Reinhabitory Institute: I read what you’ve written about your political awakening, but there was a lot going on at the time. So what was it about the Diggers, or they the Digger movement or the free movement that particularly attracted you and compelled you to join that and not something else. There was a whole counterculture and a whole radical movement going on and so what was it that led you to the Diggers?
Kinal: It’s one of those accidental things in retrospect, but, you know, it couldn’t have happened any other way. I wasn’t a flower child, although that was very compelling, spending your days stoned and beautiful in Golden Gate Park. I had been very active in SDS in graduate school at Indiana University but my political awakening really came through the first family that I married into, the Handelmans who were socialist, atheist, intellectuals with many artist and theater friends.
I was employed when I got to the Bay Area; I had a real job at Alvin Duskin Manufacturing which may not ring a bell. Alvin has gone on to be a political leader in many issues, but in the mid-Sixties, the Mod Movement in London came directly to San Francisco, missing New York. Duskin made really wonderful clothes at an affordable price, perhaps most famous for the peace dress that had the peace symbol woven in white against a black background. A second generation textile person, Alvin was a genius at stringing up a loom. At any rate I was the most junior member of management team and the folks at Alvin Duskin were very political, so I immediately fell in with that group socially and politically. Alvin introduced us to a lot of his friends who are still around and active like Jerry Mander. Nights, I worked at The Committee at night waiting tables, a satirical comedy club that launched a generation of comedians like Gary Sinise.
Even though I’d been in theater in high school and college it never, EVER would have occurred to me to try out for the San Francisco Mime Troupe; I was intimidated; it was out of my league. So I lived in the Haight, I had a two year old daughter from my Handelman marriate, and I was the only person in my household bringing in money. I traded rent for childcare.
I considered myself a Digger because all of those printed pieces that came out of the street like The Oracle and the Berkeley Barb spoke to what all of us were feeling on the street and honestly, this was my first experience of this. I don’t even know if it has a name –collective unconscious or zeitgeist or something like that. Just as we, the anonymous Diggers on the street would start to feel one way or another about something, it would be reflected back to us from the press and so we were all wired into the same thing, whatever that simultaneous synergy was, and it was very political.
When the National Guard came and occupied the Haight from Kezar Stadium, they would come out into the streets swinging their billy clubs when I would be walking with my two -year-old down to the grocery store. It was very frightening. Yeah, but I was invisible. I was a woman with a small child and they were after, mostly, the men. In the meantime, my friends back in the East who were with SDS were involved in the Democratic national convention which again, you know, I heard about it from my first husband and it sounded really bloody and awful. Read Charlie Degelman’s Gates of Eden for a highly accurate description of what occurred at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago at that time.
So we’re talking about 1968? What did you do activity-wise with the Diggers? did you distribute blue milk? Free clothes? What kinds of things did you do?
I used the free services. I first met Peter and Judy Berg at the Free Store. My friends at Alvin Duskin were declaring San Francisco a Free City, cut off from the peninsula like a city state. I was in charge of lining up the free music, an obligatory part of a successful event. I went in there with Gilian and asked Judy if Peter was around. He came rolling out of a bed closet along the wall and gave me Danny Rifkin’s number. Danny managed the Grateful Dead. I called Danny from the wall pay phone, who agreed to play our Free City event. Judy Berg had a little boy Aaron, who was Gilian’s age and looked like Gilly: pale skin, dark hair, blue eyes. When we would go in the store, Aaron and Gilly would play, friends by proximity. I think they went to the Shire School together during those times as well.
I went to the Free Clinic once, young doctors who worked for free seeing patients on a walk-in basis. We also had a free job bank, quite innovative. You could go in there and find out what kind of work there was. And it wasn’t work for free, it was work you could be paid for. Of course, every weekend Diggers served free food in the park and one of the bands popular at the time–Janis Joplin, Country Joe, Grateful Dead–would be playing free in the Panhandle across the street from our apartment.
Was this all in the Haight Ashbury area?
It was all in the Haight Ashbury, even though I was working at third and Mission and playing in North Beach a lot because a lot of my friends were in North Beach.
And The Committee?
I was a cocktail waitress there, in my early 20’s, but my group at Alvin Duskin introduced me to older friends who were more involved in San Francisco radical politics. Despite the fact that I had read Saul Alinsky when I was working as a community organizer with Johnson’s War on Poverty, had read and digested Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and the anarchists of the early part of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe, despite the fact that I had trained others during my years with SDS in graduate school, designing teach-ins to educate the public about the War in Vietnam, I only began to meet, first hand, seasoned community organizers after I moved to the Bay Area. Diggers were just one flavor of resistance that were cooking in the Bay Area, the most appealing flavor to me because of what I brought with me to the Bay Area. But in those days, San Francisco and Berkeley seemed like small communities with overlapping circles. Everyone you knew knew everyone you knew.
