Arthur Lisch

Interview by Alice Gaillard and Céline Deransart, 1998

Arthur Lisch was one of the more enigmatic Diggers during the heyday of the Summer of Love. As a conduit between the liberal religious community and the hippies of the Haight-Ashbury, Arthur forged important alliances with local churches such as All Saints Church on Waller Street. Along with Father Leon Harris and Roy Ballard, Arthur first attained media notice warning about the oncoming wave of young pilgrims who would flock to the City that summer in 1967. (See clipping of article below.)

Alice Gaillard and Céline Deransart came to San Francisco in 1998 to film interviews and street scenes for the documentary they were shooting (Les Diggers de San Francisco). Arthur's interview did not make it into the final cut of the film, which makes this transcript all the more valuable. The interview took place at a public park in Sonoma County where Arthur was creating a peace circle that embodied his lifelong intent to bring Digger ideas into practice. Arthur's vision of the True Leveller (Digger) ethos is deeply spiritual which this interview clearly illuminates. Arthur died in 2020, so it is with much regret that I was not able to post this tribute to his prophetic vision sooner. (See Archivist's Blog for more comments.)

To the right are photos from the Gedney collection that show Arthur participating in some of the pre- and early-Digger activities in San Francisco in the fall of 1966 and early 1967. Below, the frontpage article that provoked a civic storm. 

Arthur Lisch and Emmett Grogan

To this day, standard mythology has it that 100,000 (or more) young people descended on San Francisco for the Summer of Love. This article could be considered the founding text of that historical speculation.
(Right) photos of Arthur: (#1) shovel in hand talking with Emmett Grogan; (#2, #3) dancing at the Artists Liberation Front Free Fair in the parking lot of Glide Church, October 8, 1966; (#4, #5) inside the second Free Frame of Reference free store at 520 Frederick Street. Click image for large size.
Arthur Lisch and Emmett Grogan
Arthur Lisch at ALF Free Fair
Arthur Lisch at ALF Free Fair
Arthur Lisch at Digger Free Store
Arthur Lisch at Digger Free Store


The Interview with Arthur Lisch

by Alice Gaillard and Céline Deransart, 1998

[Note: much appreciation for the editing assistance by Jay Babcock, whose Diggers Docs site is another source rich in Digger history.]

[playfully, with shirt up over his face] Anonymous deeds, without being known who we are, mysterious people who travel around the Earth, doing good deeds to liberate land, liberate people. [revealing face] Here I am, Arthur Lisch, [laughs] no longer anonymous.

[starts walking tour of peace circle] This entrance, this place to come in, is a place to come into a circle. The circle is a latter day initiative that has to do with the Digger philosophy — not just the Digger philosophy, but the original ‘True Leveller’ philosophy. The True Leveller philosophy was even further called the Christ Levellers. And the idea of the True Levellers was that the common land belongs to the common people who choose to come on that land, care for the land, love the land, work the land. So in the sense that the initiative was taken by me 10 years ago, to establish this circle, this is, 30 years later in 1998, a Digger initiative — this is a True Leveller initiative. It is, because I say it is [chuckles], and, because that's my intention. It's a spiritual scientific experiment: to see if a circle is drawn on the earth, if people will come, and if they will fill that circle with care, concern, love, work — activity. And [in] the circle here, that has happened over the last 10 years, with this initiative called the 'National Peace Site.'

[continuing tour] This is the sign: the 'National Peace Site.' Someday the intention is to have a name. And so far we have a sort of Zen name here. We [don't] actually have an actual name, but it's a National Peace site. Why? Because I say it is. [laughs] People have come to accept it. This bench is dedicated to a couple who have passed on that worked for peace and justice. There are four other benches here that have been dedicated to people who work for peace and justice. This is our board. That was a labor of love to construct this board, by volunteers who came forward to do this. This picture here, if you can, can you see this? This is a sister site that is also a True Leveller initiative in the middle of Washington DC. It's on the Mall in Washington near the Washington Monument. This marks the original center of the country, and there is a peace site being developed there on this barren patch of earth. These are Native American elders and other spiritual people who came together in 1995 for a blessing ceremony to spiritually inaugurate this site. So this is an initiative that is connected to this site here in the middle of Washington DC on the mall.

This olive tree was planted five years ago by veterans who had been in Vietnam, had been in Korea — they call themselves Veterans for Peace. And there, they planted this olive tree, a little olive is growing on here. And this olive tree — the symbol of offering an olive branch for peace, that goes along with the symbol of everything that the olive represents.

