Anarchy: Into the Maelstrom
The Ephemera: A Fabrication
How a Revolution Was Lost (in progress)
In a season filled with real tragedy, it is no surprise that the 5600-acre Mary’s Bend Fire of 2018 left little imprint in the news. No lives were lost—none, at least, that have been confirmed—and only a handful of structures were destroyed. Indeed, apart from a few outbuildings, the only structure to burn was a curious old octagonal house, tucked away at the end of a winding woods road that had never been what they call “improved” and was now nearly impassible.
If you walked the road today—perhaps to survey the burn site, as there is little else to see—you would find yourself weaving through forest land marked by decade upon decade of haphazard, small-scale logging, rising gradually and descending more precipitously over the ridge separating the highway from the course of the St. Mary’s River. Toward the top of the rise a fine stand of old-growth forest remains, spared, though largely by accident, by both loggers and fire. On the downslope, the scars of clearcutting blend with those left by the fire, but with the latter increasingly dominant the farther down you go.
Before the fire, the deeply rutted road passed through a sort of meadow, littered with the remains of old logging, but also dotted, in season, with nearly all that the area has to offer in the way of showy flora. Before the fire, it was a chance to walk that lovely meadow that lured most of the visitors stumbling up that way. The road had only gone on another half-mile or so, ending, after another plunge into some dense woods, in the clearing where old Gabriel Solly lived among the last remnants of the New Earth Institute and the frankly utopian community from which that institution had emerged.
These days, you wouldn’t want to try to go quite so far. What the fire had started, heavy rains a few months later finished quite completely, as the site of the ruined house, perched between the river and the steep slope where the fire had done its worst, simply slumped, en masse, into the Saint Mary’s, briefly damming it and then releasing a wave of muddy water and debris that caused damage as far downstream as Philomath.
I’ve been told, although I’ve never been able to confirm the tale, that burned timbers from the house, recognizable due to the peculiarities of its construction, eventually washed up on the banks of the Willamette, near Albany.
By that time I was personally—and here indeed the story does get personal—much more concerned about the fate of old Gabe Solly, who had been missing long enough to seriously concern all of us who knew him, although careful searches all around the site gave no indication that he had died in the fire.
I met Gabe in a townie bar in Corvallis, quite by accident. I was nearing the end of a relatively fruitless research trip up and down the valley, combing libraries and archives for any scraps of context for the Willamette Pilot, an obscure and apparently short-lived paper, which had mixed columns dedicated to anarchism, free love and vegetarianism with advertisements for various more-or-less cooperative enterprises scattered across Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. The better part of a week on the road had yielded some fascinating glimpses of rural Oregonian commerce in the 1930s, but shed very little light on the Pilot or its collaborators. In a converted house on the east edge of Eugene, a particularly helpful, perceptive bookseller had delved deep into their memory and then their unshelved stock, eventually producing three issues of a somewhat later naturist paper—really more of a typewritten newsletter—issued, in Dallas under a pseudonym familiar from the Pilot, first (?) as Nature’s Way and then as morning star (all lower-case, “formerly Nature’s Way.”) Those issues had provided a few traceable names—pen-names being the rule—and some far more provocative glimpses of local culture, but another day and a half following the new leads had yielded little. I was prepared to consider myself defeated, at least for the moment, as I worked my way down through a last thick stack of print-outs. Little beyond the pleasures of revisiting an old college haunt kept me at the work—and I will readily confess that I was paying considerably more attention to the local nut-brown ale and the foot traffic outside than I was to that task by the time Gabe walked in.
Truth be told, the urgency of these matters is almost always self-imposed and success is not always in our hands. Some years later—soon after the Mary’s Bend Fire was declared contained, while I awaited news of Gabe and his fate—I picked up a nearly complete run of the Pilot, along with three copies of the Pilot’s Manual, a sort of do-it-yourself compendium and manifesto issued by the same group, at a yard sale not far from Alsea and answered some lingering questions while sitting in my car, eating a brown-bag lunch at the end of a steep dirt road in the coastal range.
