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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Heidi Knott Gundling

I met with Heidi at her home on Signal Ridge and after a delicious lunch, for which her husband Henry Gundling joined us, we sat down to chat.

Heidi was born in Los Angeles in 1949, the oldest of three children born to Lorna Duthoit and Harold Knott. The Duthoit’s were originally French Huguenots (the du Toits) who settled in England in the 1600’s. At one point a great, great grandfather was a stockbroker — as was Henry until his retirement. Heidi’s maternal grandfather, who had fought in World War One, was a house painter and general handyman in London. Although he came from a well-to-do family, because he was orphaned at 11 and was dyslexic, he never learned to read and Heidi remembers how happy he was when they got their first television in the sixties. As a young woman, Heidi’s mother worked for the American Services at the end of the Second World War.

Heidi’s paternal grandmother was of the Flower family who in England had founded the famous Flower brewery and also supported the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Their roots go all the way back to the 1100’s. The later Flowers were friends of the early English social reformer, Robert Owen, at a time when ideas about improving the lot of the industrial workers and their children were first circulating and America was the land of hope and promise. With letters of introduction to Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, George Flower, Heidi’s great, great, great grandfather, immigrated to the U.S. in 1822. He founded a new town called Albion in southern Illinois where he attempted to put into practice many of these early socialist ideas. His father Richard followed and they were both actively involved in trying to establish a just community model for the common people.

On her paternal grandfather’s side, the Knotts were also an English family of Huguenot descent. The family emigrated (voluntarily) to Australia in the later part of the 19th century. Her grandfather came to the US, attended Harvard University and later became a Protestant minister and professor of Greek and Latin. He met his wife in the Midwest, but they returned to Australia, where Heidi’s father was born in 1916. The family returned to the States in the 1920’s, settling initially in Oregon and then southern California. “During World War 2, my father worked in England in the Quarter Master department for the American services, supplying the American forces. He met my mother there and they were married in 1947, returning to the States where he worked as an accountant/auditor for the State of California. While is Europe they spent time in France and became friends with the Veuve-Cliquot champagne-producing family. My dad fondly remembered the times he would trade them a tennis ball from his army supplies in exchange for a bottle of champagne.”

When Heidi was just a couple of years old, her father decided he wanted a change of environment and took a job with Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, in Saudi Arabia. They lived in a town situated next to the very first oil producing well, in Dhahran. “The company constructed a whole town for 3000 American employees. My father went out there and my mother followed a year later with me. My brother Barry and sister Stephanie were born there in 1952 and 1956 respectively. The American community was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and we had to sign in and out every time we left the ‘compound’. In the early days we lived in a portable house but the money was very good and my father had three months paid vacation off every two years along with two weeks off every other year. My father had always wanted to see new places and experience new things. He wanted to be part of the post-war movement of building America for the new age; my mother was fine with going there too — she was happy to be away from her mother-in-law’s religiosity... Within this community there was a movie theater, restaurants, a golf course, sports fields, tennis courts, bowling alley, and a great swimming pool. I pretty much grew up in that. There was also a corral with horses and my love for them began during this period. I got my first horse at thirteen — of course an Arabian. Those horses would come in hungry off the desert and after good care and many hours of ardent brushing by adoring teenage girls like me, they would develop into these beautiful animals.”

Heidi was at school almost exclusively with American kids although there were a few Palestinian children there also from highly educated refugee families. So the Arab-Israeli conflict is one she has always been close to. The Knotts, however, enjoyed a semi-colonial lifestyle with servants for various jobs such as for cooking, cleaning, ironing, and gardening. Heidi’s parents threw and attended many parties and played a great deal of tennis and bridge. “We would take our long vacation to visit the families in both the U.S. and England, but primarily the five of us would tour the world and travel by ocean cruise when possible. I was in Saudi Arabia from the age of two through 9th grade, and then at sixteen there was no school in the ‘camp’ for children my age, so I was sent to England as my grandparents lived near London and I attended the very upper class Harrogate Ladies College. This was a boarding school in Yorkshire in the north of the country where I was the only American student and where I spent the next three years apart from three weeks at Christmas and a couple of months each summer. It was not my favorite place. It was freezing outside and cold inside. Following my American-based schooling in Arabia I found that I was ahead in some subjects but way behind in others. I passed my ‘O’ level exams in seven different subjects after my first year and then studied English Literature, French and General Studies for my last two years before finally heading back to the States. In the fall of 1967 I enrolled as a history major at Duke University in North Carolina.”

