Living on the Earth

by Alicia Bay Laurel

Published by Villard

224 pages, 2000





A Communal Classic

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Thirty years after its original publication, the newly revised and updated Living on the Earth remains the definitive guide for those interested in shucking off the trappings of modern life and running off to start a commune.

Author Alicia Bay Laurel was just 20 when the first edition of Living on the Earth was published in 1970. One can just imagine the flowerchild she was sitting cross-legged in some verdant field with her sketchbook in her arms while she filled page after page in her growing compendium of modern knowledge for skills almost lost. Everything from milking a cow, making glue, soap and candles to building an interesting salad ("and some taste trips like kelp, onions, raisins..."), organic sauerkraut and sunflower milk. Really, the list of what is included is too long to even attempt. Suffice it to say that, if you were actually taking a run at community-building at the edge of a wilderness, Living on the Earth would be a pretty handy book to have around. Especially if you'd also brought your Champion juicer and some powdered potash along for the ride.

The 2000 edition contains all of the homespun charm of the original. Nothing -- from the copyright notices to the index -- is typeset. Everything is in, presumably, Bay Laurel's own clear and schoolteacherish hand. The author's naively whimsical illustrations are intact, as well. In a style that says more about Bay Laurel's enthusiasm than her talent, the author has included a sketch on nearly every page. In some cases, the illustration and the text form a sort of whole. For example, that sauerkraut recipe is written inside of the jar.

There's lots of utopian brouhaha going on, as well. Naked celebrants dancing under trees and playing the instruments they've just made. An unclothed man sprinkling water from a hose onto both a cavorting child and a line of willing plants. Eight unclothed and nearly unclothed workers joyfully tending their garden. Not that I can imagine any of this nakedness being offensive to anyone: most of the figures are so childishly rendered that they're little more than stick figures or silhouettes.

A great deal of the book is given to the execution of simple tasks -- and here again I'm tempted to make a list: tanning leather, curing a cold, remaking second-hand clothes. However, some of Living on the Earth deals with higher concerns. Bay Laurel tells us, for instance, that "hatha yoga keeps you stoned," and that "the Chinese were once very hip to living in nature." Despite all of this naively rendered and idealistic exuberance, Living on the Earth is an oddly complete book, one that would be useful to have at hand if you were, for example, stuck on a deserted island or lost in the woods. It also includes much that will interest modern vegans (aside from that leather tanning reference, of course) and others concerned with finding a more organic course through their lives.

Despite useful and interesting updates in this new edition, and despite the fact that the book includes real life instruction for various activities, at its heart, Living on the Earth remains a touching reminder of a quiet revolution. | May 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.