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Know the West

We can do it ourselves

  It was 1970, and people were dropping out in droves. Wood stoves were replacing electric heat, milk cartons were transforming wax into candles. Someone noted that more pottery was created during the '70s than during the history of mankind - perhaps an exaggeration. One of the gurus for back-to-the-landers 30 years ago was a woman who named herself Alicia Bay Laurel. Then 19, she lived on a California commune, and after collecting country lore, she hand wrote and illustrated a book, Living on the Earth. Now her hippie how-to book has been reissued so that once again it invites contemporary malcontents and vicarious readers to make almost everything from scratch. That means jerky from game you shoot yourself, soap from ingredients you stir for hours, patchwork quilts from upholstery samples and remnants. Nothing goes to waste in her world; everything yields to human ingenuity as long as there's time enough to fiddle. Bay Laurel also doesn't shrink from life's inevitabilities. Her simple recipe for forest cremation: "Make a pyre of wood, lay the body on top, pour on kerosene and lots of incense. Burning bodies don't smell so good." Bay Laurel's was the first paperback to out-sell hardcover books, says her publisher. It recalls a time when rural America was the destination for those seeking to create a life free of materialism and full of joy. If you didn't live through that decade, no problem; Bay Laurel will still bathe you in nostalgia.

Living on the Earth, Villard Books, 201 East 50th St., New York, NY 10022 (212/572-2870), $16.95, 224 pages.