Heidi had not lived in this country since she was two years old and had come from a very strict girls’ school in England. She was now in the ‘South’ which gave her a culture shock of one sort — the KKK was a string presence there at that time and racist issues were a constant part of her life, and yet she was also in a relatively relaxed social environment at school — meaning she had a wild time dating way too much which did not exactly boost her grades. “I guess I was ‘exotic’ in some way. I had lived in Arabia and England virtually my whole life and had an unusual accent. It was a period of great social unrest and protest against the Vietnam War. The men I knew at college were anxious about their lottery numbers and being drafted. I attended a number of protest demonstrations, including the huge one in Washington DC in November 1969. That put me on the FBI’s ‘list’ of suspicious persons — along with eight million others — 5% of the US population at the time!”

Meanwhile, Heidi had visited Arabia to see her family in the summer break and on one of these visits she had become friendly with a young German who had found work as a riding instructor at the camp — Willi Gladitz. I was a hotshot young rider and we met at the horse farm in the summer of 1968 and were soon in love. I returned to school for a time but after another year or so, two and a half through Duke, I took a leave of absence for what was originally for six months in 1970. I joined Willi in West-Berlin, where he was living and soon attended the German Film and Television Academy. I took classes at the Free University to learn German. West-Berlin was consumed by the student uprising at that time and I was fascinated by what was going on. When I was accepted for study at the Film Academy in 1971, I said good-bye to Duke and started on my film career. Soon afterwards Willi and I started to make films together.”

After the film academy, Heidi and Willi started an independent film company and began to make documentary films concerned with social development issues. One of their early documentaries led to a famous boycott of Nestle Foods and their products after they exposed the company’s efforts to get poor Third World women to abandon breast feeding in favor of the company’s ‘milk formula.’ These poor, uneducated women mixed the milk powder with unsterilized water — the only kind most of them had to make milk for their babies. “The film was called ‘Bottle Babies’ — a very powerful film in which shocking images of murky water holes, expensive and consequently diluted formula were linked together with sick and emaciated babies on IV lines. That film led to some African countries changing their laws on this issue. We were bowled over by the effect that a movie could have and for many years after, following the distribution of the documentary in the States and around the world, we received revenues from this film that helped us continue our filmmaking. It was the first time that a small group of activists and filmmakers dealt such a massive blow to a huge company in this way. The World Health Organization took up the issue and put pressure on Nestle and other ‘formula’ companies to rein in their marketing practices aimed at poor, unsuspecting women who really did not need this product at all.”

Over the next few years, Heidi and Willi, who as a filmmaker went by the name Peter Krieg, made several films on health issues in developing countries, including one for the World Health Organization on the barefoot doctor health system filmed in Mozambique, another one on a similar project in Guatemala, documentaries about India’s ‘Untouchables’ at the lowest level of society, and another one exposing the plight of children in India, once they are ‘fostered’ by well-meaning people in the West. One film entitled ‘September Wheat’ about the causes of world hunger won Germany’s highest film and television awards. However, as is the case with many documentary filmmakers, it was always a struggle financially to make ends meet.

In 1980, when they were living in Freiburg on the edge of the Black Forest, daughter Nicola was born and Heidi stepped into the background while Willi became quite well known in Germany as he continued producing films and winning awards. “He used the name ‘Krieg’ as this means ‘war’ in German and he felt he was ‘waging a war’ against the establishment. When Nicola was four and a bit, in 1985, her father left us and went off with another woman. We had been together for seventeen years and it was a very hard time for me. I picked up various jobs translating, some television film work, and continued to work on the distribution of the films Willi and I had made. In 1990 I became the Director of the Ecomedia Institute that ran an International Environmental Film Festival every year. Then, this was the first festival of its kind and it really grew out of a hunger in Germany for more knowledge about environmental issues. The anti-nuke movement had started near Freiburg and we were all involved in supporting that. That was the beginning of the green movement in Germany and it was a logical step for us to start an environmental film festival in its wake, an idea whose time had certainly come.”