This is the Eastern garden. This is the garden that faces to the east. To the east are developments — parking lots, playing fields, houses. To the west, rolling hills; further on, the ocean. Now the significance for me of founding this site here around this old chestnut tree is that in the east, in that direction, is the Sonoma Mission — the furthest north that the missionaries brought Catholicism in the 19th century, the Sonoma Mission, is over there. Over there, the Russians came, bringing the Orthodox faith over to the coast. And they established a fort, with a chapel, at Fort Ross. This place is halfway between those two, this is the halfway point between those two ancient spiritual streams that separated in the old world between East and West. [They] came together from the north and south, met here in Sonoma County. So this site has to do with reconciliation, has to do with the hope that people who have split in the past can reconcile in the present. Speaking of which, this is a rose that was planted when the Palestine-Israeli peace accords were signed. Palestinian people and Jewish people, a large group, gathered and planted a peace rose together, which is surviving in the eastern garden.

This is a spiral path. We're spiraling in toward the center. So if you follow me, we'll come to the center. This is an American chestnut tree in the center of the circle. [This is] another bench dedicated to a man who worked for peace and justice. This garden was dedicated two years ago, this rock garden and these flowers, was dedicated to a man named Danaan Parry who originated his activity called 'Earth Stewards' here — [he] went on to travel around the world working in Northern Ireland for peace, working in Vietnam, digging up landmines, planting trees in their place. And he had a lot of people that really cared for him. He died two years ago, and people who care for him put this garden in Danaan's memory. So there's many things here that are significant.

This is the Western garden. This is a peace pole. This is a birch tree that was planted by Ukrainian sister city visitors who came here in relationship to the sister city relationship and they planted that birch tree about six or seven years ago.

This is the most recent addition: a sculpture called 'Prayer for Peace.' There was a design competition, 52 people entered the competition. The person who was chosen is originally from Japan, worked for 20 years in Croatia, had his studio there. And this is the 'Prayer for Peace' sculpture that was installed recently. When it's turned on, there's water that comes from the stone and comes down the stone and sets up this feeling of expansion and water and growth.
This is a Japanese Black Pine that was planted by the city of Sebastopol mayor ten years ago for the sister city in Japan that Sebastopol has and it's gotten that big in ten years.

We're coming toward the center. This chestnut tree, this American chestnut tree. When I first came here, I was in a state of a sense of 'what has my life meant?' I remember Emmett Grogan writing 'The Ideology of Failure.' I think he mentioned me in a little essay about going out to Hunter's Point in San Francisco, with a sculpture that was installed there where a 14-year-old was shot running across the field by the police. And I went out there every day for a number of months to vigil and to meet with people and to try to make a park, back in 1967. And Emmett mentioned that, and the idea that you need to be anonymous, you need to be not prideful about your work, you just need to offer your work and your activity. So this circle, and this tree, was almost ... It captured my imagination — it was almost dead. But it had a root system that came down from here. And these leaves weren't here then — there was just barely a few leaves in the center. And there's been a resurrection of this whole tree. And whether it was the attention that people paid to it, or the activity that went on here, it's really blossomed forth and become quite a symbol of hope for people. It looks gnarly, and it looks nasty, and it looks like it wasn't going to survive. A smaller tree was planted here, another chestnut, because the feeling was this wouldn't survive. But now they're both happily living here. It's like a little jungle, like a forest.

So what this site is, is a place... [finds something in the tree] Looks like an Indian arrowhead someone put here. And someone put a penny here with Lincoln on it. So this place, this circle, is a sacred circle. And it's a circle of a place where people can, as they did with People's Park in a more turbulent way, can claim... This is within a county park, so the people in a sense don't have much to say [about] what goes on here, except my initiative was just to come here, not ask permission, and just begin to say, 'There is a circle here. I see a circle. There is a circle here.' This is before the Parks Department gave permission to do it. So over the last ten years there's been all sorts of negotiations and work parties and involvement from people but the the initial beginning goes back to that poster that was made that said "1% Free" and showed a couple of Chinese guys standing or, I don't know, Oriental guys, standing on the corner, just standing there. I once saw Emmett Grogan after the Haight Ashbury, after 68, 69, I think it was 1970 or so, actually standing on the street corner in lower Manhattan. And I was just walking by, I said, Hi Emmett. He [makes motion describing how Emmett responded]. He's just standing there leaning against the building like on that poster.

