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Pity and Fury

In Southern Humboldt, a painful reckoning with the inevitable

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The first time I set foot in the Mateel Community Center was in the late 1990s to attend a benefit for a local woman who, it later would turn out, was terminally ill. The venue teemed with people, friends and neighbors who had gathered to provide both emotional support and financial assistance. Toward the end of the evening, she was brought to the center of the hall, where a number of them gently laid hands on her. I was both astonished by the scene and intoxicated by its primal energy; I had not experienced anything comparable to it since my childhood in Brazil. A palpable sense of community — shared by hundreds of people present that night — was one of the reasons I eventually moved to the area.

By the time the Reggae Wars erupted a decade later, my rose-tinted glasses were long gone. I still loved the community, and loved the Mateel as one of the embodiments of that community, a place where music and theater thrived, where much-needed youth programs fostered the creative spark in the next generation, and people gathered to celebrate both the living and the dead. But I also knew that despite frequent claims to the contrary, the seeming paradise the back-to-the-land community had created was not sustainable. Like nearly every other profitable industry in Humboldt County history, the cultivation of cannabis is based on resource extraction. As it turns out, there is a finite supply of water, as there is of old growth redwoods and Klamath River salmon.

But as I had discovered in my work as both staff writer for The Independent and reporter for KMUD News, few people in Southern Humboldt were willing to openly address the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, which had increased sharply following the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996. Likewise, few people of my acquaintance had adequately prepared for decriminalization, legalization and the price drop that would inevitably follow. This head-in-the-sand attitude was carried over into the public sphere, into the institutions founded and sustained by the back-to-the-landers. Ironically, in this regard the hippies mirrored their old foes in the Timber Wars, the loggers who, even in the face of Charles Hurwitz's liquidation of Pacific Lumber's green gold, dug in their heels and said, We're just going to keep doing what we've done the whole time we've been here.

Far too many people in Southern Humboldt are still unwilling to look the proverbial monster in the face — the monster they unwittingly began to create when they bought cheap land ravaged by ranching and timber extraction and began making very, very tidy profits from cultivating cannabis on it. That was not the crime, of course; every single one of us who has ever consumed cannabis has profited from it, in pleasure if not in monetary gain. No: The crime was in denying that the land that had sustained them for 50 years has a carrying capacity, one that would soon be exceeded if their children, and their children's children, and their children, kept doing the same thing the first generation had done. And the crime was in failing to prepare for a world they happily would have embraced during the Summer of Love — a world where the consumption of cannabis is legal and where there is no more profit to be had from an eighth of weed than from a cob of corn.

As was revealed during a lengthy and painful meeting a couple of weeks ago, lack of foresight — an inexplicable failure of both imagination and preparation — has been disastrous for the Mateel. From a distance both physical and psychological (I relocated to northern Humboldt in 2011, when I returned to college full-time), my emotions waver from pity to fury. Pity, because I know thousands of good people — including young people who benefit immensely from programs such as Recycled Youth and the Missoula Children's Theatre — will suffer an enormous loss if the Mateel closes its doors. Fury, because I also want to scream, Didn't you learn anything from the Reggae Wars? Didn't you learn anything from Humboldt County history? Nothing is forever. Including community "Unity," $5,000-a-pound pot and music festivals. Hell, there was only one Woodstock and people are still talking about it. You're lucky you've had more than 30 Reggaes.

As is true in most of the West, Humboldt County has experienced a boom-and-bust cycle since the mid-1800s. As is also true in most of the West, many of the people in Humboldt County who have profited from resource extraction have proven themselves to be singularly incapable, or unwilling, to adapt to a different model once said resources have been exhausted. That, perhaps, is the greatest tragedy of all — that the people who built the Mateel, many of whom left city and suburban life to reinvent themselves in the country, have proven themselves to be no more capable of adaptation than the loggers and the ranchers and the fishermen against whom they battled so bitterly for so long.

Cristina Bauss graduated from HSU in 2016 with a B.A. in Geography and an Advanced Geospatial Certificate. Her bachelor's thesis, "Mapping Marijuana Cultivation Sites and Water Storage in the Redwood Creek Watershed, Southern Humboldt County," was published in The California Geographer (Vol. 56) in July 2017.

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