MUSE // Alicia Bay Laurel

We are so honored to feature visionary artist, author, and musician, Alicia Bay Laurel, as the second in our MUSE series. In each MUSE interview we take time to explore the lives + creative processes of the folks who inspire us to live each day most wildly and authentically, close to the Earth and to our own Spirits.  If you missed the first in the series, click here to read our interview with Erin K. Smith of Vardo Tarot!

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I can still recall the sense of utter fascination--conjured only in its fullness by children + the truly Alive--when I first stumbled across my mother's tattered and treasured copy of Living On Earth.  The wandering hand-drawn story that it told of easily constructed natural shelters, days spent in sunshine and nights beneath the majestic night sky, captured my imagination to no end.  The wavy-lined patterns for peasant blouses and ethereal, floor-length maxi skirts were a revelation to me in my 1990's childhood of heavy denim and synthetic fabrics.  Most of all though, Alicia's delicately penned instructions on folk healing and backwoods herbalism began to open my young mind to a reality that felt at once deeply familiar, and yet entirely unexplored.  I was enchanted.

Living On Earth, first published in 1971, was Alicia's guide for fellow Free Spirits + Starseeds in the ways of simple living.  The cult classic serves as a how-to guide for everything from giving birth at home to smoking fish and weaving hammocks. Unlike any how-to book you've ever read though, one particularly insightful reader expresses the distinction best, in saying that "it reads as if she were writing a never-ending letter to you and you alone."  And in love, I fell--along with countless others who cite Alicia's books not only among their most treasured possessions but their greatest inspirations.

In addition to Living on Earth, Alicia co-authored and illustrated many other books, just as lovely and full of visionary wisdom, Spiritual + otherwise, for the ages.  Some of my favorites include Being Of The Sun and The Earth Mass.  Read on for a glimpse into the pages of these life-changing, mind-altering books, excerpts from Alicia's dreamy 1970's scrapbooks and the the words this wise and beautiful Being shared with me through our correspondence...

But first, a song!
(written + performed by Alicia, of course)

How would you describe the work that you do? 
Artist . Writer . Musician . Entrepreneur . Eco-homemaker . Activist . Fairy Godmother

+ + + Tell Us About Yourself, Astrologically Speaking + + +

Rising // LEO

words by Ramon Sender Barayon // lettering + illustration by Alicia Bay Laurel

Where do you call Home? 

If you’re talking about where most of my stuff is, it’s in a house in the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. If you’re talking where I FEEL at home, that would wherever my loving friends are gathered. Often that would be in coastal California, Hawaii, Japan, and southern Spain. But, sometimes, elsewhere.

Can you tell us a bit the dreamy skirts you're wearing  in the
above photos and about the psychedelic textile you're holding up?
I designed and made both of the star skirts pictured.  The earlier one (from 1969) I am wearing below a red peasant blouse.  Only one star of the dozen on it are visible.  The material is dark blue corduroy and the appliquéd stars are silver/white lamé.  I am showing a work in progress, a patchwork and appliqué wall-hanging, which I completed in 1974.

The skirt in the two black and white photographs (made in 1972) is more of a purple-blue corduroy, and the skirt has a waistband that comes to a low peak in the center of the front and back. The appliquéd stars are silver/white lamé.  I'm wearing a green embroidered Mexican style blouse that I made using a pattern in Living on the Earth.  The photos were taken by someone from a newspaper in Tokyo for an interview in March 1974, but, alas, I don't know the name of the photographer.

What originally inspired you to write "Living on The Earth,"
and where did you get your information? 
When I arrived at Wheeler Ranch (a California commune) in the early spring of 1969, I was enchanted by the beauty of the place, the serene and loving nature of the people and the spiritually appealing nature of voluntary primitivism. I set about learning everything I could to prepare myself to live there. I realized I was not alone in needing to learn basic outdoor skills, and decided I would make a manual for the other new people on the land as I learned what I needed to know from more experienced members of the community as well as reference books such as Dick's Encyclopedia of Practical Formulas, which was published in the 1890's.

