Tolkien and radical ecology in the Sixties.
- View SourceIn the Digger Underground there lived a hobbit.
Emmett Grogan & The Diggers
Tolkien and radical ecology in the Sixties.
by Walt Contreras Sheasby
*At this time, in 1966, the Haight was being inundated with young
people from all over the country who came seeking liberation or hope for
a life of personal empowerment,* recalled the actor Peter Coyote, known
then as the Digger, Peter Cohon. (1) Even in January of 1966 in San
Francisco, before the influx of 75,000 in the 1967 Summer of Love, near
the panhandle of Golden Gate Park you might meet a bearded man named
Gandalf. This bit of grassy shire was the new Hobbit-land, and Gandalf
would offer to take you to meet the youth who was fast becoming a
legend there, Frodo Baggins. (2)
The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) was published in the heyday of anti-
Communism, and Tolkien felt he might even have to field a question
about whether the Orcs were communists. (3) But in the radicalized
subculture of the Vietnam War era, the colossal epic of the Ring, often
seen as a war between good and evil, was understood as fundamentally a
war between Nature and Capital. The defense of endangered life itself
was expressed in the slogan that appeared everywhere: Frodo Lives! As
the Christian journal Second Spring noted: *The book became a Bible for
the Hippy movement and the Greens.* (4)
The Lord of the Rings, published by Houghton-Mifflin in hardback in
the US from sheets printed in England by Unwin, sold modestly for ten
years. But the three books suddenly appeared in paperback for 75cents
apiece in 1965 in an unauthorized edition by Ace Books, and an outraged
Tolkien urged a consumer boycott. Within months an authorized
paperback series was issued by Ballantine Books as royalties were settled
with Ace. The Lord of the Rings became a best-seller twice over: selling
well in the controversial pirated edition, and then in an official edition
just months later. Ballantine was the first to come out in paperback with
The Hobbit that same year, and it became one of the best-selling
paperbacks of all time. In England the trilogy did not appear in paperback
until 1968. It became an instant sensation, and the Beatles tried
unsuccesfully to convince Tolkien to let them turn it into a movie starring
the Fab Four as the adventurous hobbits.
Margarita Carretero-Gonzalez, a Tolkien scholar at Granada
University in Spain, reported that *...seeing recently on TV a banner
reading *Frodo Failed* held at a New York demonstration against the
war in Iraq reminded me of what I had read about the way some of
Tolkien's character's names had also been frequently repeated in
demonstrations against the Vietnam war.* There was even a Gandalf
for President movement. (5) Warren Hinckle, a radical Catholic who
in 1962 founded Ramparts magazine, wrote in 1967 that Tolkien's
classic trilogy Lord of the Rings was *absolutely the favorite book of
every hippie.* (6)
The Hungry Sixties
Peter Coyote has said *Part of the energy for the Haight was this
hunger for real experience.* (7) Besides Tolkien, other authors had
shaped those who came to the Haight. Although it had been published in
1951, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye still spoke to those coming of
age in the sixties. Holden Caulfield's daydream offered a sense of
meaning in the chaos:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in
this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's
around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the
edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody
if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they
don't look where they're going. I have to come out from somewhere
and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the
rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like
to be. (8)
Jack Kerouac's 1957 lyrical novel On the Road turned the quest of
Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) into a road map for the counter-culture.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-
down river pier watching the long, long, skies over New Jersey and
sense all the raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to
the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the
immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be
crying in the land where they let children cry, and tonight the stars'll
be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star
must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie,
which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the
earth, darkens old rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in,
and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody
besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I
even think of Old Dean Moriarity the father we never found, I think of
Dean Moriarity. (9)
This mythic search frightened some and inspired others. *Many of the
delighted ones,* as Gary Snyder, a central figure in the Beat Renaissance,
said, *moved out to San Francisco (scene of Kerouac's subsequent novel,
The Subterraneans)....* (10) His interaction with Snyder and Allen
Ginsberg inspired his Dharma Bums (1958).
The love of country in a geological sense rather than an abstract
nationalism became a real part of the social consciousness of youth.
Besides Lord of the Rings, there were other classics of the imagination
that expressed an awareness of the interrelationship of nature and
intelligent beings, such as Robert A. Heinlein's cult classic, Stranger in
a Strange Land (1961) and Frank Hertbert's Dune (1965).
In this period Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson introduced many
to at least some of the ramifications of ecology. But to some of the
founders of the SF Diggers, a more influential book was The Destruction
of California (1965) by Raymond F. Dasmann of the Conservation
Foundation. The back cover announced *What it says, in simple prose, is
that here, in this state, we are committing suicide,* and it described
Dasmann as a zoologist, biologist and an expert in forestry, range
management and plant ecology. (11)
Peter Coyote spoke for many when he said *I've never lost the sense
of devotion to the universe I had as a kid. I've felt my basic intention was
always to wake people up to this majestic planet, wake them up and
appreciate it.* (12)
The Disenchanting Wizard
Into this growing sensitivity about the natural environment stepped the
one wizard to rule them all. Murray Bookchin's comprehensive survey of
environmental ills, Our Synthetic Environment, was published in 1962, a
few months before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Under the pseudonym
Lewis Herber he published the first manifesto of radical political ecology
in any language. *The hippie movement was just getting underway in New
York when Ecology and Revolutionary Thought was published,* he said.
