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Back To Basics

The Fifth Annual Not-So-Simple Living Fair at the Boonville Fairgrounds saw an avid throng of attendees. The event is hugely popular and crucial to a growing and widely diverse demographic of Mendocino County. That demographic has  recognized the looming social,  economic and environmental crises that the entire country — if not the whole wide world — is currently entering facing. Simple Living people fully intend to equip themselves to survive the catastrophes.

To be sure, the Not-So-Simple Living Fair’s inception can be traced back to the county’s graying Back-To-The-Basics wave of hippies from the 1970s; it’s their baby, and it’s growing up to be as healthy and robust as organic food and environmentally conscious lifestyles could hope to promise. While mainstream Americans cling to the fallacy of economic growth without ending, the Back to the Landers have pursued survival strategies.

The Not So Simple Living Fair is not a fair in the usual sense of the term — which is to say, a carnival of consumerism, gorging on paper troughs of everything from greasy french-fries slathered in ketchup to deep-fried candy bars. No, it was not that kind of fair, but rather a weekend of classes and demonstrations on how to live like a real human being, in the hopes, according to the impressive woman who made the introductory speech, that those attending the classes could go forth and teach others.

It was more like a science fair, although the science sometimes strayed from the practical into the social sciences (such as anthropology and psychology) and on into the philosophical and, even, the astrological.

There's nothing abstract about the drought, and there were many classes on how to cope with it.

The Dry Orchard Concept. was taught by Patrick Schafer. It began with some botanical explanation on the way a plant breathes, introducing the term stomata, a pore-like orifice on the underside of the leaf, which the plant closes to preserve evaporation in situations where water becomes scarce. It is a survival mechanism, and can be detected by a subsequent wilting of the leaves. It happens when the sun is particularly fierce, and water is in short supply; and also when the wind — which is notoriously dehydrating — reaches about 10 knots [12 mph]. At this point, photosynthesis stops, and will remain suspended until the plant finds more water. If water is not soon found by the roots, the plant will next start dropping leaves. Weaker plants will eventually die in these circumstances, but hardier ones, those called “drought resistant” will survive  extreme conditions.

Mr. Schafer then noted several local drought-resistant fruit trees, chief among them the common Myrohalan plum, so hardy it has become widespread locally, often planted by bird droppings. The Lovell peach was another he named. Seedlings of these types come with a hardy rootstock, and seek water at lower depths of three to four feet. But, he said, the root will go to where the water is whether deep or shallow. As for other fruit trees, “the best thing you can do is use mulch,” which is to say chopped up vegetation, to cover the base of the plant and inhibit evaporation.

This reporter has looked on aghast as brush thinners have cut down these sometimes called “wild plums,” thinking you may yet regret that!

You shouldn't prune too much in drought conditions, but rather leave a shady canopy; and of course the best mulch may be made of pruned branches, chopped up and left at the base of the tree. Then, a judicious thinning of the fruit comes into play. You are going to get less fruit in a drought, so thin out those questionable specimens and let the available water go to a few choice ones.

“What you lose in a drought,” Schafer said, “is time and size. Of course size sells, but is it always the best tasting? It takes longer to realize a crop of fruit in a drought and,” the Greenwood orchardist said, “the old timers used to thin their pears out and wait for the late rains in September and October, not harvesting their pears until December.” These late pears were generally considered more flavorful than the ones that were ready early in wet years, and it seems they would make special holiday gifts, for a few, if not the many.

Shafer returned to mulching, characterizing it as long-term composting, with the added benefit of preserving moisture in the roots. Fertilizing, however, he cautioned against in times of drought. As competent pot pharmas know, nitrogen fertilizers produce an abundance of leaves: in a drought, though, a plant wants fewer leaves; therefore less evaporation — which is why pot plants shed leaf in a drought. He also mentioned the amount of fruit, and said that this was wholly dependent on pollination, had little to do with weather, and reiterated the idea that thinning the fruit out — should a tree be carrying a lot of it in a drought year — was essential.

Now, having thinned the fruit, there will still be a certain amount of loss to birds. This, Schafer said, could be curtailed by putting small paper bags over each fruit, and secured with a common bread bag tie at the top of the stem; sure, it’s labor intensive, but what a bird cannot see, he will not peck at, and hard times call for redoubled measures.

The class lasted an hour and a half, and I’ve only touched on the basics, here, due to limited space. But more info can be had by contacting Mr. Schafer and doing some reading on line or (old-fashioned as it may seem) in books.

One person, during the Q&A session, asked about grapes. Shafer said that wine growers were basically selling water [fruit juice to be made into wine] and that there was nothing to be done, even in drought years, but pour on the water, the more the better.