Making a book was not a new endeavor for me. I had already created two illustrated books which were not published--a cookbook for living cheaply in the city, and a book of drawings into which I divided the words of the chapter Solitude from Walden by Thoreau--three to four words per page. Filling notebooks with drawings and words had been my way of life since my mid-teens, and still is today. What was new for me was taking it to a publisher. I started by approaching Stewart Brand founder/editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, a friend of Ramon Sender, with whom I later wrote Being Of The Sun. Stewart offered to review the book in the catalog and suggested I go to Book People, his distributor, to see if their new imprint, The Bookworks, would publish it. They did."  (this question excerpted from an interview with Skip Stone circa 2001)

What was the most joyous aspect, for you, of living in community?

The depth of friendships that began there, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Living primitively on the land together forged the sort of loyalty one expects of blood relations. Today we’re still sending each other love and information online and sometimes meeting in person. Even the children that I knew there (who are parents, and even grandparents, now) keep in touch online.

Conversely, what was the greatest challenge you faced while living in community?

A complete absence of administration – the residents had neither responsibilities nor authority. Wheeler Ranch was “open land.” Anyone was welcome to come and do whatever he or she wanted to do, as long as they did not harm others. This was a lovely, very freeing experience, but it was not sustainable. Today’s intentional communities are, well, intentional. People discuss and plan how they will sustain themselves together. They govern themselves, rather than rely on a benevolent dictator (as Bill Wheeler, the owner of Wheeler Ranch, was obliged to be) to make rules and enforce them.

What led you to eventually leave Wheeler Ranch and where did life take you from there?
After my book, Living on the Earth, was published, my world expanded dramatically. I met colleagues in literary realms and in other arts; I met fellow eco-minded homesteaders; I traveled to other countries. Also, contemporaneously with the creation of my illustrated books, I was massively productive as a singer/songwriter, and I was learning and practicing open-tuned guitar. I first visited Hawaii in 1969 (while I was creating my book Living on the Earth), and heard the gorgeous open-tuned guitar music of those islands. I vowed that I would return and learn it. So, after a bunch of my books were published, and I had toured America and Japan, I moved to Hawaii, to learn to play slack key guitar. I stayed 30 years.

In what ways have your views and beliefs changed
since your first book, Living on Earth, was published? 
I have become much more politically engaged. Living on the Earth was created during a golden era of US politics, when the 1% paid their fair share of the taxes, and public services were well funded. Today we are living in the shadow of an immense feudal conglomerate of mega-corporations whose agenda is to exploit the resources of the planet using slave labor. Opposing this is just good housekeeping.

What traditional skill do you think is most
important for modern peoples to re-connect with?
The skill that people need most to relearn today is to feed themselves in a way that builds their health.  That means making things "from scratch" using fresh, organically grown ingredients, preferably grown in one's own garden (and we've learned that vertical gardens don't require much acreage!), or from farmers selling at local farmers markets.  It means securing a source of unpolluted water with which to prepare food.  Related, and equally important, is to share these nourishing foods and clean water with others who are not as fortunate to have access to them.    

What accomplishments in your life do you hold most precious? 
I treasure my ongoing process as an artist/musician/writer. I treasure my ongoing education as a participant in this planet. I treasure every bit of peace I have been able to foster within my mind, body, heart and spirit.

Alicia + Sophia Rose in Sedona, AZ . Summer 2015

What is your most beloved part of any book you have authored or illustrated? 
As many authors and artists have said before, I am most in love with the project on which I am working at the moment. That is because experiencing the images and messages coming through and manifesting is the biggest thrill of being an artist.

From where do you draw your inspiration?
The art, music and writing that wants to come through me usually wrestles me to the ground and refuses to let me go until I give form to it on the physical plane. My muse is sort of a dominatrix, I guess. She has to be. Otherwise I get too busy and don’t accomplish anything.

What is your favorite season of year and why? 

I generally love the here and now, regardless of the weather.