So the idea of being "1% free" means that, to me, we can take that initiative, we can take that step, and then things will fall into place around it. This was initially 1% free. It's not 100% free now, but so many people have come here, worked here, care for the place, they've claimed this circle of land in the name of community and the name of the sacred in life, in the name of a higher way of being. So this is a Digger initiative. As I said, this is a True Leveller initiative. And even further, it's, as Gerrard Winstanley, said, a Christ Leveller initiative. In other words, to see the higher in each other, for each of us to see what is better, what is hopeful, what is possible in each other. And this small circle is dedicated to that. And it's been a success up until the present time. It's been well accepted by the community and thousands of people have been here. In 1998, this is what I consider to be an extension of the Digger ethic and of the Digger work here in Sonoma County.

[tour over, asked about how he became involved with Diggers] I came to San Francisco with my family, my young family. I came from New York originally, went to British Columbia for four years, bought land, built a cabin, lived in British Columbia, taught in the school system. And we decided to take a visit to San Francisco and it was about the middle of 1966. And it was like, for me, falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. And suddenly, it was a whole different, interesting and strange world. I felt as though when I was growing up that creativity and creative people were not respected or were kind of exploited or used or not given the possibility of coming forth, to be a force in society. And I felt in San Francisco, as though creative people were coming forth to do things that were socially important — in a creative way, rather than rather than just a political way — an artistic, creative, poetic way. And I did encounter the Mime Troupe, I was interested in the form of theater The Mime Troupe did. And for employment, I became employed with the Friends Service Committee, which is a Quaker organization that hired me and another fellow to work with young people in the streets who had run away or needed help or needed counseling. I was working as an artist to do this — they hired me as an artist to do this.

So that was interesting because the Quakers and the Diggers in England, the original Diggers — the 'True Levellers' — came up at the same time. And, in fact, Gerrard Winstanley, who wrote most of the Digger material, very gifted writer  —  I'm always impressed with his writing and the things that he says — became a Quaker later in life after the Diggers. After the few years [when] the Diggers did their witness of going out on the common land, he became a Quaker himself. So there was an interesting relationship in England in 1648, 1649, 1650. That's when the Quakers were coming up too. And the reason that the Quakers were called Quakers is because they went up on on Pendle Hill, and they would be outdoors, having their meetings and they'd be experiencing this outdoors, they were experiencing God, [mimics shaking] and the people would come and say, look at those Quakers over there, but they called themselves the 'Friends of the Light.' And the Diggers didn't call themselves the Diggers —  they called themselves the True Levellers. But then people said, Oh, look at those diggers over there, so that became the name that was applied to them.

But the Diggers went on St. George Hill, which I tried to find when I went to England. It's in a subdivision now, I don't know if you've ever looked into that, where that location would be now... But the Pendle Hill of the Quakers and St. George Hill where people would go up on a hill and be closer to the experience of the spiritual and of God — this [here] has a little bit of that feeling... It's not a high hill, but there's a little feeling of a special place here.

So when I was working for the Quakers I became more and more aware of people doing interesting creative things. Became aware of the food, went down to see the food that was being served in the park, began to help cook it... It was very interesting to get involved with that. And it was mysterious because [one] didn't know quite who was doing it... So, I became more and more involved in that activity.

[asked about All Saints Church] Well, yes, and Emmett didn't like that very much, I gather from things that he said, both in papers that were written and... He didn't like the idea of going to the church and being... But it was interesting because Father Harris, at All Saints Church, was very courageous in doing that. Within his congregation, within his church, he had to take a bold stand in order to bring the Diggers in, allow for the kitchen to be used for baking bread, allow for a phone to be used for referrals. Lots of activities went on there, even though it wasn't a true Digger activity, in a certain sense, in that it was in an organized church... Father Harris had to take a lot of risks, and he lost many people in his congregation who were very angry that these people would be coming in off the street, and... And he said, Well, this is the Christian mission, is to serve people in need. And there are thousands of people [in need] and besides, what the Diggers are doing is very worthy. We want to support it. So I found Father Harris to be a unique personality and quite courageous. And he was always supportive of the Digger ideas. The more he found out, the more he became involved. And yes, there was an office and lots of things went on through that. There were some dances and there were community meetings. A lot of bread was baked in coffee cans and hundreds and hundreds of loaves. So it was a facility that went through a lot of a lot of uses. It was used in many ways.

[Asked to restate] Well, the Digger activity at All Saints Church was something that Father Harris at the church decided to open his doors to, so that it could be an office, it could be baking, there could be dances, community meetings. And for Father Harris, it was quite courageous. He lost many people from his congregation who were angry that these rabble would be coming in off the street and using the facilities in that way. But there were hundreds of people coming in, there was all sorts of use made of it. It was a full, rich, huge use of the church hall and the church facilities. And I think that even though, especially Emmett, and some of the Diggers found this to be too organized or coming to be within the church, they found uncomfortable. I've been thinking about that, and I'm concentrating on the courage that it took for that individual to open this up. Because everybody had their own threshold. Everyone had their own uncomfortable areas that they had to find the courage to open up to the reality that was coming about. It was a tumultuous time and it wasn't comfortable and there were a lot of difficulties. I found Father Harris's church to be very open and understanding and warm and caring.

