Mendocino

Tryin' to Make a Dime in the Big Woods

Mendocino is an unincorporated community in Mendocino County, California, United States. Credit: Getty

What starts city people moving to some places in the country is often more or less a mystery. Big Sur and Taos have nature at its grandest, Woodstock has the Dylan aura. But there are some places, like Mendocino, that seem no more than congenial.

Concretely, the move to Mendocino in the last two years owes a lot to some articles by Paul Williams, printed in US and elsewhere, and a Sir Douglas Quintet song. But these were merely speaking of an existing scene, which started some ten years ago when a few artists — mostly of the flowers and seascapes variety — set up shop in Mendocino, in a symbiotic relationship with the antique shops. Somehow, more artists came, things got freakier.

Most of the original members of the scene have moved on now – like the people who put out The Illustrated Paper, the only underground monthly in the world that came out about every eight months. But a scene once started tends to perpetuate itself. About three years ago a commune called the Trolls set up in tents and cars near the town of Mendocino. Though it eventually broke up, after a disastrous encounter with the necessities of country life, there are now about a dozen communes in the Mendocino area  – depending on your definition of commune, and on when you make your count. There are also many families living in individual cabins. Cabin space is hard to find now, in fact.

When city people move to the country, they are looking for a different life. When they move to Mendocino, they find this new life means such things as worrying about water supplies, for the first time in their lives. There isn't any water company in the woods, not even in Mendocino town, and when your well runs dry, you go looking.

Few of them have ever worried about building codes and building inspectors before, either. But every new structure meant for habitation has to pass a rigid code of specifications on electrical systems, plumbing, roofing, structural plan – every detail of building, right to the number of doors in the house.

Mendocino County suffers from ordinary rural poverty. The average income is about 3/4 the California state average. Unemployment has hovered around ten percent for the last ten years: There aren't enough jobs for the country people alone. There are many complaints that the welfare system is poorly advertised, and strict about qualifications. The distribution center, it is said, was arbitrarily moved from Fort Bragg (ten miles north of Mendocino) to Ukiah, 50 miles away. The biggest complaint is that the system doesn't give welfare stamps, but surplus food: dried milk, dried eggs, barely palatable from overprocessing. But the woods are lovely, and the climate is tempered by the ocean, and there's a scene there. A good place to experiment.

* * *

Peter and Catherine's farm is spacious and orderly for up here in the woods. There are apple trees around the little old farmhouse where Catherine's mother lives, and a number of structures: a greenhouse, some sheds, livestock quarters, a water tower. Peter and Catherine themselves live in a converted chicken coop.

"When we moved here three summers ago," says Catherine, looking very much the pioneer woman, even to the squint in her eyes, "the taxes on the place came to $35. You won't believe this, but by this year they had raised it to $385. It's practically forcing us off the land, because we're not quite self-sufficient as a farm. If my mother didn't work in town, we wouldn't be able to stay."

Their farm happens to be on a road favored by second-home and retirement types from the big city. It's a picturesque place, Mendocino's famous Pygmy Forest, where the pine trees grow only six feet high. People pay $4,000 an acre to sit on canvas-backed chairs and watch the picturesque pines.

But Peter and Catherine and the other six people on their farm, who are trying to scratch a living from soil so poor it stunts trees, are being taxed by the County at the same rate as the pinewatchers. They own 20 acres. If they owned 25, they would qualify as a farm, but as it is they're considered homeowners with a big lot.

"We're pretty lucky with this place though," Catherine says. "We've got a good well and a pond, we've had water all summer. This was a working farm for 70 years before we took it over, and the soil's been improved. Mostly, though, it's this clay and sandstone soil that runs all through Mendocino. The ground is so acid here the only things that grow well are like berries, peas and garlic. This used to be a berry farm, in fact. We just picked a whole gang lot of blackberries for blackberry syrup.

