In the early 1970s, Hannah Blue Heron was starting her life over.
Blue Heron, who was coming to terms with the fact that she was a lesbian, was in her late 40s and had recently left a Catholic convent; some friends invited her to join them at a commune in Oregon. While it didn't prove to be the best example of communal living, it was enough for Blue Heron to realize that she liked much of what the counter-culture movement offered.
After trying communes in a co-ed setting, Blue Heron, now 83, moved to Corvallis, Ore., for a few years and ran a small business, baking and selling protein bars through a local food co-op. She eventually sold the business to move to a women's-only commune near Wolf Creek in Southern Oregon.
"It was womyn's land. It was the first time I saw a woman going around without a shirt. I found out how beautiful breasts were—large, small. It was a magical time for me," says Blue Heron, with a broad smile across her face.
Penelope Starr and Luanne Withee first heard Blue Heron's life story while videotaping her as part of "A Colorful Life," a storytelling series on LGBT community elders then sponsored by Wingspan, Tucson's LGBT community center. Starr is probably best known around Tucson as the founder and director of Odyssey Storytelling, a monthly storytelling event. Starr at the time was working for Wingspan's Senior Pride program, and Withee—who then worked as Wingspan's community-center coordinator—felt their elders' stories needed to be shared.
"If we don't do this, no one else will," says Withee, who now works in membership development for the Loft Cinema.
Starr and Withee say that when they heard Blue Heron's story, they were particularly intrigued by her tales about the womyn's land movement—a part of lesbian and feminist history they didn't know much about.
As Blue Heron shared everything—from coming out to finding love in her 70s with her current partner—she explained how she eventually left the Pacific Northwest for the dryer environs of Tucson's own womyn's land, called Adobeland.
"When we were doing 'A Colorful Life,' it was interesting for a younger lesbian to hear how hard it was to be queer back in the day—it is very moving and inspirational," says Withee. "So when the subject of Adobeland came up, here is a subject that I have never heard of. I consider myself to be pretty sophisticated; I've lived mostly in big cities, but I had never heard of womyn's land. I had never heard of lesbian separatists, and I had no concept of what that even meant.
"As I've heard stories now, I get it: They had felt oppressed by men previously, and their reaction to that was to become separatists. I think a lot (of lesbians) might not agree with it anymore, but it was part of this movement. I'm so intrigued and interested in documenting this, because if I had never heard of it, I bet a lot of other people haven't, either."
Although the LGBT elder-story series is no longer part of the post-Great Recession, trimmed-back Wingspan, Starr and Withee have continued to find seniors to interview, and they've created a new organization, StoryArts Group (www.storyartsgroup.org), that encompasses the "A Colorful Life" series, Odyssey Storytelling and a documentary-filmmaking arm.
And Adobeland is the focus of the documentary arm's first project.
When Starr and Withee started the Adobeland project, they brought in Withee's partner, Pat Woelke, a former Wingspan staff member who helped develop Senior Pride, a program for Tucson's LGBT seniors. The trio thought their documentary was going to focus on the property's owner, a woman everyone called Adobe.
Adobe was the name chosen by Joan Pepper, a retired Tucson physical-education teacher who purchased the land, west of Gates Pass in the Tucson Mountains, more than 30 years ago. Many Adobeland residents and visitors adhered to a womyn's-land custom of taking a "post-patriarchal" name.
Starr says many people described Pepper as charismatic and strong. However, Pepper suffered a stroke about five years ago, leaving her paralyzed on the left side of her body. She was forced to leave Adobeland and now lives in an assisted-care facility in Tucson.
"We thought the documentary would be about Adobe, and we went to visit her in order to get permission to visit the land. We told her what we wanted to do; she thought that was amazing. But at that first meeting, and then at subsequent meetings with women who had lived there, (we realized there) was a bigger story that needed to be told," Withee says.
