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Bolinas? Baloney! 

The effort of one small town to remain untouched by time has bred enmity and disaffection as surely as it has produced anything else

Wednesday, Jul 12 1995
Overhead, there is a sound like the sky swinging shut. I look up. It is midmorning in Bolinas, late June, and the fog from the ocean -- rolling in after its thousand-mile run across the curve of the Pacific -- shrouds the clapboard buildings of this town, lending softer edges to the picket fences and gravel paths and trellised roses that sit here between mountain and shore, cut off by the Coastal Range from the rest of the world, and, perhaps, from reality. At first, I think that the sound that has made me look up is the wind, but the wind, on this morning, is a sigh, not the keening howl it can be, not a bark-stripping moan, not a mad cellist with a saw blade and a set of cast-iron strings, just an ocean breeze in a seaside town that looks like it hitchhiked in from the New England coast. I am puzzled for an instant, and then I see the bird. In flight, the heron -- great, blue -- is longer than I am tall, its sinuous neck outstretched, a letter "S" with wings, long legs extended behind its body, toes pointed into each other in a perfect diver's curl, an arrowhead fashioned from flesh and nails. As it flies, the heron produces the sound doors make when they twist open on old hinges, a slow, rusty creak. And at this moment, the rasp of the heron in flight is the only sound in town. I stand stock-still in the middle of the street -- which is light gray, the color between blue and onyx, as if the sea each night crept in to inlay the pavement with oyster shells -- and watch the heron until it disappears over the low rooftops into the trees.

I had heard of the herons, of course. The great blues live in the tall trees behind Smiley's, the Bolinas bar on the town's main street, slate gray in the green of the leaves. The herons roost there for protection from the peregrine falcon that preyed for a while on the lagoon outside of town, where the water lies shallow and shiny, a natural reflecting pool for the sky. In the lagoon, there are egrets and loons and avocets and pelicans, as well, and harbor seals that lie on sandbars as the tide comes in under them, seeming to float on top of the water, small waterborne sunbathers in fur coats.

The lagoon is where it all started, two decades ago, the effort by Bolinas -- one small town -- to remain untouched by time, to stave off the economic engine that has fueled an explosion of development in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area, that has changed the world in which we all live into something that, even day to day, sometimes seems unrecognizable. This is the interest of Bolinas: its effort to define, for and by itself, its own fate. A presumption, to be sure. An arrogance, breeding enmity and disaffection as surely as it has produced anything else. A gamble with great stakes, putting on the table as it does the very notion of whether self-definition -- by a person or a town -- is still possible. But a success?

As the story of Bolinas shows, it isn't easy to turn paradise into utopia, no matter how hard you try.

The Times-Post is at last able to announce that William Weston, our top international affairs reporter, will spend six weeks in Ecotopia, beginning next week. This unprecedented journalistic development has been made possible through arrangements at the highest diplomatic level. It will mark the first officially arranged visit by an American to Ecotopia since the secession cut off normal travel and communications.

The Times-Post is sending Weston on this unique and difficult investigative assignment in the conviction that a candid, on-the-spot assessment of Ecotopia is essential -- 20 years after its secession.

Thus begins Ernest Callenbach's 1975 classic cult novel Ecotopia, about the back-to-the-land movement of the '60s and '70s. The premise of the novel is simple enough: It is the year 2000, and Northern California, Oregon, and Washington state have withdrawn from America to form Ecotopia, a land where recycling, bicycling, and free love, although not in that order, predominate. Called "silly but revealing" in a 1978 Harper's article that noted the similarities between fictional Ecotopia and real-life Bolinas, the book nevertheless underscores the motivations of the radicals, flower children, and flakes who found what they were looking for in the West Marin of the early '70s. "Things were not getting any better -- so people were really ready for a change," a nameless Ecotopian tells reporter Weston on Page 51. "They were literally sick of bad air, chemicalized foods, lunatic advertising. They turned to politics because it was finally the only route to self-preservation. ... Something had to be done. And nobody else was doing it."

In many ways, the parallels between Bolinas and Ecotopia are obvious. Ecotopia, like Bolinas, withdrew from the rest of the nation -- Ecotopia by seceding, Bolinas by chopping down the Caltrans sign that marked its exit off Highway 1. Ecotopia limited growth for environmental and social reasons; Bolinas did, too. In Ecotopia, Americans are mistrusted and disliked; you don't have to walk far in Bolinas to hear about the woes of modern culture. But in fact, the book is actually set in San Francisco. And dealing the city into the equation isn't difficult, either, whether it's fictional Ecotopia or real-life Bolinas you're talking about. Like Bolinas, San Francisco is a peninsula on top of an earthquake fault. Like Bolinas, San Francisco has battled developers and unbridled growth. Like Ecotopia, San Francisco has lots of bicyclists and people who wear strange clothes. More important than the parallels between cities, in fact, is the frame Callenbach uses to examine his premise, which is whether utopias are possible in the first place.

Callenbach's choice of a 20-year benchmark for his evaluation of a fictional utopia was savvy, for in fact, the shelf life of a utopia is rarely more than 15 years. By 1927, the reality of day-to-day life in Russia no longer justified who and what Stalin was. Two decades into Mao's China came the cracking of the Cultural Revolution. J.J. Rousseau, Mussolini, Lyndon Baines Johnson -- their ideas and ideals faded and faltered within a decade and a half out of the starting gate. Perhaps it's part of the natural process of aging, the assault of time on organisms animate and inanimate alike. Perhaps it has nothing to do with that, and means simply this: Starting something and sustaining it are quite different enterprises, as intertwined as they might seem in the beginning.

About The Author

Ellen McGarrahan


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