"Access to Tools"
was what the original Whole Earth Catalog wanted to provide. The book was massively oversized and around 300 pages long, rather crudely printed, all black and white including the cover. The first WEC had a photograph of the Earth
from orbit on its cover (the one with the Earthrise
from the Moon was the "Next Whole Earth Catalog", which came out in 1981
). It was a catalog of resources, knowledge and mailing addresses for companies that provided the best tools or services. Everything
was in there. If it had anything to do with ecology
, communal living
, ancient traditions
, or hacking the system
, it was in the Whole Earth Catalog. Composting toilets
, tipis, shovels, work boots, reliable army surplus
companies, beat poetry
farming, literature on the sane use of drugs and Mayan mysticism. Everything you could possibly need. A lot of listings were for actual tools, but even more of them were for wonderful, magical books - books that would tell you how to make your own underground home and what kind of wild plants were edible in the United States. How to cook roadkill
. Alternative sexualities, and "Black Elk Speaks
". Everything, I tell you.
In addition to listing mailing addresses and descriptions of the tools or books, the WEC printed excerpts and stories about them. Little tidbits that didn't really give you any kind of working knowledge, but were enough to get you excited. Enough interesting ideas to make you want to buy every single book that was in there, not because you needed them but just because they were so damn good. There were photos of real people using the products, and illustrations of strangely cool things ripped living from the books. And, most importantly, there would be comments from the readers as well as the editorial staff. Things like, "Franny and Jake have been living in a tipi for three years now, and say Hunter's Moon is the only legitimate tipi company to talk to." Or, in a node about work boots, "Sure, the boots are great, but don't believe the company's claims that they are fireproof. One time when we had dropped a lot of acid, I stuck my feet in the campfire and they did burn. - Love, Stu". In every new printing of the WEC, there would be new and revised comments, and the listings would grow, much like the nodes of a certain website I know of.
It was the keys to the kingdom, one of the most useful books ever. It and the Anarchist Cookbook were the most interesting browsing books in my mother's library, and on the whole the WEC was much better than the Anarchist Cookbook (which was listed in the WEC, under "urban warfare" or some such heading). The WEC wasn't content with merely telling angry college students how to make pipebombs or listing the formula for LSD, it was trying to provide the tools for a better world. Stewart Brand and his cohorts wanted to turn every marginalized and alienated person in America into a member of a community that would follow its own rules, build a healthy, sustainable relationship with the Earth, make its own schools and traditions, and alienate no one. The message, repeated over and over, was that we all have the power to change things, and that we didn't have to believe what the government and the oil companies were telling us. This was one of the principal axioms of my upbringing, and the Catalog was a cornerstone of our literature, like Lord of the Rings and Pete Seeger's songs.
A new version of the Catalog came out roughly twice a decade. The 1981 version was completely different from the original, bigger and slicker, which better artwork and a wider variety of listings, and far fewer references to LSD. The story of Divine Right, which ran over the corners of every page of the first WEC, was gone. In its place, the corners were adorned with random thoughts and snippets of philosophy, with a flip-book animation of a passing landscape accompanying them. The new slogan was "Access to Tools and Information". This edition had much larger sections on sex and underground media, and was the source of the concept "Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty" - a call which may seem hokey now, but was downright subversive at the time. I find it interesting that the most commonly copied history of this meme, a tale cut and pasted to thousands of websites, and visible at the same E2 node, makes no mention of the fact that Anne Herbert was a Whole Earth Catalog writer.
I haven't bought any of the later Catalogs, so I may be wrong here, but my general impression from browsing them at bookstores is that, while they are still useful resources, much of the spirit of the original endeavour is missing. The Whole Earth Quarterly, which seems to have morphed into Whole Earth Magazine, is a pretty interesting read, but is nowhere near as practical as the older material, and the feeling of participating in a community of amateur revolutionaries is long dead. Most of the original writers and creators are heavily into computers and online communities now, and while this is cool, there are times when I just want to know where to buy a shovel to dig the latrine trench outside of my tipi.
EDITIONS OF THE CATALOG:
- The Whole Earth Catalog - 1968. Supplements and continual revisions of this edition were published until March 1971.
- The Last Whole Earth Catalog - 1971
- The Updated Last Whole Earth Catalog - 1974
- The Whole Earth Epilog - 1974
- The Next Whole Earth Catalog - 1981
- The Essential Whole Earth Catalog - 1986
- The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog - 1994
Other projects by the same Merry Pranksters: