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Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Mary Pat Palmer

I met with Mary Pat at her home at the Philo School of Herbal Energetics which she runs in the Christine Woods area between Philo and Navarro. Her two dogs, Bear and his mother Sola, along with Mary Pat, greeted me and after a brief look at the wonderful garden we sat down to talk.

Mary Pat (Patricia) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylva­nia in 1946 the second of three children born to Frank Palmer and Amy Neumann. Mary Pat has an older brother, Frank, born in 1942, and a much younger brother, Johnny, born in 1954. The Palmers are of Eng­lish descent and fought on the side of the British in the War of Independence. Her mother’s side of the family had also been in the States for several generations, hav­ing originally come from Germany. “My paternal grandmother was a rebellious New York City girl who divorced her first husband, my father’s father, and then married a Cherokee Indian. My father went to graduate school at Pitt on the G.I Bill to study psychology. My mother’s family was based in Illinois and her father was a tyrant although her mother was a perfect grandmother. During the Second World War my father, who had served as a Captain under General Patton at one point, worked for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the C.I.A.) and my mother was in the US branch of the British secret services, MI5. They met during this time and were married and soon after my older brother was born.”

The paternal side of the family were originally from Sag Harbor, NY. “One of my earliest memories is from the early 50s when my Uncle Jack ‘the Communist’ was being hounded by the McCarthy communist ‘witch hunts’ and of the fear in our house of us all being accused of communist sympathies. We actually left the country for a time and moved to Ontario. In the end my Dad called Patton to get us back and to sort the situation out. This worked well and we returned without any repercussions.”

When she was five, her father moved the family to California where he was initially stationed at Fort Ord before getting a job in Monterey with the military’s Human Research Organization (HUMRO) as a psy­chologist and they lived in Carmel where Mary Pat went to the Woods School. “Being from the East coast I was seen as a bit of an oddity, in the way I spoke and dressed. I wore long pants under my dresses. unlike the California kids. It didn't take long to fit in though and it was a won­derful place to grow up. Dad was very regimented and wanted the house to be in order and kept very clean, although he was not particularly strict or a stern discipli­narian. However, after a drink he could get very angry and had a lot of rage. We had a neurotic dog named Riley, a Red Setter, who could do no wrong in my Dad’s eyes. We kids were also somewhat unruly and often up to mischief but it came under ‘creative mischief’ to Dad and he didn’t seem to mind too much. Many people in the Carmel Highlands at that time had moved there from Hollywood following McCarthy’s operations — black-listed screenwriters particularly who continued to work and send their scripts in to the studios under ghost writ­ers’ names.”

During that time Mary Pat was molested at rifle point while walking to a friend's house through some woods. “It was not ultimately violent, more of a sexual power thing.” Following 2nd grade they moved a short distance and she entered the River School. “It was near to the ocean and those were some idyllic years when I had some wonderful teachers, particularly one who intro­duced me to Native American culture. My brother and I continued to push limits but we never got into serious trouble, although along with many of the kids in the town we were spoiled brats. From 5th to 8th grade I attended the Sunset School that was very near to our house and I spent most of my leisure time riding my bike and swimming in the Ocean. Around that time I was molested for a second time. this time by the local pet storeowner who also ran the child matinees at the local cinema. god only knows how many kids he traumatized. I didn’t tell my parents about either of these incidents. my father would have killed both and on some level I knew that. My father was brilliant and a very charming man, a horrible womanizer, and very narcissistic, but everyone loved him and he was very different socially than when at home. Mom too was very self-involved but much quieter, withdrawn even- they weren't really pre­sent for us and had many rows, mainly about Dad’s phi­landering in and around the Carmel cocktail hour scene and it’s wife-swapping activities. When I was about 14, she threw him out after an affair with a woman from his work and refused to take him back. He moved in with the woman in Richmond in the Bay Area and joined the fac­ulty at Berkeley and he’d visit us about once a month.”

“Frank and I were encouraged to be independent as my parents thought that was the right way to raise kids. We both did very well at school and had high IQs. Dad had told me from a very young age that I was going to go to UC Berkeley. We were not allowed to read any trash and he read Shakespeare’s Hamlet to me when I was 12. He did however think ‘Mad Magazine’ was OK for us to read. I spent many hours in the Carmel Library and knew the people working there very well. It was a safe place for me and after the molestations I liked being there and also Riley the dog became very important to me as my protector and he slept with me every night. I loved the beach and had many friends. we had a little ‘gang’ called the ‘Keen Teens’ and we’d get together for dancing and swimming. It was both boys and girls but we were all just friends.”