Over the past year, the filmmakers have reached out to interview dozens of women around the world. While some women didn't feel comfortable talking about Adobeland and felt their stories should remain private, many others have been grateful to have their stories told, Starr says.
Withee says they've heard a wide variety of tales.
"I think because Adobeland is a place with a 30-year history, and it was so many things for so many different women, (the commune life) evolved and changed depending on who was there at the time. Some people were there for only a few weeks or months, and others several years at a time," Withee says.
Those who refused to be interviewed or filmed offered a variety of reasons for saying no, but Starr says she thinks that most women didn't feel safe identifying with Adobeland, with womyn's land—or even with being lesbian.
"They felt that they can't be associated with a lesbian project, for whatever reason, which I think is part of the story. We heard from women that, (for example), 'It's not safe for me (with a job) in education.' It's not safe for numbers of different women to come out as a lesbian or even be associated with a lesbian project," Starr says.
"Also, another thing we are finding is that some women went there because they were wounded, and they needed a place to heal, and they may not want that stuff to come up again. But (other) women are finding us and saying, 'I was there for two weeks. I have to talk to you about this. It changed my life.' If people are hesitant, we are respectful, and I think that's helped people feel comfortable."
Withee says that when she's visited Adobeland, she's been asked to turn off her camera at times—and she's never hesitated. Sometimes, taking that extra step of showing respect has paid off, she says.
"Women who've said no to us at first have reconnected with us, because we ended up talking to their friend, and they said, 'They really are good, and they have good intentions,'" Withee says.
One former Adobeland resident who agreed to be interviewed is Kate Randall, co-owner of Antigone Books on Fourth Avenue.
"Kate Randall's story is great," Withee says. "She was reading a book about womyn's community and womyn's land. I guess in this book are some references to Adobeland. She said something that attracted her (to Adobeland) was that there weren't too many rules. We learned that at the different lands, there were different rules. At no time did Adobeland have real rules, and that's what caused people both joy and frustration. ... Some people wanted structure, clearly, and others didn't want rules."
Randall says the ideals behind communal living attracted her to womyn's land. At 23, after college, she traveled to a womyn's land in Tennessee and then another in Mississippi before heading to the Southwest for a womyn's land in New Mexico.
"I was interested in living in the country, and these places were rural," Randall says. "I liked the idea of living communally. When I was in college, it was really exciting to read about these womyn's lands. It gave you a feel for different ways women were organizing then, and what was working and not working," Randall says.
Those rules—or, rather, that lack of rules—proved to be important to Randall, who lived at Adobeland for more than two years.
"Sometimes, women were hammering out rules years before they bought the land," Randall says about other womyn's lands. At Adobeland, residents met once a month to discuss issues—usually regarding maintenance—but there weren't a lot of discussions on how people had to live, like she saw at other womyn's lands, where residents may have argued, for example, about vegetarianism, or whether to allow males on the property—even male children.
Like Blue Heron, Randall looks back at her years on womyn's lands—and specifically, at Adobeland—as some of the best times of her life.
"It was so wonderful. ... I loved the desert and had never been here before," Randall says. "I was really drawn to the desert and the way Adobeland seemed to be—very, very friendly, and not too uptight. What was wonderful about it was a loose community of neighbors who did get together for potlucks or helped each other with projects on the land, like the garden, or building the bathhouse. And it was such a great atmosphere with a lot of creativity. ... We had a group that shared writing, music and art."
When Randall first arrived at Adobeland, she lived in a tent, and then in a little cabin someone else had built; eventually, she moved into a rammed-earth structure. During that time, Randall and others started Tucson's first lesbian-feminist magazine, LunaSea, which included illustrations of life on Adobeland. One illustration shows the way a lot of people, like Randall, moved: using a wheelbarrow.
The picture is called "Moving Day."
Randall and Blue Heron at one point lived at Adobeland at the same time, and Randall remembers when Blue Heron, at 60 years old, used her own hands to dig out a large hole to build her own rammed-earth structure.
