Alicia Bay Laurel has
lived through 30 years of
transformation to stay
By Nadine Kam
November 17, 2000
Alicia Bay Laurel has been criss-crossing the country with an IBM-compatible laptop and cell phone, which doesn't seem compatible at all with the flower-child lifestyle and attitude that brought her fame and fortune 30 years ago as the author of "Living on the Earth."
"Living" was a handwritten, hand-illustrated tome that led a legion of people to ditch unfulfilling careers in favor of simpler, more meaningful work and earth-conscious lifestyles.
The book made the New York Times bestseller list and was reviewed favorably by Time, Look and numerous other magazines. More than 350,000 copies were sold over 10 years, which allowed Laurel, at age 21, to continue a carefree existence until she turned 30. That's when the hippie became a musician, photographer, and, eventually, businesswoman.
Now 51, she's aware of the rap heaped upon her generation, often regarded as hypocrites who turned on, tuned in and sold out.
But that characterization is unfair, she said. Once a hippie, always a hippie.
"It depends what's coming from inside of you," she said. "What's true about me is that I'm an artist and I make use of the tools that are appropriate to my work. The piece I'm doing now is an Internet piece, and the Internet is equally useful to all sections of society, including the counter-culture and those who live in rural areas. The Internet allows them to have cottage industries and live in the middle of nowhere and make a living."
The Internet piece she is talking about is her Web site, www.aliciabaylaurel.com, where she keeps a diary of her adventures in text and photos.
Until recently, Laurel called Kihei, Maui, home. That's where she was running her business, "A Wedding Made in Paradise" -- helping tourists plan their weddings -- for 11 years ending in July 1999 when Random House purchased the rights to republish "Living on the Earth" on its 30th anniversary. She's now on a national tour to promote the book.
Calling from Kauai in advance of her weekend performances at Borders Ward Centre and Waikele, she said, "My possessions are in a storage container in Maui. I have an automobile in L.A. It's a Dodge Caravan that I'm using on my tour. And I have a whole batch of suitcases that I call my file cabinets."
In her travels, she says she's met hundreds of people whose lives were shaped thanks in part to her work. One of those people was Erik Frye, who helped her revise "Living on the Earth."
He told Laurel he was 8 when his babysitter gave him a copy of the book. The ideas in it led him to Berkeley and UC-Davis, where he studied sustainable technology and conservation. He became an organic farmer and agricultural inspector who founded the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association.
Laurel never set out to dictate lifestyle to others. She had grown up in Los Angeles, and was 19 when she moved onto Wheeler Ranch, a 350-acre commune in Sonoma County, with a hundred other "city kids."
"We didn't know how to live on the land," she said. "As a service to the community, I thought I'd put together a handbook for the new people detailing how to build a fire, how to build an outdoor kitchen, how to make soap. And I had information of my own to share. I had gone to dress-design school and learned pattern drafting so I could explain how to sew a simple tunic. My mother was a ceramic artist so I knew about clays and kilns.
"I tried to find out everything I could and wrote out all the information by hand. By the time I finished, it was too big for me to publish myself."
Laurel got in contact with Random House, which published 10,000 copies of "Living on the Earth." The copies sold out in two weeks. (Note: Nadine got her facts a little mixed up here. The Bookworks, in Berkeley, California, were the publishers that printed the original 10,000 copies, all of which left the warehouse in three weeks in September, 1970. It was shortly after this that Random House bought the rights for a second edition, which appeared the following March, 1971, and sold over 350,000 copies in English over the next ten years.---ABL)
"It was not like I wanted to prove anything, like tell people how they should live. As it turned out, many people were inspired by my book to go live on the land.
"You never know what's going to come from following your dream. You might end up broke and miserable, or you might find something far greater than you ever imagined.
"My parents certainly didn't want me to go to a commune. My mother expected me to be an English professor at UCLA. Instead I became a best-selling author."
Not all hippies were so lucky. Many returned to the mainstream and the corporation, in the process seeming to become the kind of creature they had run from.
"What changed was the people in my age group began to have babies," said Laurel, "Raising a child meant they needed a steady income, a home, because a child may not want to participate in a lifestyle that meant going without shoes, the latest clothes, videos, all that stuff.
"They sacrificed to make it good for their children," said Laurel, who has no children. "A lot of my friends led more conservative lives while their children were in elementary and high school, but what I'm finding now is that people my age are in transition again. Their children are graduating from high school and now parents have the option of choosing lifestyle again."
This may explain the increasing population of bohemians, who, according to Laurel's definition, possess three characteristics: "They strongly believe in compassion, more than profit. Creative self-expression is more important to them than conformity. They believe a relationship between the physical and metaphysical is important.
"If these beliefs guide their decisions in life, that person is bohemian," Laurel said.
Another name for them is "cultural creatives" and according to a new book, "The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World" (Harmony Books, $25), by marketing experts Sherry Ruth Anderson and Paul Ray, they account for a quarter of the United States population.
"I think this will be cheering news for everyone. I talk to so many people who tell me they feel like they're all alone, but they're not."
And their ranks may be growing. "I have a friend who runs the Web site hippy.com, and 85 percent of the people who visit are between the ages of 14 and 29," she said.
The growth of technology has spurred an opposite trend focusing on tactile arts, including the current hippie trend in clothing. This is reflected in peasant-style garments and other natural-fiber clothing embellished with embroidery, beads and feathers.
Yet, beware of those in hippie guise. Laurel says it's more important to feel the part than look it.
"The Anthropologie spring catalog is full of hippie clothes, but they're expensive, like an $80 skirt and $200 sandals," she said. "It's the same kind of stuff I used to buy in thrift stores so it's funny to me.
"What's important is having the freedom to create, to have compassion for others. To be ruthless, to me, would be death. I wouldn't want to hurt anybody."