Mary Pat has mixed feelings about her high school years. She enjoyed being on the swim team but she arrived the year after her brother graduated and had something of a reputation after his exploits. She did maintain good grade for a couple of years but then things changed. “I think I got bored and then after my father had left I really cut loose with a boyfriend (Gary) who was nineteen and began drinking too much when hang­ing around with his friends. On my birthday I got as drunk as a skunk and stayed the night with Gary. We were both freaked out and though my parents knew they said nothing. I told my mother we would get married and have seven children. My Mom had remarried and my stepfather and I didn’t get along. Going into my senior year, she told me that if I was going to behave like my father then I would have to live with him and she booted me out. My father had moved to New York to teach with his third wife-to-be, Petie, and I was sent there after spending that summer of 1963 in Sag Harbor. It was devastating — basically I was forced to leave my life.”

It turned out that Mary Pat’s father didn’t really want her around and so he put her in an old people’s hotel in Manhattan. He married into a very wealthy family and was now becoming a famous psychologist. “I was in this hotel with my new stepmother’s sister, Jonnie, who was an alcoholic, and her eight year old daughter. It was very lonely although I did learn to be ‘hip’ and go out exploring Greenwich Village. One day Jonnie caught me drinking and asked if I wanted to end up like her. It really affected me and I stopped pretty much there and then.”

After her senior year at Walden High, a very elite private school attended by the children of New York’s artistic types because her father thought art was her des­tiny, Mary Pat graduated in 1964. “The educational quality at the school was phenomenal and being new and different from the other kids I dove into the liberal arts and academics on offer. I had one real friend, Janice Sokoloff, and we both ace’d our SATs and decided to go to Berkeley. I spent the summer at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, studying welding and clay and then entered UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964.”

This was the time of the Free Speech Movement and Mary Pat became very active in that as she studied Sculpture, English, and History. She had her brother Frank there and also her stepbrother Bill (Petie’s son) and after a short time in the dorm, which she hated, she moved in with them and another friend, Bernie, who was to drop out and become the sound manager for The Grateful Dead. “I became increasingly political and lis­tened to the music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, a former Carmel resident. I was on the picket line preventing trucks bringing food in to the campus in a protest against the university’s backing of the government war policies and generally treating the students badly. The truck driv­ers were in the Teamsters Union and wouldn’t cross the line. I was never arrested in any of the protests I took part in. The police were horrendous and that summer they were out to get some of us in the movement. We had safe houses and I stayed at the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) house in Oakland. I was on of three who stood on the train tracks to prevent a troop train from leaving for San Diego. Scores of protesters lined up alongside the track and watched as the train ran through without stopping. We barely got off the track. The police and army were everywhere and it brought home the enormity of the opposition facing us. This wasn’t just some protest on campus. that was child’s play in com­parison. I was very, very upset and could only observe the next troop train demo where hundreds of protesters were steamed on the track. It was very traumatic, very moving. I was a mess. My mother was still very upset with me and had by this time had a breakdown. I fled to my father's in Sag Harbor. I got a job through him as a social secretary for a friend of his in East Hampton. He was a relentless social climber. He and my stepmother were very good to me. At that time I read a book, ‘One Dimensional Man’ by Herbert Marcusse. It was the book of the ‘New Left’ and it changed my life. I knew I had to study with this man.”

During this time Mary Pat met a teacher at Hunter College in New York City, Bruce, and they began dating as he went through a divorce. Marcusse was now teach­ing at UC San Diego so she applied to go there with Bruce applying to do his Ph.D. at UC Riverside, not far away. Bruce did not get accepted but Mary Pat did so they embarked on a long distance relationship for a time. “It was a very exciting political scene and I studied political history and a philosophy class with Marcusse. I had never doubted my ability to understand his classes and we were in the mid-60s so there was political dis­course everywhere.”

