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Anne Herbert
Anne Herbert (photo by Kevin Kelly, ca. 1988)

Anne Herbert: an introduction

by Robert Horvitz

Stewart Brand put a short note in the Gossip column of the fall 1976 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly:

"We would like [an] additional general-purpose editor and researcher, better than me please, so the magazine can extend its range and I can extend mine. A lot of our best stuff gets found when I'm out ranging, but I can't get out enough. It's a salaried position, $1,000 a month, life among the houseboats, non-rat-race publishing. We need a professional, incipient or realized, but damned good. Send samples of your writing and editing; and a photo helps."

"I would like to write a silence" - 3 pages of snippets from Anne Herbert's writing - appeared in the next issue of CQ, along with this self-description - apparently from her bid for the editor/researcher position:

"I'm twenty-six, I've lived in Ohio all my life, including 7 years in Cincinnati and 9 years in Germantown, a genuine quaint, folksy, friendly small town. I'm very good at going to school and have spent a disproportionate amount of my life doing so. Four years and a degree in English Ed. from Wright State (commuter college in Dayton Ohio) and two years and no degree from Ohio State (a football rooting section in Columbus Ohio). The Ohio State time was in grad school and although there are always dozens of good reasons to quit grad school, the one that did it for me was the feeling that if I wrote one more A paper I'd never be able to write anything real. So I quit with the idea of becoming not the great american writer but a great american writer (always humble)... My free hours I spend searching for Truth (what else) and my favorite places to look have been orthodox Christianity, extreme cynicism, and heavy heavy negative self-analysis - and it looks like these places are where the writing comes from..."

The CQ after that (spring 1977) had "Snake," one of Anne's most unforgettable parables, which is reprinted below. The masthead said her role was "Research" and the Gossip column added that she had "left Columbus, Ohio, just ahead of the snows and now rocks in a house-converted lifeboat in Sausalito between performing research and editorial assistance here."

The masthead in the issue after that (summer 1977) lists her as "Editorial Assistant" and Gossip says she "waltzed into the middle of this operation with nothing more than sparkling poetry and Ohio chutzpah."

Describing her editorial contributions over the next 5 years would bore people mainly interested in her writing - which is where interest really should be. Suffice it to say, Anne loved writing more than editing and having experienced both thoroughly, she turned down a chance to edit the Whole Earth Review in order to keep her time open for writing. She managed to combine the two activities in the Next Whole Earth Catalog, which she oversaw as Production Editor, and where excerpts from her Rising Sun Neighborhood Newsletter appeared as filler throughout (layouts as complex as the NWEC's guaranteed that almost every page had a small rectangle of white space left over - those became Anne's to fill). Rising Sun had started a few years earlier as a xeroxed/typewritten biweekly mailing to friends. Some excerpts follow below, after "Snake."

Her exhortation to "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" became a meme in the 1980s. Another phrase of hers became nearly as popular: "Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries." That appeared on page 331 of the NWEC.

Kevin Kelly once described her work as "Proverbs for the Future":

"Anne Herbert was a gifted writer who edited CoEvolution Quarterly (the periodic magazine of the Whole Earth Catalog) before I did in the early 1980s. We never worked together, or were close friends, but I really dug her writing. It was telegraphic, lyrical, abbreviated, evocative, extremely personal and mystical. She wrote in short bursts. Like proverbs from a secret bible. Brian Eno noticed her stuff works really well on t-shirts. It was not like any writing I had encountered."

After leaving her fulltime gig at Whole Earth, Anne published just four magazine articles in the next 30 years - all in Whole Earth Review. One was about assassinations (WER 49, winter 1985). One was about the harm caused by training people for "crummy little jobs" (WER 61, winter 1988). One was about Naomi Newman's one-person show "Snake Talk" (WER 71, summer 1991). And the last was "Handy Tips on How to Behave at the Death of the World" (reprinted below). Committed to producing literature that was real and true, she just could not go commercial.

