Fifty Years Later
The Diggers and our Interview Project
In the mid-1960s, as the New Left expanded and rose to its antiwar apogee and countercultural movements had begun to stir, a nucleus of poets, politicos, artists and philosophers converged in the culture cradles of the Haight-Ashbury and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Whatever they called themselves–Provos, Motherfuckers, Diggers–a leaderless, anarchistic movement found expression on the streets and storefronts of New York, San Francisco and Amsterdam.
Without taking discernible shape, the Digger nucleus radiated creative energy. It published poetry and stories, drafted explorations and manifestos and printed artwork in alternative organs like the San Francisco Oracle and the Berkeley Barb.
Digger working groups like the Communications Company dis-organized spontaneous events on the street and de-materialized Human Be-Ins, the Summer of Love, concerts, screenings, and readings at the Straight Theater and the Fillmore.
Diggers became the progenitors of Free — Free Food in the Parks, Free Stores, Free Clinics, Free City Puppets, 1% Free, an initiative to make one percent of San Francisco’s goods and services free of charge.
Diggers were not hippies. They were not flower children. They eschewed easy definition and media-jacket constraints, but the Diggers were not random. Many had come to awareness in the civil rights and antiwar movements, many just appeared, while still others sprang from a highly evolved avant-garde-turned-radical theater culture with roots in the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Moving from the stage and proscenium, Diggers took theater to the streets and translated it into real life, where every event, every moment had significance. They reorganized reality by capsizing frames of reference. All the Digger world was a stage, and they the players. The audience was invited to take what they could — or join them.
As tour buses invaded the Haight-Ashbury and the Lower East Side, hard drugs hit the streets, the cops raided the Haight and Stonewall, and free concerts were co-opted by the Woodstock syndrome, the Diggers began to feel the urgency to change more than their frame of reference. They decided to put the Digger thing to rest and morph.
After a grand finale street event, the Death of the Digger, the loose confederacy now known as the Free Family generated mass meetings in which they proposed to leave the city and take to the road. Many built fantastical homes on the backs of trucks and buses and began their exodus.
During this circumnavigation of the forty-eight states, Digger truck caravans drifted from commune to commune, sharing news and developing a new vocabulary that spoke to the remarkable advances being made on many fronts — alternative energy sources and social experiments, holistic medicine and organic cultivation.
By the mid-1970s, the Digger diaspora had begun to generate comprehensive worldviews rich with theory and practice. Bioregionalism posited an ancient relationship between man, culture and a homeland watershed, an interspecies relationship uniquely characteristic of each watershed. During the next two decades, ten thousand watershed organizations sprang up across the continent and around the world, inspired by the work of Peter Berg, Raymond Dasmann, Freeman House and other writers and practitioners.
Diggers have always been a group characterized by powerful writing: poetry, plays, manifestos, novels, nonfiction and essays. Many writers who grew out of the Beat Generation journeyed out of the 1950s into the countercultural years of the ‘60s and ‘70s and beyond. Poets Gary Snyder and Diane DiPrima and Ronnie Davis, theater visionary and bioregional practitioner, continue to make strong creative statements that reflected the evolution of Digger.
This year, several Diggers will be releasing new books and plays. This series conducts interviews with Charles Degelman, Destiny Kinal, and Peter Coyote, each of whom will see books released within the coming year that continue a commentary that began with earlier works set in the New Left, the Digger-born Free Family, and a communal and bioregional legacy that dates back centuries. Anthropologist John Salter, who co-authored Mavis McCovey’s Medicine Trails, will reflect on his years recording the Yurok medicine woman’s memoir.
David Simpson, co-founder of the Mattole Restoration Council and one of the earliest successful salmon restoration projects in the world, writes biting social satire theater pieces through his collaboration with choreographer Jane Lapiner. Human Nature’s productions, which have focused in recent years on climate change, arise from material gleaned from the global Climate Conferences attended by Simpson and Lapiner over decades. Simpson’s piece, which will appear here, opens the door for Simpson to talk about the subject without the constraints of objective reportage.
Kent Minault has been performing his one-man show Digger-ee-doo to rapt audiences in Southern California…for free.
Is a new spirit being born that will refresh the tenets of the Free Family as they come together, to age together? Could it be contagious?