As well as the main festival, Heidi also organized mini-festivals in other cities around Germany, and particularly after the Wall fell, in what had been formerly East Germany. “After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 there was a society in the East that had been starved for years and years of the kind of information that an environmental film festival could provide. We also tried to bring together the filmmakers and television people through the festival, to make it a networking event linking people with a view to further environmental filmmaking. I worked very hard for eight years at the Institute, raising Nicola at the same time. With European Union support we got the best films translated into Russian and then shown in the former Soviet Republics as well. We also produced several issues of a catalogue of environmental films for schools and colleges, but by 1997 I was absolutely burned out and with new media coming in and technology changing rapidly, I left the Institute in January 1998.”

There had been talk of Heidi being involved in a Chinese Environmental Film Festival and she had flown to Beijing and met officials at the German Embassy there. At that time, however, the German government was moving from Bonn to Berlin and changing from Conservative to Social Democrat so the China project was delayed for some time. She did set a number of wheels in motion and a festival later took place, although she had left the Institute by then. She had wanted to go back to filmmaking, Nicola was eighteen and she would finally have time.

Heidi returned to the States for Christmas 1998 and stayed with family in California. She knew about the destruction of old growth Redwoods in northern California, of which less than 5% were left, and of the protester Julia Butterfly who was drawing attention against this travesty by living at the top of an occupied tree. “I thought I’d research this and make a film for German television while getting to stay in the States, which, I had decided, was where I wanted to be. I felt there was no future for me in Germany anymore. I had been there for 30 years and wanted to get my foot in the door back here.” Heidi had only ever lived here for about five years in total and she was now 50.

“I had made some inquiries about the environmental movement in this area and had been fascinated with forests for many years, having studied and filmed them in Germany and other places in the world — fascinated, perhaps, because I had grown up in a desert. I had been given the number of a certain Henry Gundling who lived part-time here in Anderson Valley and was well informed about this topic. I called him and he said, ‘Come on up, dear, and I’ll take you out to lunch.’ He was recently widowed as it turned out and I could tell he was in deep grief. However, we met in Napa where he was living mainly at the time and he took a shine to me. He was a very respectable man and I accepted his offer to stay the night in the guest room. The next morning he said ‘Come up to my place on Signal Ridge in Anderson Valley and I’ll show you some big redwoods’ — now that’s a corny but funny line... I fell for it and made the visit. It snowed that night so I decided that continuing on to see Julia Butterfly in Humboldt was not wise in such weather with my rental car, and I ended up having a very nice time with Henry. Afterwards I went to San Diego where I was helping to take care of my sick mother but Henry and I continued to exchange phone calls.

Heidi returned to Germany and traveled on to Southeast Asia with the Goethe Institute, the German cultural organization, accompanying an environmental film package. “I came back to northern California in the March of 1999 for two weeks and sometime later Henry asked me to marry him. I couldn’t agree thinking his adult kids would never understand. However, in the August I packed up our house in Germany and Nicola and I moved over to the States permanently. Nicola enrolled at Foothill College in Los Altos south of San Francisco — it was a great place for her as it turned out and she got amazing support from her teachers — here they seem infinitely more interested in their students than in Germany. Henry was persistent and I felt that I had come home at last. We were married in October 1999. He had retired as a stockbroker — a Senior Vice President at Paine Weber — sold his house in Napa, and we moved here to the Valley. It has worked — the Radical and the Republican!”

When she first moved to the Valley, Heidi volunteered to teach English at the AV Adult School and soon returned to her filmmaking vocation. She directed the video to save Big River on the Mendocino Coast where the riverbanks were slated to be massively logged. That film was used to help raise money to buy seven thousand acres along the estuary from the timber company. Her next movie was made with local filmmaker Lee Serrie called the ‘The End of Silence’ about methamphetamine abuse featuring high school students talking about the drug to their peers. This film is now being shown in twenty-two states and counting. Heidi’s third film was also a cooperation with Lee Serrie called ‘Sharing Secrets of Salsa,’ a film about local Hispanic women coming together to improve their English at the AV Adult School, meeting other members of the community, sharing their salsa recipes and how they produced a great cookbook, the success of which has greatly raised everyone’s self-esteem. This film has also been very successful, was shown on TV several times and has won awards at notable film festivals. In collaboration with Mitch Mendosa, the film class teacher at the high school and who had collaborated on the methamphetamine and salsa films, Heidi’s fourth documentary was about teenage pregnancy entitled ‘Mommy, Daddy, Wait for Me’, a movie which discusses teen parenting issues again from the perspective of the teens themselves and is being used widely as a prevention tool.

