Humboldt County, California.
It’s the season for outdoor cannabis growing, and given that it’s also the season for the Milky Way, and I’m in Humboldt County, California, how could I not go out for some nighttime images of the new plants growing beneath that glorious ribbon of light?
I recently photographed the accompanying images of young cannabis plants growing under the stars, and I am liking the photos I came away with. But “cannabis” is a broad subject, and I wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach writing about it, where to start or where to take it. I tend to photograph first, and write something about it later. I was particularly sensitive to the subject this time, given our culture’s tortured history with the herb.
It came to me the other day as I sat with a group of old friends, sipping cold drinks under the redwoods in the heat of a Sunday afternoon on the patio at the Brass Rail in Redway, deep in the heart of southern Humboldt County, California. It was hot, must have been 96º in the shade. I was showing them the nighttime cannabis images I’d recently taken.
“I don’t know how I’m going to write about these,” I was saying. “Sometimes I just want to take the pictures, you know? And not write anything.”
“Well, if I were to write a story about pot,” boomed Syd, “I’d start with how The Man is always telling us what to do.”
That was a possibility, I suppose; clearly “The Man” has lots of ideas about what folks should or should not do, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to explore that angle.
“First they tell us we can’t smoke it,” he elaborated, “and anyone who smokes it is a criminal. Reefer Madness, and all that. Then Prop 215 happens and they say it’s ok as long as it’s medical marijuana, and we all have to go get permits to smoke it. And now they say it’s legal recreationally. It’s all so arbitrary.”
“Yeah, well, I think ‘they’ realized that pot could make them so much money, both in business and in taxes and fees, that demonizing it seemed a lot less practical than embracing it, so they flip-flopped.”
“The all-mighty dollar.”
I’d grown up with most of these people. A couple of them now owned permitted farms and grew cannabis commercially; one of them was in the horticultural supply industry; most had grown marijuana at some point, and we had all grown up in the thick of it.
“You could write about how back when you were all kids, pot growers were the back-to-the-landers, doing small-time mom and pop kind of growing.” This was Aura. She’d gone by “Aura” so long I couldn’t remember what her actual name was. She was probably my parents’ age, young and free in the ‘Sixties.
“Aura,” I asked, “what brought you to Humboldt?”
“Oh, we’d been doing the grind in the Bay Area, and got burned out on it in the mid-Seventies. We were tired of the smog, tired of the traffic, the endless rushing around,” she said. “We wanted to get back to the land, grow our own food, raise our kids in clean air.”
“So you bought land? With a house?”
“Yeah, we bought land one mid-Seventies’ summer and moved up. It was just my husband and me and our two kids. We had to build a house. We had no idea how to do any of it, but we did it.”
I remember it being like that for a lot of my classmates growing up. Those had been interesting times, though I hadn’t realized how interesting they really were as I grew up through them.
“We became part of a counter culture when we moved here. A movement!”
“We hadn’t meant to. All we wanted was peace and quiet.”
“My parents were like you, Aura.” This was Coral. She was a year ahead of me in high school. “They were long hair hippies with advanced degrees, just wanting to simplify life.”
“I remember kids coming to school smelling like skunk (marijuana) during harvest season,” Ron said. I’d known Ron in high school, too; I think he was a year younger than I was. “And everyone knew why.”
“I remember it, too, now that you mention it,” I said. “I remember thinking they were like regular farm kids — when it’s time to harvest, it’s time to harvest.”
“Then the CAMP helicopters came…” Aura gazed into space. “And the peace and quiet was terrorized. We’d listen to KMUD’s ‘Community Safety and Awareness Report’ first thing to find out where the convoys were headed. If they were coming your way, you had to hide.”
I could also remember watching the CAMP helicopters dipping beneath the hills, to rise again with a great net of marijuana plants swinging pendulously on a cable beneath it. “Looks like they’re busting the McCoys,” I might’ve said to a companion at the time. “Or maybe that’s the old Smithback place.” It was hard to tell sometimes. But you were watching someone’s livelihood being taken away, someone you probably knew.
“I remember kids finding out at school that their community had been busted,” I said, “and worrying if their parents had been hit. There was a lot of fear and worry.”
“‘It feels like we’re living in a police state,’” Ron quoted the Rod and the I-Deals song, “‘You broke the law, so accept your fate.’ That song was spot on for the times.” He bent to his phone. “Hey, ‘Police State’ is on Apple Music!”
Coral giggled suddenly. “Remember when CAMP was dumping all the pot at the Garberville airport and burning it? Kids would get off the bus and get stoned in the smoke from the burning plants! And collect buds.”
“Yeah, and wasn’t the law standing around enjoying it, too? And probably collecting buds. I mean, who wouldn’t?”
“And then where else but Humboldt would you drive down the freeway and see entire billboards at harvest season dedicated exclusively to Wiss Clips or oven bags (of all things)? I remember laughing to myself seeing these driving past Fortuna. Pot was still completely illegal, before Prop 215 and medical marijuana. ‘They’ve figured it out!’ I thought. They had finally figured out what the pot farmer needs at this end of the season.”
“Yup, even before legalization, cannabis-related legal commerce would find a way,” Coral said. She has been in the horticultural supplies business a long time. “It has been helping the economy and pumping money into the area since long before it became legal.”
“Coral, did your industry get any kind of bump when 215 passed?” I asked. “And what happened when it became recreationally legal?”
“Oh, both of those events brought increased business. Growing increased both times — especially when it became legal for recreational use, and everyone was allowed to grow a few plants — so the need for supplies increased. When there’s a boom, materials suppliers celebrate. It’s booming.”
“I’ll say,” Ron said. “There was no Garberville Rodeo this year, but there was still a Rodeo Parade… only there were so many cannabis-related entries that it was dubbed the ‘Growdeo Parade!’”
“Maybe it’s booming as far as how much is being grown,” Aura said, “but it’s not ‘booming’ for mom and pop anymore.”
“What’s funny to me,” Syd rumbled, “is that ‘pot’ and pot growing turned into ‘cannabis cultivation.’ It got all hoity-toity and now it’s ‘canna this’ or ‘canna that.’ When did ‘pot’ become ‘canna?’”
“That’ll be a marketing thing,” Coral said. “They — haha, ‘they’ — needed a clean, shiny new image for the herb, and ‘pot’ was never going to be it. ‘Cannabis,’ or ‘canna’ sounded perfect.”
For me, “canna” had always been something Scotty would yell when he couldn’t get the engines to work.
“Humboldt’s climate is sorta special,” Cora continued. “It’s very favorable for the terpenes in cannabis, which influence flavor, aroma, and even the high. Humboldt has basically become an appellation for the best cannabis in the world.”
I am sure we could have gone on for hours without becoming boring, but I had a drive ahead of me and was beginning to fade. All I’d had was iced tea.
“Thanks a bunch for this discussion, you guys. I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to mention any of this, but we’ll see.”
The conversation above never actually occurred, and all of the people in it are fictitious. Call it historical fiction, for these characters never got together at the Brass Rail, but the memories, thoughts, and feelings expressed by the characters within did come from real people with whom I’ve had informal chats about cannabis cultivation since I photographed the accompanying images. All of the dialog between the characters is from my memory of things said in the separate conversations. I’ve also thrown in my own memories from growing up in that culture. There aren’t any absolute facts I can point to in this story, but that isn’t to say that the characters’ comments don’t contain truth. I felt that writing it this way preserved everyone’s anonymity.
Besides, for me it is all about the photos.