"We're growing — let's see, beans, milo, carrots, turnips, squash, greens. The frosts at the end of September killed the peas and kind of messed over the squash, but the corn is ripening anyway — the ears are going to be kind of stunted.

"We have a greenhouse to extend our growing season, for tomatoes, peppers, and some other trips like loquats. The heat of decomposition from the compost keeps the greenhouse warm.

"The trouble with the compost heap is that the pigs get first crack at kitchen scraps, and we have a little trouble getting things to add to it. We even save empty peapods, for instance, in burlap sacks, for goat fodder in the winter."

There are flowers growing around the farm, but not necessarily for looks. The elegant rows of sunflowers are for chickenfeed. The pretty red and yellow flowers next to the Italian garlic are a source of pyrethrum, an organic pesticide – just grind up the dry flowerheads and mix with soapy water and a drop of vinegar. The marigolds planted among the cabbages are there to discourage cabbage worm and for dyeing wool.

"The trouble with that little scheme," Catherine says, "is that the deer like to eat marigold. It's a hard year for deer. They get desperate late in the season and venture close to the farms."

"D'ja get that deer last night?" someone asks blond-ringletted Peter.

"Naw. Missed." Peter had spent part of the night in the water tower with a rifle and a flashlight watching for the deer who'd been visiting their fields.

Time to take the goats out for a forage in the manzanita scrub: goats will eat just about anything. "They prefer alfalfa," Catherine explains. "We give them a flake of alfalfa to tide them over until evening. The rabbits get their leftovers, mixed with a little barley – it's the same as commercial rabbit pellets, at about a quarter of the cost."

The goats look a little surreal, somehow, bumping up against miniature pine trees. They are a mainstay in Mendocino, as they are in most places where the soil is stubborn. They make a lot of milk if they're bred at the right time and they aren't choosy about what they'll eat. Peter and Catherine's nannies just had ten kids among the seven of them.

There's also a steer, soon to be butchered, so everybody's avoiding getting emotionally tied up with him, and some sheep for wool. "Here's the pigpen," says Catherine, pointing out a messy shed that emits a chorus of obscene snufflings. "We feed the pigs on table scraps from our table, and we have an arrangement with a restaurant in town for their scraps. We'll pay them back with a couple of porkchops, eventually. Every restaurant in that town is staked out by some pig-farmer or other, or people with compost heaps."

They have inherited a large chicken coop and rabbit hutch setup from the former owner of the farm, and there's a thrifty country way of using it. "We buy chicks cheap, unsexed chicks – that means not divided as males and females. Then we keep the females as layers and eat the males at 10-20 weeks. And the rabbits, when we've eaten them we tan the hides.

"We feed the chickens our old eggshells for the calcium for their eggs. We sell some of the eggs, enough to pay for the eggs we use ourselves. It's like small time grass dealing.

"We do a lot of trading, since we don't have much cash. Everybody does it around here. We trade vegetables for work, sell some berries. The farmer down the road plowed our field for $10, which sure beats paying $7,000 for your own tractor.

"But we don't trade with the communes up here much. They're mostly vegetarians, and this is bad land for farming. It's officially classed as timber and grazing land. If you're really trying to make it in the country, you'd better think of things like that. "

I lived on a commune up north called Tolstoy Farm, and there were a lot of vegetarians there. Until late in the winter, with the potatoes running out and no money and everybody starving, and then somebody bagged a deer. A lot of vegetarian principles fell by the wayside."

Both Peter and Catherine and their friends had lived in the country before they decided to move to Mendocino to take the farm with Catherine's mother, and they had a clear idea of what they wanted to do here: to make themselves as independent as possible of the consumer economy.

"Last year we made a list of everything we were buying," says Catherine, "everything. It came to about 400 items, and this is counting postage stamps and thimbles, everything. Well, we cut off 100 right away, things we didn't need. This year we've cut off another 25. Like we dry grapes for raisins, getting two items at once and shortening the lines of supply where we can't actually produce something ourselves.

