10 June 2015

Parts of a Whole Earth: An exploration of the origins of The Last Whole Earth Catalog


10 June 2015


My dad discovered it like this: “I bought an old car and drove from New York to San Francisco and then down to San Diego and then back along Route 66,” he said. “It was 1972 and things were getting a bit nasty with the anti-war movement. It was two years after Woodstock so the prime hippy time in San Francisco had passed. Although there were still plenty there, it was more of a tourist attraction than the real thing. That’s really why it died a death – people just went to stare at the hippies and they all cleared off in buses and went out to live in the countryside somewhere.”

The Whole Earth Catalog was made primarily with those migrating hippies in mind, a cross between an ancient book of spells and an aesthetically pleasing Argos or Sears catalogue, made to provide people in remote areas with mail-order goods they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.

“So many people lived out in the middle of nowhere, they grew up really on a culture of catalogs,” Dad told me. “People that lived in little farmsteads out in the country would send for stuff just like we do from Amazon now.”

In addition to providing a service allowing you to order the right tools you required to, for example, help maintain your geodesic dome, it also fed the burgeoning spiritual attitudes of the time. Dotted among the adverts for goods are short stories, quips, philosophies and gentle guidelines to how to lead a rich life living off the land.

As exciting as it was for a lot of people to migrate out to the sticks, the number of people who ended up staying out of the towns and cities for good started to dwindle. “The reason why that sort of lifestyle never really prospered is that people found it too hard to go back to living that simply,” Dad said. “If you’re brought up in that simple way and you didn’t know anything else then that would be fine, but if you throw off all the trappings of modern life and say ‘I’m going to go and grow my own veg and live off the land!’ I think you’d find it extremely difficult. A few people do but they still have to get out and see the doctor and whatever else. And they still need some money!”

The entire series of The Whole Earth Catalogs have been discussed, exhibited, dissected and photographed extensively over the years. Something about its aesthetic, and its revolutionising of information sharing seems to have everlasting appeal to anyone with a curious, creative disposition. In this issue of Printed Pages we wanted to take the pieces of The Last Whole Earth Catalog that we think represent it best and celebrate them for their genius with the help of illustrator Jesse Fillingham.

As for the original copy we managed to get our hands on, it’s going straight back to my parent’s cellar.

Village Planning in the Primitive World
Have you ever sat around hungover with your friends and plotted starting you own commune together? Well, before the days of urban sprawl those dreams were often put into practice by hippies who wanted to skedaddle out of cities and procreate out in the wild countryside where the skies were bluer, the grass greener and the restraints of modern life were few and far between. Can you imagine the feeling they must have had? Bundling items that were most probably purchased from a Whole Earth Catalog into tie-dye saris, scrambling barefoot into the back of a camper and hot-tailing it out of the city to a location chosen by throwing a pocket crystal onto an old map. You know that feeling of excitement and ownership you get when you arrive at a festival and you start setting up your tent before doing a “reccy”? Imagine that when you start setting up your tent in your new commune. The thing is, as dreamy as starting a commune in an unoccupied field sounds, it may not end up looking as much like a renaissance fair as you had hoped. Books like Village Planning in the Primitive World were sold via The Last Whole Earth Catalogue to teach people how to arrange their cluster of homes in formations taken from camps, villages and settlements throughout history. “This book has 78 pictures and eight detailed written accounts of village systems that have worked for bushmen, Cheyenne Indians, Trobriand Islanders, the Yoruba, Mbuti pygmies and others,” Stewart writes. It’s so pleasing to imagine drifting over 1970s America in a hot air balloon and peering down to see the sun casting shadows on to the modern, but ancient-looking settlements down below.

Domebook Two
On page 91 of _The Last Whole Earth Catalog there is a section entitled Dome Cookbook which has been written over with the words Out of Print. Bugger! Not to worry. For anyone who was still in the market for a geodesic dome back in 1967, the next page helpfully gives the reader information on Domebook Two, a publication of a similar nature. The editor’s review states: “This is an instruction manual for builders and a story book of some new communities in America. It is the beginning of an information net of of people making their own shelters.” And for $4.20 it’s a cheap way of teaching yourself to live beneath a dome, built by your own hands, wherever in the world you choose – provided you don’t disturb nature too much and beware of plastic materials. It’s actually recommended you build your dome with trash, just to be on the safe side because it’s “our only growing resource.” Sage advice indeed.

