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Meeting of the Minds : Bookstore Holds Monthly Salon Gatherings for Intellectual Sparring


SANTA MONICA — Author Gloria Orenstein thinks the Westside is ripe for the sort of intellectual exchange that once flourished in the literary salons of France, so she has teamed up with a Santa Monica bookstore to sponsor once-a-month gatherings devoted to ideas.

The storefront salon debuted in June, and on Saturday night more than 30 people crowded into Books on the Edge for a second session, "Ecofeminist Lifestyles: Two Women Living in the Garden City of Los Angeles." Ecological lifestyle pioneer Julia Russell and art therapist Esther Krainus-James were the featured speakers.

Orenstein, author of "The Reflowering of the Goddess" and a professor of women's studies and comparative literature at USC, thinks that a salon "should be a place where people can give forth their ideas with strength, with vehemence. That's part of the excitement.

"In L.A. we're very into sensitivity training," the West Los Angeles resident said. "People are afraid to come out and get angry and have a real argument." In Orenstein's view, the intellectual sparring that was characteristic of old-time Parisian salons can be healthy.


There was little sparring Saturday night. Instead, the standing-room-only crowd listened eagerly, even reverentially, as Russell and Krainus-James, who are old friends, described how each has transformed her life to include a more intense experience with nature.

Krainus-James, 66, said that a dozen years ago, conferences on the fate of the Earth spurred her into making a "radical life change and renunciation of mainstream culture."

Since then, Krainus-James said, she has lived often without four walls and a roof (she declined to be too specific about her lifestyle). She said that for a four-year period that just ended, she lived and frequently slept outdoors in Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades. There, Krainus-James, a potter with a master's degree in art therapy, created an artistic "habitat" for herself, positioning plants and pottery beneath cloths suspended from poles.

Through an arrangement with the Presbyterian Conference Center, she said, she also conducted art therapy workshops with inner-city children and others, helping them connect emotionally with the landscape.

The canyon setting prompted emotional and artistic expression in children hardened by urban life, said Krainus-James, convincing her that "we will not save the Earth if we do not return children to the earth and to the experience of art."

Krainus-James, who will move to Seattle next month said she hopes to begin work soon on a series of "bio-regional art gardens" in inner cities.

Russell, 57, who directs the Eco-Home Network, a nonprofit organization providing information on alternative lifestyles to paying members, said her lifestyle "has been much more mainstream than what Esther has done, but we have the same values."

Russell's exploration of nature led her to convert a standard Los Feliz house into an "Eco-Home" where she pursues "a lifestyle that can be livable by virtually everyone in an urban area."

An Eco-Home features a front lawn of drought-tolerant plants, a drip-irrigated garden and orchard, composting and recycling bins, water-saving systems, solar heating and solar lighting.

Since she began developing Eco-Home in 1977, Russell said, she has had "a deepening experience of being related to a particular square footage. And it is the source for me of original wisdom."

Russell said she found spiritual lessons in studying compost. ("The earth digests everything given to it and turns it back. The earth is alive.") She also said the hibiscus tree in her back yard had taught her not to try to impose her will.

Questions and comments from the audience following the presentation made it clear that most of the listeners were in tune with what they had heard.

Psychotherapist Elanna Dhassin spoke of the healing powers of a sun room she had added to her house as a place to work with clients. Yumi Thaumsha, 14, of Santa Monica said she studied art privately with Krainus-James for three years and that the experience had opened her "to what the earth was trying to sing to me."

Hubert Kelly, an actor, stressed the importance of offering underprivileged children opportunities to encounter something other than urban violence. Tricia Cochee of Santa Monica described her work with the Los Angeles-based Black Indian Royal Cooperative Assn., a group that takes African-American and Latino children to the Navajo reservation so they can experience another culture and a non-urban lifestyle.

Orenstein said the Books on the Edge salon will continue to feature "men and women who are kind of pushing the boundaries of ideas."

The gatherings are scheduled for the last Saturday evening of the month, but there will be no August salon. When the series resumes in September, sessions will focus on gay politics, shamanism, aging and women's responses to men's issues and the men's movement.

Orenstein said she had once despaired of creating a true salon in Los Angeles, but now thinks "the Westside is changing. There's a lot more cultural liveliness."

Co-founder of a women's salon in New York that ran for a decade, Orenstein said that salon featured visits from such well-known writers as Adrienne Rich and Anais Nin and was designed to introduce women writers to a wider audience of readers, publishers and critics.

The Books on the Edge salon is more open-ended in purpose, she said. "The idea of the salon is not to have a goal, but to have pleasure."

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