The Whole Earth Field Guide
Meredith Gaglio, Editors
Where were you when you first saw The Whole Earth Catalogue? For me, it was 1968, and I was pawing through the mail - - - the endless junk mail - - - that came in to our ratty radio station, hoping for the message, the big one, that would take us out of our doldrums. And perhaps this was it. A Whole. Earth. Catalogue.
Simple black and white moon-shot cover of the earth (taken from Apollo 4 . . . which we learned later Stewart Brand had to badger NASA into publishing). And the message, which I've always favored: we are as the gods, so now we might as well get used to it.
Inside, we found nine sections including "Nomadics," "Communications," "Community," "Industry," "Shelter," and the mysterious kicker, the one one could never easily comprehend: "Understanding Whole Systems." Whatever could that possibly mean? Me? I was a Part Systems man.
Take a car. I knew that cars were made up of motors and transmissions and spark plugs and distributors and brakes and such. And I knew that if one of them - - - the transmission, say - - - blew out there near Broadway and Main, the rest of the car was useless, and if you left it there too long by itself, it would quickly be Parted Out.
But this Brand saw the world differently. He said that we are all part of the system (that's what makes us "as the gods"), and with reading and our sangha - - - our community - - - we could always make do. Even, apparently, apart from the others.
All this was printed on rough newsprint stock, stuffed with pictures making rough sense, filtered through the lenses of Buckminister Fuller for structures, Marshall McLuhan for television (cool) and radio (hot), Tim Leary (for inner space), E. F. Schumacher (for growing things small), Lewis Mumford (for the long history), Thoreau (for getting away to the lake), Paul Ehrlich (for population bombs), Gary Snyder (poetry for the open country) and Stewart Brand (who he?)
It was this last one who took all this stuff and made it work, and made it work, for a change, in such an apolitical way. He didn't care about the source: he'd use military manuals to understand systems and structure if they were comprehensible, if they made sense.
And so it worked, this catalogue with its new vocabulary: alternatives, coevolution, survival, tensiles, cybernetics, shelter and society, spaceship earth, the science of the artificial. And being here (now).
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It might have been the apolitical that got us. That we could do domes and baskets and flow charts and a peaceful kind of war (on waste; on poverty; on ignorance) and fill a bus with hippies trying to make it Further (to do no harm), all with Zen Macrobiotic Cooking, all this west coast orgone stuff packaged for everyone who didn't get it because it was so everywhere that we couldn't all see it yet.
The themes here were manifold, and with them we soon knew that Brand was onto something hot, and that he had the skills to assemble all these into a single volume that spoke volumes to many of us. The touch of authoritarianism that he brought with him (grown perhaps from his stint with the military) was - - - in this case - - - a virtue: let the Hog Farm or the Ant Farm be collectives; let the WEC be a medieval craft guild. Each had their place; but this one the Catalogue - - - had a center.
Be willing to jump into bare naked space, Brand told us, for space had its proper space.
I made my first jump as an Army lieutenant in the Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I have a record of what happened because I wrote it down directly afterward, but all I really remember is the strangeness felt in the plane, the terrible anticipation, and, of all things, the gaiety.
He saw himself as he was ("I am a somber person") but he was able to whisper to the jumper next to him, "Did you know that your chute has no static line?" Static line? "In a parachute jump the deployment of the parachute is initiated by a static line attached to the aircraft."
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Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio have chosen eighty essays/readings/reviews out of the thousand or so that appeared in the Last Whole Earth Catalogue from 1971 and here are trying to give us some feel for the surprise when we picked up the treasure trove coming at us out of Menlo Park. Still, I'm going to suggest that this one - - - let's call it the WEFG - - - will not get off so easily because it's almost a half-a-century too late. For that singular catalogue that preceded and prepared us for Google and Wikipedia and Internet - - - where all knowledge is all ready for us instantly - - - means that there can be no lag, no need at all to pick up and leaf through a new weighty volume of 250 pages of Whole Systems. So many years ago we were Learning by way of Craft, Community and Communications . . . but we've got all information now, and it's called "Internet," so it's almost too late because it's done.
What the editors have given us, mostly, is a burst of nostalgia, especially for those of us who participated in these several catalogues with Brand's discipline and insight and the union of sight and space tied together into a multi-colored ball of threads that was joined in all the pictures, crafted back in 1968, giving us a chance at a whole knowing, especially for those of us who feared that we were alone but found here that there were many others of us, thousands of others, seamed diligently and spaciously falling together in that static line joined to a sun-reflective power source floating there at the center of it all - - - bringing the sangha (we and the wec) together into a communitas that had been waiting there at the edge of a sole whole field stretching over the land of all of us coming down in one single static unit coming into the final fall.