Heidi was a board member of the Community Foundation of Mendocino County for three years and served a stint on the county museum advisory board, but her primary involvement in social issues has been her work with the Redwood Forest Foundation. “I have made some films for them and we were able to raise funds to buy fifty thousand acres of the badly depleted Usal Redwood Forest in the northwest corner of the county. We have been managing it ever since as we try to create a forest that will serve the community in terms of jobs, recreation, and to keep it as a local sustainable forest that will never be sub-divided. For the past 3 years our efforts have been spent on streambed restoration, roads decommissioning and improvement, tan oak control, constructing fire breaks, and redwood and fir stand improvements. It has been difficult but we are trying to make this model work despite the Mendocino Redwood Company undermining our efforts with their raw politicking. They can’t leave us alone although they own nearly half-a-million acres in Mendocino and Humboldt counties!”

Heidi relaxes by taking yoga classes with Kira Brennan here in the Valley, for three years she has been and still is a member of the AV Film Festival Committee and was involved with the AV Arts. “Henry has had a number of medical issues and my mother who is eighty-five and lives in Little River on the Coast also needs some help, so I’ve cut back on some of my activities. I still have two horses, two dogs and a cat to look after besides the property. Occasionally I take on German to English translation jobs for books and websites as for now my filmmaking is on hold.”

‘I love the landscape and small-town atmosphere of Anderson Valley. It is so nice to know people by their name when you meet at the store or post office and to take part in some small way in their lives. We are not anonymous people living here. I do miss the frank and open discussions on controversial issues that are not as common here as they were in other places I have lived, particularly when it comes to local issues that really need to be dealt with. So I both like and dislike the bucolic nature of the Valley.”

I asked Heidi for her brief opinions on some popular Valley subject matters.

The wineries and their impact? “They are a very important part of our economy but their impact on river and ground water has not been good. They also drive the price of real estate properties up so that local children or middle-income newcomers cannot afford to buy here. While I do love the wines that are produced in the Valley, I feel that there are just too many wineries at this point.”

The AVA? “I read part of it every week, mainly the local news and about events or people.”

KZYX radio? “I find their news & current events programs very helpful and also enjoy ‘Fresh Air’ and some of the music. Mostly I listen when I’m driving — not so much at home where I enjoy the quiet. I don’t listen to a lot of radio or watch much television.”

The School System? “Considering where we are in this isolated Valley and given the social make-up of the area, we are doing better than we can expect. I’m friends with several teachers and know how much they put into their job. The school is very lucky to have such excellent teachers — Kathy Borst, Mary O’Brien, Kira Brennan, Kim Campbell, Kathy Cox to name a few.”

I posed a few questions to Heidi.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “My horses.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Fox News channel.”

Sound or noise you love? “Horses whinnying; birds chirping.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Braking logging trucks.”

Favorite food or meal? “A large mixed fresh salad.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Eleanor Roosevelt.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A sharp knife; my flute; and the Encyclopedia Britannica. There I would finally get to read it!”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “Films by Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa — ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Ikiru.’ I love the sense of humanity and tenderness he shows; a book would be ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco — for the history and the suspense; and a song might be one that I sang with the Mendocino Music Festival Choir — Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’.”

Do you subscribe to any publications or newspapers? — “Yes, ‘The Guardian Weekly’ — it keeps me informed on a whole range of issues here and around the world.”

Favorite hobby? “Besides the horses that would be reading and soap stone sculpting.”

Profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A writer of fabulous fiction stories. Perhaps because I have been so close to reporting reality or grant writing for so much of my working life.”

What profession would you not like to do? “Work at a garbage recycling plant.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “When I was 14, to a prom with Steven Bates, a shy, red-haired and freckled sweetheart.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? — “In terms of bigger life decisions I don’t look back with any regrets.”

Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “The exhilaration of holding hands with 100,000 people in a human chain against the stationing of Pershing missiles in Germany.”

What is something that you are really proud of and why? “The film work that I did in Germany and here, hopefully making a difference. I always worked freelance and told the story as best I felt the story could be told. I believe that many touched people’s lives and were helpful to them... And I am very proud of my daughter too.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Apart from the obvious — the birth of my daughter, it would be receiving a blue ribbon in a gymkhana when I was 14.”

Saddest? “The death of my brother in 1980.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “That I can keep my sense of humor even when times are tough.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome back — you learned a lot this time.” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee will be Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.)

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