I want to return for a moment to my experience with Johnson’s War on Poverty, before I got involved with SDS. This was my first experience with a government program and I actually bought the cant. I had no experience with these kinds of things: they told us “we want you to talk to poor people, disenfranchised people, and we want you to find out what they want, because what they want is what we’re going to fund.” I was naive about the way government programs work and so I went out into the rural South– Southern Indiana is the rural South–and began telling people that the government wanted to know what would make a difference in their lives. And that they would give that to them.
After, it reminded me of the time I was an encyclopedia salesman, telling people they needed these books for their children to succeed, paying on time, like an insurance program, a pyramid scheme costing way in excess of the cost of the books. After my first sale, I quit, seeing what a shtick it was, that I had not only suckered the people I sold to, but I had been suckered.
I have never, before or since, seen such poverty as I saw during my time as an organizer with the War on Poverty in southern Indiana. People living literally in hovels, you know, tar paper shacks, dark with three or four generations living together in there. An old woman rocking in one corner, someone who was not in their right mind, drooling, in another. A baby in dirty diapers on a cot. Johnson’s people had read their Saul Alinsky too. I was selling this notion of self-determination to people and they were buying it more or less. We were all betrayed because the War on Poverty went down the tubes when Johnson went out of office, a powerful lesson for me.
And so you took that with you to San Francisco?
I did. And found that the community organizer in me couldn’t be uprooted. Another singular and watershed event for me was taking acid (LSD) for the first time. I had an earlier similar experience like that when I had my tonsils removed at four years old. Right? So I knew about that, but no one was able to tell me what it was going to be. So we went down to Big Sur in the fall of 1966 and took my first acid trip. I sat in this brilliant white light for about eight hours until the sun started setting, a typical first trip, I was told afterwards. And then when night came, sitting on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean and Highway One, watching the sound of a motorcycle approaching and receding in colored concentric circles. Seeing the plant life around me going through the lifecycle of that species of plant at what appeared to be the molecular level. I wasn’t like some of my friends who were associated with Millbrook for instance in the early days and who took literally hundreds of acid trips. I’m a Virgo and will try anything once. While I took acid a few more times, it was never as powerful as the first one. I preferred natural psychedelics like peyote and mushrooms to facilitate my spiritual development. At the same time, in the decade before gurus, we sampled widely from religions and mystical experience from all over the world.
So how was the acid trip a watershed?
I’d been in graduate school, which was this very rational environment. People would come from our SDS chapter to see me in the Haight and say, “What are you doing and why are you doing it?” I would look at them and say exactly the same thing back. I just couldn’t relate to speaking in academic jargon. And the anger that they felt, politically. The were the culture of the discontented and I was deep into the mellow groove of California, accepting of the beauty of the day, confident that everything that was happening was happening for the best. Having found my place, my time, my people, I had left behind that corrosive anger and critical way of looking at the world of the New Left…which I picked up again later, when the women’s movement came into its own. (Laughter.)
So let’s fast forward to the current era. And what is Reinhabitory Institute?
I was invited to an academic conference in Le Havre, France, a couple of autumns ago. The subject was the Woodstock years and I was the only non-academic presenter. I had lived that era and so I prepared a slide show that spoke about the evolution from the counter-cultural Diggers to bioregionalism.
Bioregionalism, which expresses the personal relationship you enjoy with your home watershed, was the critical piece in my founding Reinhabitory Institute. I married into the Digger family in 1969 and met a core group of people who I’m still very close to, a second family. In the early to mid- 1970s, these friends began to develop a theory about our relationship to our home watersheds, which they named “bioregionalism”. They didn’t really discover anything new so much as they discovered something really ancient in us, articulated it, and brought it back. I called it the first, second and third waves of bioregionalism.
The first wave was when these guys including Freeman House, Raymond Dasmann and Peter Berg developed a theory about the importance of our relationship to our home watershed. All of us who were in their intellectual penumbra, so to speak, got it, and read widely and felt the same way. That was the first wave.
The second wave was equally astonishing because in very short order, as soon as people got the philosophy, the practice spread out all over the country and to other continents, with a hundred thousand small and large watershed organizations rising in the wake of this rediscovery.
So Berg coined the term “reinhabit” which I practice in my writing. In recreating a historical time, my imagination allows me to re-inhabit a time in which real people, some of them who are based on my own ancestors, inhabited a period of time and place in which certain realities became clear to them, and from which they made certain decisions. Our mission for Reinhabitory Institute is to reinhabit our home watersheds, this time in harmony.
