|Los Angeles Folkworks
An Icon of the ’70s revisited
by Brooke Alberts
Last year when I was about to depart for the Big Island of Hawaii, my buddy Kim asked me if I wanted to look up her friend Alicia Bay Laurel while I was there. “The Alicia Bay Laurel who wrote, Living On The Earth?” I asked, and yanked the book immediately out of the bookshelf to show her.Needless to say, I made the connection and spent a very pleasant afternoon with her. L.A. native and (according to the New York Times) “Martha Stewart of the hippie era” Alicia Bay Laurel is coming out with a 30th anniversary edition of her best-known book, Living On The Earth. I picked up a copy of Living On The Earth in the late ’70s and it immediately became one of my “desert island ” books. With chapters addressing such issues as how to grow potatoes in barrels while living in a van, Tibetan eye-strengthening exercises, keeping food cool without refrigeration, and alternative guitar tunings, it was a compendium of folk-life skills simply presented.
Alicia grew up in Hancock Park. Her mother, a ceramicist, exposed her to artistic and cultural events, and as a teenager she did page layouts at the L.A. Free Press. She also attended the Otis Art Institute on a PTA scholarship. She subsequently attended San Francisco’s Pacific Fashion Institute.
Alicia started writing Living On The Earth in 1969 when she was 19 while living on the Wheeler Ranch commune in Sonoma County. It was her third hand-lettered and illustrated book, but the first to be published. She had originally conceived of it as a pamphlet to help ease the transition of urban and suburban youth to their new lifestyle, but it grew into a manual. When it was published in 1971 and included in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog it became a best-seller .
The handwritten text and exuberant line-drawn illustrations were comforting and personal, and reflected the back-to-the-land aesthetic espoused by the youthful idealists of the era. This aesthetic was picked up and utilized by the creators of The Massage Book (1972), Woodstock Craftsman’s Manual (1972), The Vegetarian Epicure (1972), and later The Moosewood Cookbook (1977) and the works of Sark (1991 and forward).
Alicia collaborated with her husband Ramon Sender on Being Of The Sun, a companion volume to Living on The Earth, published in 1973. This second volume is even more exuberant than the first, addressing aspects of meditation, celebration of the year, making music, and being passionate about life. They include instructions for making a bamboo root oboe and a set of bagpipes (from a plastic bag, masking tape, cardboard, bamboo and oat-straw whistles). They also composed 21 songs and chants for celebrating rain, night, time, welcome and other occasions. A few of these songs are on her CD, Music From Living On The Earth . Alicia had been playing fingerpicking folk guitar as a teenager, and learned of the joys of open tunings from her cousin’s husband, the well-known guitarist John Fahey.
For the last 28 years or so, Alicia has been living in Hawaii (the first 25 in Maui, the last 3 on the Big Island). Her CD, Living in Hawaii Style, is more informed by the Hawaiian slack-key style of guitar playing.
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Book Review in the Orlando Weekly, 12/25/03
by Lindy T. Shepherd
New days, old ways
Living on the Earth
By Alicia Bay Laurel
(Gibbs Smith, Publisher, revised and updated 2003; 256 pages)
My forgotten copy of the handwritten, hand-illustrated 1970 sensation by Alicia Bay Laurel (not her real last name, but her favorite kind of tree) was gifted in the early ’80s by an old friend who really was a hippie. (My friend sewed pink and turquoise satin cowboy shirts for Country Joe and the Fish in the Woodstock era and took orange sunshine every day for a year.) By 1980, the peace-and-love hippie era was laughable, having transitioned into the apocalypse-readying New Age movement that was growing under the radical tutelage of bibles such as “Survival Into the 21st Century” by Viktoras Kulvinskas (published in 1975 in a similar style adorned by simple drawings).
Then and now, Bay Laurel’s enduring “Living on the Earth” smartly serves as a sweeping encyclopedia of do-it-yourself instructions for simple, quiet living, removed from urban chaos — all in her own handwriting. It is timeless. The amount of practical and concise information is staggering. There are straightforward how-to entries on making an outdoor latrine, a solar oven, tire-tread sandals and a guitar. There’s herbal everything, with recipes for healing shampoos, poultices and soups. (In her revised entry on hemp, Bay Laurel does offer the disclaimer that she hasn’t inhaled since the ’70s but is in favor of hemp as a viable commodity.) Medical advice covers the gamut, from how to bind blisters on a backpacking misadventure to how to birth a baby (with an illustration of a baby oozing out of a hairy triangle).
The writer’s changes to her 30-year-old best seller (more than 350,000 sold) do not deface the original’s essence, including the minimalist line drawings. The entries now are more relevant, especially with current resource references. Don’t focus too much on her introduction page with the sappy greeting, “Hello sun! You came up! We knew you would! You always do! Hoorray for you!” As the author, who still lives and works in Hawaii, explains:
“I tried, in revising the text, to be true to the spirit of the young woman I was then, and included her idealistic introduction. Today, a country household can make its own electricity, and uses the Internet to conduct home businesses and get truthful information on public affairs. I had hoped at the time that living in wilderness would guarantee the awakening of compassion. Today I see this most profound evolution occuring (sic) everywhere. It is key to our survival as a species.”