Anne and Margaret Pavel self-published a booklet titled Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty which was reissued by New Village Press with an introduction by Desmond Tutu and illustrations by Mayumi Oda. It won the Independent Publisher Book Awards' "Outstanding Peacemaker" prize in 2016. Meanwhile, articles about the origin and enduring appeal of the title phrase appeared in Reader's Digest, Glamour, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times' syndication service.

Compassion 101
Cover of a 226-page collection of writings that Anne
self-published in 1988 and sold by mail order for $25,
saved by Jonathan Evelegh.

Anne put some of her writing online and self-published a collection called Compassion 101: How to Prevent Death Camps. In 2005 she started a blog: "Peace and Love and Noticing the Details." Most of the blog entries were brief, just a phrase or a few sentences - quips and observations, things overheard. As time passed, the entries got longer, becoming little essays. Samples from early and late in the stream are quoted below.

In their interviews for the Internet Archive, Anne's friends and Whole Earth colleagues Kathleen O'Neill and David Wills offer unique personal insights, especially about her later years. After the Next Whole Earth Catalog was finished, Kathleen said:

"She started drifting away from the magazine and also started stepping outside of society. She stopped showing up for things and started sleeping outside. She had problems with money. She really didn't want to go the 9-to-5 route and she was so much in her mind that other things just didn't matter to her. She didn't care if she had nice clothes anymore, or if she knew where she was going to be living next week."

David still saw her regularly:

"She'd come by to nibble and chat at my apartment on the third floor of 534 Ashbury, and around 2005 she moved into the building's basement. She would come up three flights of wooden stairs and chat about street stuff and days gone by at Whole Earth while I cooked. I fed her quite frequently... My fellow tenants in the building did not know she lived there. She had a section curtained off in the basement and all her furniture was books. She made walls from stacks of books and towards the end of her stay she slept on a bed of books. She collected discarded books on her journeys around San Francisco. There were about three thousand books down there, a totally random collection. I cleared out the basement when I got evicted and gave a lot of the books to Google. As a street-walking bag-lady Anne was a pro. Any time I was out and about, it was possible to come across the odd, stooped, light brown presence of Anne shuffling along, head down, thinking good thoughts. When she recognized me she'd smile, stand up straighter, look me in eye and we'd chat. She was by no means the crazy bag lady she appeared to be."

Kathleen confirms that Anne, while eccentric and living more and more as an outsider, wasn't crazy, nor did she have drug problems:

"She was never into drugs at all. I don't think that she ever smoked marijuana. She didn't drink. So it was never drug problems with her. It was more just being so mental. Like religious people in the past: what they wanted to follow was the higher spiritual calling and not just the forces of the body. And that's where I always felt she was, into the spiritual connection... I believe Anne chose to live without a job because she believed jobs to be the real enemy of contemplation. She would just as soon spend time with her own mind as waste her time with minds in a lower plane of thought..."

Anne died of cancer on 18 December 2015. In a tragic sense she got what she wanted: to "join the song and segue clean out of Western Civilization."


by Anne Herbert
Published in CoEvolution Quarterly (spring 1977)

In the beginning God didn't make just one or two people; he made a bunch of us. Because he wanted us to have a lot of fun and he said you can't really have fun unless there's a whole gang of you. So he put us all in this sort of playground park place called Eden and told us to enjoy.

At first we did have fun just like he expected. We played all the time. We rolled down the hills, waded in the streams, climbed the trees, swung on the vines, ran in the meadows, frolicked in the woods, hid in the forest, and acted silly. We laughed a lot.

Then one day this snake told us that we weren't having real fun because we weren't keeping score. Back then, we didn't know what score was. When he explained it, we still couldn't see the fun. But he said that we should give an apple to the person who was best at playing and we'd never know who was best unless we kept score. We could all see the fun of that. We were all sure we were best.

