Hippies Gather at Black Bear to Scatter Ashes of a Founder
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer(Published in the print edition of the TRT on July 16, 2013)
Martín Linhart first came to the Black Bear Commune in the mid-summer of 1968 and lived there several years in the rural hippie fashion of the times. Martín’s friends and family returned there last week to scatter his ashes.
Country communes sprung up all over America in that era, but Black Bear, once a rich gold mine, is as rural as they come. It is accessible only by a tangle of old logging roads, and most winters it is not accessible at all.
Unlike many of the 60s start-ups, Black Bear commune still exists, although with a new gang of young refugees, and they were hospitable to the visiting predecessors when they arrived to pay last respects.
Full-disclosure: Martín was the person who greeted me when I first arrived at the brand-new commune 45 summers ago. He and a few others were already cleaning out the ramshackle house built nearly a century earlier by the wealthy mine-owner. Martín gave us big hugs and then he asked if we’d brought any pot.
I said we hadn’t but I had two cases of zucchini, a vegetable as commonplace as pot back then in Haight-Ashbury, where I’d met Martín a few weeks earlier. He shrugged and pulled out a tired shoe box with what little stash he had, mostly stems and seeds. Time for a welcome-to-the-commune puff.
Just then someone yelled that a bunch of cop cars had pulled up the drive. Martín instantly grabbed the shoebox to head out the back door. This was decades before the era when a prescription from a doctor made marijuana practically legal. As he went out the door, he yelled to me that I should distract the cops while he headed into the woods.
I went out to divert the deputies, a task I did so badly that I spent the next two weeks surviving on peanut-butter-jelly sandwiches in Yreka Jail. There are details to that, of course, but they’re written elsewhere. Suffice to say it was my introduction to the culture wars in Siskiyou County. When I finally did get back to Black Bear, Martín greeted me with a big hug and thanked me for handling things.
About 15 oldtimers, including Martín’s two daughters, had gathered for the day and as many of the current residents joined them. Together they all threaded through a well cultivated garden, well fenced to exclude a large healthy herd of goats, and up into the mixed conifer forest along a creek that is tributary to Black Bear Creek.
The small procession arrived at a place where Martín had once built a shanty. There was no trace of it now except that the terrain was a little flatter than the surrounding woods.
Myeba Mindlin, the mother of his older daughter Milagra, convened the circle by thanking the forest, the ancestors and the present commune residents for their welcome. Geba Greenberg, another old-timer who still lives near the commune, sang an old song that gets repeated still at steam baths along the river and among Black Bear veterans at family events.
There were more songs and then people started telling stories, some about the deceased Martín and some just about the old days when the commune had 60 residents. Since those days the population shrunk drastically as one round of settlers replaced another but lately it’s grown again. There were 40 residents last winter.
Creek Hanauer, who still lives nearby, recalled that Martín was from New York, like many of the original gang, and he picked the isolated site because city life had made him weary of crowds. He had next to zero building skills and the shanty leaked but it was his. He later moved to Berkeley and learned to be an accomplished carpenter.
The newer residents seemed to enjoy the old stories. That era is the subject of at least two books and a documentary film titled Commune, which is available on Netflix.
Milagra, the older of Martín’s two daughters was the first of three babies born in six weeks one summer at the commune and more than one of the Black Bear women of that era emerged as midwives.
She had sat quiet for the stories, but finally she spoke. She said her father had a difficult side and several in the crowd chuckled quietly. “He was quick to anger,” she said, “but also quick to bounce back. He was always there for me when I was growing up, no matter how many conservative turns I might take. He was always unfailing in his love and there wasn’t anything I couldn’t say to him.”
He explained later that one of the conservative turns was an early marriage to a Green Beret, a sure challenge for any hippie parent.
The ashes were carried in a stout black plastic box and Sabrina, Milagra’s sister, borrowed a pocket knife to cut it open. The box weighed much more than she expected, she said, and she stepped outside the circle to let a handful blow out of her hand in the diurnal up canyon breeze. Others followed and soon most of the remains were scattered over the litter on the forest floor.
After the ceremony, the crowd drifted back to the shaded dock at the half-acre pond at the commune for a picnic lunch. As they walked, the old-timers couldn’t help but look around to assess what kind of job the current settlers were doing with the place.
The garden fences were well maintained, an absolute necessity with goats. There was already fire wood stacked in the woodshed and much more was waiting to be split. The earliest communards remembered that they came from places like Los Angeles relatively clueless about firewood and nodded appreciatively at the stacks of dry madrone.
Some of the new people had dreadlocks and tattoos, which were not a fashion statement in the 1960s, but they had the same beards, long hair and tattered clothes that had always been the style.
One of newbies told the visiting old timers that they had done well stranded with 40 people when there were no roads over the winter. “We invented Black Bear Theater with songs, story telling and puppet shows and we shared food parents had sent in.”
He said they had had plenty of food although there were times when it got a little monotonous and the old-timers remembered the weeks and months of beans and rice that had been the main staples of their commune years.
One difference was evident. There were only a few children living there now. When the population was at 60 in the early days of the commune, a third of them were kids and many of them, like Milagra, were born there.
No one hesitated digging into the picnic spread at the pond and there was plenty for everyone. A six-year-old boy, one of the few among the current residents, spotted a huge box of Oreo cookies and headed for them. “We don’t see Oreos here very often,” he said.
SIDEBARMartin at Black Bear: Like memorials everywhere on the river, people told stories about the deceased. Those early winters at the Black Bear commune were much like putting 30 people—eventually 60 people—into a pressure cooker. I remember one night, after we’d been snowed in for weeks and snow at the main house was piled three feet deep, that tensions were pretty high. That night Martín was kneeling on the floor to pour white gas into a Coleman lamp. Problem was that he was ten feet from a cook stove full of burning wood. John Glazer, who knew more about such things than many of us, ordered Martín to stop. Martín ignored him because he didn’t like his tone. Glazer shrugged, walked over to him and caught him with a punch that sent Martín rolling on the floor. Fortunately, it didn’t spill the white gas or that would have been the end of the main house. Martín took it all in stride, brushed himself off and took the gas and the lamp outside to finish the chore. Not worth fighting about.
By the next night other people were being shabby to each other and, as the evening wore on, the tension grew thicker and thicker. Finally, Martín jumped up and yelled that everybody was going crazy and he was getting out. He threw open the door and plunged on to the darkened porch as we all stared in wonder. He looked both ways into the endless fields of snow and, in his gorgeous Brooklyn voice, yelled, “Taxi! Taxi!” Suddenly all the tension evaporated, everyone had a smile and I remember it as one of the most pleasant evenings of the winter.