Artist Bill Wheeler’s story of my coming to live on his land in southwestern Sonoma County, in 1969

“Round, brown eyes, round, young body and round, curly brown hair, Alicia spoke softly but with assurance. After thinking quietly for a while, she asked me if I knew of any coffee houses where she could play and sing for money. Shortly before dark, she dressed warmly and set out to find a place to stay. My concern over her welfare that rainy night was unfounded as I discovered a few days later when she returned to the studio, bursting with merriment, and related her adventures. She had been welcomed at several people’s houses and was planning to go back to the city, get her things and come back to stay.

“Gray weeks passed before I saw her again. This time, Alicia wore the air of an established resident and nothing else. When most folks were still in warm sweaters, Alicia could be seen wandering around in the fog without a stitch of clothes, a book or some sewing under her arm. When the sun began to warm the air the following spring, she was in the garden almost every day, doing yoga and tending the vegetables. She was the only community member who gardened regularly that second summer. Without her care, the community garden would have never started. In those days she was also the only person on the Ridge who was neither ‘without income’ nor on welfare. She generated income from various creative projects which she sold, an activity then unique among Open Landers.

“Alicia began working on an intercommunal newsletter, describing in unpretentious script and with simple line drawings the basic skills needed by newcomers to live primitively in an isolated, rural community. She demonstrated with childlike fluidity how to build a shelter, shit in the ground, chop wood, have a baby, etc. The project took her over a year, during which time she left with the winter ’69 exodus that took many Ridge residents further north into Humbolt County.

“When she returned the next summer, she announced that the newsletter had grown into a book which was being privately financed and published by a Berkeley publisher with the title Living On The Earth. It turned out to be a phenomenon, the first edition of 10,000 selling out in three weeks. One copy found its way to Bennett Cerf at Random House. Delighted and impressed, Cerf bought the book and Alicia, now Alicia Bay Laurel, was sent on a national promotional tour to explain to America the joys of Open Land living. By the following Christmas, Living On The Earth had become a best seller with 150,000 copies sold. It engendered much sympathy and interest in a simple, non-technical life style. Whatever it was we were doing together on the land, people were hungry to know more.”

Alicia Bay Laurel, Wheeler Ranch, Bill Wheeler
July 31, 2017 – I visit Bill Wheeler at his homebuilt house and art studio on his land, six months before his death early the following year. Photo by Karin Lease.