"We are figuring to produce all our animals' needs in five years, all our own food supplies in ten. Right now the only big items we can't provide for ourselves are grains and sweets. In 25 years we figure we'll be able to make all our own tools. Peter was a trained machinist and he's making a forge."

She shows off her collection of farm husbandry books, most of them 80 years old, which she says are full of immensely practical suggestions. She really believes in the values of farm life. But, she says sadly, she is unimpressed with the other communes in Mendocino.

"I think, seriously, we're the only city people out here that are making a real attempt to live on our own. Right now we've got my mother's income to help out, and we'll always need some money for taxes, but we're practically, practically self-sufficient. But most people out here are living on outside money.

"It really bothers me when people go on welfare, because I see them losing their strength and desire for independence, all the good ideals they came out herewith. 'Cause the Government is lot better provider than any of us hippies, and eventually people just give up and become like people on welfare anywhere, only they're out in the country. Brian had a good beanpatch in the spring, you remember, don't you, Peter? They were just getting started and of course it takes a while. But then they went on welfare, and now that fine beanpatch is all weeds and I see them throwing food away."

* * *

"Everybody on this farm has instructions not to talk to reporters."

"Maybe you have the wrong idea about the kind of story I'm going to write. I don't want to do an exploitation number about your groovy scene and like that, and then have you overrun by crashers."

"A couple of us here have had experience in journalism, and we're pretty cynical about it. No questions."

This is pretty surprising. The fellow who is speaking was introduced as the former editor of a San Francisco psychedelic newspaper, which never covered news in the earthly sense. Can there be some mistake? If it was his own paper that made him cynical, how do you get him to trust you?

"Well, can I lay a copy of Rolling Stone on you?"

"Huh ... yeah, sure. We always need kindling paper."

It's hard to escape the feeling that the farm might be responsible for at least part of his cynicism. Up by the large old farmhouse there is a garden, but they have less ground under cultivation than Peter and Catherine, who aren't self-sufficient as a group of eight. This is the biggest commune in Mendocino, outsiders estimate the population at 60. How do they get along?

A stroll around the grounds, no questions allowed, shows a couple of tipis, a Sears & Roebuck camping tent, somebody living in the back of a car. Conversation revolves around a truckload of peaches two people mysteriously obtained in the Sacramento Valley. The problem being that man does not live on peaches alone, and that peaches can rot overnight. Conversation revolves, but no taskforce seems to be at work canning the peaches.

* * *

There's a big piece of plywood at the nearly invisible driveway to Mitchell's place, dating from a discontinued free school course on basic medicine that was to be taught there. The sign looks like it was discontinued in the middle too – only the first word of the course title was painted. That was months ago. The sign remains, it has become a sort of totem, a coat of arms.

Up the dirt driveway there's a greenhouse, paned with the ubiquitous polyethylene plastic sheeting that serves as window glass, weatherproofing and insulation in commune architecture. A path leads downhill into the woods, seeming to peter out at some logs. Behind some trees there's a two-story, two-room building walled with tarpaper.

"Is Mitchell here? I heard he was getting out of the bucket today."

"Naw, he'll be here later. Come back tomorrow."

"Was this the house he was busted for?"

"Yeah. Building code violations. I was just busted myself, a little while back. Cultivation."

Imagine that. Being busted for cultivation, out in the country.

Next day Mitchell is there, and he was ready to talk. Ready to tell the world, in fact.

"I'm going to break the back of the Building Code in this state, I'm going to take my case to the Supreme Court," he says, his eyes gleaming conspiratorially.

It seems he was arrested for his Building Code violation because he had allowed someone to live (as a guest) in the substandard house. Just violating the Code isn't a jailing offense – the violations had been known for months, just as many other places in Mendocino are known to have violations. He was busted under a law aimed at slumlords.

All together he had two building code violations, one of the plumbing code, and a charge of obstructing the building inspector. He feels he is known as a troublemaker and he thinks he has evidence he was intentionally arrested on a Friday evening so he'd have to stay in jail until he could get bailed out on Monday. He's going to argue his own case in court.