It was different after that. We yelled a lot. We had to make up new scoring rules for most of the games we played. Other games, like frolicking, we stopped playing because they were too hard to score. By the time God found out about our new fun, we were spending about forty-five minutes a day in actual playing and the rest of the time working out the score. God was wroth about that - very, very wroth. He said we couldn't use his garden anymore because we weren't having any fun. We said we were having lots of fun and we were. He shouldn't have got upset just because it wasn't exactly the kind of fun he had in mind.

He wouldn't listen. He kicked us out and said we couldn't come back until we stopped keeping score. To rub it in (to get our attention, he said), he told us we're all going to die anyway and our scores wouldn't mean anything.

He was wrong. My cumulative all-game score is now 16,548 and that means a lot to me. If I can raise it to 20,000 before I die I'll know I've accomplished something. Even if I can't my life has a great deal of meaning because I've taught my children to score high and they'll all be able to reach 20,000 or even 30,000 I know.

Really, it was life in Eden that didn't mean anything. Fun is great in its place, but without scoring there's no reason for it. God has a very superficial view of life and I'm glad my children are being raised away from his influence. We were lucky to get out. We're all very grateful to the snake.

Logo-Rising Sun Neighborhood Newsletter

A small selection from the pages of the Next Whole Earth Catalog (1980)


Radiation leaks are made by fools like me but only God can make a nuclear reactor that's 93 million miles from the nearest elementary school.

☀ ☀ ☀

Don't tell them how to do it, show them how to do it and don't say a word. If you tell them, they'll watch your lips move, if you show them they'll want to do it themselves, and imitate you, said Marie Montessori, who thought she was talking about kids.

☀ ☀ ☀

The only thing to teach is how to fall in love, how to be ready to fall in love, what to do then to make it last, make it a lifetime thing, to teach how to find out more about the beloved, to build something with the beloved, within the beloved, to teach all this perhaps before love ever happens so that when love comes be it of caterpillars or dead painters or wood and nails or computers that talk back, when it happens the feeling doesn't dissipate into a hopeless infatuation - "it must be wonderful to do that, to know about that, but I can't" - but is a release of power like real love that leads to knowing more because you know where to find it, to cherishing and building in this lover because you know that someone can tell you how to do it and you keep looking until you find the one who can.

But teachers are afraid to teach love, and when they do, usually they teach "love what I love" (change your major) not the techniques and possibilities of taking something from the universe outside your skin, anything from the universe outside you and making it part of you and helping it be itself and helping it go on, not just be a spectator, but lover of the thing you were born to love. (Schools don't do that much, libraries probably do it more because they get out of the way and let it happen, remember the little kid who lived to look at Gauguin books in Goodbye, Columbus.)

☀ ☀ ☀

Her problem was she was translucent (more sometimes than others, more noticeable to herself than others) and when, for example, she held her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun and the sun shone through a little, she found it to be an inconvenience as well as a star in the middle of her hand. Some things passing through left traces, such as the nearly new moon on the sticking out bone of her left wrist months after she'd pointed at it and the cow's nose she'd petted one summer's afternoon and glimpsed faintly on the back of her hand on yearly anniversaries of whatever day it was. There was also an owl she'd stared at for hours one moonlit night staring out of the back of her head but it was only seen by the guy who cut her hair who took it as a sign to take less drugs and move to Oregon (but he was probably going to move to Oregon anyway) and a couple of lovers (who were probably going to stop being lovers anyway). Everyone's skin looked so cold and clammy through hers, except on some sunny beaches, that she tended to send all lovers away. Until sooner or later she met someone opalescent which was better - faint rainbows showing through her knuckles made touching more fun - but also disconcerting because when their whole bodies touched at the same time it turned out they matched, every other molecule, and they fell right through each other. "Maybe if I wore pantyhose and sold real estate these things wouldn't happen to me," she thought, but it was too late for that, and she and her lover learned to do controlled falls and stop in the middle of each other to let some molecules change bodies if they were bored, and pretty soon both of them were both translucent and opalescent and found each other's bodies about the best thing to look at the world through - hidden spectrums found, beauty of shapes revealed through simplification, the funny fuzzy texture of human skin over it all. They still used their naked eyes some for old times sake and contrast but one time when they were watching the sunset through each other they disappeared.

