The Whole Earth Catalog
Before we had the Internet, we had this:
This copy was printed in 1971.
It’s where I learned about Buckminster Fuller, Gurney’s seed catalogs, and how a guitar is put together. I ordered the parts to build a clock from a supplier listed in the catalog. The “access to tools” subtitle gives you the original idea, which was to be a resource for people in the back-to-the-land movement, but it’s more than that.
It’s a way of organizing knowledge.
I’m thinking about a website and the best way to organize various things I’d want to put on it, which made me think about the Catalog.
Here’s how it’s set up:
WHOLE SYSTEMS — cosmos, universe, earth, energy, geography, surface, clouds, laws, connections, form, general systems, human beings, being human, Jung, anthropology, thought, history, future, eastern future, Think Little, future biology, funky future, world game, world organism, evolution, human evolution, ecology, ecology issues, population, liferaft Earth, ecology action, ecology periodicals, more ecology, desperate ecology action, Four Changes
LAND USE – agricultural origins, land life, organic gardening, compost, biodynamic gardening, pests, soil, vegetable & flower seeds, trees & flowers, herbs, indoor gardening, exotic crops, wildlife, goats, livestock, rabbits, chickens & horses, energy, wind & sun, water & sanitation, wells, water, mining, tools, roads, surveying & blasting, trees & saws, land buying, Canada & Alaska, wild foods, mushrooms, land use, Soleri
SHELTER – natural structure, Gaudi & Wright, Japanese house, design considerations, architecture, mode, stained glass, dome geometry, domes, owner-built home, low-cost construction, carpentry, building, stoves, lanterns, tipis, cabins, adobe, stone buildings, concrete, Frei Otto, inflatables, plastic, materials
INDUSTRY – alloy, design, Chinese technology, inventory, engineering, inventions, village technology, knots, science, technology, handbooks, plastic, data, tips, modular materials, appliances, lab suppliers, plastic, welding & winching, nifty tools, government surplus, tools, surplus, precision tools, fine tools, tool use
CRAFT – woodcraft, wood, furniture, reed craft, frontier crafts, country crafts & antiques, craft design, philosophy & craft access, craft supplies, jewelry supplies, jewelry, glass, sculpture, candles & bonsai, pottery, kilns & throwing, potters & wheels, ceramic supplies, weaving, spinning, dyeing, looms, wool & yarn, knitting, sewing, embroidery & quilts, macrame, dye, leather
COMMUNITY – forebears, funk living, Japanese communes, schemes, the commune lie, consideration, organization, market, business, funds, food, cooking, kitchen, vegetables, woks & Dutch ovens, preserving, storing, grinders & juicers, gourmet equipment, gadgets, wine & beer making, sauna, massage, Go (the board game), stuff, dogs, animals, dope, mental health, health, emergency medicine, first aid, doctoring, drugs, country cures & medical stuff, home delivery, birth, baby stuff, sex, women, death, bargain living, bargain buying, Sears, Wards, shopping, shoes etc., Hong Kong, outlaw, time, justice, organization, politics, down home, country, kindred, the arts, kindred, New Mexico road
NOMADICS – the Great Bus Race, buses & campers, campers & trailers, Volkswagen, car repair, vehicle repair, off road, motorcycles, bicycles, The Way, walking, aloof, mountains, horses, boots, moccasins, camp clothing, tents, sleeping bags, packs, outdoor suppliers, snow equipment, north, camping, camp, survival, guns, knives, bow & arrow, bowhunting, fishing, canoeing, canoes, kayaks & inflatables, boats, scuba & surf, diving, sailing, seamanship, cruising, ocean, boatbuilding, boats, boat supplies, flying, airplanes, sky sports, exploration, trips, Nepal, travel
COMMUNICATIONS – diagram, image & control, silence, culture, style, language, universe, mind, sense, brain, information, math, organization, computer design, computers, electronics, radio, electronic equipment, high fidelity, managing rock, tape, electronic synthesizers, music, instrument making, guitars & banjos, dulcimers, exotic instruments, wind instruments, music, economics, non-profit, tokens, money, capitalism, video, theater, filmmaking, film, photography, photography supplies, art, image, art, painting, silk screen, printers supplies, writing, bookmaking, printing, books
LEARNING – parent, toys, children’s books, home school, children’s art, learning books, nature, astronomy, history, pioneer, wilderness, Indians, games, kites & paper airplanes, kid technology, science, teaching, schools, school methods, school things, free schools, correspondence schools, what to do, culture, The Game, dope, psychedelics, discorporate, paranormal, mysticism, psychology, mind, centering, self-hypnosis, meditation, yoga, calisthenics, myth, China & Tibet, excursions, Don Juan, mysticism, thinking, serendipity
It’s kind of like a random walk through sixties counterculture. You can see the interest in other cultures, the reaching back to the past for skills, and the hopeful looking upward, outward, and into the future.
Not very helpful for organizing my future website, though.
It’s a cautionary tale
1971 was two years after Woodstock and seven years after Ken Kesey’s psychedelic road trip that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. By the time this final catalog came out, people had experience with actually living in communes and trying to live a better life away from the repressive Establishment. The Community section is peppered with sad letters and essays, and this photo that says a lot about the reality of living with other people:
It’s a historical artifact
The counterculture has moved on. Stewart Brand, the genius behind the Catalog, has moved on and rethought a lot of what he wrote in the sixties. For one thing, he’s now saying that the environmentally responsible thing is dense urban living, not dropping out to live on a tiny farm. Here’s a link to his current work with the Long Now Foundation, and here’s his Ted talk at the U.S. State Department.
Politics have shifted. The page on guns includes an affectionate note about the NRA, its useful magazine with tips on things like storing and preparing game, and the help it provides to any member who has a question. The writer says there are a lot of “flag-freaks and super-patriots” involved in the organization, but it hadn’t yet taken on the boundless power it seems to have today.
And I think this page on computers is a perfect illustration of how technology has grown since the year I took Fortran in college. Check out the features of the $4,400 and $4,700 desktop calculators, compared in the bottom left corner of the page.
It’s hope and confidence
One thing that comes through loud and clear is the idea that people can do anything they put their minds to. Want to raise goats and churn your own butter? You can learn how from this book, and buy the supplies you need from these sources. Want to build a camera and create your own movies? The resources are here. Same for raising wool, spinning yarn, and knitting sweaters. There’s a pitch for the USDA Agricultural Extension Services, with free help and information on all kinds of things.
And bigger problems, like overpopulation, pollution, and poverty, aren’t insurmountable. Read this book, and think about these ideas, and use your ingenuity to invent solutions using these tips.
Well, this trip down memory lane didn’t help me much with the website organization question I came in with, but it gave me a lot to think about. And it led me to the Long Now and its optimistic podcast series. Just what I need in 2018.
If you also remember the Whole Earth Catalog, or if you’re from a different generation and have something else that brings your era to vivid life the way this did for me, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.