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Tales from the Northern California Wilderness

“The smell of smoke still gets me. Not smoke from a woodstove or a campfire. That smells like comfort and coffee in the morning. It’s drift smoke that stirs me up. It’s smoke from a fire in the forest. Memories tattooed into the brain seem to be strongest.”

— Malcolm Terence, Beginner’s Luck, 2018

Now that fire season is all-year round in California and in many parts of the West, readers might appreciate the chapter on fire fighting in Malcolm Terence’s enchanting memoir, Beginner’s Luck ($19.95 Oregon State University Press), which has a lot going for it, including the author’s sense of irony. A tree-hugger, he became a logger for a time and cut down trees he otherwise would have tried to save. “Playing with Fire” is the title of the chapter about firefighting. It falls about a third of the way into a book that moves quickly over a large territory and that paints a complex portrait of the rural counterculture that thrived in the 1960s and 1970s and that left a substantial legacy.

Terence was once a reporter for The Los Angeles Times and also the manager of a rock ‘n’ roll band called United States of America that had real commercial success. During the Vietnam War, which figures in the background of Beginner’s Luck, Terence drifted from southern to northern California with a brief stay in San Francisco in the neighborhood that Hunter S. Thompson called “The Hashbury.”

In the 1970s, Terence made his home in Siskiyou County where Indians were and still are a real presence, along with loggers, fishermen and hippies who forged their own brand of the cultural revolution. Terence wasn’t really a hippie; he was too old and too overtly political to be a true hippie, though he could have passed for one. In fact, he was a member of the amorphous Diggers, the San Francisco theatrical/ anarchist /do-gooder tribe that fed kids who had run away from home and needed a place to sleep and food to eat.

The Diggers also ran a Free Store. Abbie Hoffman purloined that idea, along with others that the Diggers had generated, and published a booklet called “Fuck the System” that popularized the scams of that era.  Some still haven’t forgiven him.

Like other Diggers, including Freeman House, a minor character in Beginner’s Luck, Terence abandoned the city for the rural backwaters of northern California where you can still feel like you’re on a frontier.

That territory presented a whole new batch of challenges that had to do with work, family, money and survival itself. Terence, his wife Sue—who is the star of this book—and their “incandescent children” as the author calls them, emerge as hardy survivors of their hardscrabble adventures in the wilderness. In the pages of Beginner’s Luck, there’s a large cast of visionaries, insurgents and renegades who joined the clan. As Terence shows, they worked hard and played hard and become involved in political battles with Big Lumber.

Terence offers glimpses of life at Black Bear Ranch, the legendary commune that he describes as “a feral graduate school.” Some readers might try to use the book to berate the original Diggers and their cultural descendant. They would find some ammunition in Beginner’s Luck. Terence does not glorify the “self-serving” side of the Diggers, or hide the cultish nature that abounded in some communes, though he does tout the glories of genuine community.

He mentions singer/songwriter, Linda Ronstadt, and Peter Coyote, the ex-Digger, who has become the voice of Ken Burns’ America. Terence might have said more about Ronstadt and Coyote. In a blurb for the book, Ronstadt  observed that Terence was “the only one of my friends who followed through and was able to sustain himself.” Indeed, some fell by the wayside.

After life in the fast lane that included sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and protest, Terence married, raised a family, taught in California public schools and in Haiti, and became a respectable, albeit contentious, citizen. He, his wife and their kids were transformed by the counter culture they helped to create. As this book shows, Malcolm and Sue Terence were not the same people as adults that they had been when they first escaped from the mores of the middle class and didn’t know where their journey might take them.

Beginner’s Luck depicts the birth of what was once called “The New Age.” It’s insightful on the clashes and miscommunications between Terence and his tribe, on the one hand, and the world that’s defined by corporations and government on the other. Terence uses the apt phrase “faux collaboration” to describe the phony attempts by Forest Service employees to involve protesters in their schemes. Back in the day, many called it co-optation.

Nostalgic, romantic and clear-sighted, too, Beginner’s Luck brings to life an era that seems further and further away from the present than ever before, as the survivors of communes, collectives and cults honor the 50th anniversary of 1968, the year that shook the U.S and the world. Terence describes the shaking and the quaking that took place on the edge of the empire. The black-and-white photos help him tell his riveting tale.

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