"I'm a fighter, that's the way I am.'I think that's why I'm doing OK out here. I think if you're going to make it anyway, it doesn't matter if you're in the city or the country, you're going to make it.

"But you've got to learn what makes it up here. You've got to get into the rhythm of the country, the conservatism of nature. The stronger people are, the more they bend the reality out here. That's just city vibrations, and they've got to hang out here until they just vibe out. Take my own case – I built five buildings here.

"I can build well. I was a theatrical technician in the city, and I know what I'm doing. It took me five months to build my home, I scrounged the wood and built it for $250. I tore down this old hotel – got paid for it, too, most people have to buy a building in order to tear it down for the wood. Of course, it's against the law to build with used lumber as structural material."

He leads a tour around the land. "I've got 20 acres here. Four acres are flat and suitable for farming, got good exposure to sunlight. We're in a wind pocket here, we get relatively a lot of sunshine for this near the coast. But I still wore a sweater all summer."

He shows off the tarpaper guest house, now ostensibly a storeroom; his own house, a carefully built and well designed cabin; the treehouse where he spent his first year on the land. We pass a shallow hole, about two feet wide and five or six inches deep in the stiff Pygmy Forest soil. "That's a well," one of his friends says. "Maybe we'll start digging on it again in the springtime."

"You know," he says later in the house, "one thing you find out here is, all those platitudes really work. Like a stitch in time can really save you nine. You don't know what a hard row to hoe is until you run across one – then, brother, you really know. Waste not, want not. All those Ben Franklinisms are really true."

He pauses, an unembarrassed, country-style silence. "You know, when heads move into the country, they've been moving essentially into quasi-resort areas, not real country. There's a lot of reasons for that – there are a lot of weekend country heads, the cities are in commuting distance. And the resort areas are pretty to look at. Also, heads don't really want to go off by themselves, so they move where there's already a scene. It's like refugee camps in the country."

Mitchell has lived in Canyon, a bohemian community in the woods just over the hills from Berkeley, and in Woodstock. He finds Mendocino "friendly, not as harsh or beautiful as Big Sur. There are more difficult places to live along the California coast than Mendocino.

"But Mendocino is not a good place to come for somebody who doesn't want a lot of people around. If you really want to do the woods thing, you shouldn't come here. You should go pioneer, there's lots and lots of country."

Mitchell believes in the country crafts like agriculture, food preserving and leather working but not for their own sake. He believes in them because he sees revolution coming. "And when it comes, man," he says, "a lot of people are gonna find out that all of a sudden money don't buy much."

He doesn't rely on his own farm, though, for all his needs. He makes money with remnants of his city crafts, like demolishing old buildings. During the winter he often leaves Mendocino and gets paying work closer to the city, building houses for moneyed hippies.

"I do good work, too," he says. "But they have to understand my two conditions: I have to have some say in the design of the house, and they have to let me smoke grass all day."

* * *

At a party on a commune notable for its beautiful architecture, there is a visitor from the neighboring village of Comptche. He moved to the country to find peace and pure food, he says, and he seems to like living here. But he has a strangely un-farmerlike lack of attachment to the soil.

"I own the land jointly with my parents," he says, "it's an old farm, a nice place. But when I opened it, I didn't choose the people who were going to live on the land. The way I see it, nobody on this earth has any right to choose. So I opened it on a first come, first served basis. And if people didn't mesh, well, sooner or later they'd realize it and move on."

The trouble is that some people who didn't mesh chose not to move on. And understandably, perhaps, with housing so scarce and prices so high and winter coming on.

So he's moving off his own land. The commune is a failure to him now. He compares it to a broken-down car. As he describes it, it took "a lot of diplomacy" to explain to his parents that his and their land is now occupied by strangers, some of them squatters who didn't mesh.

