This morning in early January 2019, I go running along Lighthouse road, in Petrolia. I ran to Doc Scheinman’s. Not to his house specifically but to the willow forest by his house and to the river, the bend in the river that flows into bedrock, churning a deep pool. Right now, in the morning light, the water runs choppy and turbid into the bedrock and then makes a turn to the right as it hurtles another 4 miles and becomes one with the ocean. This is the spot where my sister Hana is thought to have ….left the realm of the living. I look at the river, big and chocolatey after about an inch and a half of rain. It’s a Humboldt winter storm type of day, blustery wet and somewhat electric. The river looks substantial. Its 100 feet wide in many places. Plus, the wind. The whoosh of the wind and an occasional squall of rain combining and whooshing through trees reminds us that nature is here, primal and alive. It is a sound, an experience that is timeless for me. I am reminded that nature existed and exists exclusive of us.
I run down Evergreen way to Lighthouse road and take a right. I run east on Lighthouse for a half mile to the trail down to the river by Doc Sheinmans. There is a steep wooden staircase down the bank and a path with a broad wooden board over water and then a few more willows and on to the sandy bank of the Mattole River. The river runs chocolate with pieces of wood bobbing up and down in its muddy turbulent waters. This may have been the last place my sister or what my sister became breathed her last breaths. It’s a year, now, not to the day but close enough since Hana disappeared and then five weeks later showed up transformed into an animal carcass on the beach. Her body, just a torso with parts of arms, legs gone, stringy hair, with white teeth. Washed clean by the ocean. She had become nature and returned to the nature that she so loved and revered.
I stand looking at the turbulent waters and say a silent prayer for her. Was she drawn to enter these same turbulent waters? Did they call to her? Did she feel no way out from her dilemmas and confusion?
I am so sorry sister. I am sorry I couldn’t help you more. I am sorry I wasn’t nicer to you the last evening we spent together.
Why is what is is? Why did she become what she became? How did she get to be so angry and in my view so deluded about our community? I would have never predicted this from knowing her as a child. I would have thought she would be a Hollywood star, or in theatre with tons of friends and successful and famous. She was stunning and outgoing. She had friends, she had style.
But what is is. She was tortured these last years. She became more and more an alien to the world. Not the natural world, she was at home on the beach or by the river bar. She loved the birds and would call to the ravens, “Caw, Caw, Caw.”
But she was being left behind by the modern competitive world. This world we live in that is become artificial, polluted, competitive, disjointed, greedy and dark. It is this world my sister raged against, and the injustice of it. Against the callous coldness of it. She raged, with her tortured demons, she raged that she, who was in her mind smarter and more self riteous, was being cast aside, an aging empty angry vessel, not needed by our community. You or I might feel the same sometimes?
Dear sister. I honor your fierceness, your pride, your desire for justice for yourself and for all the creatures of nature that are hurt or pushed aside by the cruel world of modern society and capitalism. I honor your tender heart. I honor your fear and confusion. I honor your unwillingness to compromise what you believed. I am sorry these last years were so hard for you. I grieve for you and for our family that was once a somewhat cohesive thing.
How to be in a crazy world? That was a question my sister grappled with both in that she didn’t think much of what was going on in the world was right or made sense, but that also she was sometimes exhibiting breaks with reality, and I believe she was coming to see this and it troubled and saddened her greatly. She would try to talk her problems away through fierceness of will. It didn’t work. She was quite a talker though and some of her ideas were quite beautiful.
These ideas included having a community solar program to power different neighborhoods in Petrolia. We should be energy self-reliant she believed. She was concerned about climate change and wanted the government to have training centers and school training centers where people would learn how to convert their cars to non-polluting, electric vehicles. The government would help set them up and then people would go and working with mechanics, just change their vehicles over to clean running electric vehicles.
She wanted to do a healing circle where elders would bring people who had been harmed or cast aside back into the circle of community and be given a voice to air their grievances and pain. She so wanted healing but couldn’t seem to get it.
One idea she loved was to create a writer’s retreat center at the cabin here. Sensitive well-off writers would come and have a retreat and rent one of the back rooms. Of-course they would need their own entrance and basic kitchen and bathroom facilities and that would be expensive. So, this never went anywhere. Lack of money, ie. general poverty was a big issue in Hana’s last years.
I would say a combination of her unwillingness to do most things she found unpleasant, and her mental dis-function as well as having negative experiences when she did find work, led her to having very little work these last several years. This in turn left her in a cut off, impoverished and depleted state.
She lived day to day and could not plan beyond today. But as I said, she had ideas. Lots of ideas, but they were theoretical. She did journal and list-make but the translating into action part was not easy for her.
More of her ideas include wanting to create a bird sanctuary and maybe an office where people would work to help birds and their habitat. She wouldn’t let us get a cat or dog partly because they would chase off the birds and squirrels. So, we didn’t get the dog or cat.