[asked what interested him in the Diggers] What I saw is that the Digger/True Leveller activity was an art form, in itself. It was a kind of art form, a social art form that wasn't the old form of performers performing for people. But it was people calling forth the creativity in themselves and each other to do social art activities.

Now a good example of that was the Invisible Circus. I was very involved with initiating that, the Invisible Circus. It was done at a church in San Francisco, a Methodist church building. And the poet Richard Brautigan and I spent many months. The idea was that for a three-day event, we would call as many people as possible, all sorts of people, all sorts of groups, whatever we could think of, we'd call and say you're invited to come to this. So we were just inviting people from the whole spectrum of San Francisco. The experiment was, what would happen if you bring all these people together in one place for three days. So I don't know if you heard of that event, but what it did was, it changed Glide Methodist Church, from what it had been into a new form, what Cecil Williams calls a celebratory…. I think he's the 'Minister of Celebration,' and they do a great deal of feeding people, services for the community. So in some very tangible ways they took on the Digger activity — the True Leveller activity was brought into Glide through this event, and they incorporated a great deal of it into the regular programs at the church. I think the Invisible Circus had a great effect in that way. It was a raucous wild event. It did go on for three days. By the third day many people had left, but there were still people coming to the regular service on Sunday. One thing that I remember doing was playing a game where when you go to church, you pass the plate up and down the aisle and people put money in. So we went up and down the aisle before they collected and we had a collection. People put money in and then we took the money and passed it out to people again. Said well, you know, take what you want out of the collection plate and it was passed around and people were taking money out. So it wasn't just the church getting the money — it was the money going back, and people taking money from. So there were many different kinds of things that happened during that three days. It was an extraordinary event. It was a form of art, it was a form of celebration and liberation that was an art form. And that's what I began to be interested in. It was theater that went beyond the usual form of theater.

Another thing that I did with Ron Thelin was travel for three months from San Francisco. Our initial goal was to go to the Pentagon. And the idea that was concocted was that there would be a circle of people around the Pentagon, and made a sort of a joke that there would be an ancient word, an ancient symbol, a syllable that would be spoken. And the Pentagon would rise up off the ground, it would be exorcised from its control and power. And that actually did happen, there was actually a circle of people all the way around the building. Now, they weren't necessarily all people going to protest, there were many people with bayonets, who were posted all around the building. The night before, a fellow named Samurai Bob and I, he was in Washington at the same time, walked around the entire Pentagon, the outer limits, he was playing some sort of flute and I was doing whatever I was doing, we walked around. And then the night, when the troops were stationed with the bayonets, there was a fellow named Super Joel, putting a flower in one of the bayonets. And I think other people might have done that, too. But we walked all the way around, looking at each National Guard person who was standing around there, some of them would begin to shake and vibrate and actually jump out of the line. And they couldn't hold that position. They were young Americans who are guarding this. But it was too much for them, when we looked in each other's eyes. So we went all the way around. It's a huge building. So going around took quite a long time. So I think in a sense, the building did raise up off the ground, there was a raising, there was an exorcism of that building. And it was a success. In that sense, it was a peace initiative that succeeded.

[Asked about getting ready for runaway kids who were arriving] The word went out [that] San Francisco was a place to come to and young people began to think, well, here's a place that we can be creative, we can feel joy, we can have a new way of life. But we were there. And we knew, like Chester Anderson wrote in the Communications Company paper, that was put out, [that] the street life is very nasty and terrible things happen to young people to come here. You've got to be very careful. This is the street, this is tough. There are difficulties — don't come with illusions. We know what it is. So we knew that... it was cold at night. We knew that there wasn't necessarily enough food, there were drugs, there was dirt, there was health problems, there were diseases. So all those things needed to be addressed. People like David Smith took it very seriously in terms of making medical facilities available to people and working very hard to do that and bore a great deal of the brunt of that. The warning to the city was we need to prepare in adequate ways so people can find places to be. So it was realistic, telling the city there needed to be preparations for that. Roy Ballard, who helped to operate the Black Free Store in the Fillmore, and I went to some interfaith church meeting and made that statement and I think that's [how] word got out in the newspapers and got around but... It was true — there needed to be a lot of realistic preparations and the Diggers people for their part did as much as they could, but it was a tremendous job. A lot needed to be done.


—posted 2024-01-21


Arthur Lisch and Emmett Grogan  

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