What plant medicines do you feel closely aligned with?
Fresh ginger root is a plant medicine and food that I use often.  I make hot ginger tea in winter and iced ginger tea in summer.  During my 30 years in Hawaii I bought it at farmers' markets often, since it is grown in the wet parts of the islands.  One of my favorite teas is made by boiling slices of fresh ginger in a big pot of water for five minutes, then turning off the heat and adding some freshly picked lemon grass leaves (tied in a knot so they don't stick out of the pot) and one fresh papaya leaf.  I let it steep at least 15 minutes, strain and serve.  It makes a lovely iced tea, too.

What is your favorite way to bring play into your daily life?
Flirting with my boyfriend. We do something I call cartoon ballroom dancing. 
Also, we make faces at each other. It gets worse - way sillier. I will spare you.

What are your beliefs  about 

honoring the cycle of the Moon?

I heard Brooke Medicine Eagle speak on Maui in the 1990s about how the women of the Lakota Sioux live in harmony with the Moon’s cycles. It totally made sense to me. She said that women who live outdoors, away from electricity, ovulate with the full moon and have their menses on the new moon. So, on the full moon, the men and women would dance together, and around the new moon, the women would gather in a separate dwelling and go through their menses together, not because they were considered “unclean,” but because their natural urges at those times were to leave their family obligations to the men, go within, commune with the divine, and bring back visions with which to guide the tribe (and which were honored by the tribe!)

In one of your letters, you intimated that you are, in fact, a warm water Nymph! 
Where are some of your favorite places to soak up the Earth's healing waters?
All over Japan are Onsen, or hot springs resorts. I LOVE Onsen!  I enjoy visiting hot springs resorts in California, including Harbin Hot Springs, Esalen Institute’s hot springs spa, and Living Waters Spa in Desert Hot Springs. When I lived at Wheeler Ranch commune, we used to go as a group to Skagg Springs, the ruins of a 19th century hot springs resort, which was later covered by Lake Sonoma. In the Puna district of Hawaii Island, I swam often in the coastal Warm Ponds, a blend of volcanic heated spring water and cool ocean water. My favorite of these is the Champagne Pond in Kapoho.

What book or books are you reading right now? 

I have been reading books written by my friends, and reviewing them online. 
 This is one way I support art and artists. Here are some beauties I’ve read recently: 

       + Sudden Eden by Verandah Porche  // Poems

       + The Cowardice of Amnesia by Ellyn Maybe // Poems

       + The Smell of Blood  by K. Stewart  //  Vietnam war Poems

       + The Kept Girl  by Kim Cooper  //  Cult-Crime novel set in 1929 Los Angeles 

       + The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon  //  A novel of an American Midwife

       + 19th and University by L.K. Siga and Barbara Light Lacy // A tale of 1968 Austin 

       + Lillian’s Last Affair & Other Stories by Sue Katz  // The private lives of older women

       + The White Indians of Nivaria by Gordon Kennedy // An anthropological study

       + Dancing in the Fountain by Karen McCane  //  How to enjoy living abroad

When you wake in the morning, what excites you most about rising for the day?
The combination of my beloved routine (my health practices, my music practices, my current project, improving my living space, loving my friends) and the mystery of what might show up that day without warning.

What current project is closest to your heart? 
I am teaching anyone who is interested to sing the great peace song “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” written in the late 1940s by Ed McCurdy. I am offering this song in English, and in a Japanese translation by singer/songwriter Maiko Kodama. I am invited to sing it on August 5, 2015, the night before the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bombing of a human community, at Daisho-in Buddhist temple in Miyajima, Hiroshima. I am inviting people from all over the world to sing this song together, either at the temple, or by live stream.

How we can follow along and join in?
Here is a link to a video of me singing the song in both English and Japanese. If I am fortunate enough to find a videographer who can create a Livestream from the peace concert at Daisho-in on August 5, 2015, I will also post a link from which people can access the Livestream from around the world.

Where can we find copies of your books, music, and other works to enjoy at home? 
Please come to my website and check out my online shop. I’m happy to inscribe any of these items, to you or to whomever else you wish to gift with them.

And in staying true to Alicia's musical Spirit, 
we'll leave you with a final song of hers....

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