A Trip To Sanity: Arcata

by Gilles d'Aymery

November 18, 2002


With the mid-term US elections over -- record low turn-out, whining Dems, boasting Reps -- I felt the time was ripe to venture into a little sanity, a place where people are not drones but smiling, lively, and very engaged folks who keep thumbing their noses at the national trends with sheer delight. The place is Arcata, a small city of 16,000, berthed on the Pacific Coast and ensconced in Redwood country, in the county of Humboldt, northern California. It's also the place of residence of Swans columnist Michael Stowell. Michael has been contributing his columns for the past two years but we had never met. Actually we had never spoken to each other, except through E-mail correspondence so to speak, until quite recently. Well, after two years of bi-weekly collaboration it was about time. Furthermore, he told me, "bring your dog" (a strong incentive to make me go somewhere), and assured me that I would enjoy the results of the elections there, a clean progressive sweep, as Michael reports in his current column, "A Resolute Proclamation."

So, I packed my 16-year old truck -- a gas-guzzler, I am ashamed to admit -- with enough clothes and food to survive a 3,000-mile trip (it's only 300 miles away!) and in the company of Priam, my pound-rescued mutt, embarked on our journey. There's no better feeling than hitting the road, the enthralling and cleansing myth of the American experience, the aspiration to new beginnings... It always works... Except when the weather decides otherwise and the first winter storm escorts you along the way!

The rain caught me right at home, in the Bay Area, South of San Francisco. It was drizzling just then at 6:30 in the morning. By the time we reached (we, meaning Priam and I) San Francisco the drizzle had turned into light rain. We edged on North. The wind started to talk loudly. The rain became operatic. It got worse from then on.

Yet I drove on, or skidded, eventually through some spectacular vistas. North of Marin and Sonoma counties, entering Mendocino, passed the towns of Ukiah and Calpella, Northern California truly begins. Redwood country it really is -- or whatever remains of it. A different world made of hills and valleys, the road zigzagging through forests and pastures, silent and indifferent to the mayhem of GNP's (Gross National Product) obsession and Bay Area's congestion. Even the rain and raging wind could not eradicate the sense of quietness and peacefulness.

We drove through Garberville, host of a yearly Harley-thon, passed Skotia where the infamous Pacific Lumber Company of Headwaters fame is headquartered, working 24/7 to cut the remaining 7 percent of old growth timber in California (I'm talking about century-old trees, 5, 6, 700 year-old trees, in the name of profits and our -- yes, you and me -- insatiable thirst to get more or everything, even when it means nothing), made our way through Eureka, the county seat, and finally arrived, in one piece, to our host's home.

Welcome to Arcata, a symphony of life

Knock, knock... The door opens.

Hi, I'm Dana. Are you Gilles? We were expecting you later. Come in, come in. Michael is taking a nap. Will be out in a minute. Here, let me introduce you to B.J. B.J., this is Gilles, you know, the publisher of Swans, the magazine Michael writes for. Oh, and what's your dog's name? Want some coffee? There is food in the fridge. Help yourself. B.J., do you want a sandwich and a glass of milk? So, how was the road, rainy?

And this was just the beginning! Moments later, Michael immersed from his siesta and more people arrived. Dana's mother; her friend Millie; Melissa; a neighbor... Coffee everyone? There's a pie for the taking. Oops no, Gilles just finished it. No problem says Michael, I'll bake another one right away.

Hey Gilles, are you German or Russian? Betcha $1 that you can't figure it out? Am I German or Russian? Uh, Ger... err... Russian. Nope, pass the buck. Darn, so you're German... Nope, I'm French. The easiest buck I've ever made. Laughter.

So, it went into the evening. Story telling, dogs playing, visitors in, visitors out and lots of laughter. Nothing special you would say except that B.J., the owner of the house, is straddled with Alzheimer's and ovarian cancer, diseases that are not particularly conducive to joyfulness. Yet, the household was beaming with it and B.J. was delighted, enjoying all the fun with big smiles and a twinkle in her eyes.

With the first winter storm came the usual electricity blackout. It never fails! So the next morning, still without power, we went to a local restaurant for breakfast. I thought it would just be B.J., Michael, Priam and me but within one half hour there were 10 people around the table! And on, and on, and on.

That evening, about 100 women in black were standing in silence, holding their weekly vigil on the main plaza. Then the Redwood Peace and Justice Center had a big anniversary party and scores of local antiwar and environmental activists swarmed the premises and lively conversations ensued with speakers and all. I could not pass on a T-shirt which displayed on its front a melting earth and the words "Have a Nice Day" and on its back provided a few facts: "Today we: added 265,000 babies; lost 75,000 acres of rain forest; added 46,000 acres of desert; lost 71 million tons of topsoil; added 15 million tons of carbon; lost about 70 species; AND we get to do it again tomorrow!"

