30 November 2005

Mendocino Homeland

It was only a little over a year ago that I sold the old Iron Peak homestead and left for the last time. I hadn't actually lived there since 1990, but couldn't bear to let go of it. When I was still in Berkeley, it provided a welcome respite: three hours on Highway 101 another half hour crawling the nine miles up Spy Rock Road, and I could relax in my own private wilderness.

But once I moved to England, the commute grew a little too arduous. When I did visit California, I was more inclined to spend time with friends and family than sitting by myself up on top of a mountain. Eventually I was only getting back to the old house for a few days a year, just long enough to get depressed about how it was slowly falling apart.

Wood houses will do that if they're not looked after, especially when an average year subjects them to searing heat, near hurricane-force winds, 100+ inches of rain and three or four blizzards. When I lived there fulltime, I kept the place in more or less functional shape, even though I'm not exactly the handyman type. But once I was no longer there on a regular basis, small problems gradually become big problems, and it finally became a bit overwhelming. When the temperature dropped into single digits (I'm talking Fahrenheit here), the pipes froze. I'd repaired the plumbing many times before, but I didn't know how to get at the pipes inside the walls, so that was the end of the bathtub and shower. When the bear smashed its way into the house through the kitchen window, it not only broke the glass, which I could have replaced, but shattered the frame, which was a bit beyond my capabilities. The outside paneling, subjected to relentless morning sun because I'd foolishly cut down a tree that once shaded it, buckled and fell off. I’d nail it back, but what it really needed was replacing, again beyond my limited capabilities.

It's not that I'm completely helpless. I put in a water system that involved erecting tanks atop hills and running a pipe up and down cliffs for nearly half a mile. I developed and maintained a solar power system sufficient to power not just normal household appliances but also a whole punk rock band. I cut and hauled my own firewood, cleared culverts and reditched the road so that it didn't wash away in one of our 30-day downpours. But I'm pretty useless when it comes to carpentry, and that's what the place needed most of all.

"Why don't you just hire somebody to do the work for you?" city people would ask.
"It's not that simple," I would try to explain. "Nobody wants to do that kind of work. It doesn't pay enough."
"What are you talking about? Carpenters make really good money."
"It doesn't matter. No matter how much you're willing to pay them, the dope growers can always pay them more."

Once, only once, I was able to find someone to do some basic repairs and maintenance to the outside of the house. And he was doing a good job for about a week. Then one of the growers down the road let it be known that he needed help. My guy walked off the job, leaving one wall half done, never to return.

Many carpenters, electricians and plumbers end up growing marijuana instead, while those who continue to practise their trade work at building and maintaining the infrastructure for other growers. When the government started regular air surveillance and helicopter raids in the 80s, the biggest growers went underground - literally. They carved out house-sized chambers underneath their existing houses or outbuildings, installed massive generators to power their grow lights, and began producing marijuana all year round. A well-run operation could easily generate a million bucks annually.

With that kind of money floating around the once hardscrabble hills (after the Indians were driven off in the 19th century, they mostly sat fallow until the hippies started moving in during the 70s), nothing resembling a normal economy would ever be possible. Willits, Laytonville, Garberville, once sleepy aggregations of gas stations and truck stops, turned into boom towns. Government crackdowns accomplished nothing except to drive the price of marijuana ever higher, which attracted a new cast of characters, more hard driving and aggressive than the mom-and-pop hippie growers who'd pioneered the new agriculture.

By the time I left the mountain, most of the families were gone, replaced by high-powered commercial operations. Paranoia hung thickly over the otherwise spectacularly beautiful peaks and canyons, and a shroud of secrecy descended over what had been an open and friendly community. As long as I stayed on my own land, it was easy to imagine that things hadn't changed that much, but the steady hum of diesel generators and the cokeheads up the hill who liked to greet the dawn with bursts of their AK-47 told me otherwise.

That was when dope was still thoroughly illegal and the prices were sky high. Today, it’s semi-legal in California, thanks to Proposition 215, a ballot measure that allowed growers and dealers to claim that their marijuana was for “medical” purposes. Although there is a case to be made for medical pot, this particular law might as well have been written by drug dealers – actually it pretty much was – and any grower in Mendocino County who’s not too stoned to drive into town and buy a “prescription” from an obliging doctor is now a certified “medical provider.”

The result is that the price of dope has virtually halved since its high point in the late 80s/early 90s, which of course means that growers have had to double their crop sizes, but as long as they don’t exceed certain nebulous limits, the police are powerless to do anything about it. If the hippies were to be believed, this semi-legalisation should have led to a halcyon new world where gentle country folk lovingly grow their hemp “medicine” for grateful “patients” down in the cities, but in reality it’s merely institutionalised and brought partially aboveground a vast business making vast profits from people’s perennial desire to get high.

My most recent edition of the Anderson Valley Advertiser tells the story of the gangland-style execution of one Les Crane, a self-proclaimed reverend who ran a chain of marijuana dispensaries with names like Mendo Spiritual Remedies and Hemp Plus Ministry. Declaring dope a “sacrament” from the “tree of life,” Crane sounded like a refugee from the 1960s, but at 39, had barely been born when hippies (and I’ll freely admit I was one of them) started proclaiming this particular form of blather. Crane’s murder sounded especially brutal, with four or five black-clad and masked thugs charging into his house at 2:30 in the morning, but in retrospect, I guess it’s no worse than the time another grower was bludgeoned to death in a trailer just down the road from me. His assailant(s) then proceeded to set the forest on fire in an attempt to cover up the crime.

Hippies (and again, I was once one of them) insist that marijuana is a “love” drug, that it somehow makes people nicer and smarter and better behaved (or at least that’s how they see themselves when they’re stoned out of their gourds). They’ll argue that marijuana-related violence is not the fault of the drug itself, but rather stems from its illegality. But they’re overlooking the fact that marijuana affects different people in different ways. If you’re a gentle middle-class person who likes to reflect about philosophy, sure, marijuana might impel you to do more of the same. If, on the other hand, you’re a gang-banger who gets a kick out of seeing people bleed, well, you can just as easily trip on that.

My main objection to marijuana is that it dissolves – in some cases, I fear, permanently – people’s ability to think critically. In a pot-addled state, the most preposterous thought can enter the mind and be received as divine inspiration. You can and probably will end up believing just about anything, because when you’re stoned, your semi-functioning brain has become the absolute centre of the universe.

Oh well, I didn’t mean to go off on an anti-marijuana polemic (I’ve been working on one of those for a couple years, and it may soon see the light of day). I just wanted to give a wistful sigh for my beautiful Mendocino mountains, once home to a rich and diverse (if undeniably bizarre) culture, now increasingly the province of big agriculture and feral hippies.


oliver said...

Wille Nelson has a 'newish' song called Mendocino County Line which I quite like (overlooking the fact it's written by the same song doctor who's penned hits for Matchbox 20).

I hear Willie Nelson also likes weed? Huh? Go figure.

Julia said...

none of these posts have happy endings.