The gong [school bell] rang out, and I moved on to the next class, leaving the pragmatism of orchards behind and moving into the primitive world of “Re-Wilding: Foraging and Permaculture. This class was taught by Ryan LaPorte, who lives down by Livermore where there is a mineral hot spring supporting “a bunch,” he said, “of really old people who thrive into their 100s on the mineral spring water.”

Re-Wilding is a concept that grew out of a course on Human Ecology, developed and taught in the late 1970s at Southern California’s Claremont College by the late and highly distinguished Paul Shepard. Human Ecology is based on anthropology, psychology, and the way in which the advent of civilization changed primitive cultures into an over-populated swarm of adolescent adults, by removing ancient rites of passage into adulthood with ceremonies, like high school graduation, that effectively truncated the initiate’s ontogeny, and kept them in that go-team!, slogan shouting, glory-hound state we are all so tiresomely familiar with in modern-day monoculture. At the end of his career, Shepard admitted that there was nothing to be done to reverse the damage, that we could never be able to return to being “fully human,” as he termed it. Certain students of Shepard’s defied this wisdom, and created what’s known as Urban Tribalism, or Re-Wilding.

Mr. LaPorte, however, never mentioned Professor Shepard, but rather invoked one of Shepard’s students, a chap who runs an online magazine called Re-Wilding, Daniel Vitalis, and this was the textbook for the class. LaPorte did not credit Shepard (neither does Mr. Vitalis on his website), but he paraphrased the basic premises of Human Ecology fairly accurately: Along with domesticating plants and animals, we essentially domesticated ourselves, as well. In Shepard’s book Thinking Animals, the author shows how we evolved by studying animals in totemic societies — naming our favorite sports teams after fierce animals is a lingering legacy of those days, he argues. But once we domesticated animals, making them basically more infantile, we continued to study and base our behaviours on them. A prime example being chickens. Wild fowl have exceedingly ceremonious courtship rituals, whereas with modern yardbirds, the rooster merely rapes the hens, then crows about his prowess; “Is it any wonder, then, that we have had such a problem with rape, ever since we started keeping chickens?”

Messers LaPorte, Vitalis, and Shepard all agree that the back to the landers didn’t go back far enough; that they got sidetracked and stranded in the barnyard. You could argue further along these same lines that the Landers couldn’t even get past basic feudalism, because to this day in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, the rich kids with money to buy land became the landed gentry and everyone else, despite assertions to the contrary, are nothing more than sharecroppers and migrant field hands. All the local failed communes fell into this old pattern, and I overheard this weekend a few newcomers beseeching local land owners with similar propositions, veiled in the rhetoric of communal living, about how they could move the “community” into “new” directions, given the chance. Like the erstwhile Lords of the Manor, our local gentry heard these entreaties with condescending grace and reserved indulgence.

In short, LaPorte delivered a synopsis of how agrarian cultures wiped out and assimilated hunter-gatherer societies, as civilization spread the world over. He delineated how science, in the form of modern medicine, has become our prevalent religion —doctors as the high priests, nurses as a kind of nuns — and extrapolated this compelling argument into a kind of recruitment into the Neo-Tribalism, or Re-Wilding of his guru, Mr. Vitalis.

To get a sense of the acceptance of diversity at this gathering, remember that a great many farmers were in attendance, and that they [the farmers] did not seem to take these aspersions and accusations of genocide personally.

Now, if that’s not far enough out there for you, space cadets, fasten your seatbelts and get ready for Permaculture: Biodynamic Farming Methods, taught by Daniel Frey, a self-described goatherd from Redwood Valley.

Mr. Frey was a young fellow, in old cutoffs, tee-shirt and bare feet. Pan-like with his long curly hair, and possessed of a childlike nature (reminiscent of LaPort’s contention that we are all adult children due to psychological manipulations, practiced upon us by the “powers that be,” he reminded me of the goatherd in the book Heidi). He began his lecture, which proved to be a short one, by talking about the powers of silica and calcium, mixed with cow manure, in a whirling vortex, when the moon is in Scorpio, then buried in a cow’s horn (it must be a female cow’s horn, because only the female horn has the desired spiral) for the winter, after which it is then dug up and sprayed by the light of the full moon on a certain auspicious midnight, to ensure the success of the crop.

This magical mixture would be futile without having crushed a quartz crystal into a superfine powder, and mixing it in a wine barrel full of purified water. You have to swirl it in a vortex for one hour, then suddenly “crash” the vortex, and spin it the other way for an equal time. The moon has to be in it’s proper phase — which can be learned from an astrological calendar, which Frey used as his text for the class. The cosmic rythums were crucial; otherwise, your lettuce would bolt and your garlic rot. One must also sing this song, which he sang for the class, with many attendees joining in:

“Love the Earth, Love the Sky, Eat a Fire, a Drop of Water, I can feel it in my body, in my spirit and in my soul… (repeat chorus).”