It is amusing to browse through Bay Laurel’s drawings. In general, men are wearing clothes. Her women, though, are frequently naked-breasted and nymphlike, dancing through their chores, a reminder that relations between men and women have come a long way, baby. We’ll be hearing more from the writer in the coming year; her new book, “Make Peace: 50 Recipes,” should arrive in April 2004. And plans are underway for “Still Living on the Earth: A Dictionary of Sustainable Means,” “a compendium of twenty-first century developments in permaculture life.”
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November 26, 2003
Still living, still on Earth
by Alan McNarie
When Alicia Bay Laurel began writing “Living on the Earth” in 1969, she was a teenager on a California commune. Now in her 50s and living in Puna, she has since made a name for herself in other wide – ranging fields, from wedding planner to Hawaiian/folk musician.
But “Living on the Earth,” a manual on simple living that contains everything from recipes for pickles to tips on home childbirth, has gone on to live a life of its own. Revived by Random House a few years ago with a 30th Anniversary Edition, it was re – issued last month in a new fourth edition under a new publisher, Gibbs Smith.
Laurel will be making three appearances on the Big Island next month to promote the new edition. On Thursday, Dec. 11, at Borders Books and Music in Hilo, she’ll be singing music from her CD, “Songs from Living on the Earth,” and telling stories about the book’s four incarnations and how they came about. She’ll repeat the performance at 6 p.m. Dec. 12 at Taro Patch Gifts in Honokaa. On at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 14, a $5 donation will admit guests to a longer music and story – telling session at Volcano Garden Arts on Old Volcano Highway in Volcano.
“Living on the Earth” was a revolutionary book, in more ways than one. Not only did it become a bible for the commune movement, it also sparked a small publishing revolution.
“Basically, there wasn’t any book before it that looked like it,” observes Laurel. “After that, there were dozens and dozens.” The book’s style, with its hand – written text wrapped around simple line drawings, had an especially strong influence in the cookbook field, including the “Moosewood Cookbook” series and “The Vegetarian Epicure.”
Ironically, a cookbook helped keep “Living on the Earth” alive. While on a promotional tour on the mainland, Laurel met the editors of a cookbook that was being put out by the Esalen Institute. They recruited her to illustrate the new book, and introduced her to the Gibbs Smith of Gibbs Smith Publishing, who turned out to be a fan of her first book.
“I told him, ‘Funny you should mention that. I just got the rights back from Random House,'” said Laurel.
Smith bought the rights to produce a new edition, and set Laurel to work on a sequel called “Still Living on the Earth: a Dictionary of Sustainable Means,” with updated information on such topics as permaculture and sustainable lifestyles.
With Smith, she recently attended the annual Bioneers Conference in Marin County, California to gather information for the book, which is due out next year.
“That is the largest world conference on sustainability. By going there, I really got an idea of the breadth and depth of what’s going on in this movement,” she says.
The term “sustainability” covers a huge range of topics, from recycling to producing biodiesel fuels to “permaculture” – low energy agriculture systems that don’t require constant cultivation and massive amounts of fertilizer. All are aimed at producing a society that can sustain itself without using up huge amounts of fossil fuel and other non – renewable resources. The movement is an outgrowth of the “back to the land” communes that inspired, and were inspired by, Laurel’s original book.
The new edition of “Living on the Earth” includes a forward by Prof. Tim Miller of the University of Kansas. Miller, a leading expert on the history of communal movements from early American religious communes to the present, helps to put the book in the context of its times.
The hard – to – classify volume – it’s been catalogued under headings ranging from “spirituality” to “home reference” – has also become a historical document.
But whatever else “Living on the Earth” is, it remains a font of practical advice for ordinary people – especially this time of year, when the book’s multitude of craft instructions could produce some unique gifts.
One section, for instance, contains easy – to – follow directions for making a wide variety of candles, from traditional bayberry and beeswax to “ice candles” made by pooring hot wax over ice cubes. (“Ice melts and leaves cubic holes in the candle. The candle burns fast but makes interesting shapes,” notes Laurel’s directions.)
For the ambitious, there is advice on how to build a kayak, make barrel furniture, and create hand looms and pottery kilns. For the lazy, there are easy instructions for creating a “button stone hammock.” (“Fold 6 inches of the end of a blanket over a strong stick. Place a small round stone under the two layers and tie a knot around the knob made by the stone through the two layers.”)
There are also plenty of house and garden tips. The gardening section, for instance, lists the amount of seed or plants needed per 100 – foot row to plant any of 18 different garden crops, and gives solid advice on such topics as irrigation composting and mulching.
There are sections on canning and jelly – making, with recipes for traditional treats such as apple butter and exotic flavor sensations such as rose petal jam. There are directions for making home – brewed beverages such as apple mead and elder blow wine. There are directions for salting fish and for making yogurt and sauerkraut.
