The secret life of pot growers
A woman drove into the Humboldt County hills to earn some money trimming the leaves from marijuana buds.
At a cabin, the grower who’d hired her set out mounds of pot. The woman and a friend chatted as they trimmed. Suddenly, an armed man barged in. He accused the grower of stealing his pot.
The invader grabbed some of the grower’s cash, handed it to the women and ordered them out. They careened down the road in their truck to the foot of the mountain.
What should they do?
“We should forget it,” the woman told her friend, “not think about it, and sure as hell not talk about it. We spent this weekend out in Bear Harbor.”
A week later, a girl stopped by the woman’s regular job to return the purse she’d left in the hills and to deliver a message: We know where to find you.
Four months later, the woman saw a missing-person poster at a supermarket. On it was a picture of the grower who’d hired her.
This story is fiction but it could have happened — and probably has. It was among a series of tales that began appearing on a mysterious blog two years ago, short stories about life in the secretive marijuana-growing world of Northern California.
The author used the name SoHumBorn (for southern Humboldt-born), and for three months the stories mesmerized the pot growers of southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino counties.
In the mountains of SoHumBorn’s world, bodies were buried like secrets. Mothers dressed their children for school while federal drug agents surrounded the house. Growers’ posses dispensed frontier justice.
The author knew the specialty coffee that pot growers drink — Signature Coffee from Redway in southern Humboldt — and knew that growers take supplies of it when they travel, certain they’ll find nothing as good anywhere else.
Her stories — for many assumed that only a woman would dare be so open about the pot world — exposed a still-wild and clandestine California in a manner reminiscent of the way John Cheever lifted the veil over 1950s East Coast suburbia.
“Part of what makes our community really close-knit is a sense of having to come together to protect our way of life,” said Shannon Bridges, a southern Humboldt resident and avid reader of SoHumBorn’s blog posts. “She was the first to write about it from the inside in such a public way.”
Couples argued over the stories. Chat rooms buzzed.
Then one day in February 2009, the blog vanished like the grower in SoHumBorn’s story. Readers were bereft. A rumor spread that angry growers had figured out who she was and ordered her to shut up.
SoHumBorn’s stories gathered power from their unsparing honesty about weed life, its giddy freedom, its compromises and disaffections.
In the late 1960s and ‘70s, hippies arrived in the lumber-depleted mountains of southern Humboldt County, searching for an alternative to mainstream America that was natural and honest.
Then came marijuana. At first, the hippies grew it for their own use. As its price rose relentlessly, they became entrepreneurs and outlaws. They proved surprisingly square. Pot money allowed them to create self-reliant villages. They had Little League and quilting bees and volunteer fire departments.
But in this world, people disappeared. There were domestic violence, greed and betrayal. Methamphetamine, machismo and midnight meetings with buyers. And no one said a word.
On the contrary, pot growers grew defensive. “If you’re a grower, you only talk about the good stuff because everybody out there hates you,” said Kym Kemp, a southern Humboldt native and freelance journalist, whose Redheaded Blackbelt blog — at kymk.wordpress.com — has pioneered frank discussions about marijuana life.
Kemp has championed SoHumBorn’s fiction and published some of the stories on her own blog. She described herself as a longtime friend of the reclusive author, and she put The Times in touch with the woman she said was SoHumBorn.
Communicating by e-mail and later by phone, the woman declined to reveal her name, saying she grew marijuana and did not want to invite law enforcement attention or hostility from fellow growers.
She said she was raised in a home without electricity, surrounded by marijuana. Pot seemed an unexceptional, everyday part of life, she said, until about the third grade.
Then “people started telling us we needed to be quiet,” she said.
She became a grower in her teens. Reading filled her quiet moments, though she “barely” graduated from high school. Her favorite author was Stephen King; she liked being scared. “I think that’s why I’m in this business,” she said. But she never wrote any fiction or kept a journal, fearing police might use it as evidence.
In the ‘80s, when narcotics agents with the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting descended from helicopters to bust outdoor pot farms, she was among those who lost their crops, she said. Her children grew up with a phobia about helicopters.
Years later, as marijuana prices soared, she watched a younger generation of growers rebel against their hippie parents and splurge on big trucks, plasma TVs and plastic surgery. Several people she knew — some were friends, some employers — disappeared or were killed in late-night pot deals, she said.