"It was amazing. She had a little help from two other older women. I took a photo of them—three crones. It was this incredible, huge place she built," Randall says.
Randall says there was also a spirituality at Adobeland for people who were interested in getting in touch with the land. The moon was an important part of life on the property; for the first time in her life, Randall says, she became aware of the cycles of the moon—because its light made it easier to get around at night.
Telling these stories for the documentary has been enjoyable for Randall; she loves the fact that three women who don't have a history with womyn's land wanted to tell Adobeland's story.
"They are really interested in it, and because they come to it with a fresh perspective, it's so much fun to think about that time again," Randall says.
While Randall spent two years of her life at Adobeland, Blue Heron spent almost 20 years there, after arriving in the mid-1980s. Blue Heron says she met Adobe in Oregon, while Joan Pepper escaped Tucson summers for cooler womyn's lands up north.
"I remember teaching her tai chi," Blue Heron remembers about Adobe. "She's an athlete. She just looked beautiful following through on the motions."
The thought of moving to Tucson didn't dawn on Blue Heron until she helped a friend make the trek to Tucson. She noticed the fibromyalgia she suffered from in Oregon was drastically reduced, and the next year, she decided to make the move herself.
At first, Blue Heron shared a trailer with Adobe, but she realized that in order to remain friends, she needed to build her own place. She bought an acre of the property from Adobe, and during an early summer after Adobe left for cooler Oregon, Blue Heron started work on her home.
"I dug out a 17-foot circle that was 4 or 5 feet deep, at age 60, with a pick shovel and wheelbarrow," says Blue Heron, with a little disbelief in her voice. "I think the whole thing was a back-to-the-land movement. There were hippies and communes, and I think womyn's lands were just a part of it. I think it was an important part of history, and it is still an important part."
While Blue Heron says she still loves Adobeland, she sold her acre about seven years ago after she fell in love with her partner in Tucson. A couple of years ago, Blue Heron went back to visit, and was saddened to see a lot of the land trashed, and many of the buildings in disrepair.
"I couldn't get out of there fast enough," Blue Heron says.
Blue Heron continues to meet with the writers' group she started at Adobeland, has published four books, and is finishing a CD of music she wrote and recorded in a studio/office at the retirement-community home she shares with her partner.
"Life is fine. I feel very fortunate for an almost-84-year-old woman. My philosophy has been that as you lose your ability to do something in one area, you throw your heart into others," Blue Heron says.
With Adobe living in an assisted-living center, the nine acres no longer have an owner living on site, although several women still live there part-time. Starr says the land continues to be promoted in some lesbian publications as a womyn's land, so people still come there to camp or live, albeit temporarily.
"When Kate first moved (to Adobeland), it was nine acres, and there was an adjoining property that didn't have anyone living on it, and they were pretty isolated. Now, it's just trailer, trailer, trailer, trailer. The whole idea of being isolated is gone. The world is now there," Withee says.
As for Adobeland's future, perhaps the property will be sold to another lesbian or lesbians to continue the womyn's land tradition. Or perhaps Adobe's next of kin could sell the land to non-lesbians.
While they saw the same trashed-out areas that Blue Heron saw the last time she visited Adobeland, Starr and Withee say they also witnessed the magic that brought people there.
"When I was out there the second or third time filming, Pat and Penelope were off interviewing someone, and I was wandering around, just getting footage, and I just started crying. Things out there are rusted, and it's obvious that in some areas, no one has treaded there in a long time. There's a house called the group house, and the sign is askew, and it's not a group house anymore. I think about the fun they had, and what could have been, and the great time I could have had, too," Withee says.
"This is the saddest thing in the world, yet when I'm there, I feel the joy that once was. The women told us, 'We used to have a big bonfire and go naked and play guitar.' When I hear those stories, I romanticize it, and I recognize those are the happy times, and there were bad times, too.
"It just seems like such a passionate and wonderful place."