* * *

Bo is a big ole Texas boy, slow-talking. There are about 20 people living on his land, which is a frequent place for gatherings. There is even a solid clay "meadow" for be-ins, complete with a kind of stage.

"I think when you move out to the country here," says Bo in the kitchen of a condemned farmhouse, "you have to make a decision whether you're going to be living here or going to be a revolutionary. And I think if you're going to be a revolutionary, you're fooling yourself. This is country." He has Mitchell in mind.

"Country people, see, they don't understand people acting on principle. They understand lying a lot better. They can deal with that. So I don't hit 'em in the face with a principle — I don't 'live' here, y'understand — " he indicates the expansive, cluttered livingroom/kitchen of the condemned building – "this is a 'storage building.' And whenever that condemned sign outside blows down, the inspector just comes around and puts up a new one and I don't stick my nose indoors here. We both know what's going on.

"Now the building code says you've got to have two electrical circuits in the kitchen, two entirely separate circuits. Even if you only use one. It's ridiculous. And you've got to have two doors between your kitchen and your bathroom, and one door between your eating and your sleeping area. The kitchen and bathroom are where people get into hassles with the inspectors, particularly in domes, 'cause they don't want any doors. "

So I'm not fighting them. I tell them I can't afford all that circuitry for all my buildings, and they go away, and then they come back and push me about it some more. I've worked out kind of a compromise, a commune formula that some of the other places up here are also doing. We have one code kitchen and one code bathroom on the property, so they can OK it and get their permit fees — the inspectors don't get salary, you know, their only payment is the fee — and everybody's happy. Of course, they could come back and start hassling us again, but I think we have an understanding.

"If anybody wants to build out in the country, I'd give them this advice: First find out how much money you'll need for your materials and your permits. Get your materials in before you get your permit, because a permit is valid for only a specific time, and if it runs out before you got your things built, you have to shell out for another one.

"Then build your septic system first, and build fast. You got to build a septic system, because no outhouses or cesspools, even the ones in the Whole Earth Catalogue, is legal in California.

"Get a large piece of land so you can get the farm tax rates. Get it in a veteran's name, if you can, they have benefits. Then backpack your stuff in, the officials aren't likely to come in if they don't see any roads." Bo says he's nearly self-sufficient, but his place doesn't really look prosperous, unless there's some farm land he isn't showing to outsiders. It's the usual: goats, chickens, a greenhouse, a vegetable garden. There's a story going around that Bo's water pump broke down on him in the middle of summer, because of a curse put on it by a disgruntled former resident. The corn does show lack of water.

But Bo says he has vegetables to trade for fish with the people living down by the river. Another business trip is selling organic vegetables to markets. You can trade organic vegetables for other kinds of food, and in the Co-Op markets even for tools. Also, his wife works in the local hospital.

He says all the livestock on his land is salvaged from places that lacked good farming technique. "Lots of people will buy animals before they get pens built and fodder, and the animals run off or start to starve. And in wintertime they get sick a lot, particularly if their pens are wet. I've taken lots of sick animals off people's hands and nursed them well.

"A lot of the vegetarian places are getting allowances from home, I know. They have animals around, but they're only as pets. Deer, too, they think the deer are their brothers. So when the deer come in and start eating up the greens, I guess it's like your brother came into your garden and ate your greens."

* * *

There are other ways to make a living than farming. People on the coast fish, as Bo mentioned, to supplement their diets or income. And there are country necessities a man can specialize in: one fellow, for instance, cuts immense amounts of firewood for sale. Others work at odd jobs for farmers and in town, or bring in a few dollars (or a sack of squash, or help with the weeding) as leather workers or potters.

Salaried jobs are as scarce as housing, but if you have the ingenuity, you can strike out on your own. Somewhere in the county there is a converted chicken coop that houses a tiny factory – complete with an array of lathes, drill presses, and stampers. Started by a long-time resident, the factory has gone from a laborious handcraft operation to one that turns out its product — a tiny, cleverly designed smoking pipe — by the hundred.

