A Memoirby Bill Barich
Hardly anyone remembers Clear Creek anymore, but it was a leading environmental magazine of the early 1970s. It rose from the ashes of Earth Times, a quarterfold modeled on Rolling Stone that Jann Wenner wisely ditched when he realized ecology would never go platinum. Pennfield Jensen, our editor, secured the rights with a group of investors, changed the name, and rented some office space in San Francisco’s South Park, then a largely African American neighborhood, on the floor above a Chinese garment factory, where dozens of women spent long hours hunched over their sewing machines.
Penn was a great believer in the movement. A native Californian, he’d grown up camping and hiking in the Sierra Nevada, so he was keenly aware of the damage being done to such sacred places as Yosemite and the Mojave. The situation would only get worse, he felt, under Governor Reagan, who was rumored to have remarked (although it wasn’t true), “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” Despite his passionate devotion to the cause, Penn was the opposite of humorless and could easily be distracted from the dire environmental impact reports piled on his desk by the offer of a cold beer. To map out his editorial strategy, he loved to draw elaborate flowcharts that covered an entire wall. Penn thought big, but his budget was small. When I signed on as his managing editor, a position for which I held no qualifications, I was paid about $400 a month.
But that was fine with me. I was thrilled to have a job, especially a meaningful one, although it came with plenty of responsibility. Because Penn was often busy trying to hustle some money to keep us afloat, I inherited half his workload. I assigned articles, dealt with contributors who complained about being underpaid, which was not inaccurate, and sorted through the crackpot query letters we received from freelancers who lived in tepees, yurts, and geodesic domes. Out of necessity, Penn hired the cheapest typesetters in town, a band of Tibetan Buddhists—I’m not making this up—and the copy they delivered was always full of typos. It was up to me to strip in the corrections with an X-acto knife, a semi-skill now as obsolete as driving a stagecoach. I wasn’t any good at it, either, and nicked my fingers so often my desk blotter was splotched with blood.