To the chronically tired,
While I may be lazy in my scholarship, let it never be said I’m a stranger to physical labor. On Monday, I started volunteering one morning a week at a local farm here in Northampton. As promised, the work was not glamorous—weeding, weeding, and more weeding—but it was surprisingly satisfying. As an academic, I’ve spent hours and hours revising the same paragraph, only to rework it again the following day. So imagine the joy in releasing a bushel of parsley from the strangling grasp of an encroaching weed, shaking off the soil, and moving on to the next plant. When I came home that afternoon, I still had dirt smeared across my brow—proof! It’s not so easy when your regular work consists of sipping iced coffee while staring at a computer screen, trying not to cry. I know I’m getting ahead of myself for someone whose farming experience only amounts to four hours. But indulge me, dear reader. Do you know what it’s like to write a dissertation?
I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the sustainable farming movement, and the longer history of environmentalism in the U.S. Much of the current organic/local/natural food movement has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, though those hippies probably never suspected their work would yield Whole Foods markets in 39 states (for better or worse).
Their spirit, however, lives on, thanks to Whole Earth Catalog Archive. The Whole Earth Catalog was launched in 1968 by Stewart Brand, described at the time by Tom Wolfe as “a thin blond guy… No shirt, however, just an Indian bead necktie on bare skin and a white butcher’s coat with medals from the King of Sweden on it.” The goal of the catalog, as the first installment explained, was to market tools that enabled the “individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” The products themselves range kind of wildly–a glass blowing guide, buckskin, hunting boots, self-hypnosis manuals. Though my favorite ad is for Anthony Greenback’s Book of Survival, which beat out The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook by several decades. As the catalog assures, you may laugh, but “next time you’re running from an enraged bull, you remember about flinging down your jacket.”
By 1971, the catalog ballooned from 66 pages to 452, with a well-expanded section on land-use, from gardening to goat husbandry (Beekman Boys, here is your heritage!).
The catalog also yielded the CoEvolution Quarterly, later renamed The Whole Earth Review, also viewable online. They’re worth browsing for the trippy illustrations alone, including this cover from 1977 by Robert Crumb, which lightly parodies the utopian ethos of the back-to-the-land movement. The issue includes Crumb’s comic treatment of a “Modern Dance Workshop,” plus the results of a Stanford study on “Voluntary Simplicity,” lessons on retrofitting tract housing with solar panels, a story by J.G. Ballard, and thoughts on death from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. 70s counterculture was anything but narrow.
Those less eager to flip pages online (or pay for the PDF) can also view some articles in HTML format.
I’ll leave it to readers to reflect on why we’re still fighting the battles the Whole Earth Catalog started forty years ago. For more on the catalog’s afterlife, you can check out Fred Turner’s well-received study From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, or Brand’s latest Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. And for a decidedly contemporary take, check out Adbusters latest issue, titled the “Whole Brain Catalog: Access to Therapies.”
On that note, back to my mental gardening.