Let’s talk about your writing, you have published a novel, Burning Silk, which is the first book of a proposed trilogy, and you are about to publish Linen Shroud, the second book in the trilogy? Tell us about this and how does this connect this to the reinhabitory theme?
I got my MFA at Bennington as I was just about to turn fifty, where I began to learn how to write better prose with more muscle and less romanticism. The Textile Trilogy occurred to me not only because textiles have been an important theme in my life but also because textiles represent women’s work, those friable everyday things that don’t survive in the archaeological record like stone and iron.
Every serious writer who uses history to build their theme tells of a similar search: how they found their story. Arthur Miller poured through transcripts of the Salem Witch Trial to find his inspiration for his play The Crucible which he used to talk about the McCarthy era witch hunts. He would have been blacklisted if he spoke of the evils of McCarthy-ism and HUAC (House Unamerican Activites Committee of the 1950’s) directly. I am among those writers like Milan Kundera who speaks of unearthing values in history that lie “buried in that vast cemetery of forgetting.” My subject in the Textile Trilogy is the nineteenth century.
In pursuit of my story, I went to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and sat in their library looking through the archives. My characters are loosely based on my own maternal line who came into this country through Bucks County. I sat there looking through the archives until I came across the fact that they had produced silk there, and that was it, my a-ha! moment. I had found my subject matter: silk. From there I went to the Cevennes Mountains in France and researched the Huguenouts, the protestant Christians, who–in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and their religious freedom–fled for the borders. The Huguenots–which is not their name for themselves but means “shadow people” –held trade secrets in many of the guilds. Producing silk was one of them. And so when they fled for the borders, those that got out took their secrets with them, for making fine steel, for producing silk and other crafts, settling all over the world where they disappeared into the population, one of their qualities. Odds are, you wouldn’t know if you had a Huguenot relative.
It was Peter Berg who first called my attention to these people, by circulating the stories of the Albigensians, or Cathars in France, who were consider heretics by the Catholic hierarchy and who–in medieval times–were burned and put to the sword for their beliefs, centuries earlier, the ancestors of the Huguenots. Berg had this way of calling things to your attention that would wind up being highly seminal when they had germinated.
I won’t take this time to tell you about silk, and why it is a marker in my life, why I recognized that I had come across my story when I saw they had produced silk in Bucks County when my female relation lived there in the early 19th century.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I had been highly struck in graduate school when I read Engel’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and his study of Iroquois matrilineality. The Textile Trilogy is about a matrilineal people–native people in the Eastern US–meeting a patrilineal people–my European ancestors– and in many cases coming into conflict, because the two systems of calculating lineage have diametrically opposing value systems.
People confuse matrilineal with matriarchal. Matriarchal means that women rule instead of the men whereas matrilineal people enjoy equity between the genders. You inherit your mother’s name, clan, heirlooms, stories in a matrilineal culture, almost unimaginable to Europeans who count their ancestors, name, belongings through the paternal line. With the Iroquois/Haudenausaunee and Lenape, men are the chiefs and speak for the tribe in public while women elect the chiefs and take them out again, if a chief is not behaving well. In a traditional matrilineal society, women hold the relationship with the land. Violence against a woman was punishable by banishment or death in earlier times when matrilineal cultures held to their traditional ways, before the influence of the European values.
The more I explored it, the more I realize that the European silk workers were also matrilineal people, people who had a similar division of labor, where the men marketed the silk to the outside world and were in charge of the mulberry, while the women were in charge of the secrets of raising worms who would produce a fine silk. Women silkworkers passed their secrets down generation to generation; I met a maitresse in France who told me this, that their secrets were passed down mother to daughter to daughter over many generations.
The closer I looked, the more the traces of an earlier cultures emerged, before it was erased by Christianity and the concommitant patrilineality those chauvinistic religions produced.
And the book was the impetus in your deciding to start a small press?
At a certain point, having shopped Burning Silk around, I became aware that the publishing industry was going through profound changes in terms of corporate takeovers with values unfriendly to literature. Friends of mine told me that I would have nothing to say about the cover of my book, for instance, and that–from the time I signed the contract–my book would be out of my hands.
I have always had this feeling that my books will be well known posthumously. I’m okay with this, happy to write the best books that I can, less concerned about what happens to them now. I have been a book artist and worked in creative roles in advertising and marketing, so I care deeply about the aesthetics of a book. When I saw a piece of pre-Raphaelite art by Thomas Waterman [sic], I realized that my book had to have that cover. So a small group of us formed sitio tiempo press with the purpose of publishing books that had a reinhabitory or bioregional message. My book Burning Silk was the first book we published, as is so often the case with people who found small presses. It gave us great pleasure and satisfaction to have Burning Silk win a First Book award from Independent Book Publishers Association’s Ben Franklin awards.