In 1964 it appeared in Comment in New York and in New Directions
in Libertarian Thought. It was republished in England in Anarchy in
1966, and thereafter it circulated as a widely distributed reprint, before
being anthologized in Post-Scarcity Anarchism in 1971 and in
subsequent editions. In 1965 he penned another pioneering article,
*Towards a Liberatory Technology,* and many other provocative articles
and books followed. Bookchin's reputation as one of the most
enlightening founders of the ecology movement, however, was later
eclipsed as the movement shunned his growing dogmatism and hostility
to all other radical ecologies.
Bookchin said *I think it is fair to say that my writings on ecology
and anarchism were the first radical political writings on ecology. They
became rather popular with the New Left. People don't remember the
origins of radical ecology; they think Ralph Nader or maybe Barry
Commoner produced it and influenced the New Left. This is quite
erroneous; in fact, the true history of radical ecology has yet to be
Fantasy as Facing Reality
In reconstructing the facts of the origin of radical ecology, however,
we should not overlook the impact of fantasy, particularly The Lord of
the Rings. As Angie Errigo has noted recently, *The hippy counter-culture
adopted the trilogy as an unofficial set text, and its popularity continued
with the environmental movement that followed on from the hippy era.*
By working its enchantment on the popular consciousness, the
trilogy created a fertile soil for the theoretical vanguards of social ecology,
deep ecology, bioregionalism, and ecosocialism. San Francisco was the
fantasy capital of the New Age, and as Charles Perry said in 1984:
The Haight-Ashbury provided a lot of the manpower [sic] for the
ecology movement that bloomed in the late sixties.* (16)
In the new radical ecology movement there persisted a fruitful dialectic
between the Tolkien mode of re-enchantment of nature and the Bookchin
mode of scientific enlightenment.
Scholars of different persuasions today argue furiously over Tolkien's
ambiguous social philosophy, some claiming him for the Papacy's
Counter-Reformation, others for the Monarchical Restoration, and still
others for the Austrian school of economics. These conservative readings
would have brought hobbit giggles in the past. There can be little doubt
about the way the Oxford antiquarian was interpreted in the counter-
culture of the mid-1960s, and the key was Tolkien's deeply felt concern
for the relationship of all creatures to the environment. *The idea of
Tolkien as a prototype green activist,* according to Angie Errigo, *dates
back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.* (17)
Will the real Frodo Baggins please stand up?
This must have been the real point in the widespread mistaken identity
of the legendary halfling of hobbit town, who believed very simply and
without any qualification that *Freedom means everything free.* (18)
In March 1967 the 23 year old Eugene (Emmett) Grogan of the San
Francisco Diggers, known for his battles against poverty and exploitation,
was described by Warren Hinckle as the new Frodo, *A one-man crusade
for purity of purpose, ...the conscience of the hippie community.* (19)
Emmett Grogan, rogue of the Haight Hobbiton
In his autobiography Grogan described his reaction: *As soon as
Emmett saw that March issue of Ramparts, he knew it meant trouble. And
he became more certain of the ticklish situation it was to cause, after he
read the two pages of copy which described him in unreal, outlandishly
romantic terms, as the Frodo Baggins of the Haight-Ashbury and roguish
hero and kingpin of the Diggers.* (20)
The Legend of the Diggers
The anonymity that the Diggers prized was blown away by such
extravagant publicity. Who were the Diggers? The Berkeley Barb reported
on Oct. 21, 1966, shortly after the group came together:
In the afternoon, at a little before four, they come down Ashbury,
cross Oak and gather around a Eucalyptus tree in the Panhandle.
They wear wide eyes, tattered clothes, and talismans around their
necks. Some are in their teens, most in their twenties, and a few are
closing in on forty.
They talk about anything, smile about everything and do what they
want to do with the food that they bring to each other.
They are THE DIGGERS. And everyday at four o'clock they provide
anybody with anything to eat. (21)
Since then the story of the San Francisco Diggers, urban guerilla
theatre gone underground, has been told hundreds of times and
embellished into folklore and revolutionary myth, as Grogan foresaw. A
leftwing newapaper in Paris in 2000 ran a nostalgic series of articles
In 1966-67, unlike the hippies of San Francisco, they were
revolutionary anti-establishment protesters. When nothing more
seemed possible there, they disappeared into nature, founded
communities, and took a new departure into radical ecology. (22)
Radical ecology, however, was already a concern among the founders
of the group, who had met and crystalized out of the S.F. Mime Troupe
actors, including Peter Berg, Peter Cohon, and Emmett Grogan, whose
friend Billy Murcott arrived from New York in early August, 1966. He
named the group after the original Diggers and wrote the first edition of
the Digger Papers. Murcott believed that people had internalized material
values and cultural premises about the sanctity of private property and
capital so completely as to have become addicted to wealth and status.