Hana was trying to reconnect with her Armenian heritage. She would listen to old recordings on a cassette tape of some language course. Sometimes she would blast it, “Pari lauys, Parev. K’ez garodtser em. Gertam. Gertam. “. She was reaching for her roots. She also loved to remember our childhoods and idealized our young years.
She so connected with those who have been trod upon, the Native American, the black and latino peoples, women. She identified with the “me too” movement and often talked in a non specific way about being a victim of trauma and abuse. She claimed to have ptsd.
Hana would talk with great venom and hatred of a short encounter or love affair that she had with a neighbor named E which ended badly. This person is not in Petrolia any more. Hana made many claims, some contradictory about what had happened with E, his friends and Hana. Hana was angry about being deceived into a sexual encounter and that E had not properly shown her love and respect. She felt there was a conspiracy amongst E and his friends to get her to have sex with him and then somehow turn this against her. She at times though not usually using the word rape, often equated what happened to a non-consensusal sexual encounter. She wanted ‘justice’, a word that in these last months, she was obsessed with.
Not all of this is pleasant, but it is some of the memories I have of Hana for the last years of her life.
She thought the neighbors on all sides were talking about her, plotting against her and sending mental daggers at her. She would not take it. She had to fight it and she did. She would yell and rage at the perceived mental daggers. “Predator.”, she would yell. “I know what you are doing and I am not going to take it”. Or one time she heard a laugh next door and she knew they were laughing at her. She went close to the fence and laughed back at them, a cruel maniacal laugh and then shouted that they had better stop their laughs or she would call the sheriff.
One neighbor, across the creek, had cut most of their trees on their property to grow marijuana in the outlaw fashion that had become common here in Humboldt County. One day this neighbor fired up a big throaty chainsaw and began cutting another tree in the creek zone. Hana was incensed by this and grabbed a pot and a spatula and began banging it and calling “la la la la la” in a raucous voice. I went and stood by her though I couldn’t get myself to join in her raucous song. To my knowledge this neighbor has never cut another tree in the creek zone.
She was so strong in some ways that it took all I could muster to not be overwhelmed by her anger and vituperation when she raged. She wanted the world to apologize to her and then wrap her in a warm and loving embrace and gently bring into her rightful place in community and society. She reached out to our community in those last days, traveling to Honeydew and to various peoples and places in Petrolia she had long known here. She went to the beach, her place of solace. She met, walked with and spoke with a non local hiker and appeared in good spirits and full of ideas of Budhist simplicity. She went and visited people. She talked of art with Tommy Clark and of her dreams of living as an artist in Seattle. She talked at length with David and a little with Jane Simpson mostly of fears of death and being pursued and persecuted. She visited Richard Gilespe. She went to John Vargo’s, our oldest or longest family friend in the valley, but he was not home. She stopped in on Richard Sheinman and talked of her fears and conspiratorial views. And she talked about her thought of jumping in the river.
Then on January 25th at night, she went to the river. The river was as it is today big, rough and chocolatey but more so. And whether she took her own life or somehow had an accident, something caused her to enter the river on a dark and somewhat stormy night and there she died.
One thing I do know about my sister. Last year was a year of loss and great heart crushing disappointment for Hana. She lost access to the best human friend she had here in the valley, Dan B. She lost her best animal friend in the valley, a yellow dog named Yava who wandered off at the beach one day and ended up dying somehow. Her erratic behavior was being tolerated less and it was causing people to avoid her. She had great sadness in her heart for all that was, what could have been and now was not. I feel it too somewhat.
Also, my parents left the valley and this was psychologically very destabiling for Hana. They left and she could not. I arrived in the valley on a more permenant basis, moving into the studio next to Hana about the time the folks were moving away. Her and I were ok together but she often didn’t like or trust me either.
Many of you have seen the Netflix show “Murder Mountain”. In the first episode Humboldt is cast as a place where lost or tormented souls go to hide out. A place where an outlaw culture around the cultivation of marijuana is present. A place where people disappear and a place where people are murdered and often never found and or the perpetrator is not brought to justice. This first episode has a segment several minutes long where Hana’s disappearance is covered. There is a scene at the Petrolia fire department where a briefing is being conducted by sheriffs (I believe it was Kerry Ireland) and the fire chiefs, Drew Barber and Travis Howe about the missing individual and the ensuing search. Then a scene of a search with a dog for a body. No body is found in the episode, as it was not found in reality, for about a month.
I was not at that first sheriff/fire department briefing. I was at a second one that happened the following weekend. I heard however that Travis and Drew told the Netflix film crew to leave and so they did, but not after getting some footage and talking with some people.