Don Gellert’s Kites
In the surprisingly large industry section of The Last Whole Earth Catalog is a piece entitled How To Invent by a designer and inventor in Puerto Rico named Don Gellert. Knowing the bulk of the content already, when he was invited to contribute to the book Don decided to advise readers how to create something for leisure as opposed to something purely practical. He chose the humble kite. He writes about the act of inventing and how it requires a “broad understanding of how the real world is put together; how things work; how things are made and how the hands and their extensions, tools, make them.” The photographs of Don’s kites in the catalogue are not just any old kites you or I may have flown, they’re serious bits of engineering, clasped by their strings with sturdy hands. Something about his designs mirror the make-up of the geodesic domes and their natural forms, and Don admits that the natural world plays a huge part in what he creates. “The best inventor I know is Mother Nature. She holds most of the basic patents, (maybe all of them), so perhaps evolution is one way to get the job done.”

First Aid
You can’t expect to live in a treehouse or geodesic dome, catch or grow your own dinner and singlehandedly give birth to babies with only The Last Whole Earth Catalog as a guide without entertaining a certain level of danger. Just as my dad said, going from life in a town to life in the middle of nowhere is hard. Very hard. But the catalogue provides readers with the option of buying a whole range of first aid books just in case something does go horribly wrong (and let’s face it, it will). In the First Aid and Doctoring section you are given the options of a few absolutely brilliant books like The Handbook of the Hospital Corps United States Navy ($15 – pricey) which advises on ailments like “flash burns of the third degree” with photos of a victim in Hiroshima. Another called Dear Dr.Hippocrates ($0.95 – better) is full of agony aunt-style letters covering problems from pubic hair and Mickey Finns, to conceiving wearing underwear, and one enquiry asking if smoking joss sticks can make you high. For those that can’t afford to buy first aid books, and would instead prefer to order something from the leisure section, _The Last Whole Earth Catalog _makes sure to put a few helpful diagrams in for free – just in case you cleave your hand off with an axe. Now we know how to safely remove stitches, carry a wounded person without further damage, and use a simple dining table to fix my aching back. The rest we’ll have to just make up as we go along.

The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book
This book looks great! Personally when I think about making clothes I get this vision of a red, flashing, gameshow sign above my head screaming “HASSLE! HASSLE! HASSLE!” but this title comes with a pretty convincing endorsement. “Revolution takes all sorts of forms these days,” it reads, “and making your own clothes is one way to play fiddle-fuck-around with fashion sexism, consumption-pushing and related evils. Not to mention such personal benefits as being comfortable, feeling good and looking however you want to.” If there has ever been a more persuasive argument to make your own clothes, I’d sure like to hear it!

Fruits of Hawaii
I normally dislike it in publications when the editor steps in to write a tongue-in-cheek comment or top tip in brackets in the editorial but some of the best bits of the The Last Whole Earth Catalog happen when Stewart Brand steps in and gives his own feedback on something that’s for sale. In a small corner of the detailed mushrooms section there’s a matchbox-sized section called Fruits of Hawaii advertising a book of the same name. Next to a helpful diagram of how to correctly slice a pineapple, Stewart steps in with his own Hawaiian tidbit: “After due research I can report that it’s true, you can live off the land in Hawaii for very little. Fruit grows everywhere, and this book is an excellent guide to which of it is edible, where to find it and how to cook it. If you liked the early 60s, you’ll love Hawaii.” This is a fantastic example of the variety of information crammed into this book. In just a few lines we learn how to cut a pineapple, that wild fruit is available all over the island, and that Hawaii is much like the early 1960s. Can a place really resemble a time? Can a small volcanic island give off the same vibes as a few short years in an exciting decade? Maybe. To describe the early 1960s as something waiting to erupt demonstrates Stewart’s philosophical and historic imagination and his unique interpretation of the world. And now we all know how to cut a pineapple properly. Finally!

The Art of Organ Building
Sometimes I haven’t even got time to brush my teeth let alone build an organ from scratch, but I guess the early 1970s were different. This book is one of many in the Music category that give you step-by-step guides to building the kind of instrument that you could happily play by a babbling brook and not look too out of place. There’s harpsichords, lutes, organs, clavichords and classical guitars all waiting to be made. I guess it would be hard to build a synthesiser if you’re living in the forests of deepest darkest Utah. Also the odds of you pissing off the nearest family when you’re going for it on the synth at dawn with the deer and birds are pretty high. Stewart makes a convincing argument for building your own harpsichord underneath the ad for the Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making book: “Have you ever heard a harpsichord? It’ll make a gentleperson out of you. For some reason I this conviction that harpsichord players aren’t afraid of dying.” So there you have it; build your own instrument, never fear death.

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About the Author

Liv Siddall

Liv joined It’s Nice That as an intern in 2011 and worked across online, print and events, and was latterly Features Editor before leaving in May 2015.

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