The factory — as is appropriate — is the recruiting center of the local IWW. The Industrial Workers of the World, after all, had their traditional centers of strength in lumber country like Mendocino. Chalked on a blackboard on the weathered wall is a personal statement of philosophy:

INDUSTRY IN THE SERVICE OF INDOLENCE IS NO VICE.

* * *

Bob used to edit an underground paper until about a year and a half ago, when the combination of a staff conflict at the newspaper and his coming into a little money resolved itself into a move to the country. With his wife and son he moved to a four-room cabin in the Pygmy Forest, where he stretches his dwindling supply of cash with the standard barnyard of goats, chickens, rabbits, a vegetable garden. A black plastic-covered square in his front yard is a mulched, sanded, compost-treated plot of ground he's trying to coax into some semblence of fertile soil. In addition he goes after shellfish in a wet-suit down at the beach, tries to sell his dog's pups, and is peddling a book to some New York publishers. He's been talking about his well, which has had a few bare inches of water in it from July to October.

"I think there's a reason why the small family farm failed in America," he says suddenly. "It's a hard life. It's poor in material goods and it's uncertain.

"You can't make everything you need. You can't pull out of the consumer culture entirely, we don't know anybody who has. How much did we spend on canning jars last year, Becky?"

"And if you don't can your vegetables," says Becky, "you just go without greens during the winter. Many people do anyway. And then there's the freezer –everybody agrees freezer food lasts better, tastes better, and has more vitamins and so on. But if you use electricity, you're contributing to the electric company's destruction of the environment."

"Or you use wood," Bob says. "And what's so ecologically correct about using wood? What if everybody did it? We don't cut down the trees, sure, but the wood we use is leftover scraps from the logging company rape scenes anyway. We're still living on garbage the way we did in the city, we're still living on scraps of the whole consumer economy."

"One thing about living out here," says Becky, "is that it seems nobody has worked out living together, because ultimately somebody always owns the land. And it's not like a straight landlord-tenant relationship, it's more involved with personal obligations that you didn't know about when you started. You crash there and stay on, and the whole deal takes place in an area where there are no generally agreed-upon rules and everybody just makes up their own.

"One guy here has even a kind of feudal system. He owns the land and assigns people work hours and after a while, when they've built their house, he starts charging them rent. Then maybe he raises the rent, and a couple of times, they say, he kicked people out of houses they built because he could get a higher rent for it from somebody who just showed up."

"That's a scam, alright," says Bob, "but basically there's three ways to make it out here: money from home, welfare, or dealing in grass. One's embarrassing, one's a hassle that isn't worth it, and one's illegal.

"You can barely do subsistence farming out here. Now one way around that is to do commercial farming – raise something intensively and buy from others what you don't have time to raise yourself. But city people who move up here don't want to be commercial farmers. "

In the old days, people had large families because everybody, husband, wife, children, was a work animal. And nobody up here wants to work 15 hours a day. I know I don't. Your grandfather, Becky, he thinks we're crazy for moving out here."

Becky smiles. "He does. He moved off the farm."

"You can't live here the way the Indians did. The Indians who lived here were hunters and gatherers, who thought cutting a furrow was the same as cutting their mother's flesh. Well, that kind of economy will only support a small fraction of the number of people who are living here now.

"The only way you can really get out of the consumer culture entirely is if you're really rich and you can set yourself up right, or if you're willing to go way back in the woods and live really primitive. There was this guy who did that – made his own gun barrels and knives, but even he had to come into town to get things. He panned for gold to buy things with.

"Short of that, everybody minimizes. Then there's this whole self-righteous thing about where you draw the line, and everybody feels where he draws the line is the right place."

Bob speaks from a year and a half's experience in the woods. But he isn't soured on the whole thing. If he can just get the money, he says he'd do what many people in Mendocino are always talking of doing: move further into the bush. Humboldt County ... Trinity County ... Oregon ... Idaho ... Maine ... Alaska ... Australia.