Around this time Mary Pat’s mother committed sui­cide. “She had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital for attacking her husband. my abusive stepfather who had been having an affair. I hated him from the get-go. My brother Frank was in the Peace Corps in Panama and my father refused to help. I visited her but not long after­wards, at Easter 1967, she jumped off the Bixby Canyon Bridge in Big Sur. There was nothing anyone could have done, I was told. I didn’t want sympathy and returned to college where I began drinking. I became quite ill and decided I needed a complete change of scene. I thought a trip to England would be good for me, where I could study with a sculptor I admired, Anthony Caro. I caught a plane from L.A. to New York but on that journey I met a guy, Howard and we just connected. We stayed in New York for a few days, met each other’s families, and then returned together to San Francisco and found an apart­ment in North Beach.”

Mary Pat found work as an apprentice sculptor and Howard attended the Art Institute. “Then I suddenly thought I wanted to be a mother and knew Bruce would be a good father. I flew to New York, Bruce agreed, and we returned to SF and told Howard. He was under­standably upset. I was very wrong to Howard, but my mind was made up. Bruce and I moved to live in a con­verted chicken shack in Sebastopol an hour or so north of SF. He got a job teaching at Santa Rosa JC and one weekend we took a trip to Arcata in northern California where Maia was conceived under an apple tree on Fickle Hill Road. She was born in July 1969.”

Bruce hated his job and worked for a time at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab but he didn’t like California either so when a friend of theirs wanted to invest $50K to start a commune Mary Pat and Bruce were ready. They bought land in Vermont on the Canadian border and moved in to the thirteen feet of snow that greeted them there. Soon they had eight adults and four children in the commune in what was a true back-to-the-land family commune with horse drawn equipment, herbal medicine, and growing everything they ate. “I was there for four years and working to provide food became my life. That was enough so with two other women, Maia, and another kid, we moved to the Burlington suburbs. In September 1975 my second daughter, Courtney, was born. I enrolled in a graduate program studying psycho­therapy and graduated in 1979. Bruce moved to Boston and I followed. he was a good father even if he and I didn’t always get along. We separated and I started my work as a psychotherapist and also did a part-time job fabricating plastics which paid my way. Working with my hands provided a good balance for me. I also started a community garden and my life pretty much revolved around that for my twenty-plus years in Boston.”

During those years Mary Pat worked mostly in psychotherapy jobs and carpentry, and also helped to organize a pain and stress management clinic for the eld­erly and disabled at a public health hospital, involving acupuncture, meditation and expressive therapies such as dance, art, and music. For a time she had a steady rela­tionship with Phillip, the lead guitarist in a rock band. “That was one of the best things to happen to me; he was a very gentle and brilliant man and we dated for about three years in the mid-eighties.”

In the mid-nineties, Mary Pat met Bill Taylor at the community garden and after living together for a time they were married in 1999, honeymooning in Peru and climbing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I was homesick for California and even after I had started my own pri­vate practice I still wanted to return here. Then in April 2001 I was diagnosed with cancer. a two-inch tumor in my large intestine. I now thought I’d die if I didn’t get back to California and refused chemotherapy, deciding I wanted to go with herbs and acupuncture instead. The doctors back there said I would die without chemo and would have a 40% chance of surviving if I did have it. Neither was an option to me. Bill and I split up and for a time my younger brother took care of me but we semi-reconciled and I told him I was leaving for California. My brother Frank knew Anderson Valley and thought it might be a good fit for me. I flew out alone to San Fran­cisco and drove up to the Valley and into Boonville. I stopped at The Drive-In and asked where the nearest real estate agent was. That was Mike Shapiro across the street and he showed me a home in the Christine Woods region near to Gschwend Road between Philo and Navarro. It was 16 acres including 13 redwoods and I had decided that if you wanted to save the redwoods you would have to buy them so I did. I fell in love with the Valley imme­diately and it was not an issue at all that I knew nobody in the Valley. It was my mission to get well and be a steward of the redwoods. I moved here in September of 2001. Bill then came out to join me in January, 2002.”

Mary Pat worked hard on the garden at her new home and on the house too as she continued her treatment for the cancer. She and Bill managed the Boonville Farmer’s Market and this led to the development of friendships and a social scene. She taught a little yoga and then one day she had a conversation with Cynthia McMath at Lauren’s Restaurant who told her of a job with Commu­nity Care in Ukiah. She got the job and was there for a year before moving within the department to a job as a social worker in Fort Bragg working with the elderly and disabled, where she remained for five years, working three days a week. The rest of the time she started and developed the Philo School of Herbal Energetics, some­thing similar to a school she had run in Boston.

