Ellen Weed and Friends Teach Back to the Land Course at Mendocino College – The Ukiah Daily Journal

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Ellen Weed and Friends Teach Back to the Land Course at Mendocino College – The Ukiah Daily Journal

“I know the phrase ‘Back to Earth’ keeps coming up as a theme in these conversations, and it was ‘Back to Earth’ in a way, but I wasn’t down because I’d never been down to anything. That was my entry. I had entered a way of finding the guideposts for the rest of my life. And I found them. And they made sense. They were about: learning how to do things on your own, having good, dear friends, eating good food, knowing how to fix things, and not leaving too big of a mark. I am suffocating; I start to cry. Those were important, important basic lessons.” – David Patton, Mendocino County 1973 “Back to the Lander”

Over the past few years there has been a growing interest in the places, peoples, art and cultural history associated with the Back to the Land (BTTL) movement.

Actor, director and Mendocino College instructor Ellen Weed’s personal story “Back to the Land” reflects the stories of many people who arrived in Mendocino County – bringing with them little but instinct, inspiration and a desire to learn. For the fall semester, Weed brought together a group of BTTL women who are organizing a Back to the Land course and storytelling project.

The Promise Of Paradise Course and Workshop; The Back to the Land phenomenon is a full semester that Weed describes as “exploring alternative ways of creating community through personal storytelling. It is a study of utopian communities through time, with a primary focus on the Mendocino County-based Back to the Land movement.

“There’s a renewed interest in the Back to Land movement, and not just as a nod to the nostalgia of the time, but more as a recent example of an alternative lifestyle to be mined as inspiration to create something new, now,” says Weed.

“At the center of our Utopian Communities in Time class theme, we will look at the bold, creative and determined ways in which people have historically come together to create alternative ways of life as a rejection of the norms of their time,” she continues.

The class has roots in the Promise of Paradise Project, co-founded by Kate Magruder, Sarah Reith and Laura Hamburg, who have collected oral histories from Mendocino County back to Landers, along with photos and other documentation. As part of Weed’s course, Magruder and Hamburg co-led and produced a storytelling workshop focused on Mendocino’s “Back to the Land” movement of the late 1960s-1970s—an era that left an incomparable, historic, and lasting legacy imprint on the character and culture of Mendocino County and beyond.

The course will feature a community storytelling production at Mendocino College’s Center Theater from October 19-22. “This production will weave together a thematically woven narrative around the class participants’ personal stories of their Back to Earth experiences—stories that will be unearthed over the course of the workshop,” explains Weed. Following the production, the three-course transferable college class will continue, concluding on December 13 with an additional Storytelling Showcase.

The baseline for this course dates back to around 2015, when a group of local residents, including quilt artist Laura Fogg, photographer and community activist Tom Lydon, Magruder, Carol Brodsky, Sherry Smith-Ferry and others, started a meeting—initially to discuss the possibility of a 50th Anniversary Event in 2020 to commemorate the first wave of Back to the Landers arriving in Mendocino County.

“Laura Fogg had mentioned that she wanted to create ‘portraits’ for quilts featuring Back to Earth people,” says Magruder. As soon as she said that, I knew I wanted to record Back to Landers oral histories. KZYX became interested in the project and Magruder set up a meeting with KZYX News Director Sarah Wright. “Sarah and I were in recording class at Mendocino College. We set up listening sessions at the Grace Hudson Museum and other places.”They realized that time was of the essence, as many of the original emigrants were no longer in the area, were ill or had died. “We’ve already lost four people we interviewed,” Magruder notes.

Magruder enlists the help of Laura Hamburg, a Back to the Land daughter who grew up in the early 1970s in the educational community of Mariposa School. The name of the project, “Promise of Paradise,” was derived from a 1911 ad that touted Mendocino County as the perfect place to settle. People came out of the tree to be interviewed. The team learns by doing – sometimes taking up to 30 hours to edit and create a 6-minute clip. They interviewed people from a wide range of Mendocino society – locals like John Mayfield, who was “here when it happened”, to David Patton – one of the original founders/members of the Ukiah Co-op, to Dr. Vicki Patterson , who came from New York in 1969 and has extensive experience in Native American history collecting and museum work.

