Bookmonger: Two takes on experiments in back-to-the-land movement

“Naked in the Woods” – Margaret Grundstein

“Building a Better News” – Evelyn Searle Hess

Oregon State University Press has published two books in quick succession about people who rejected a conventional lifestyle and went to live in the woods. Although each of the authors pursued a Thoreauvian idealism to live life deliberately, the results of their experiments are different.

“We abandoned indoor plumbing, electricity, supermarkets, and the benefits of our graduate Ivy League degrees for 160 acres in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest,” writes Margaret Grundstein in her new book, “Naked in the Woods.” In 1970, she and her husband, along with several others, founded their own hippie version of utopia. It was high on drugs, freedom and sharing, and it was low – very low – on cash.

Grundstein talks frankly about the difficulties of abandoning traditional gender-based roles for a new egalitarian ethic. Not only were there deeply ingrained cultural expectations about the division of labor, there were different tolerances and different priorities.

“We may not have mastered a communal vegetable garden, but dope was another matter, the crop of priority for the men in our group,” she observes.

On another front, mutual acceptance was harder than it looked, and free love turned out to be problematic.

Their experiment eventually fizzled out, a victim of fractured relationships and arguments over property ownership. After five years of communal living, the author left the woods and resettled in Los Angeles.

But that doesn’t mean that she abandoned her ideals entirely, and Grundstein enumerates the ways in which, more than four decades later, many of the people who had participated in their commune continue to pursue aspects of the life they had dreamed of there.

She asserts that the hippie commune movement has had a lasting impact on society – it can be seen today in the organic foods section at the grocery store, in changing marijuana laws, in readily available birth control, and in the growing alternative energy industries.

The other book, “Building a Better Nest,” takes the ethos expressed in “Naked in the Woods” and casts it in a 21st century light. In 2008, at the age of 72, Evelyn Searle Hess and her husband began building a house on land they had camped on for 16 years in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range.

They wanted to create an environmentally friendly home – taking advantage of natural light, making use of solar energy, collecting rainwater, and returning biosolids to the land instead of flushing them away. And they had to make all of this happen on a ”just-plain-folks” budget.

Hess chronicles the ups and downs of their experience – the land use regulations that needed to be understood and adhered to, the research into sustainable materials and construction methods, the application of elbow grease, time, and acquired expertise to a myriad of tasks.

Along the way she reflects on her ancestors, her progeny, and the friends who lent a hand in the building.

By turns philosophical and chatty, “Building a Better Nest” is a relaxed reflection on expectation, happiness and domicile.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.