What I’ve learned from Robert Olen Butler, Carol Maso, and others among my teachers, is that the subject matter of a written piece should influence the form. Burning Silk is about the sensory world, like silk, and the prose is very sensual. The second book, Linen Shroud, which is with my two editors now, back and forth between us, takes place with the same two families, Huguenot and native, twenty years later. I am at the point now of trying to decide whether my readers will let me get away with a writing style after the war that is very shell shocked and stripped of sensory detail.
Why do you have two editors?
Lois Gilbert has been my editor since Burning Silk. She really gets my writing and challenges me to rethink my scenes, my themes, and my characters. To take risks. My other editor, JoAnne Grandstaff, is native American and challenges me to appreciate a native point of view.
Linen Shroud is tough, like linen, like the Civil War. I did the research on linen production, way back when I was still in the early stages of writing Burning Silk. The subject is conflict, and linen is a fiber that struggles to be born: tough to produce, tough to grow, and–as my business partner Judith Thomas tells me–easy and supple to weave IF you meet certain conditions that linen insists on. For me, flax production is an excellent metaphor for conflict.
I’ve read deeply into every single war that has occupied me since the Vietnam War, the Civil War and World War I in particular, two gruesome wars with unimaginable losses of human life. Aside from the Spanish Civil War, I’m still too close to write into World War II or even to read deeply into it. I have a powerful and painful family history in Ukraine, which–if I am able to finish the Textile Trilogy, may come later in my writing career. I’m a late bloomer as a writer and it takes me the better part of a decade to write a novel that I am confident I will be pleased to outlive me.
For an antiwar activist, it has been very difficult writing this novel. I’ve been able to see, as the theme of this Textile Trilogy begins to dawn on me, that certain things came to an end during the Civil War that then could not be reversed, like the end of the guild culture and the triumph of the industrial revolution that happened so much later in the country than in England for instance.
As a feminist, I am very aware of the course that the women’s movement took during the 19th century. The women who came to this country from European countries became aware that the matrilineal native women, their neighbors, not only had the same rights as men but were the most valued members of the culture, whereas a European woman couldn’t own property and had no rights to her own children. Her husband could beat here with impunity. And so this tension between men and women really draws on the tension I felt from my years inside the Digger family…which no one wants to talk about and everyone wants to say is over. I have to wonder if we experience hard times in this country again, if an ugly chauvinism won’t raise its head again.
So, I’m allowing my anger just to rip in this particular novel. These women are realizing how they have been silenced and disenfranchise if indeed they ever were enfranchised.
In a matrilineal culture the women holds the main relationship with the land. They farm the land and their ways, rights and duties, are passed down through the female line. The well-meaning Quakers, in trying to be liaisons to the federal government, demanded that the native people–the Seneca in this case, from Western New York–reverse their ways and that the men begin to farm. These were the terms the Quakers set for the Seneca, to be their advocates with the government, that the men farm, use the plow, plant monocrops in straight lines instead of the mounds women build to grow the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash.
I have no idea whether they knew how destructive that was, how they broke that matrilineal relationship with the soil. How plowing the land was a capital offense equivalent to abusing a women, such a serious offense that no one ever dreamed of doing it. But my editor right now is telling me I have too many themes going on in Linen Shroud. The truth is all of these themes are important. They came to a head during the Civil War and were buried “in that vast cemetery of forgetting,” in the immortal words of one of my literary heroes, Milan Kundera.
The central theme of the Civil War is slavery, and the fight to end it. Does this play a part in your book?
You know it hardly does at all. My dearest African-American friend wanted me to create a character and I tried, but it was just taking the book too far out beyond the milieu that I was able to deal with. So no, the enslavement of half the population, of women, absorbs my characters more than the plight of black folks who don’t really appear in this novel. The treacherous promise that Quaker men made to their sisters and wives that if they helped free the slaves first, after they would fight together for women’s rights is still an ignominious chapter in gender history, a chapter that resonated bitterly again during the Sixties and the silencing of women that occurred during those radical movements, hard to talk about, too close for comfort.
I intend Linen Shroud to shed new light historically on the alliances that swirled around mechanization, particularly of textiles, and that moment of moving from wind and water sources of energy to extractive unsustainable sources like coal and wood, largely to meet demand for uniforms and gear during the Civil War. Revisiting this moment in time will give new meaning to the work of Luddites and saboteurs.