“That was in 2018-19,” says Hamburg. “We were inundated with people asking us, ‘How come you didn’t interview this guy?’ Why didn’t you interview me?” Over 100 interviews have been recorded, with 45 completed and archived on the KZYX website. The rest of the raw audio, documentation and transcripts – 800 pieces of information – are permanently housed at the Mendocino County Historical Society. As for continuing to do more interviews, Hamburg says, “We’re going to do this until the day we die. There are many stories.”

The growing interest in BTTL caught the attention of David Burton, director of the Grace Hudson Museum. The museum’s current exhibit, Something Happening Here: Artistic Reflections on the Back to the Land Movement, is one of the first in the country to specifically document the artistic journey of Back to Landers who migrate to a place—in this case, Mendocino County—to live , work and create in relation to the land. Another project—the history of Mariposa School—is currently being compiled by the Historical Society.

Weed notes that the interest in this topic has always been there. “But from a tectonic point of view, it’s at the top now. It rose to the surface. I had the privilege of teaching three courses during the fall semester at the College. Every year I choose a different theme. I always wanted to work on Back to the Land. As soon as Kate and Laura were ready, I knew it was time to collaborate.”

“For the workshop, we’ll start with the background,” says Magruder. “Of all the places you could live, why did you land here? why it stayed Next, we’ll look at what happened here and how it continues, looking at this momentum across time and geography. Once the class starts cooking, we’ll do a story about what happened, then compare it to what’s happened in other places, or what people might want to happen in the future.

“All these issues are part of the collective zeitgeist,” says Hamburg. Weed notes that some questions addressed in the course will be, “Why then? Why now? Why at all?” Utopians throughout history have been united in their rejection of what was happening in their time. Communities come together because of “running from” or “going to” places and ideals: industrialism, political positions, consumerism, sexual freedom, urbanization, civil rights, spiritual seekers, psychedelics, and many others.

“Now, with today’s economic hardships, many people—both young and old—feel isolated and are looking for different ways to create networks of care,” says Hamburg.

“In terms of the zeitgeist right now, single moms in Berkeley are buying homes together to share childcare,” Weed says, noting that it’s just one of the many ways modern people are creating a community that connects back to the BTTL pulses.

The course is not simply a glorification of the “good old days” because life and people are complex, and the experiences and lessons of time are just as complex.

“The course is much more than a lovely nod to nostalgia,” Hamburg says. “It speaks to the impulse to create different kinds of community. Institutional knowledge is here. The “Hippy Elders” who created this are here to remind us of the different ways we relate to each other. Sometimes I hear younger people complain, “You have land for $400 an acre. You were very spoiled. We want to make it clear that people do not need the same resources to create alternative ways of life. It’s about having faith to connect with yourself, with others and with nature.”

The team also found that many people who left their homelands to settle in Mendocino County did not necessarily live permanently “on the land.”

“When I opened my aperture wider, I realized that this was the impulse. You should not have stayed “on the ground.” The “earth” may have been a redwood or a garden that brought you here. Then people were redirected to what they were really going to do.

SPACE co-founder Paulette Arnold researches specific areas of Mendocino County and follows the leads. She examines who founded many of the agencies, organizations and businesses that emerged during this fertile period, and looks at how and why they survived.

“What Paulette is doing is such an important gift — connecting dots that no one has connected before,” says Magruder.

“The imprint of the Back to the Land movement is everywhere,” notes Hamburg.

“We want to encourage people to enroll in the class who may have missed the movement entirely, but now have a deep desire to learn more about alternative ways of creating communities and expanding the circle of caring for one another.” This class is also for you if you just want to learn how to be a better storyteller,” says Weed. “We hope to get a variety of experiences, voices and people from different places in Mendocino County.”

Course runs August 21 through December 13, meets Monday and Wednesday 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Instructor approval required prior to enrollment. To discuss enrollment, email Weed at ellenweed3@gmail.com or phone (707) 462-6366.

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