The astrological calendar for 2014 was passed around; to me it seemed little different from the almanac Jonathan Swift satirized in the 1680s.

“Now,” he said in conclusion, “let’s just feel that levity in our soul…”

Nobody was laughing, and this reference to levity was dismaying to me, because my experience with mystics is they take themselves so seriously that they have no sense of humor, especially if it is at their own expense. In fact this whole performance was conducted in the solemnest sense of gravity, from beginning to end.

Biodynamic theory was originated by Rudolph Steiner in 1912, and the resulting Anthophilosical Movement of that era ensued. Permaculture grew out of the work of Bill Mollison and David Holgrem. These schools of thought are attempts at establishing sustainable patterns of living. Both promote a system of ethics that deals with how humans treat the earth. Biodynamics is more structured, requiring inspections and licensing; Permaculture is rather more lax, and wineries, such as Frey Vineyards in Redwood Valley, needs only to spray the quartz crystal mixture from the buried cow horn on their grapes to qualify. That being said, it is a far cry of an improvement from spraying the vines with sulfides, which the other wineries do every night this time of year and, I hasten to add, the very good and reasonably priced wines from Frey Vineyards, are in fact organic.

Frey noted that his material had been exhausted long before the allotted time ran out so he put his arms out and, childlike, mimed an airplane for a bit, humming along with a song drifting across the lawn from another class, an native American hymn. He reminisced about herding goats over landscapes treated with the mixture from the interred cow horn, waxed bemused, seemed lost in his own thoughts, and at last revived. Then he asked if there were any questions.

“What about voles?” someone asked.


“Voles gnawing on my plant roots?”

“The best thing is to just talk to them [the voles], and ask them to go away.” Frey paused a moment then added a qualifier: “I can’t remember if that was specifically for moles or voles, but I think it should work for either.”

A woman in the class said she was amazed by this answer, because she herself had had some ants in her house and asked them to leave and they had! She said she thought she must be going crazy, but that this information [coming from such a vaunted source] reassured her in her sanity.

Next day, I attended the class on gophers, voles and moles. A team of two highly pragmatical gents taught this class, Tim Bray and Larry Sawyer, and they had no question about what worked and what didn’t. To their minds, the only thing that worked with gophers, moles and voles was traps — no, not the humane, catch and release traps — the kind that killed the varmints outright. They were trophy hunters, in a way, and they took no prisoners.

At 10am on Sunday morning the class gathered to inspect some of the trophies, fresh from Mr. Bray’s freezer, including a gopher that may well have qualified for Boone & Crocket [the standard in big game hunting]. Bray said it was the biggest gopher he’d ever trapped, and I suspect he was keeping it frozen until he could find a taxidermist worthy of making it into a full-body mount for his trophy room.

We were assembled right next to Jim Davis’ hunting class, and the Davis boys having gone out hunting the night before, had a freshly bagged pig hanging by its tusks, ready to be field dressed and skinned out. Jim stood by, honing his skinning knife on a whetstone. The pig wasn’t all that much bigger than Mr. Bray’s trophy gopher, to my mind, but I was still a bit sleepy, still nursing my morning cup of coffee.

I especially relished this class because it included an expedition into the wilds of the fairground’s lawns in search of live game. But before the hunt began, we were given frozen specimens of moles and voles to examine — along with the great huge gopher, a native creature, as it turned out, the California pocket gopher. Some of my classmates blanched at receiving the frosty critters into their hands, having just come from the pancake breakfast (which was most fortifying, and wholly organic, by the way).

“Don’t worry about getting any flea bites,” Bray assured the women and children — there were quite a few kids with their moms in this class — “the fleas are long since froze.”

“He’s called a pocket gopher,” Bray explained, “because he has these huge jowls wherein he stores the vegetables from you garden, as he tunnels gleefully along eating up all your potatoes and carrots.”

“The mole,” we were instructed, “has a sweet tooth, and loves carrots and beets. He will tunnel into a prize beet and hollow it completely out; same with a pumpkin: You’ll see a big old pumpkin out in yer veggie patch and imagine it could probably win a prize at the County Fair, but when you go to pick it, it comes up hollow as a balloon.”

One woman, opposed to bloodshed of any kind, asked, “Why can’t you just tell them to go away?”

“Because it doesn’t work,” Bray answered shortly.

“Well, what about putting out signs, no trespassing signs, that sort of thing?” her husband asked.

“That doesn’t work, either.”

