of The Devil" were merely the next logical iterations in the methodical weaponization of the fundamentalists' lynch-mob hatefulness. And that dreadful ruin I explored in 1978 -- a shattered Buddha, a cast-off sandal, a faded black silken slip with an East Coast label, a sodden, moldering pile of books obviously hurled from adjacent shelves, The Whole Earth Catalog shredded dead center by a close-range shotgun blast, Kahlil Gibran ripped apart at the spine -- is an unforgettable example of its intended outcome. Thus too the destruction of "Dancer" and all its source material, the aforementioned reader-board photos included; the tip of that particular dagger, which will pain my heart until it beats no more, is the undeniable message conveyed by the fact the fire was ignited at the exact moment I was meeting with Cicely Nichols, the book-editor friend who -- believing the manuscript potentially "the most influential work of the 20th Century" -- had pledged to mother it to mainstream publication.
Cicely died of cancer in 2008. Perhaps curiously, though I often photographed her -- she regarded one of those pictures as the best portrait anyone ever made of her -- it is not her I see when I reflect on how the burning of "Dancer" was perhaps the final chapter in the destruction of the Counterculture and the suppression of its genuinely revolutionary significance. It is instead a total stranger, the young white woman whose image emerged in my mental vision as I examined that faded black slip I found in the wreckage of her Back-to-the-Land dream. I do not know whether she is a creation of my imagination or the photographically accurate product of an archiving process and mechanism of communication we have yet to discover. But my brain-cells have borne her portrait since that moment in 1978, and it is always the same: she crouches in midnight darkness on the grassy shoulder of a two-lane blacktop rural road; I see her only in glimpses illuminated by the lights of passing vehicles. She has hooded and cloaked herself with an olive-drab wool army blanket, and she clutches it tightly in desperate hope of concealing the bruised nakedness I somehow know is beneath its itchy comfort. She trembles; her face is Modigliani beautiful, but now it is rouged with dust and streaked with tears; her nose has bled; her upper lip is split; her eyes are like windows emptied by disaster; her mouth gapes like the doorway that summoned me to the corpse of her aspirations; she is the Goddess as addressed by Tim Buckley in “Phantasmagoria in Two,”: “If you tell me of all the pain you've had/ I'll never smile again”; for a dreadful instant I know her anguish as the personification of Edvard Munch's Scream.
And as always, as it has been from the moment I departed that roadside ruin, I hear her cry out to me: “O do not let our love be lost. O please...”
I have hitherto remained silent, and in my silence, her plea has become an albatross about my neck. But now I answer:
"Yes," I say; "yes I will be your witness, yes until this land is healed of its anguish, yes until the time be ours again. Yes. Your witness. Yes."
--LB/28 May 2010 (revised 29 December 2011 and completed 18 August 2023)