Comptche Hippie Kid Returns as Anthropologist

Growing up in Comptche as a hippie kid during the Seventies is part of my identity. It was a tumultuous time. Declining regional timber jobs during the Sixties caused many families to leave Comptche, creating vacancies for newcomers. Who showed up? Back-to-the-land hippies, lots of us—my family arrived in a purple school bus. The influx of immigrants caused instantaneous polarization between old-timers and newcomers. Conflict included issues of land use, the introduction of marijuana, superficial appearances, nudity, and smell. Interestingly, we kids got along despite our parents’ differences; our common ground was our youth and the marvelous place where we lived. Adoration for my Comptche friends endures to this day. Returning for a 2008 Mendocino High reunion, the tranquility of contemporary Comptche impressed me. How was this achieved? This was a good research question for my masters thesis in anthropology, which I began the same year.

My research included returning to Comptche to live for a year (2011-12). Using the same fieldwork methods that anthropologists use in places unknown to Western culture, I was able to identify specific actions, events and processes that transformed 1970s Comptche from discordant to peaceful. Many of the families remain there today. In 1977, the population was 454 and in 2010 it was 483; this shows population stability, but there are far fewer children today.

In 1974, Mendocino County mandated each town to create a general plan. This was an arduous four-year process, but one that serendipitously enabled Comptche residents to work on the issues causing conflict. Comptche had a unique approach to this countywide process, such as electing members for its Citizens Advisory Committee, whereas other towns appointed people. The concept of a rural commons includes the place itself, yet more significantly, shared values (Sumner 2005). Research shows consistently that despite the differences newcomers typically bring, especially when arriving en masse, when community members come together around a common issue, they will ultimately discover more shared values than divisive ones. In this regard, Comptche is a model for community conflict resolution, and there are identifiable reasons for this kind of community success. The essential qualities of resilient communities are social cohesion, participatory decision-making, and shared commitment to environmental integrity (Theobald 1991). Resilient communities also have opportunities for its members to experience what anthropologists call communitas—the joyful experience of oneness and collective effervescence. Comptche has an historical tradition of communitas that, to this day, brings people together.

The literature on counter-culture hippies reveals three types: urban college-based yippies, commune hippies, and back-to-the-landers. Comptche has the latter, and it’s the only type that has survived as a successful sub-culture. My research also exposed a lack of scholarship on the topic of hippies. The counter-culture still gets no respect, despite having made valuable contributions to the greater culture: organics, recycling, solar, alternative medicine, and much more. From Theodore Roszak (2009) I want to relay a comment for the retired hippie/baby boomers: work remains to be done.

Note: My thesis: Finding Common Ground can be found at the Kelley House Research Office, 45007 Albion Street, Mendocino and the Mendocino Community Library. If you have photos or artifacts from this era that you would like to share, contact the Kelley House Museum staff.