Stop Christian Wars
Gardens, Not Battlefields
I told You So in My Book——Religious Bigotry and Political Corruption Bring War on God’s People.
On a hill overlooking Haight, there lies a psychedelic garden of rocks, succulents, Victorian garden sculpture and brightly painted signs that cluster together like beds of brilliant flowers. The garden began blossoming long ago, when the Haight was still a neighborhood of markets, butcher shops and working stiff taverns with western music juke boxes and shuffleboard tables; it has weathered the area’s rise and fall and remains flourishing, like the markets and shops and taverns with shuffleboard tables. And its creator, Peter M. Bond, 88-year-old artist, author and pamphleteer, Counselor on God’s Law and head of a largely one-man Crusade for World Peace.
Bond’s Peace Garden occupies an old-fashioned oasis of urban open space, a narrow plot sandwiched between frame sidings and receding back from a busy thoroughfare. The street-front is a collage-like jumble of rocks and signs, morning glory, bird baths, garishly painted Victorian cherubs. Through a fence, a gate opens to a weathered wood staircase that drops down a steep hillside, past narrow terraces of rough rocks and cement encrusted with mosaic fragments of broken china and gilded glass, a jungle of potted succulents, grass, old windows; here and there rise spires, columns and broad leaning pickets of old wood, converted from junk into folk art by brightly daubed colors.
There are more signs nailed on the delapidated fencing or standing on stem-like sticks: graffiti— — “Evolution is God’s Law,” “Seminaries Breed Impractical Men”; admonitions — —”Don’t Pay for Religion,” “Love Your Enemies”; some simply bearing names of historic personages —— “Benjamin Franklin,” “Thomas Paine,” “Charles Bradlaugh” — —terse verbal icons representing the Trinity of Free Thought. At the bottom of the hill, a child’s swing stands near a vine-covered arbor, moss and ferns flourish in the bushy shade of a tall cypress tree and more signs: “We Are All God’s Children,” “Humor is the Source of Wisdom,” “You Can Make This World a Garden.”
Bond was sitting in an old kitchen chair in a plot of garden just off the sidewalk, tall, erect and wiry; a gnarled arthritic hand curled around a brush which was painstakingly yellowing the edges of bold, black lettering: “God’s Law Must Replace Astrology, Judaism and Christianity.” Enjoying a modest surge of celebrity following a recent show of paintings and objects at a local art gallery, he was awaiting a crew of television interviewers from San Francisco State College.
“ROLLING STONE? That’s the name of a band, isn’t it?” Bond retains a trace of Australian accent, though he arrived in San Francisco the year before the 1906 earthquake. He speaks deliberately, choosing words carefully and with frequent pauses, as if always conscious he is being quoted, or quoting himself; often he is quoting passages from a book, “Trio of Disasters,” a lengthy broadside against government, religion and academia which he authored several years under his pen name, Pemabo.
Pemabo will talk forever about his philosophy, a not unusual amalgam of old-fashioned religious Free Thought and philosophical anarchy, tempered with Victorian straight-lacedness and crusty eccentricity. Bond himself is much more interesting. What makes his philosophy meaningful is the uniquely visual form it takes in his environmental folk art, which is less an expression of dogma than of a spontaneous delight in the natural world, in making common, everyday objects into things of beauty.
In contrast to the orthodox religious — —or anti-religious— — nut or political fanatic, Bond is devoutly pro-life, although one can hardly call him an 88-year-old hippie, or proto-hippie, either. “A lot of them come here,” he said. “I try to do what I can for them. I quote what Shakespeare said about how wonderfully made is the human body; you must preserve and not destroy it, and this is especially important now, with LSD, marijuana and other drugs. They are a blister, a pimple on Father Time.”
Bond grew up in the slums of Sidney, where he later went to Sidney Technological College and learned “sign painting and decoration.” He says he was born “with what I term extra-sensory perception” and had “a very enlightened beginning.” His parents were nominal Methodists, but their main creed was “do what’s right.” Bond said he first heard the threat of hell-fire in a church sermon one Sunday. Afterward, he had to scratch around the waterfront for stove wood. “I thought to myself, ‘How could I burn in hell eternally without something there to burn?’ I dismissed the religious threats and began to be a Free Thinker.”
