Praise for Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier

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“Brady’s brave reporting pulls no punches yet makes no judgments as she chronicles four people torn by their allegiances to a place that represents the beauty and ruthlessness of the modern American frontier-and the hypocrisy of the country’s drug policy. Humboldt is a triumph of immersion reporting: vivid, compassionate, maddening and unforgettable.”

–Jonathan Schuppe, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of A Chance to Win

“Deeply reported and populated with vibrant characters spanning generations, Humboldt documents the real lives behind America’s favorite high. A fascinating and timely read”

–David Kinney, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of The Big One

“Emily Brady has written a terrifically gripping book about America’s confused relationship with marijuana. A tour-de-force of investigative journalism.”

–Suketu Mehta, author of MAXIMUM CITY: Bombay Lost and Found

“In her vivid, hypnotic HUMBOLDT, Emily Brady brings the notoriously secretive pot-growing community of Northern California to life through the lives of four very different Humboldters, whose nuanced stories form together like wisps of smoke.”

–Julian Rubinstein, author of the bestseller Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

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Excerpt from Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier

Late one Tuesday afternoon in March of 2010, in a disorderly cabin located on the edge of the North American continent, in a place bypassed by highways and the electrical grid, Mary Em Abidon reached deep into her freezer, plucked out a small white marrowbone, and tossed it onto her pantry floor. Her dog, Lucky, was nearly deaf, but the unmistakable thunk of bone hitting wood could still roust him from his slumber. It was a familiar routine between Mare, as she was known to most everyone, and the border collie/cocker spaniel mutt she found abandoned on the road to Shelter Cove fourteen years earlier. As Mare bent down to scratch behind Lucky’s floppy black ears and pat his head, the little dog peered up at her with pleading eyes.

“Lucky, stay and guard,” she instructed him, as she always did before she left for town.

Lucky picked up his treat and headed for the front deck to curl up under the cherry trees that were just beginning to bud, while Mare gathered up her coat and purse and pulled the cabin door shut behind her. She was excited, giddy even, as she started up her battered Volvo station wagon and eased it down her driveway and toward town. It was the same fluttery feeling she had long ago when she first moved to this place. It felt like the start of something new.

Mare had first heard about the event while listening to KMUD-FM, the community radio station. A local talk show host named Anna “Banana” Hamilton was organizing it. The flyers she posted around town advertised the event two ways: “The Post-Marijuana Prohibition Economy Forum,” and the shorthand version, which rolled off the tongue much easier: “What’s After Pot?” The accompanying art featured a pot leaf, two nude female figures wearing baseball caps, clumps of trimmed marijuana buds, and what appeared to be dollar bills with wings fluttering away. Smaller print near the bottom of the flyer advised attendees to bring their own snacks.

On her way to town, Mare caught slivers of the steel-blue Pacific Ocean through the trees, but mostly all she could see were the trees themselves. On her right, madrones and Douglas firs plunged down the canyon. On her left, they furrowed their roots deep into the hillside. The Volvo rattled past a row of brightly painted mailboxes and the dirt road that led to the meadow where the annual Easter egg hunt and the May and October trade fairs were held. Farther ahead was the tiny community school where years earlier Mare had volunteered as an art teacher, teaching the children how to make paper and pinch clay into faces that they would stick to trees until the rain washed them away.

At the intersection called Four Corners, where a hand-painted blue sign cautioned drivers to be on the lookout for bicycles, motorcycles, a donkey, and children, Mare guided the Volvo past the entrance to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, and onto a road that straddled the Mendocino and Humboldt county line. Deep inside the state park was a seventy-five-acre patch of ancient redwoods that Mare had once fought to save from the roar of a lumber company’s saw. Looking back on her life, Mare considered it the most important thing she’d ever done.

That was nearly thirty years ago. On this March day, Mare was a month into her seventieth year. Her once-blond hair had long since turned silvery white, and her handsome face carried the lines of a life fully lived. Her blue eyes still twinkled with unfaltering optimism, and she continued to marvel at the details, like the cherry-red paint on a passing motorcycle, which could make her exclaim in childlike delight. But her body had begun to betray her. Her right knee caused her to hobble, and she had had to have a hip replaced a few years back. “Becoming bionic,” she called it. Her sturdy, creative hands, which once made a thousand ceramic pots a year, were now racked with arthritis. They gripped the Volvo’s steering wheel and propelled her toward town.

The meeting was taking place at the Mateel Community Center in Southern Humboldt, an area of 1,200 square miles of sprawling wilderness in the far reaches of Northern California. The area used to be known as the Mateel, after the Mattole and Eel rivers that flow through it, but now, as if it were some Manhattan neighborhood, many people called it by the abbreviated term SoHum. Over the years, SoHum, the rest of Humboldt, and neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties had become known around the country as the Emerald Triangle, after the region’s brilliant green clandestine marijuana crop.

Since the mid-1970s, outlaw farmers throughout the Triangle had been supplying America with its favorite illegal drug. What had started as a lark nearly forty years earlier had become the backbone to the county’s economy. Throughout the region, and particularly in SoHum, marijuana farming had become a way of life, one that transcended class and generations. “It’s what we do here,” people would say.

Mare herself had grown a half-dozen plants every year for decades. But the code of silence surrounding the marijuana industry was such that, until one March evening in 2010, there had never been a public gathering in Southern Humboldt where what people did there was openly discussed. Sure, for twenty years there was an annual hemp festival, where pot-related books and paraphernalia were sold, and for decades there had been meetings to discuss the actions of law enforcement in the community, but a public discussion about the dependence of the local economy on the black market marijuana crop had never happened before. Up until this moment, it was even considered bad form to ask what someone did for a living in the community. It was just understood.

Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2013 by Emily Brady.