But on the afternoon in question I was sitting at a back table in a very old local watering hole, running low on inspiration and wondering whether another pint was called for, when an older fellow, perhaps not that many years my senior, passed my table, headed for the men’s, and treated me to the kind of looking-over that reminded me that, college memories or not, I no longer quite belonged. He was not, to all appearances, a particularly rough customer, but he was obviously “in my business” in a way that suggested that he, at least, felt he had a right to know what I was about. It was the incentive I needed to at least try to give that business my full attention. Trading my beer for a highlighter, I made something of a production of scouring articles for anything that might push my research along.
My luck, however, held.
“That…,” said a voice above me. “That was my father.” Nature’s call presumably answered, that not-quite-rough customer had returned to his examination of me, hovering just a bit closer than was entirely comfortable. His voice was something of a surprise—not because its mixed notes of cultivation and alcohol were unusual in a place like this. Quite the contrary. As far as I can tell, any college town worth its salt naturally develops a population of tweedy sots through processes set in motion by powers greater than our own. But this, if I could put any stock in first impressions, was a fine, upright, rather simple looking man—if I can use that last term without taking anything away from the first two—with calloused hands and dusty boots. “The morning star…,” he said, without clarifying much. And he peered down at me as if perhaps I could help. Finishing my pint seemed like the best option in this lengthening moment, and I did so deliberately, finally setting the glass back down on the table with more emphasis than I had intended.
“Can I get you another? It seems like we should talk.”
I agreed to another, driven, I’ll admit, by a mix of curiosity and unwillingness to naysay that “should.” “Make it a pilsner,” I said as he nodded and turned away, if only not to appear completely cowed. I could hear the bartender greet him, hear them exchange a few words and a laugh, and then he was back, a tall pilsner glass in one hand and a pint of black stout in the other. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. “That… there….” There was a bit of awkward and emphatic pointing. “The morning star… my father published that.” He put his beer down, pulled back a chair and then reached across the table. “I’m Gabe Solly. Nice to meet you.”
We shook hands and settled down with our respective beers, perhaps giving them a bit more attention than they really deserved. But the encounter now well and truly begun, neither of us seemed too eager to push things along. He took a couple of big swallows and made a study of the first bits of lacing on the glass. I swished around a mouthful of pilsner, washing out the mild sweetness of the brown ale, and made as discreet a study as I could of him.
One of my few regrets with regard to Gabe was not just pulling out my camera—then or on a number of similar occasions—and snapping a photo. I have always, I think, had a vague fear that he might bolt or even simply disappear. But now, of course, he has disappeared. And I find it hard to describe the ways in which he always seemed just a bit protean and always seem to threaten to slip from view—even when seated across a narrow bar table, seriously sipping a beer.
You see, my first—or rather my second impression—was that those first fleeting observations had somehow been all wrong. The man now seated across from me pushed through those stammering openings and quite rapidly established himself as a scholar, possessed of considerable knowledge—both local and general—a keen eye and an equally keen intellect. More than that, it became immediately clear that we had a large number of common interests and some shared experiences.
I found myself reciting the relevant details of my research trip—including many that would not, I think, have been relevant in most company. Nothing I said seemed alien to him and his responses were of precisely the sort to instill a sense of shared understanding, even camaraderie. I already had a glimpse of his chameleon-like qualities, which were in many ways quite remarkable, but in this case it was quite simply true that we did indeed have a great deal in common. It was soon no mystery why he felt that we “should” talk.
He told bits of his own story. He was, it turns out, an archivist as well, although he was at that time in the last stages of liquidating the collection that had been amassed by the New Earth Institute. I knew a bit about the history of the Institute, the community of New Earth from which it had grown and even a bit about the Solly family. (During a years-long sojourn in the Midwest, I had attended several conferences and gatherings in Gilead, Ohio—and had, we came to realize, been chauffeured on a tour of the local milieux libres by Gabe’s half-sister.) But Gabe was one of those old heads who really did seem to have been everywhere—at least once, if only while passing through to somewhere else—and could talk about the most remarkable range of subjects with a kind of comfortable, if sometimes distant familiarity.
That, at least, was the case when it came to the kinds of political movement and social experiments about which I had myself amassed no small amount of knowledge.