(This is a 30-year-old story about a 130-year-old institution: the Bohemian Grove, on the Russian River in northern California. The Bohemian Grove is “summer camp” for the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country. There, each year in July, for two weeks (now sometimes three), these men act out like intoxicated adolescents, pausing every now and again to, out of the public eye, further shape the financial, political, and military direction of this country.
(I lived on the Russian River for four years in the late 1970s. After I moved, I wrote about the Grove for a newspaper circulated elsewhere. My piece primarily approaches the Grove from the perspective of a local resident. Some of the historical stuff was drawn from G. William Domhoff’s slim book The Bohemian Grove. In this era of the tubes, sizable chunks of Domhoff’s Grove work have now been placed online. Also available online is a piece by reporter Philip Weiss, who succeeded in infiltrating the Grove, and writing about it, nine years after my own story appeared.
(As Weiss’ piece recounts, the anti-Grove protest movement that was just aborning when I lived on the River kept itself busy during the Reagan era, after which it fizzled and pretty much died. In its wake came loons, like Alex Jones. Weiss in his story also confirms, from Ronald Reagan’s own lips, the tale I mention here about Reagan and Richard Nixon cutting a deal at the Grove in 1967 to assure Nixon’s ascension the next year to the presidency.
(The River economy remains today pretty much as I described it, though it should be mentioned that the area’s popularity with the gay community in the San Francisco Bay Area, which began in the late 1970s and continues today, has more or less saved the place from ruination.
(While the names may have changed, among the people who frequent the Grove, from the time that I wrote my piece to today, the institutions that they represent have not. Because while people may die, corporations never have to. Not so long as outfits like the Bohemian Club survive, and thrive.)
The thickest stands of coastal redwoods on the planet once grew some sixty miles north of San Francisco, along the banks of the Russian River. The trees were not the tallest in the country, or the largest, or the most numerous; just the thickest, packed so tightly together that sunlight rarely reached the living floodplain below.
Area Indian tribes considered the river bottom sacred ground, dark and wet and the domain of powerful spirits. Even in the heat of the summer they would not venture into the perpetual coolness of the groves.
When the Spanish arrived they too left the river alone. Russians journeying south from Fort Ross halted their trek and returned to the fort once they reached these redwoods.
When it came time for the Americans, the trees began to die. Dozens of eager lumber companies moved in; sawdust boomtowns rose overnight. Clearcutting could have been perfected along the river: grainy old photographs display acres upon acres of stumps, set a measured twelve to twenty feet apart, stretching for seven to ten miles across the narrow valley, beyond the river, into and over the low coastal hills.
Twenty years into the twentieth century the boom was already over. Nearly every redwood on the river had been felled. The lumber companies moved on. The towns that had lived on the death of the trees, themselves started dying.
Until wealthy San Francisco patricians started trickling in, the river becoming a fashionable spot for summer homes, a quaint place in the country for the idle rich to spend a quiet month or two. Three-story palaces and small river bungalows were carved out of the hillsides, placed precariously close to the water. Then the advent of air travel opened up summer spots with more status, in Mexico and the Caribbean, and the fickle patricians moved on. The area economy slipped again. It is still slipping. A declining resort community now catering to middle-class tourists from San Francisco and Marin who come to fish, swim, bike, explore, eat, and buy. Some of the old summer homes have been sold, or rented to local citizens, but many more remain with those who seldom or never use them.
Those who wish to live on the River must learn to cater to tourists. From Jenner on the coast, to Forestville 35 miles inland to the east, there are but a few seasonal construction jobs, a handful of small family-owned lumber companies, and a bit of farm work. Everyone else serves in some fashion the waves of tourists who break en masse on Memorial Day and don’t completely recede until sometime after the first weekend of September. What binds together nearly everyone who lives on the River is a shared recognition that the River is a colony of the Bay.
For those who stick it out, an even stronger bond is forged by the River winters. By the time the final tourist has departed in late October, the fog has descended, strangely changed to a low, floating, Irish mist, shrouding the tops of the hills, hovering, not quite close enough to touch, over the whole of the valley. And for weeks. The clouds of mist occasionally break for thunderstorms, and the river then leaves its banks. But more often the sun is simply removed from the life of all beings, replaced by a slow, floating, glistening drizzle. Eventually, the “winter weirdies” creep in. The outside world, it no longer has any real existence; newspapers read like they come from some other place, off-world, inaccessible; those voices on the phone—are they really the same sort of people as you and I? All of nature moist and open and glistening, serenely strong and alive, but there can come the question of whether ye be. Finally the wet green shimmering shine, the slim slow sliding salamander of the watery mist, leads some to wonder whether some subsumed morn all might just . . . disappear. Every winter on the River more people leave their minds and bodies. But the eerie silent season is nonetheless welcomed, because it is only then that the River belongs to those who live there.