Sic Transit Gloria: a eulogy for Peter Berg, the father of bioregionalism

Sic transit gloria: And so passes one of the most intriguing, profoundly influential men I have met in my life.

I first met Peter Berg in the spring of 1967 at the Digger’s Free Store in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco, where radical politics met the counterculture.

My daughter Gilian and I lived on the Panhandle on Oak. I was 24. I waited table nights at the Committee, a comedy club in North Beach. Days, I worked as an entry-level garmento at Alvin Duskin, which made mod-inspired dresses at affordable prices. Our working group was planning a free city event and I was assigned to line up some free bands. Those were the days when everyone knew everyone in San Francisco, at one or two degrees of separation at most.

Gilian immediately found Judy’s son Aaron in the store, both of them three years old, soft raven feather hair, pale skin, rosy cheeks, blue eyes and high energy. They began tearing up and down the aisles while Judy, who was folding clothes on the far side of the store, called to Peter on the opposite side. When I walked over, Peter jackknifed out of a curtained cupboard bed. Compact, quick on his feet, and concentrated, like sprung steel, Peter had a wry piercing gaze. While his every move and word was theatrical, it came from within him, to punctuate and call attention to what was occurring. Peter was faintly reptilian (like a raptor is also reptilian) without being repulsive. In fact, I found Peter highly attractive because of the caliber of thoughts and impulses that emanated from him like a natural pulse That day, in the Free Store, when I quickly explained what we were doing, he put me on the pay phone on the wall with Danny Rifkin, manager of the Grateful Dead, who assured me they would be there for us.

I like remembering that I started by asking Peter Berg for a favor, which he quickly made happen. (Later the tables would be turned and I would be asking others to fund our ideas: a fishing boat, a trip to Mongolia, Punch and Judy puppet theater workshops.)

A week later, on my way to a North Beach meeting of our Free City group, having accepted a ride on a motorcycle, I smashed my right thigh and spent in the Summer of Love in traction above Golden Gate Park at the UC Med Center on Sutro Hill.

I didn’t see Peter and Judy again for a year, but the thing they were helping broadcast made their way from the Haight Ashbury and the Park into my hospital room effortlessly. You’ve doubtless heard it said: we were all Diggers. I was one of those denizens of the scene happy to have the inner cadre plan the events, publish the Oracle, put out broadsides that reflected our views, open a free job Bank, free Clinic…in short, I trusted them absolutely to represent me. That cadre–the Free Family–never betrayed that trust.

Later that summer, I moved into a house with good friends Fay Blake and Phil Davis, radical steelworker. Frank Cieciorka, the artist, Vinne Rinaldi, Murry Korngold were all part of this circle of Diggers. From my window, supported by my crutches, I watched Phyllis Willner and the other wild Free Family girls head off for New Mexico in the back of a pickup truck. I went back to work at Alvin Duskin’s and moved to North Beach, part of a Jules and Jim ménage-a-trois.

In the intervening year, I shared glasses of wine at Enrico’s with poets and writers in North Beach, while going to work every morning. When it got too hard, I gave everything away and moved into a tepee in Big Sur for the winter. After my first Passover at the Sun Gallery, in south Big Sur, I headed east to my family’s property in western New York, where we were magnets for all the countercultural energy that was building there. In the fall, I moved to Santa Fe where I took my place as a member of our East Indian band: sitar, sarod, and tabla. I played tamboura.

And then the Diggers sent out a call: Would everyone come back to the Haight to make a stand? We did.

During the terrible winter of 68-69 Haight Ashbury became an insane asylum without walls. The street became a gaunlet of hustlers, groups took up resident in our basement, our front room. Motorcyclists killed a young woman in her home down the street.

Peter Berg remembered picking me and Gilian up, taking us to Treat Street for the women there to feed and comfort. I don’t recall that incident at all but I believed Peter years later when he told me about it. Things were so bad–think Paris as the Nazis marched on it–I called Gilian’s father and got her a plane ticket to safety. As the winter tapered into spring, Psychedelic Rangers made the rounds of houses where individuals in catatonic states of fear were coaxed back with simple therapies. My Ranger non-verbally explained the golden mean to me with a painting and a piece of string for measuring. He squeezed out fingerpaints and had me draw the sacred Sanskrit letter aum. Someone gave me a small bag of medicine, acid chips in a baggie–“Just one at a time”–to give me the courage to go out and see the world again.

Then a town meeting was called to brainstorm what might be next. I remember–or think I remember–a vision being articulated of taking to the road, visiting the far-flung communes who had established beachheads of experimental countercultural lifestyle.

I stood up with my own vision, recalling being a child in England, how the interiors of blocks in London were often open parklands for the community of the block to enjoy: vegetable gardens, allees of large trees, fountains and playgrounds. After, in a article in the Berkeley Barb, I was credited with inspiring People’s Park but what I recall is leafleting our block, standing the window with Vinnie Rinaldi, crowbars and tools in hands, trying to get up the nerve to take down the first fence with it was perfectly obvious that removing even one fence would have us all behind bars by nightfall.

In the spring of 1969, I married into the Free Family and Peter and Judy became daily intimates. So how to squeeze out the essence of that intimacy that lasted more than forty years?

