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Book Review of
"Living on The Earth"
and Interview with 
Alicia Bay Laurel
by Skip Stone
(author, Hippies From A to Z)

Alicia Bay Laurel is the author of "Living on the Earth" which will be re-released on April 22, 2000 (Earth Day).  Alicia will be doing a book tour across America for eight months.  Her website, includes her tour schedule and a diary of her trip to many Hippy Havens around the U.S.  The interview follows my review of her book.  Alicia can be reached at Art Through Action.

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Book Review by Skip Stone

The early '70s was a time of great optimism (and despair in true Dickens fashion). Everywhere people were experimenting with alternative lifestyles, leaving the cities and heading back-to-nature. Communes were popping up all over and those returning to the land had to learn fast the art of survival. With impeccable timing and the feeling that a guide to this new/old way of life was needed, Alicia Bay Laurel wrote "Living on The Earth", an invaluable resource for those seeking to live in harmony with Mother Nature. 

Published in 1970 by Bookworks, a small outfit in Berkeley, "Living on The Earth" sold out its first run of 10,000 copies in six weeks. It was picked up by Random House and went on to sell 350,000 copies, making it on to the New York Times Bestseller List. This was at a time when The Whole Earth Catalog was dominating the non-fiction category and Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book" and John Muir's "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (the first Idiot's guide!) were hits with the hippies. 

Alicia's book defied the rules and in so doing created an intimate, often imitated, style. "Living on The Earth" is written and illustrated by Alicia's own hand without the benefit of modern typesetting equipment. This is true to the theme of her book, a how-to-survive in the country manual "for people who would rather chop wood than work behind a desk". It took an earthy Taurus to write a book so full of practical advice. Advice that was scarce among the average urban American family in 1970.  I'll bet your parents never taught you how to build a dome or make your own moccasins from soft leather that you tanned yourself! 

Fortunately for a new generation of hippies, Alicia has re-edited her book and it is again being published by Random House. It will appear on April 22, 2000, a day that every nature lover knows as Earth Day. It is apropos since "Living on The Earth" is a paean to the Back-to-Nature movement pioneered by Emerson and Thoreau, and emulated by thousands in the '60s and '70s. It is chock full of useful tips on everything from camping to building a dome, making tie-dyes to baking bread and organic gardening to herbal remedies. Although much of this wisdom can be found elsewhere (even on the Internet), it is Alicia's unique hippie style that brings the message home.  Hand drawn illustrations on almost every page give the book so charming a personality that it inspired many in the '70s to imitate it.

Do you want to make your own clothes? Can your own food? Build a Kayak? Butcher game? "Living on The Earth" makes it clear that self-sufficiency is hard work and living together in a commune requires facing some difficult realities. Alicia's sage advice ranges from natural childbirth at home "eat some of the placenta", to cremation "pour on kerosene and lots of incense. Burning bodies don't smell so good."  In between birth and death, there's a lot of life to be lived, and how we live it is the essence of this book. 

If the Hippy Movement achieved anything lasting, Alicia's book seems to sum it all up. Whether quoting Lao-Tsu, "be like water", or encouraging us to "discover the serenity of living with the rhythms of the earth", Alicia shows us that how we live our lives DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE! Not just by removing ourselves from the rat race or not eating at McCorporation, but by tuning into nature and sharing our lives with other people in a non-technological way. By walking softly upon the Earth we show our respect for all life and we satisfy our souls each day lived in balance and freedom. Whether this concept will survive the 21st Century is something we have the power to determine. "Living on The Earth" has returned just in time to remind us of our connection to nature and our responsibility to each other and the planet. 


What originally inspired you to write "Living on The Earth," and where did you get your information? 
When I arrived at Wheeler Ranch (a California commune) in the early spring of 1969, I was enchanted by the beauty of the place, the serene and loving nature of the people and the spiritually appealing nature of voluntary primitivism.  I set about learning everything I could to prepare myself to live there.  I realized I was not alone in needing to learn basic outdoor skills, and decided I would make a manual for the other new people on the land as I learned what I needed to know from more experienced members of the community as well as reference books such as Dick's Encyclopedia of Practical Formulas, which was published in the 1890's. 

Making a book was not a new endeavor for me.  I had already created two illustrated books which were not published--a cookbook for living cheaply in the city, and a book of drawings into which I divided the words of the chapter Solitude from Walden by Thoreau--three to four words per page.  Filling notebooks with drawings and words had been my way of life since my mid-teens, and still is today.  What was new for me was taking it to a publisher.  I started by approaching Stewart Brand founder/editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, a friend of Ramon Sender, with whom I later wrote Being Of The Sun.  Stewart offered to review the book in the catalog and suggested I go to Book People, his distributor, to see if their new imprint, The Bookworks, would publish it.  They did. 

What has inspired you to re-release the book 30 years later? 
I'd been thinking about it for awhile.  I got the rights reverted  from Random House in 1994, and I had been working on updating the contents of the book and approaching publishers and agents since that time. The back to the land movement has only escalated, with intentional communities growing all over the world.  The Y2K scare brought a lot of people into serious questioning of their way of life.  I also saw evidence of hippie style among people in their teens and twenties. 

What kind of things did you have to change in the book? 
Developments in sustainable technology and  protection of the environment were foremost.  I added new recipes for basic health food items I didn't have then--amazake, granola, seed yogurt, sauerkraut, sorbet.  I corrected and enlarged upon many of the practical directions.  For example, in addition to the basic soap recipes in the original book, there is now a beautiful recipe for natural vegetable oil based soap enhanced with essential oils. 

Is the book as relevant today as it was 30 years ago? 
This remains to be seen.  Over the years, I had heard from many people how personally important it was for them.  Erik Frye, who helped revise the new edition, was moved to make a life study of conservation and sustainable technology after receiving the book as a gift when he was eight years old.  Dove White, who contributed material to the revised book, was national president of the Junior League, a very conservative women's charitable organization, at the time she purchased a copy of the original book in Manhattan.  A year later, book in backpack, Dove was heading west to start an intentional community in Oregon.  Today she is an environmentalist writer.  Several people told me they carried it around the world.  One young woman contacted me over the web to tell me her mother had named her after me.  She was born in a teepee, of course. 

Could you go back to the communal life you lived then? 
Wouldn't that be great!!  For me, this year is about driving around telling stories and singing in bookstores and other gathering places, but there's no telling what will come after that.