There are also recipes for making soap, varnish, glue, shoe polish (“equal parts oil, vinegar and molasses. Add enough lamp black to form a paste”), paint remover (“1 part turpentine to 2 parts ammonia)” and waterproofing for cloth and leather.
Volcano and Kaumana City residents may be particularly interested in Laurel’s directions on how to clean a wood stove and prevent it from rusting.
And there is lots of information that is just plain interesting.
“I think that when the book was a best – seller in 1971, a lot of people that read it were just armchair communards, in the same sense that there are armchair football fans,” observes Laurel. “They may never have wanted to make ink from scratch, but it gave them a real spiritual lift just to know that it was possible. They might even have gone into the kitchen and made some marmalade.”
Homegrown charm helped ‘living on the earth’ become a big seller
By KATHY KREIGER
Santa Cruz Sentinel
May 16, 2000
Thirty-one years ago, a 19-year-old urban refugee sat down to write a simple how-to pamphlet for new members of the rural California commune where she landed after sticking out her thumb.
The resulting book, “living on the earth” quickly became a cult classic that catapulted its author, alicia bay laurel, to the top of the New York Times best seller list and sold more than 350,000 copies.
Much more than a manual for making eggplant tooth powder, macrame bags and domes, the book became a counterculture bible that inspired countless back-to-the-landers.
The author’s simple line drawings and distinctive handwriting, complete with misspellings, gave the book a homegrown integrity that struck an instant chord with a generation ready to reject big American cars, Formica and Wonderbread.
“living on the earth” was part Boy Scout manual, part Betty Crocker cookbook for a generation desperate for the beat of a drummer that did not lead to Vietnam. The book talked about having babies at home, dying and just about everything in between.
“This book is for people who would rather chop wood than work behind a desk so they can pay P.G.& E.,” wrote bay laurel, who adopted the name to honor her favorite tree. “It has no chapters; it just grew as I learned. …”
Thursday, the author, now 51, will read, sing and sign copies of a newly-revised edition of the book at Gateways Books in Santa Cruz.
“In 1993 I noticed that the people in health food stores looked the way I did at 20,” bay laurel said in an interview last week from a friendÂ’s house in San Luis Obispo. “But they were 20 and I was 40.”
She decided that this new generation might need the book too. It took a while to convince publishers.
The stop in Santa Cruz is part of a unique eight-month road tour sheÂ’s making through the U.S. bay laurel is doing her tour in typical alternative fashion: she went through her address book and asked all of her far-flung friends if she could stay at their houses for three days. Then she called the bookstores in their areas to set up readings.
No, she won’t be arriving in a VW van. She’s borrowed her 80-something mom’s indigo-blue Peugeot station wagon for what she calls a “connect-the-dots” tour.
You follow alicia’s adventures via the daily entries she makes on her website, (www.aliciabaylaurel.com).
alicia! Girl, what’s gotten into you?
Well, the world and alicia and all of us have changed in 30 years.
“The book was written by a teen-age girl,” bay laurel said. “I tried to stay as close to the spirit of the original as I could and not overlay too much of myself.”
But the many things she’s done since her 2½ years living at Wheeler Ranch, a northern California commune have left their imprint.
She wrote several other books, none of which have repeated the success of “living on the earth.” Five are still in print in Japan, she says, where American pop culture is revered. After 1978, though, publishers rejected her proposals, telling her “the hippie thing is dead.”
Her distinctive style was widely imitated. That may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn’t pay the bills. When she turned down an ad agency’s request to draw a tequila ad, for example, she said another artist changed her name to a similar-sounding one and did the work.
Since 1974, bay laurel has lived on Maui, Hawaii. There she’s been an artist and illustrator, singer and guitarist and yoga teacher. In 1988 she started a destination wedding business on Maui. It was so successful it earned her spots on Good Morning America and in “Bridal Style” book.
She sold the business a year ago, at about the same time Random House asked to reprint the book.
Friends helped her revise it, and the new version reflects updated ideas about health, ecology and so forth — she no longer uses pot, for example, but supports its use for fiber — but there is no mention of computers.
“She wouldn’t have been a computer person. She wasn’t even into electric lights,” she said of the person she was back then. “It’s still a ‘70s piece. It’s not about living in 2000 completely.”
The tour has another fascinating twist on the old days of hippie road trips. Once she’s finished, she plans to take her “living n the road” computer entries and turn them into, what else, another guide for another generation.
Meanwhile, she hasn’t lost her affection for the naive teen-ager she was, the one she thinks of as a daughter in some ways, the one who still influences her life today.
She still makes sprouts. She still sews, she still cooks everything from scratch and she still eats organic food “almost exclusively.”
But right now, she’s on the road. Right now, her stuff is in storage and she’s got her metaphorical thumb out there for new adventures.
“I would love to be doing that stuff,” she said. “But I don’t think I’m going to be doing it real soon. I’m wanting to launch my free-lance art career. Wherever it takes me, I’m going.”
WHO: alicia bay laurel will read, sing and sign copies of her newly revised book, “living on the earth” WHEN: 7 p.m., Thursday, May 18 WHERE: Gateways Books, 1018 N. Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz COST: Free INFO: 429-9600