☀ ☀ ☀

If you swish the dishwater and watch the reflection of the kitchen window in a bubble that was just made, you'll first see just the window color white, and then tiny swirls of red and green and then bigger, faster swirls of red and green and then bigger yet and faster swirls of purple and blue and then yellow swirls chasing them out and turning white. Then the white gets black dots in it, the black dots get bigger and bigger until it all looks like the night sky moving - tiny white dots in black, and then the bubble bursts. It always happens in roughly that order - red and green to start and black and white at the end for sure, and the other stuff in between is pretty much the same too. If you blow bubbles in the dark, they reflect more light than you thought was there. You can tell how far from the outside you are by blowing a bubble inside. If it falls straight to the ground, you're too far inside. If it blows around a little, you're ok.

☀ ☀ ☀

And now, in memory of Pope Paul, who from a central location in the largest palace in the world bestowed on millions of Latin American women and children more birth and more death, who was the inspiration behind the successful movement to give black women back their coat hangers, who assured fag baiters that God is on their side, who was, within the limits of his changing time and his changing church, as anti-sex, anti-love and anti-life as he could possibly be, let us all spit three times toward Rome and vow that we will not let TV obituaries by Hallmark Cards make us forget who our real enemies are.

Handy tips on how to behave at the death of the world

by Anne Herbert
Published in Whole Earth Review (spring, 1995)

Sometimes it comes in a dream, and sometimes in one more newspaper headline. And then you know. With your cells and past and future you know. It's over. We are killing it all and soon it all will be dead. We are here at the death of the world - killers, witnesses, and those who will die. How then shall we live?

PROBABLY GOOD TO TELL TRUTH as much as possible. Truth generally appreciated by terminal patients and we all are. Good to avoid shoddy activities. You are doing some of last things done by beings on this planet. Generosity and beauty and basicness might be good ways to go. Avoid that which is selfserving in a small way. Keep in mind standing in for ancestors including people who lived ten thousand years ago and also fishes. Might be best to do activities that would make some ancestors feel honored to be part of bringing you here. Silent statement to predecessors: Well, yeah, we blew the big thing by killing ourselves. I tried to honor you as much as I could in that context by doing the following:

TRANSFORM YOUR OWN POWER-OVER BEHAVIOR to whatever extent possible. Life system of world being efficiently killed by human habit of going for power over. Tasteful to try to profoundly correct that to extent that you can even though it's too late. E.g. Men profoundly understand and change around relations with women. White people profoundly change in relations to people of color. Humans profoundly change in relationship to other beings on planet. This constitutes thank you note and note of apology to the whole history of the planet. I mean it has been rather great, sunsets, oceans, some art, some moments between beings, smells of fresh mornings. As we kill it all by dominance habits too huge to stop, we can thank it for the good times and say sorry by changing our own participation in the dominance stuff in some profound way. Doing this kind of change will involve confusion, embarrassment and awareness of activities and attitudes you have not been conscious of. Doing this kind of change will involve increased aliveness for you personally, a fine thing to bring to a dying planet. Be in radical alignment with particular forms of aliveness being smashed. Particular species, human cultures, styles of living are being obliterated brutally now. In as much as we all going to die fairly soon, the stylish thing to do is to align with one of the lifeforms and help it be itself as long and strong as possible.

Cover of Random Kindness (self-published)
Random Kindness, self-published edition

ESCHEW BLANDNESS. Eschew causing other's pain. We are all the target so wear bright colors and dance with those you love. Falling in love has always been a bit too much to apply to one person. Falling in love is appropriate for now, to love all these things which are about to leave. The rocks are watching, and the squirrels and the stars and the tired people in the street. If you love them, let them know, with grace and non-invasive extravagance. Care about the beings you care about in gorgeous and surprising ways. Color outside the lines. Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty. This is your last chance.

