A couple of months ago, when controversial reggae artist Buju Banton was about to perform at the Mateel Community Center, KMUD radio aired an absolutely remarkable hour of radio on its regular Friday morning talk show, "Thank Jah It's Friday." The show aired at a moment when it was unclear whether or not the show would be canceled. Some locals had become aware of an international campaign to squelch Banton, who, like many of his Jamaican colleagues, has a history of truly vile homophobia. They were demanding that the Banton show be called off, as it had been in many other left-leaning areas of the nation.
The topic took up the whole of the hour on "Thank Jah." On the one hand, you had Kathleen Creager, the show's engineer, delivering a calm, strong condemnation of the decision to bring Banton to Southern Humboldt. Creager was backed up by many callers, most of whom made the same point - when did it become acceptable to invite bigots to perform in our community? Anna "Banana" Hamilton got in a sharp jab - if Banton sang country/western instead of reggae, there wouldn't even be any discussion. He wouldn't be allowed anywhere near the Mateel, under any circumstances.
On the other side, you had a few callers who wanted to see the Banton show. And you had Paul Bassis, one of the regular "Thank Jah" co-hosts and a former partner in People Productions, the company that up until recently was the Mateel's number one private partner. Bassis's case was that Southern Humboldt is not a community that practices censorship. People wanted to see the show - it had sold out long before - and who were others to say that they couldn't do so? In any case, he argued, Banton had renounced his earlier anti-gay lyrics. (This was a debatable point, and it was debated).
I grew up with the SoHum/Northern Mendocino counterculture, and I've lived around it (or with it, or in it, or next to it) most of my adult life. And I can't begin to tell you how much I was moved by that hour of radio that morning. Why? Because almost everyone - Creager, Bassis, Hamilton, most all the callers - tacitly accepted one baseline criteria in their discussion of the Banton show: What does this show say about our community? Would having such a show be congruent with our community, or is it antithetical to us? At least that morning, no one said, "Hey, butt out. This is none of your business." Even Bassis - an assertive personality, to say the least - didn't dare to say that, even after it became clear that he was losing the argument.
It made me think that perhaps the back-to-the-land movement, what it used to stand for, wasn't quite dead yet, all other evidence to the contrary. Back in Willits, my home town, all the hippies of my parents' generation had long since given up on the big dream they once had. Land partnerships had dissolved, kids had moved away, satellite dishes had sprouted all over the landscape. Entire communities shriveled up and died. People plant their weed and stay at home. If they're intellectually active at all, it's only in some sort of esoteric realm of science or art or literature or religion that doesn't contribute much to the neighborhood. They've all gone sort of crazy, or most of them.
I don't have as many roots in Southern Humboldt, but the story there seemed to me both similar and different. Yes, there's still community in Southern Humboldt - the people there colonized the town more thoroughly than they did in Willits, and there's a few strong, local institutions. At the same time, though, in the last few years people have been murdered again and again over pot deals, and few people find it in themselves to come forward and tell what they know. The way it had become, Southern Humboldt was not so much an alternative society - a smarter and more meaningful way of life than obtains in the rest of America - but as a simple, straight-out outlaw society, with little to recommend it except pretty views and easy cash.
So that one "Thank Jah" show a few months revived my spirits, and made me think that all that time and effort spent in the '70s hadn't completely been for nothing. Then I tuned in again last week, and it all made me sort of sick to my stomach. The topic this time, of course, was Reggae on the River, and the fight between the non-profit Mateel Community Center and People Productions, which has put on the festival for years. The Mateel officially severed ties with People Productions a couple of weeks ago, and now Bassis was back on the show (after an absence of several weeks) to fire off the first few salvos in what promises to be an all-out war over control of the festival. It was especially uncomfortable, because Bassis' co-hosts were clearly uncomfortable with him being there, and for using the show (on a public radio station, after all) as a platform from which to launch this campaign. This time, it was a bit unclear how Bassis intended to justify this upcoming war, which has already become the source of a painful rift in the community. If he did have an argument similar to the one advanced during the Banton debate, it was that secret forces have taken over the Mateel, and in the upcoming weeks and months he and his colleagues would expose them: presumably in court, possibly -- and I'm just thinking out loud, here -- by speaking out against the Mateel Board while it seeks permits for next year's Reggae on the River. No one really knows yet.
It's all fairly grim, and for me, anyway, it has erased the admiration that the conversation over Banton had awakened in me. And it made me think, and it prompted me to call two of the people who best knew what Southern Humboldt once stood for.
Jentri Anders, the anthropologist who wrote the book on the Mateelians (Beyond Counterculture) lives in Arcata now. She left Southern Humboldt several years ago, she says, after she became aware that what she and others had worked for back had definitively died. It was dead before her book was published, she says.
"What I was hoping for - what a lot of people around me were working for - is that we were going to try out voluntary simplicity," she says. "We were going to see where that idea would take us." But the ideal quickly fell, she said, when big marijuana money entered the picture. She feels slightly guilty about it. When people first figured out sinsemilla, and that money could be had by growing it, she was sort of a proponent. She wrote an anonymous leaflet and passed it around town, arguing that this could be just the thing to help the Mateelians make ends meet, and to finance the things they wanted to see done. But that never came to pass, she said - instead, it ended up destroying the culture.
"It recreated the class system," she says. "We went out there saying we were egalitarian. Once it was possible to make big bucks growing marijuana, a hell of a lot of people just abandoned that idea."
But Beth Bosk, who through her New Settler Interview has been the region's premier chronicler of the the back-to-the-land movement and its people, is more upbeat. Being down in Mendo, she hasn't followed the Reggae on the River crisis too closely, she says. However, she thinks that it could be an opportunity, and that the fight is in some sense healthy.
"I think that, really, what's going on with the Mateel is that it's waiting for others to come in and reinvigorate it," she says. "That's what's happened in Mendocino County, and I think it's going to happen in Southern Humboldt next."
What's been happening in Mendocino County, she says, is that a whole new generation - not the back-to-the-landers, or even necessarily their children - have come in and taken up the torch. Walk around Willits these days. Against all odds, the town has sprung back to life. And it's because people have walked in and built upon what was there. And maybe it's also because the old-timers there knew when to step out of the way.