Meanwhile, following two years of couple counsel­ing, it became apparent that she and Bill would both be better off apart so they split up. “It was for the best and Bill moved out. . My herbal treatment was working and while I am someone who can accept death, it would have been difficult in Boston. Here it would have been in peace. After two years of treatment a colonoscopy revealed all was clear and it had not metastasized any­where else! I am now in the Valley’s Women’s Cancer Support Group (contact Linda Brennan at 895-3587) with several other local women who have suffered with cancer.”

Mary Pat is in many groups and organizations in the valley including being on the board of the Chamber of Commerce; in the Food Shed Group; the Unity Club. gardening section; the Boonville Farmer’s Market, Men­docino’s too; and the Independent Career Women (I.C.W.) of which she was President for a time. She also works once a week, Wednesday mornings, at Boont Berry Farm in Boonville, both behind the counter and also available for any herbal questions customers may have. She has made many friends, including Mary and Ron O’Brien her near neighbors “who have been wonderful”; Monica and Beverley at Philo Pottery Inn, George too; and Sandy Creque. She enjoys the weekly trivia quiz at Lauren’s and tries to get to other various Valley events but is too busy to attend as “the garden and the school take up a lot of my energy and so I can’t get out as often I’d like.”

Daughter Maia is now a licensed psychotherapist herself, married to Karl, a teacher in Palo Alto. They have two children, Mary Pat’s grandkids. Mikaela aged five and four-month old Theo. Courtney meanwhile is a world-class ceramicist in Helena, Montana. Along with the two dogs Mary Pat has three cats. Auralius Legalos, Ami, and Calendula Caledonia. She loves the community here in the Valley, along with the redwoods of course, which she attributes in part to her recovery. “They brought me back.”

I asked Mary Pat for her brief responses to some Valley issues.

The wineries and their impact?. “I do appreciate the positive economic impact, I really do, but I grieve for the loss of the other plants and fruits and the monoculture aspect of the wineries’ dominance. As for the noise they make at night with their frost protectors and spraying equipment, it is terrible. It sounds like the middle of LA with a bunch of helicopters landing. It is horrible! As for the water issue, unlike many here, I believe in catchment ponds and water tanks. Fill them and use them. There is still an impact on the creeks and rivers but not to the same degree as directly pumping the water out. A spring is the most sensible and desirable thing. something I am fortunate to have. Others have them too but they are not used.”

KZYX & Z local public radio? “I love it. I am starting a complementary medicine program soon, to be called ‘Community Health’.”

The AVA? “It took a time for me to get to enjoy it. Then when Bruce Anderson gave a talk at the Unity Club there was a level of humility about him that I did not expect. I liked him. I don’t read the whole thing but do enjoy the local pages, the interviews, and the sheriff’s log.”

The School System? “Our teachers work very, very hard and, like teachers in general, are by and large exploited for their generosity, kindness, and the way they care for the children.”

Changes in the Valley? “I live a relatively sheltered life here and what strikes me more is what doesn’t change. Lots of things are the same as they were ten years ago. Stability is good for me. I appreciate that aspect of living here. The many long-term married couples who live here are a great thing, although it can be a tough place to live for single people.”

To end the interview, I posed a variety of questions to my guest.

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

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Other people.”

Sound or noise you love?. “The singing of birds.”

Sound or noise you hate?. “Vineyard frost protectors.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Salmon. broiled or grilled.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Jazz musician John Coltrane. His work ‘A Love Supreme’ is perfect.”

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? “Seeds that would grow there; the works of novelist William Faulkner; and a musical instrument that I could learn. The flute perhaps.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “Well I mentioned the Marcusse book earlier; then for music perhaps the Mozart Horn Concerto or may be the music of Kurt Weill, or Richard Thomson’s or Joan Baez songs; no one film stands out but I am currently watching this Canadian television series called ‘Intelli­gence’ a little like HBO’s ‘The Wire.’ It’s quite fantas­tic.”

A smell you really like? “The flower of the Butterfly Bush.”

Favorite hobby? “Reading; gardening; making herbs with my still; crochet; making jewelry; I still sculpt. I do like to work with my hands.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A sculptor.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “An accountant in a large corporation.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The birth of my two children.”

Saddest? “My mother’s suicide.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I have compassion for people; an abil­ity to like many different sorts of people.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well I don’t think you can go wrong being good to others, and providing a place for animals, birds, and plants to thrive. So if he said, ‘You did a good job taking care of the land that you worked with’ that would be fine.” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Charlie Hochberg.)

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