Beauty and Bad Attitude

by Anne Herbert (1999)
Yoyow (Mary Eisenhart's online writing archive)


People used to say that lesbians want to destroy Western Civilization.

Well, sure. I'm a lesbian, and I want to destroy Western Civilization.

And replace it with something less nasty and more often intensely pleasant.

Now we, the people of Western Civilization, tear down the hills, kill a lot of people and sit here in the center, often simultaneously bored and frantic.

Which is partly because of insufficient appreciation of rocks. Not listening to them enough and not melding with them. Rocks are conveniently everywhere, more common in cities than even primates, hanging out in buildings, asphalt, plaster, lamp posts and cars. If we got into a natural and deeply felt "ain't-rocks-grand" mode, we would calm down, being surrounded by something we love. There would be less need to beat up the world and its people in order to be able to buy more objects we don't connect with. We'd be happily enjoying the material glory right where we are now.

Why do some people get so irate about same gender love, lust, and loyalty? I think it's partly a kind of last stand. They figure if you could love just any human just because you love them, next thing you know people would feel free to love just any thing. We'd start openly melding with the world in general. A list of professions that are dependent on many people being unhappy would start with advertisers and politicians and go on for a while. If we were happy just melding with the people, places, and things all around us, these people would need to find other ways to pass their time. Now, they achieve importance by telling us we should be scared of each other. If we were pretty much free to really like all beings a lot, those now important would be irrelevant.

Not going to work because you're happy communing with the sunlight on the plaster wall is as counter to the plans of the guys-in-charge as not going to work because you're stroking the hair, etc., of the wrong kind of person.

I don't want to destroy Western Civilization in an old-fashioned Western Civilization kind of way, blowing it up and leaving gaunt, starving people crawling through the ruins looking for crumbs of food as babies whimper helplessly and die. We, the people of Western Civilization, have been there and done that.

It's weird that the tsunami of despair and fear that goes forth from such mass nastiness tends to make people fiercely settle for the politicians they've got. Why should we settle for such bad politicians when we've got such excellent fingers? Fingers good at making ourselves and others feel great. Fingers also good at lots of other fine movement, like, for example, slowly touching and loving fabric and then making the loved fabric into a garment that slowly touches and loves the person wearing it. Fabric and clothes making could easily be one of the basic human pleasures. As things now are making clothing out of fabric is one of the truly torturing jobs to have - tiny pay, long hours, horrible conditions. That's just another reason that my desire is to destroy Western Civilization.

"The natural world is something to be forced to do what I want" is a theory that matches up with "People who aren't me are something to be forced to do what I want." I'd like to offer my resignation from these theories, which are largely responsible for the shape of the world I live in. Under those circumstances, it is hard to know how to make the resignation real, but my desire is there.

The material world is alive, and is like skin - when it is touched in the right way at the right time, a lot of happiness can flow between touchers. Our minds and excellent fingers don't have to be about expanding our ability to destroy and force. Our minds and excellent fingers can be about going with our ability to touch ecstatically. One day we'll notice we're gently touching the soft of the Earth in just the right way, and she'll sing. Actually, she's already singing and western civ is saying, "Shut up!" My desire is to stop the shutting up and join the song and segue clean out of Western Civilization.

A small selection from

"Peace and Love and Noticing the Details"

by Anne Herbert


I used to open the mail, the editorial mail, at an alternative magazine, The CoEvolution Quarterly. Mail filled with the effects of hope - good ideas, great ideas, and some ugly lunacy, now and then, because hope is a dangerous place to hang out. But this instance I'm remembering wasn't about lunacy, but about cluelessness, mine, in not being about to see hope when it was right before my eyes.