The original Diggers were peasants who had banded together to fight
the Enclosure Movement in Cromwell's England, Peter Coyote wrote. The
King had confiscated the common grazing land to raise his own sheep to
supply wool for his new mills. The people tried to take them back,
arguing that no one had a right to appropriate private property for
themselves, and the King sent Cromwell and his soldiers against them.
They were nicknamed The Diggers because as the sun rose on them
every morning, they were seen burying the dead of the last night's battle.
The Green Hun
*Wars against ecology are suicidal*, could have been the dictum of the
author of Lord of the Rings, but it appeared in Peter Berg's Digger
manifesto, Trip without a Ticket, an indictment of industrial ideology
inherited from the 19th century and its culture-machine, originally
published by the Diggers in the Winter of 1966-67. (24)
The new science of life was not exactly common coin. Berg recalls
*When I was with the San Francisco Diggers nearly 30 years ago, Paul
Krassner of The Realist magazine wanted to put our street
communications out as the Digger Papers. In one of those essays I used
the word ecology. He had never heard it. Krassner was an intelligent,
urbane New Yorker who had to go to the dictionary to look up the word
ecology.* (25) He would find it defined as the totality or pattern of
relationships between organisms and their environment, and as the
name of the special discipline that took up its study.
In 1972, Berg left to observe the first conference on the environment
of the United Nations in Stockholm, and he discovered that his concerns
were shared by militant Green Party supporters all over the world. He
talked with Gary Snyder and founded Planet Drum, an umbrella group of
A year later Berg met the esteemed ecologist, Raymond Dasmann, who
was also interested in counter-cultural movements as a vehicle for more
ecologically-oriented values. The two wrote and published Reinhabiting
California, in The Ecologist in 1977, defining a bioregion as both a
geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness. (27)
Careful readers of the Lord of the Rings envisage the maps that Tolkien
drew, which may have been influenced by the concept of ecosystem that
a fellow Oxfordian, Sir Arthur George Tansley, had developed in his theory
of ecology. (28) As Angie Errigo says, *That would, of couse, make Middle-
Earth the first fully realized fantasy ecosystem.*
While these concepts are always under review as ecological science
evolves, there is little doubt that Tolkien's impact in the sixties contributed
to the emergence of a new consciousness about the relation of organisms
and the environment.
1. Peter Coyote, The Free-Fall Chronicles: Playing For Keeps, The
2. Barry "Plunker" Adams, Where Have All the Flower Children Gone?
3. Humphrey Carpenter, Ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Boston:
Houghton-Miflin Co., 2000, p. 262.
4. The Inklings, http://www.secondspring.co.uk/society/term13.htm
5. Margarita Carretero-Gonzalez, ...And then came the Fall: On the nature
of Evil in JRR Tolkien's and JK Rowling's arch-villains, Roundtable
remarks at Fourth Conference on Evil and Human Wickedness, Prague,
6. Warren Hinckle, The Social History of the Hippies, Ramparts
magazine, Vol. 6 No. 9, March 1967, p. 25.
7. Peter Coyote, Coyote Howl, The Official Peter Coyote Web Site.
8. J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, New York: Grove Press.
9. Jack Kerouac, On the Road, New York: Penguin USA, p. 307.
10. Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds,
Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1995, p. 10.
11. Raymond F. Dasmann, The Destruction of California, New York:
Collier Books, 1965.
12. Peter Coyote, Peter Coyote Surviving in the Hollywood Wilderness,
Interview wuth the Orlando Sentinel, February 5, 1987.
13. David Vanek, Interview with Murray Bookchin, Harbinger, Vol. 2
No. 1, 2002. http://www.social-ecology.org/harbinger/vol2no1/bookchin.html
15. Angie Errigo, et al., The Rough Guide to the Lord of the Rings,
London: The Penguin Group, 2003, p.27.
16. Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History, New York: A
Random House Rolling Stone Book, 1984, p. 280.
17. Angie Errigo, op cit., p. 27.
18. Allen Cohen, Additional Notes on the S.F. Oracle for the Haight-
Ashbury in The Sixties CD
19. Warren Hinckle, op cit., p. 25.
20. Emmett Grogan, Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps, Boston: Little,
Brown and Company, 1972, p. 314. www.diggers.org/ringolevio/ring314.
html. Warren Hinckle, op cit., pp. 25-6. Also see: Will the real
Frodo Baggins please stand up? London OZ 3 (March- April 1967).
21. George Metevsky [pseudonym], Delving the Diggers, Berkeley Barb,
Oct. 21, 1966, p. 3.
22. Liberation newspaper (Paris, France), Culture section (Monday,
25 December 2000), p. 20-21.
23. Peter Coyote, The Free Fall Chronicles: Playing for Keeps.
24. Peter Berg, Trip without a Ticket, The Digger Papers (August 1968).
Originally published by the Diggers, ca. Winter, 1966-67. Reprinted by
the Communication Company SF 2nd Edition 6/28/67. Included in The
Digger Papers, August, 1968.
25 Peter Berg, Talk at Watershed.
26. Edouard Waintrop, The Green Hun of San Francisco, The Digger
27. Don Alexander, Bioregionalism: The Need for a Firmer Theoretical
28. Angie Errigo, op cit., p. 279.
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