Peter had an uncanny ability to make things burgeon in me. Judy and Peter named their truck the Albigenisien Ambulance, and spread stories of the Albigensians or Cathars, heretic perfecti from South of France in the middle ages who died to the last man, woman and child rather than renounce their values and their community. This story set deep roots in me: my novel Burning Silk, published last year and one of three winners of the Ben Franklin First Book awards, reached back into that deep history of the Huguenots and their Cathar/ Albigensian forebearers.

In fact, Peter awoke my love of history, such a crucial part of who I am, what shapes my time, that I can only observe wonderingly that I once loathed history for its focus on dates and treaties.

How many of us heard the story of the Duc Abors from Peter, those Slavic folk in the plains of Canada who, every few years, would burn their homes and move on, the ultimate spiritual potlatch for an incurably nomadic people?

Many have spoken of Peter’s immense contribution to this period of time we inhabit, in reawakening us to our ancient relationship with our watershed. Together with Raymond Dasman, Freeman House, David Simpson, Gary Snyder and others an entirely new field of study was born. I call this the First Wave of bioregionalism. In the acknowledgements section of my novel, I credit Peter and Judy, Freeman and David for “incubating and fostering bioregionalism, one of the most germane ideas of my lifetime and of this book.” In what I call the Second Wave of Bioregionalism, tens of thousands of small watershed organization were born out of this understanding, fostering and restoring not only local rivers, lakes and creeks but also the people and their culture, a continuous adjustment, revitalization and engagement Peter named “reinhabitation.”

For me, Peter was also a memory bank. Key moments, etched with chiseled clarity, featured Peter, avuncular, leaning in close to me like a kindly raptor, with a message for me and me alone that would begin with “Let me show you something,” or “Have you ever heard of…” or “We all try to be perfect. But..” or “I remember one Halloween in the Rockies when you…”

Of course Peter the actor was another caliber of being, his sense of nonverbal humor animating his face, hands, posture. I missed the years of Reinhabitory Theater from the mid-70’s to the early 80’s, as I headed east, home to my biological family. But I only needed to see black and white still photos of Peter in the role of Lizard to have the entire hilarious reel roll before my interior eye.

When I started the Reinhabitory Institute a couple years ago, an homage to Peter’s vision, I told Peter and Judy that part of the mission of the organization would be to see the Third Wave of Bioregionalism ushered in, when every household, every neighborhood, every school would not only understand but practice the principles of bioregionalism…even though they might not call it by that name. In the critical first year of our start-up, both Peter and Judy were immensely supportive. In the small community on the Susquehanna River where I have practiced community organizing for the past 26 years, when I say the word Reinhabitory Institute, everyone nods. The term is self explanatory, crossing political and class boundaries. Thus, Peter’s legacy keeps on expanding, his gift to humanity, to understand how to fit into the web of life.

Peter’s wit was stiletto. We recognized the same gene pool in each other and understood behaviors that, to others, often seemed cold and even cruel.

Once when I called after an absence of a couple years, Peter said, “Is this Destiny the good witch or Destiny the bad witch?” I might well have turned the question around.

And yet know this: even when being ruthless and direct, Peter Berg was always moving in service to the truth and the light.

Peter’s work was this: to give context to my work as a community organizer. Whether dumpster diving, behind the scrim of a Punch and Judy Puppet show, organizing participants to enroll in a dance, theater or yoga workshop, developing a community garden, working underground in the food and beverage industry, confronting the current history of a Valley on the Susquehanna with half of the population living in poverty, Peter’s conceptual frameworks were steadying ballast, context in a raging sea of anomie, in a compassless culture.

Peter and Judy connected a vast web of likeminded people. I have never been to Gary Snyder’s KitKitDizze but Peter and Judy brought us a piece of the herb to smell, the keystone herb that makes Gary’s home unique. On the way to my husband Chuck Gould’s and my house in Conundrum Creek outside of Aspen, lay Rolling Thunder and Spotted Fawn’s house in Nevada who sent gifts and stories. We dropped south with the truck convoy to Dome City on the New Mexico/Colorado border and saw the advances those people were making in passive solar and geodesic domes, brought our sargis berry preserves.

Years later and years ago, I tasted my first acorn muffin that Judy had made. Heard about the independence struggle of Fourth Nations–Lapps, Galicians, Basques, Australian aborigines–from Peter, and considered, with him, a participatory democracy dilemma: how to devalue or neutralize the educated British accent making a point in open parliament against the person from an oral tradition, speaking English poorly, if at all.

That cadre–the Free Family– betrayed that trust in only one essential way: the tribe was modeled–perhaps unconsciously–on the patrilineal rather than the matrilineal, and that made all the difference. We were zero-base modeling a new culture but–out of ignorance–we didn’t pull out that noxious root. But time, the great healer, has brought parity and equity between the genders, leaving the Sixties experience of women being silenced a final harsh lesson from the annals of patriarchy. Finally, in many contexts, women have taken their place running things, while men represent our mutually arrived at decisions to the world. Sons and daughters hope that we can go forward with both men and women running things and representing our decision to the world. We shall see. Now that we have taken our voices back, and moved into our natural spheres of power, I can see us move from gender parity to full equality. With time, however, I have seen how much gender differences serve us in finding our roles.