“Well, what about chewing gum? I’ve heard from a very reputable veterinarian that they can’t digest chewing gum, and a stick of Juicy Fruit gum will do the trick.”

“Waste your gum if you want to,” Bray replied, “but it don’t work. And even if it did, you have no proof that you actually got rid of the dang thing. No sir, the only thing that works for certain sure, is a trap. Even poison, which moves up the food chain, by the way, is never certain. So, let me be clear, nothing is certain but the trap, the trusty old trap, and in that line I recommend and vouch for the Gopherator trap, designed and patented by a long-time gopher trapper.”

On this note of authoritative finality, we set forth with a great show of bloodthirsty enthusiasm, which was especially evidenced in the boys in our party — there were women, but no girls — so much so, in fact, that many people stopped what they were doing and looked up to ask what kind of adventure we were embarking upon. And when they were answered with “We’re gonna go catch some gophers,” many dropped what they were about and joined up with us.

It was a splendid outing to be sure, the weather being exceptionally fine, and as soon as we arrived on the vast savanna of the fairgrounds camping lawn (the Midway in County Fair season) one of the boys spotted a gopher brazenly popping his head out and going about his business as if we were just a bunch of peace-loving hippies who meant him no harm.

“There’s one right there,” the kid squealed, and sure enough, we all saw it.

“We’ll make short work of him,” Bray said.

With the boys hooting and scampering to the front we all gathered around the hole just in time to see a small movement of dirt plugging the hole.

“Why did he plug up the hole?” a boy asked.

“So the snakes can’t get at him,” Bray explained. “They don’t call ‘em gopher snakes for nothing, kid. Larry, hand me a trowel.”

Mr. Sawyer produced a regular gardener’s hand spade from his kit and handed it over to Mr. Bray, who quickly dug out the plug, then inserted his hand.

“Aren’t you worried about getting bit?” a kid asked (we’d all seen the huge, slightly yellowed and perhaps carious buckteeth of the frozen gopher, and shuddered inwardly at the thought of a gopher bite).

“Not at all,” Bray answered.

“Then you must be wearing the gloves to keep the prey animal form catching your scent,” the man who had earlier proposed the no-trespassing signs suggested.

“Hell’s bells, Bray brayed. “If human scent could drive ‘em off we wouldn’t need traps or any other means of dealing with the nasty little critters. Naw, they don’t fear the human scent.”

Apparently, Bray wore gloves to keep his hands clean, then.

Bray then took up a long-bladed screwdriver and started probing the drought-hardened lawn. Eventually, it fell smoothly under his weight.

“Ahah, there’s the tunnel!”

He flipped the screwdriver aside and grabbed a small D-handled spade, turning up a clump of sod, muttering somewhat to himself, “Crimeny, the Fair Board will definitely bellyache about this!”

“But aren’t they glad that you are getting rid of their gophers?” a woman (who had overheard) suggested. This started a hare, so to speak, and we heard about guys who hire out as professional gopher exterminators, the prices they charge, the ratio of cost per effectiveness, and so on, while Bray continued to despoil the lawnscape with his feverish spadework. Then the discussion was interrupted by another emphatic “Aha!”

“I’ve found a main tunnel — not only that, but a great huge thoroughfare, a T-intersection. Quick, Larry, gimme the Gophenator!”

This slender, stainless steel instrument, the latest in gopher eradication technology was reverently handed over. As Bray set the triggering mechanism, the class took a collective breath, and held it as the trap was laid, very carefully laid, in the tunnel.

“We’ve got him now, rest assured,” Bray said, picking up the tools of his trade and moving on to the next gopher mound. The rest of the trapping party followed. But he’d taken no more than a couple of strides before we heard the trap snap shut.

“Ha! Told ya so,” Bray exulted.

But wait. There would be no snap of metal on metal, if there was a warm mammalian body in the clutches of the trap, would there?

No, of course not. One of the boys, hurrying to catch up had tripped over the exposed portion of the trap and set it off.

C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell. The sun was at its zenith, the mercury touching triple digits, and this gopher trapper, sweating profusely, went back to the redwood grove, my trapping days being done.

There’s much I didn’t cover, and my critics will say the parts I did cover, I covered unfairly. My critics of course made up the greater part of the population in attendance of this event. The people who singled me out for a kind word I could count on one hand and have fingers left over (and I should at this time acknowledge Will Parrish, David Severn, Captain Rainbow, and Farmer John — who filled my sierra cup with a special treat of au jus from the lamb barbecue) and why? This prejudice is merely predicated on my line of work. Journalists are being ill-treated the world over in this day and age — oftentimes jailed, if not killed outright, and even here, in the liberal capital of the Ecotopia, I must move through and among my fellows like a pariah. What will I say? Simply this: Read it in the AVA!

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