What I wanted to say about this is that I have now seen this first episode as well as the second of “Murder Mountain” and I am very glad this story is being told. However, the story is only tangentially related to the disappearance of Hana Hammer.
The story that “Murder Mountain” (what a horrible name) attempts to tell, somewhat sensationalistically, is the story of the back-to-the-landers that came to Humboldt in the 60’s and 70’s wanting to escape modern society and all its evils. That these back to the landers worked together, came together to build houses, farms, communities in a somewhat utopian way (for some) and that they somewhat by accident found that growing a patch of marijuana could allow them to raise kids and build their houses without having to participate in the rat race they were mostly running away from.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. As the next generation appeared and the “green rush” arrived to Humboldt, a dramatic shift occurred. The story follows how this beautiful, idealistic early culture got hit hard by military style helicopters that raided marijuana gardens and then finally had a golden period where mostly people were left alone to grow as they pleased. Then after Medical legalization slowly a culture of greed, criminality, and disregard for environmental and community norms arose.
This early culture has largely been overwhelmed by the greedy profit motive of industrial size marijuana farming from within and without and that though not extinguished, much of this early living in harmony with nature and your neighbor, is no more. Finally, that this culture and it’s criminal element has meant that some of the workers have ended up missing and ultimately dead. Thankfully with legalization and regulation, many of the worst operators are being busted and regulated out of existence. Unfortunately, many if not most of the old-style small farmers are also being regulated out of existence.
Hana’s story is juxtaposed to other missing people’s stories in Humboldt County around the outlaw marijuana world. If one watches this first “Murder Mountain” episode and they didn’t know Hana, they might be confused into thinking she was another out of town kid who got involved in a dangerous sketchy marijuana scene and disappeared. This is not correct. However, the fact that she lived in Petrolia, one and a half hours from a major town, and in a community where a lot of illegal marijuana was grown, did in some ways contribute in her death.
There is a culture of distrust of law enforcement in Humboldt and when Hana’s behavior was inappropriate or sometimes bordering on not law conforming, people would not call the sheriff. Instead they called our parents and asked them to control and reprimand their wayward child. Well, Hana was 45 years old and a very headstrong women, so this did not work. An intervention by law enforcement could have changed her patterns and required some mental health treatment. I know that our parents actually wanted this to happen, but it never did.
Also, although Hana had a desire to get some medical attention for some physical complaints she had, she had no money and did not trust the medical community. She also had a car that wasn’t in good shape and so she kept putting off getting medical check-ups.
Finally, I will say hesitantly, because I live here and both love and detest things about Humboldt, the feeling in Humboldt (for those who were not making bank from mary jane) from say 2013 to 2017 was progressively more aggressive, secretive and generally negative and Hana felt this acutely. After medical marijuana (prop 215) was voted in in 1996, there was a period where people could grow marijuana with minimal chance of being busted. Every year this increased. Very few people were being busted. There was much uncertainty in the law. I believe this to some extent hamstrung law enforcement for a time, and that growers saw little restraint to “blowing it up”, meaning grow grow grow. This was the “Green Rush”. Some people made millions of dollars. Lots of shady shit happened and some people disappeared. What this did to the local communities was complicated. Lots more cash money was floating around. Local radio stations flourished. There were lots of great festivals. People supported community centers and the arts. People had money and bought cars, trucks, food, houses, trips, things they needed, things they wanted.
But in this, there was also shiestyness and some criminality. Out of town trucks, cargo vans and shiny cars drove into the valley making wholesale deals. Some people got ripped off. Some of those people who got ripped off, attempted to take justice into their own hands (though truthfully little violence occurred actually in Petrolia). It was as the show “Murder Mountain” talks about, a feeling of wild west outlaw culture mixed with of stacks of cash money. The feeling in these small sleepy towns was definitely not so quiet and sleepy anymore. There were lots of big trucks on our small rural windy roads. Roads got tore up, big patches of forest felled, plastic green-houses got thrown up everywhere. Everywhere. The community feeling was frayed. Land prices skyrocketed as out of towners and locals sought to cash in. It was a troubling anxiety creating time for sensitive earth loving people. I felt it. Hana felt it. Hana raged against the feeling of it. Sometimes she referred to Petrolia as a cult. I was never exactly sure what she meant by this, but I do think it had something to do with the changes that were going on in this community.
So, what happened to Hana? It’s complicated. I don’t fully know. But her mental health was not good these last several years. She felt isolated. She felt under siege. She wanted to defend nature and she wanted to defend, what she felt like, were attacks on herself.
She was also very impoverished. She couldn’t figure out how to make a living. She didn’t know how to fix her many problems. She was in a funk. She was very sad and lonely. And she felt like she didn’t have enough support. With that, though not complete I will stop.
Anyway. It is one year since her passing, more or less, I hope she is in a better place.