I slit open an envelope and a snapshot fell out, of nothing. I said to myself, "Why did someone send in a snapshot of nothing?" It was a picture taken of rock, flat rock, just a rock surface, nothing else. So?

The letter explained that this was a truly eroded hillside. The topsoil had been washed away, and the subsoil, and all that was left was rock.

Except for one thing, which I didn't see. It was right there on this small picture and I didn't notice.

The guy who took the picture had found a crack in the rock in the hillside. He had jammed a little stone into it in a way that it would slow down a little water running down the hillside. The slowed down water had dropped a little soil. Over more rainstorms the water dropped more soil, and seeds. Enough soil and seeds accumulated that some grass was growing, a few blades of grass, behind the stone on the eroded hillside.

Which is why this guy had planted the stone, to have that effect in a year or two or three.

He danced around eroded hillsides in his area playing what he called "sliprock chess." Placing the stones so they would slow the water and catch the soil and seeds.

It worked.

He wrote that down at the bottom of a neighborhood of eroded hillsides would be a big gully that was a raging rapids during the rain, and he couldn't do anything about it. But way upstream before there was a stream he could do a lot, he could do the same wise thing again and again in different places. All he had to be was smart to think of it, and patient and persistent and hardworking to do it. It's utterly doable.

His idea was that most problems have a solution like that, where you can go way upstream, before the stream is a stream and you can help heal the problem without resistance and without glory just by working, by playing whatever the sliprock chess is for that problem. The Earth and the inhabitants of the Earth accept and respond to many ways of saying, "I love you..."

Once you get your own form of sliprock chess, you need only get up in the morning and do it, and then do it again the next day. Get tired, accept the blessing, and, now and then, feel the love bouncing back as you watch the grass grow where there was rock or see the road emerging beneath the dancing feet of you and friends.

(It is strikingly uncool that I don't remember the name of the sliprock chess guy.)

•       •       •

"Be scared." "Be scared." "Be scared." From the headlines, it whispers and sings. Don't make any moves that involve real movement.

I can't go from the way it's been to something entirely new because I'm endlessly, dutifully scared.

I pledge allegiance.

•       •       •

Really many trances to break. Must be sure to shake out of my own when it's even slightly possible, when suddenly I know I'm part of some vast inaccuracy. The ship is my will, my ability to know the way out is, like the Buddha said, through the door. No death necessary except of illusion and strangely self-serving laziness.

There's a woman in the news now who looks pretty abused. There's an old buddy I see rarely who always talks about her marriage and to me vibes abused, with her saying no words about it. I can't do stuff about them, I don't think. I haven't been hit.

But that level of being inside a delusion and being unable to leave the delusion - that's available to all of us in many ways. Gotta watch out for that, and do better than that when I can.

•       •       •

Amid much confusion, I walk through the fair and notice things getting better. Better? What's up with that? Growing up in the promise of the ultimate human tragedy of cleverness, large scale nuclear war, not much life left, I am faced, surrounded, stroked by things being quite good, astonishingly different. Better in a way I could not have imagined, but all I have to do is not imagine but notice.

Cover of the New Village Press edition of Random Acts

What am I to do? Learn to say yes, learn to live yes. Learn to here the music that gives someone's else's life meaning and therefore mine. Learn to pay attention. Learn to accept the gift and say thank you very much.

I'm a string that has been moved and is being held. I'm waiting to be released at the right moment. I'm pretty sure that the note created in that moment will be a great note. I'm not sure the ears I'm used to using will be able to hear it.

I'm ready to learn to hear a new sound in a new world I help to make with the best of me, played differently.

How difficult is it? How easy can I stand for it to be?

The sound I haven't heard yet is where I'm going to live

•       •       •

Be simple. Then simpler than that.

Just say what happens.

•       •       •

The part of reality that any given person needs to know is naturally riveting to them.

•       •       •

Judge not, and you shall be less tired.

•       •       •

Everybody matters.

•       •       •

Do less; have less; be more.