A Conversation with Osha Neumann: artist, writer, tireless advocate for the homeless remembers the 60s, the 80s, now


By members of the Slingshot Collective

Recently we had a screening at the Long Haul Infoshop of the 2005 film Commune, about California’s own Black Bear Ranch.  Prominent in the film is our neighbor, Osha Neumann.

A tireless homeless advocate, artist and writer with a radical past chronicled in his memoirs, Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker, we invited him over to watch the film with us and followed up with a lively conversation. This is some of what ensued.

A. Iwasa (AI):  Do you have anything you want to say to start the conversation?

Osha Neumann (ON):  It’s really complicated for me seeing that film.  I don’t know what to think.  Part of it is it was a long time ago, a lot of those people are dead.  You know when you have something that was wonderful, but also very complicated, it’s hard for me to know what to say about it, that it’s honest and true to that complexity.  It was an incredibly important period of my life, I loved it.  I loved being in nature and I loved living communally… and I loved all those things we can’t do here.  To be together all the time and to not to have… people dividing up according to what their jobs are.  And home life being separated from work life and having children being separated by having your work in the world, and having all those relations with people that are really intimate, and sexual sometimes… When you’re naked with each other, not simply in the fact that you’re not wearing clothes, when you’re emotionally naked with each other and things that are hidden aren’t hidden.  We had a communal shitter, and you shit and peed publicly.  It was nothing, you just did it.

Cooking together.  Everybody cooking, everybody taking care of the children.  And it’s so much closer to the way people live most places in the world. During the war in El Salvador I went up into one of the provinces where the guerrilla army was in control, and these little villages that had been run out of the country by the army and then had come back, and in those villages they lived so much more like back at Black Bear.

Just knowing the origin of things, the food you eat is the food you’ve grown, the bread you eat is made from the grain you ground in a hand grinder, and the milk you drink is the milk of the goats you milked in the morning, and the cheese and the yogurt come from the goat milk that you made.  You get up in the morning and you heat the big old stove with the wood that you chopped that morning so it fit into the stove.  You live in houses that you built yourself. All of that is really important, wonderful stuff.  [Here we are] so separated from all that, living the way we should live in nature.

When I would drive down from Black Bear, the first thing was the air was different.  I breathed at Black Bear differently.  And there was night, you know there’s no night in The City.  There’s night with stars and the moon.

We lived with the season, we weren’t protected from the seasons.  With the snow you’re snowed in, then it thaws and it gets warm. You live with your body alive in a way, here your body just isn’t alive in the same way.

Your rituals are rituals of nature.  We celebrated solstices and equinoxes because you could see the solstices and equinoxes.  We’d stay up all night on the longest night of the year and drum and chant and sing songs, some that we made, some that we appropriated from other cultures.

We really lived without and we shared.  What money there was we shared.  There weren’t some people who were richer than other people… or some people were homeless and other people were housed, or some people had better houses and some people had Priuses.  We all had the same stuff, and it was all sort of grungy.

If you had a car you needed to know how to fix it.  I learned to weld there because it was needed and I wanted to and it was wonderful to learn how to work with metal. We made an irrigation system.

We didn’t have the Internet, and we didn’t have phones, and we didn’t have television, we didn’t have any of that.  We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have electrical lines coming in, we generated electricity with pelton wheels, so we didn’t need all that stuff.

So there was a way of being in the world, and being with one’s self, and with others and with nature that was… in some ways it tears me up just looking at it.  Partly just that I was younger then, we had these wonderful, beautiful, muscular bodies.  We relished them.  I became strong there just by working.  I worked there with my hands, and walking up and down the hills, building things.  You had a body and it was wonderful.  And with all of that, we did a whole lot of just trying to live rightly in terms of some of the issues in the film:  how to be with children, how to deal with the bonds of children, how to spread those bonds beyond just the nuclear family, but not necessarily to break them.  The tensions around that.  How someone suggested in the film, to equalize the work between men and women, and processing the questions we don’t question here.  Everything was up to question it seemed:  how we organized our lives, how we did sex, children, family, relationships; all of those things were subject to conversation that we had.  Long, long conversations.

We made music, we didn’t have canned music.  All that was wonderful.  And for me it was transformational, I was a city boy, I grew up in New York, and I came from the Lower East Side and the intensity of the Mother Fuckers which was urban, street fighting craziness, and I was totally armored from that.  There was a transition when I lived in New Mexico, but I was armored, I was always looking out, but there, the armor just fell off of me.  I was able to be feminine and masculine in ways that I couldn’t be there.