The next morning, a Saturday, was Farmer's Market on the same Plaza, with music galore, jugglers, organic vegetables, flowers and plants, natural honey, etc.

Is this simply a small city peopled by folkloric tree-huggers and antiwar nuts? Far from it. I met quite a few professionals in this crowd; professors and students at Humboldt State University, one of the top 10% of all U.S. colleges and universities for academic quality; doctors, salespeople, young and old, from a variety of backgrounds. B.J.'s daughter, Kelly, is a designer. She, like many, came to Arcata to attend college. Melissa, born and raised in Anaheim, southern California, a bastion of conservative fundamentalism, felt she did not fit there. She too went to HSU and here she is happily married and involved in the community. This is what's so striking about the place. People are involved and friendly. (1) They talk to each other. They attend meetings and are unafraid to question the status quo and to invent the future. In many ways they epitomize the conclusion of Eli Beckerman's present essay, "I Vote. Therefore I Think. Therefore I Am.", in which he writes, "Collectively, our votes determine who wins office. Moreover, collectively, our minds and our voices, through our march, our song, our pens, AND our votes, can shape the world." These people have been acting locally and thinking globally for a long time!

And do not think it's unique to Arcata. Humboldt may well be the most progressive county in the entire state of California. Green and truly progressive Democrats do quite well in the polls. It translates into solid initiatives such as the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission Michael talks about in his piece (he also was its chairperson in the recent past). This is not mere symbolism. The city maintains a database of nuclear weapons contractors and boycotts the companies that provide goods and services to the nuclear industry. Companies like General Electric, IBM, HP, General Motors are not welcome in Arcata! It has aggressively promoted bicycle and pedestrian transportation. Green Party candidate David Meserve, overwhelmingly elected to the council, campaigned on a platform that included sustainable energy measures such as installation of solar panels on City Hall and the conversion of local transportation to hydrogen power. Not that it will happen tomorrow, but it will happen. Another little known fact is the cooperative program by the City and the Humboldt State University on Wastewater Utilization, a fascinating project, unique in the entire world, that in short uses reclaimed wastewater to raise fish, such as trout and salmon.

So, the next time you go to the poll, think of Arcata and remember that it is indeed possible to invent the future....as long as you become involved on a regular basis in your community, in the present (no pain, no gain). The clearest message I got from my visit to Arcata? GET INVOLVED!

Oh, and yes, it rained all the way back home!

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Note and Resources

1.  Here is a personal example of my experience with unexpected friendliness: One morning I noticed in the local daily paper, The Times-Standard a full page ad by Northcoast Dodge Chrysler Plymouth, a car dealership in Eureka, that offered among traditional fossil fuels-powered vehicles two models of the 2001 GEM at very attractive prices (the GEM is a small NEV being marketed by Daimler-Chrysler). I've been looking for such a vehicle for some time, albeit a different model, one with a short or long bed. So when I came home, I sent an E-mail to the dealership asking whether they had the models I am looking for in inventory. Within a couple of hours, Internet Sales Manager Rich Robertson, replied that unfortunately they were all gone. I asked whether there was any chance to find one around and again he replied that he would look and let me know if he found one. What's so special about this? Well, contrast his behavior and that of the manufacturer, GEM, as well as that of three local dealerships in the Bay Area. I contacted all of them and have yet to hear from any one!  (back)

For More On Arcata:

Arcata Eye Neat Weekly paper

Arcata Government

Arcata.com General information


Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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This Week's Internal Links

In Memoriam: Cambodia-Kampuchea - by Milo Clark

Not Convinced Yet? Then Check The Color Of Hope - by Gilles d'Aymery

I Vote. Therefore I Think. Therefore I Am. - by Eli Beckerman

A Resolute Proclamation - by Michael W. Stowell

Can The Peace Movement Save Us? - by Deck Deckert

Evolution Through Catastrophy? - by Milo Clark

When The Moral Compass Starts Spinning - by Aleksandra Priestfield

"Antisemitism" As A Tool Of Israeli Ethnic Cleansing - by Edward S. Herman

Can't Stop The Dancing - Poem by Sandy Lulay

When The Imagination Of The Writer
Is Confronted By The Imagination Of the State
- Book Excerpt by Margaret Randall

Letters to the Editor


Published November 18, 2002
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