Salli Rasberry lived in times of flower children, new spiritualism, counterculture experiments, radical and pacifist politics and songs about people never getting old or dying. But the young cultural explorer gradually aged into an accomplished author, gardener, environmentalist, weaver and wise earth elder. She died peacefully on Sunday, April 28 at her Freestone home. She was 78.
Rasberry, born Salli Harrison, was a central figure in Sonoma County’s historic chapter of back-to-the-land hippies, who settled in communes and off-the-grid homesteads in the hills between Sebastopol, Graton, Occidental and the Pacific Ocean in the 1970s. Like many others of her tribe, she arrived here after first migrating to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury hippie mecca. Then she escaped to a rural life of hand-built shelters, organic gardening, celebration of art and the founding of a new culture of free schools, food co-ops, grassroots publishing, marijuana economy and environmentalism. She later learned to raise sheep, shear wool and spin yarn.
The author of many books on ecology, learning, simple living, the art of dying and on womanhood, Rasberry was instrumental in the formation of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, as a founding member of its precursor, the Farallones Institute. She also helped create the Sonoma Land Trust, a free school in Bodega and an artists support group called Common Ground, along with friend Delia Moon.
She was married to Michael Eschenbach, a local house builder, since 1989. They lived in a house they built overlooking Freestone to the west, with a large garden where a sign at the entrance reads, “Bloom where you’re planted.” They later lived in Florida for a few years and built affordable housing in Guatemala before returning to California in 2004.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 21, 1940, Salli met and married musician David Freiberg, who later was a member of the San Francisco rock group Quicksilver Messenger Service. After separating from Freiberg and having a daughter, Sasha, from another relationship, she moved to Sonoma County and lived in tents and cabins at a commune in Bodega. Nearby, large communes were growing on Lou Gottlieb’s Morning Star Ranch and Bill Wheeler’s Wheeler Ranch. Salli changed her name to Rasberry, after Gottlieb named his daughter Rasberry. Salli was often called “Raz.”
“Salli was a strong voice from the earliest days of the sixties onward,” remembers Ramon Sender, an original resident at Morning Star and longtime friend of Rasberry’s. “Her books and her strong commitment to living one’s life out loud set an example for the rest of us. (She was) a truly loving sister.” Sender, a published author, lives in Occidental. And Rasberry wrote the introduction to his last book, a history of the Morning Star commune and related tales.
In 1970, she wrote a book with U.C. Berkeley professor Robert Greenway called, “The Rasberry Exercises: How to Start a School and Write a Book.” She would later write more than a half dozen other books, among many other writings.
In 2001, she collaborated with Sebastopol artist Carole Rae Watanabe to write “The Art of Dying: Honoring and Celebrating Life’s Passages.” In her writings, Rasberry shared her secret of fulfillment: “We all have 100% to deal with in our lives: 10% is important, 90% unimportant. The secret to a happy, productive life is to deal with the 10% and let the 90% slip.”
In writing about herself, she once wrote: “I am a voracious activist, environmentalist, visual artist and avid flower gardener. Enjoying the combination of art, garden and community, I created a large coffin garden, offering a space for reflection and whimsy in the center of a field of hundreds of sunflowers and raised bed coffin boxes fashioned out of redwood and abundantly planted with colorful and fragrant flowers, decorated with hand painted tiles by friends, which featured a gazebo embellished with a handmade mermaid.
She also wrote a series of small business and economy books with Michael Phillips. Two of the titles were “Honest Business” and “The Seven Laws of Money.” She co-authored a fun non-business book with friend Padi Selwyn titled, “Live Your Life Outloud,” where the two women celebrated the riper years of womanhood, holding true to their shared hippie and free spirit roots.
Husband Michael remembers meeting Salli at one of the Joy Ridge gatherings where singing and dancing was shared.
“We kept meeting and I remember we went to a dance in Bodega and dance together all day, maybe for 40 dances. We never split after that.” The couple traveled to Mexico and Guatemala and other trips.
“I always challenged her to be physical and she always challenged me emotionally and intellectually. She was an amazing lady.”
Friend Marylu Downing first met Rasberry in 1978 at an Occidental Holiday bazaar where Salli was selling her knitted hats and mufflers, which she made from her own sheep’s wool.
“I was drawn to her right away,” said Downing. “She was a warm, funny person who spoke her mind.” Most recently the two friends worked on a book launch at Occidental Center for the Arts as greeters. “She sort of floated across the landscape, tall and lanky and wearing colorful things ... soft scarves that often that blew out on a breeze or clothes that featured her own skilled needlework. She was always making something or some place more beautiful, right to the end.”
Rasberry’s last days were spent in home hospice, following a series of internal ailments and infections, including pancreatitis. Her last visitors were her grandchildren Miles Dylan Marshall Johnson and McKinley Johnson. “She told then she had the greatest grandkids and then she just kind of drifted off,” said Eschenbach, who plans to separate her cremated dust into dozens of Ziploc bags for friends to disperse all over Sonoma County.
A celebration of her life is being planned for later this summer, said Eschebbach.