So all that was wonderful.  But with all that, there were all kinds of stuff that was not resolved, and did not get talked about.  There was a level that it was not surprising that for most of the folks I lived with up there, that sort of living didn’t last.  We didn’t continue to live that way for all kinds of reasons.

For me it was just the level of isolation, from history, the lives of most people in this world, the United States and the struggles here, was something I didn’t want to continue.  My ambitions intellectually, artistically, politically, in terms of engagement we had separated ourselves, and there was a problem with that separation.  I didn’t want to do that.

And for all the sharing that we did, and the communal living, people kept their parachutes, that was still there when they wanted to get out of that.  And once people got out of that, then all those divisions that had been not there, all of a sudden they reappeared.

When people left, all those class differences just woof! they were there like they had never not been there.  And some of the people, like you see Richard Marley was working as a super and had no money and others have tons of money, gobs of money, some of which they inherited, some of which they made.  All of those divisions re-emerged.

It was obviously really not diverse in terms of race.  It was a white scene.  Aside from one or two folks it was almost racially homogeneous.  But even within that homogeneity there were differences, in background.  We all looked the same, but there were people who came from educated, middle class, intellectual backgrounds like I did.  Jews and non-Jews, there were those differences.  People from more working class backgrounds there, those different experiences didn’t disappear there.

In terms of the political agenda… there’s not this intense political engagement continuing for a lot of the people there.  Everybody was on the progressive, counter-cultural side of things, pretty much, but the radicalism of it did not continue.  Black people who looked at hippies and said, “Oh, that’s just a phase, we’re going to stay Black while you’ve gone and taken up all of your white privilege.” All of that is true about Black Bear.

It’s complicated, when you talk about men and women, not all the women had such a good experience.  When you take all of that sexual freedom, it looks more attractive to men.  Not all of them, we all loved it, it was just harder for some of the women, I think.

It was complicated for the children.  Some of the children had a really great experience and some of them didn’t have a great experience.

Many people like me came back down to The City.  There were people who stayed up there.  Some people like Creek, in the film, they moved down to the Salmon River, where most people in that area live.  There are little pieces of land, mostly it’s national forest, they have remained there and now they are the old timers.  You had the old timers in the film talking, now they are the old timers!  They have really created community around there and they have gotten very involved in protecting the river.  They have done an amazing job fighting the Forest Service to preserve the river, to prevent them from using pesticides to get rid of the invasive species, pulling the weeds by hand.  Fighting the clear cutting, fighting the damming of the rivers.

They also connected more than most of us did to the Native populations.  There were a few people at Black Bear who connected with the Karuk and the Yurok who were the Native populations, there was a Hoopa Reservation just down the road, so some of the people who stayed up there made those connections which is all good, they’ve done really good stuff.  Those are some of my thoughts.

AI:  I thought it was really interesting, among other things, this is the second time I’ve seen it, that Peter Coyote didn’t talk about the Diggers.  You talked about being in the Mother Fuckers, the one woman talked about knowing people who were in the Weather Underground Organization and supporting the Black Panthers, but I didn’t know he was a Digger when I saw this the first time, but I’m reading his Sleeping Where I Fall, so I thought that was kind of strange.

ON:  I don’t know why he did that.  Peter’s relation to Black Bear was less central than you would think from the film.  I mean he’s in the film partly because he’ll sell the film, and having Peter Coyote in it is a plus for the film maker, but his amount of time up there was not long.

Jesse Palmer (JP):  What is interesting to me is that people are increasingly fascinated by going Back to the Land, but everything I learn about the 1970s projects makes me feel skeptical.

ON:  Well, you’re right to be skeptical.  When I talked about how I was moved thinking about it doesn’t mean you don’t have every right to be skeptical about it.  I would be.  That’s why it was initially difficult for me to figure out how to talk about it because I have all those mixed feelings.  I moved on.  I had to move on from there.  And if I stayed there, it wouldn’t have worked for me.

There’s a real division among the Black Bear kids, between the ones who went as far away, Aaron is the one in the movie, but there were others also, and there are ones that are still very connected to the place.

The problem with Black Bear is that because it is so isolated, for example if you have children, and want to have them go to school, you can’t stay up there.  There’s no way unless you want to home school them, and so on.  But if you want them to have any experience of being socialized in school it’s not going to happen.

Black Bear is still around.  I don’t know what it’s like, I don’t think it’s anything like when we lived there, but it’s still up there.


You can read more about Osha and check out some of his artwork at www.oshaneumann.com.