Luddite has become a derogatory term. We use these derogatory terms like Luddite, Hippie, Liberal, Redneck to keep the discussion from becoming richer about what was really going on there. Luddites, I have come to see from my research, were the people who said, “This is where we should stop. We shouldn’t cross that particular line, we shouldn’t be using extractive fuels to run our machinery. We shouldn’t be putting everybody under one roof, the same roof of a factory and working three eight hour shifts largely on the backs of women and children as well. We shouldn’t break up the communities that way.”
And so these people we’ve come to think of as Luddites had a lot of different names, saboteurs, anarchists, all saying the same thing : there’s a line here that we shouldn’t cross. They lost the moment, during the Civil War, because the demand of capital to produce equipment to support both armies was so powerful that the old system of production, which was much slower, and cotton which was much easier than linen though not as strong, won out over linen and hemp and other fibers.
This moment reminds me a similar moment in recent times with GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). I was operating in the foundation world at the time, working on the sustainable agriculture committee. The precautionary principle was being urged: given the consequences of GMO’s spreading through pollen drift, shouldn’t we test GMO’s, containing them before we release them? This was only fifteen years ago in the offices of the Ford Foundation. Today, they say, you can’t find corn or soybeans even in health food stores that aren’t infected with GMO genes.
The period of time in the first half of Linen Shroud relates back to my experience living counter-culturally in the Sixties and Seventies. In the mid 19th century in Western New York, my home watershed, there was this phenomenon they refer to as the “burnt over district,” a derogatory term applied ex post facto to utopian communities that were springing up like mushrooms everywhere. This utopian upswelling grew out of a spirit that considered all things to be possible in the new world.
Linen Shroud is set in Cottage, one of these utopian communities and the story becomes a case history of how the Civil War put paid to this utopian spirit. Fifty years later, at the turn of the century and after, Tolstoy and Chekhov in Russia, the Bloomsburys in England, Yeats in Ireland, and other members of the arts and crafts worlds in Germany, Austria and Scotland, Russia and Japan made an strong stand for utopian values against the upswelling of capitalism that was occurring at the same time. Arts and crafts movements in this country in Pasadena and Berkeley on the west coast, the Roycrofters on the east coast, were also creating what they intended to be more resilient utopian communities, based on arts and crafts values, resuscitated from the 19th century, before the Civil War.
In another fifty years, the Sixties countercultural communities arose, which in its turn have had a lasting impact on our culture in medicine and wellness, childrearing, childbearing and dying, textiles, organic food, farming, politics.
Many of these utopian communities of the past century and a half were founded by people trying to find a new way of life, to explore differences between the genders, how food was being raised, how childcare could be shared, forward thinking practices. And yet the word Utopian has taken on a really sinister meaning, even among the left. And certainly the fringe of any movement can discredit the mainstream, how we Americans discredit things that have had value by trivializing them and taking the part–the lunatic fringe–to stand for the whole. Thus, many will remember the black ski mask anarchists who destroyed property when it comes to the Occupy Movement. I fervently hope that the Occupy Movement, the first youthful movement to challenge corporate hegemony after our countercultural activism, is only experiencing a hiatus in the systol/diastole way organic movements ebb and flow like a tide, like blood flowing through our hearts in concert with the rhythm of the breath.
Now that we’re at the end of the Petroleum Age, of this love affair with modernity and progress and technology that we’ve enjoyed, we are just now looking around in dismay to find the wreckage of a planet that has been the consequence of this century of unbridled capitalist exploitation of people and resources. My books ask if it isn’t time to go back and look into those cemeteries of the nineteenth century and see what we jettisoned that might be salvaged for new building material.
And what do you think we’ll find?
Well for one thing, arts and crafts values. This idea of creating something between the union of the eye, the hand and the heart has not seen its day yet. It keeps welling up in for our consideration and people keep returning to these crafts and folkways that valorize sustainability.
For another, many of the practices we unearthed during the Sixties counter-cultural movement. How will the European and African and Asian populations who have immigrated to this continent for instance, become reabsorbed into this continent with its watershed-driven ways of life. How will we become native if not by observing the practices of those who have been native on these watersheds for millennia? Who understands how to live in harmony in this particular place, your home watershed, better than native people? We were native to our homelands on different continents. Don’t we remember how that intimacy over millennia plays out? I pray we have the strength to oppose a capitalism that continues to use globalization of markets to justify the destruction of native populations across the planet.
Like my editor said, too many themes. Too many important themes and I just can’t stop teasing them apart for my imagination to reinhabit.
Original posting of this interview can be found at Reinhabitory-Institute.Org.