Toward the end of 2008, moved by an impulse she still doesn’t understand, she wrote a story about this world.
“Growing Up” took days to finish. The story is of a nameless woman who drives her children home from buying Halloween costumes and sees Drug Enforcement Administration vans coming down her mountain road. Fearing that her plantation has been busted, she leaves her kids behind some bushes and drives on to find that it’s her neighbor who’s under arrest.
Not long after that, she takes her children and leaves the mountain and pot growing forever.
The story is a rugged piece of writing. Yet it captures how quickly daily life can turn to terror in Humboldt’s pot world and how that affects children.
“I had a lot of trouble finding the right words to say,” she said. “I’m not sure what made me think I could do it. I didn’t have any expectation of it being shared beyond one or two people. It was just a way to let something out that was kind of bothering me.”
Then the stories spilled from her, she said. In three months, she posted nine more.
“Weathering the Storm” grew from the story of a friend who was killed by an abusive husband, she said. In real life, growers ran the husband out of the community. “We couldn’t go to the law,” she said, “because both of them were in the business.”
In SoHumBorn’s version, a son beats the abusive husband to death to save his mother, and a grower posse buries the body in the hills.
“Most people have stories like that that have happened to them or their friends,” said Peter Moss, a southern Humboldt musician and painter and a reader of SoHumBorn’s stories. “Everybody knows, but still you don’t talk about it.”
In “Tooth Fairy,” a wife waits for her husband to return from selling the year’s crop to an unknown buyer.
“This stranger is purportedly a ‘cool guy,’ ” she wrote. “After all, he is the friend of a guy, that went to school with a guy, that worked with them on the crew at Reggae [the Reggae on the River music festival]. The tenuous connection is going to be tested the hard way.
“This night [her husband] will drive off with some $50,000 dollars worth of their hard work, and meet a stranger on the side of a rural roadway.
“She’ll wait here. While he’s gone she does laundry, puts away toys and magazines, generally just trying to stay busy, and not watch the clock.”
10,000 hits a day
At the height of its popularity, sohumborn.wordpress.com’s daily traffic hovered around 1,500 hits and rose to as many as 10,000 on days when she published a new story, she said.
A local radio station broadcast an interview with her, distorting her voice to protect her anonymity.
At a community dance, a person she’d known all her life began talking about the stories with a group of friends, calling them anti-grower propaganda because they often ended bleakly.
“I wanted to tell them that refusing to admit a problem exists doesn’t make it go away, it just gives it room to grow,” the woman wrote in an e-mail to The Times. But she didn’t say anything to her friend. Instead, she excused herself to go to the bathroom.
Then some close friends were busted. Afraid her writing might lead police to her, she shut down her blog and had her laptop wiped clean, she said. Only then did she tell her husband she’d written the stories. He was upset but relieved that they were no longer public.
“I didn’t write another word for a full year,” she said.
Kemp removed SoHumBorn’s stories from her site as well. But, unwilling to destroy them, she copied them to a computer disk, put the disk in a jar and buried the jar.
Readers pined for the stories.
“Why do you feel the need to leave so soon?” wrote In Retaliation, an anonymous blogger. “Why erase your whole blog. I am soo disappointed.”
Time passed and with it the sense of danger.
Earlier this year, Kemp re-posted the links to SoHumBorn’s stories at kymk.wordpress.com/sohumborn-stories-marijuana-fiction.
The woman who claims to be SoHumBorn said she is writing again, longer stories this time. She said her husband provided the impetus. He came home from work one day raving about the SoHumBorn stories on Kemp’s blog. Co-workers had told him where to find them.
“I don’t need a million fans to like what I write, but apparently I really needed one,” she said.
The mood has shifted in marijuana country too. There are grower associations and public forums on the implications of legalizing pot. People are discussing what was once hidden.
“It gets tiring being a liar,” she said.
Yet after so many years, the fear of talking openly never goes away entirely.
So as she pecks at her keyboard, every so often she’ll start sweating at what she’s written. Her breath will shorten and her gut will clench, she said.
It’s the same feeling she gets when she see a cop in her rearview mirror.
The woman who claims to be SoHumBorn reads a short story titled “Tooth Fairy.”
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