By the time he was 18, Bond was a committed pacifist; he talked his older brother out of going off to join the Boer War. After graduation from college “with honors and first prizes,” he worked, “got my widowed mother out of the slums and into a nice home opposite Sidney University.” At 24, he got married and, “comparing Queen Victoria with the enlightened inception of the Forefathers of America,” he came to the United States.
Bond said he “lost everything” in the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Later, he “almost died” in the big influenza epidemic. “There is a destiny that shapes our ends,” Bond quoted Shakespeare to point out how his whole life pattern seemed to lead up to his Crusade. “The many coincidences were stepping stones.” He worked for years as a sign-painter and decorator, earning “sustenance” pay; at the same time, he “adapted” himself to small-scale investments. Meanwhile, his first wife had died; in 1945, he married again and moved into his present home. “At a time when most men of 65 are in the doldrums of retirement,” Bond began to plant his Peace Garden. The large cypress tree in the back of the yard was planted to mark the birth of the United Nations. “The tree is now almost 50 feet tall and the United Nations is almost dead.”
Bond’s crusade is a curious mixture of evolutionary optimism, cynicism, cussedness and an ironic, resigned humor. “I’m helping in a metaphysical revolution, not a physical one,” he says, and quoted his most recent sign: “Luther Reformed, Pemabo Clarifies.”
“Force has been used to settle disputes all the way from the caveman up to Christianity. One of my signs says ‘President Johnson’ — —I’ll have to change that to Nixon — —’Is an Insane Christian Paradox.’ You cannot be a commmander-in-chief and be a Christian. Washington, Moscow, and Jerusalem are the three major places that need clarifying. God’s law is a law of relationships. What is the answer? Intelligence. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all else will follow.’ The kingdom of God is the kingdom of man.”
Bond’s crusade has frequently been fired by battles with neighbors and officialdom. Neighborhood complaints over a large Christmas Peace sign last year erupted in a cross-fire of letters to the City Attorney’s office, in which Bond evidently had the last word when the matter was quietly dropped. He has had less success in a running, eight-year battle with the San Francisco Public Library to have his “Trio of Disasters” placed on the shelves. “I’m still pushing the matter,” he said.
Bond’s literary efforts often expand into pamphlet form, although on of his best is as terse as his signs: It says simply “God Never Said or Wrote Anything.”
Bond has been painting for almost 40 years; his landscapes, animal studies and wild fantasies fill every corner of his home, a Victorian-style network of darkpaneled rooms filled with overstuffed furniture and clutters of papers and correspondence. He has lived there alone since his second wife died nine years ago.
A few of the paintings reflect Pemabo’s Crusade, but the best are distinctly, personally, Bond, painted in a painstakingly detailed manner, a mixture of primitive naivete and subtle sophistication. One of his most monumental paintings ist a huge, primitive “memory catalogue” of Golden Gate Park. At its center is a fantastic boat, borne by black swans, in which the “Muse of the Park” lies dreaming. Her dreams are indicated by golden rays that end in views of the badnstand, Japanese Tea Garden, museum, conservatory, windmills and all the other park attractions, laid out like a pictorial map. It resembles somewhat Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Worldly Delights,” but it is a happy Bosch, if this can be imagined.
In “XMAS 1945——Haight and Cole,” the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is meticulously portrayed as it used to be, in full Christmas dress with business signs and delivery truck emblems all precisely lettered. Bond’s studio, a sun porch which he built onto the house himself, contains a huge mural of Point Lobos which looks almost as real as the view of San Francisco Bay out the opposite window. Bond pointed to a painting that was currently in progress, “The Return of the 49ers to San Francisco”; the city lights glow out of a darkened night sky, while the foreground is filled with ghostlike figures of miners and a stagecoach.
“I’m killing time constructively,” Bond said, reflecting on his life, which he terms “this journey through the stand.” He fingered a book on the history of religion. “Fifty per cent of the world’s population is sick, physically and mentally,” he said. “Exclude the superstitions from children. Don’t frighten them; tell them the blessings of what they do.”
Bond went back outside to finish edging the lettering of his latest sign. It seemed that the admonition was less important than the example. The ideas expressed in Bond’s graffiti have been common currency in places like London’s Hyde Park and Chicago’s Bughouse Square for generations. But Bond has made his world a garden, and this is something only a creative man with an abiding delight in living can ever hope to do.