Wavy Gravy, Hugh Romney, who is fast approaching official geezerhood, is more active and more effective in the world then he was decades ago. Back then when still known as Hugh Romney he stood on the stage of the original Woodstock concert and announced….” What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!” He was at Woodstock as a member of an entertainment/activist commune known as the Hog Farm. Today, the Hog Farm still exists, collectively owning and operating the 700-acre Black Oak Ranch and hosting the annual Pig-Nic. And Wavy lives a third of the year in a Berkeley Hog Farm urban outpost, a big communal house he refers to as “hippie Hyannisport” But Mr. Gravy (as he’s known to readers of the New York Times) has expanded his activities over the past two-and-a-half decades to include codirectorship (with his wife, Jahanara) of Camp Winnarainbow, a performing arts program for children which takes over the Hog Farm for 10 weeks every summer, and the organization of all-star rock concerts to raise money for a variety of environmental, progressive, political, and charitable causes, most notably Seva, a foundation he cofounded in 1978, initially to combat preventable and curable blindness in the Third World.
He may be best known to millions as a cosmic cut-up and the inspiration for a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor – “I am an activist clown and former frozen dessert,” he says – but it is because of his good work on behalf of the planet and its least fortunate residents that Wavy Gravy has achieved his own brand of sainthood. His friend and satirist Paul Krassner has called him “the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Teresa.” Wavy says, “Some people tell me I’m a saint, I tell them I’m Saint Misbehavin’.”
“I’m sure that some people could regard Wavy Gravy as a leftover from the ’60s crowd,” says James O’Dea, executive director of Seva Foundation, upon whose board of directors Wavy sits along with a host of MDs and PhDs. “After all, here is this guy who is still hanging out with tie-dyes and seems lost in the ’60s. But he really took the ’60s idealism and made it his life, and practiced it. We live in a time when, in some ways, there has been a certain unscrupulous use of morality and family values and official religion and righteousness in the public domain. What a remarkable contrast to somebody who spends the summer with inner city kids and the kids of homeless people, teaching them circus performing arts. He is your board member who is always there, who comes to every event, and who is helping you raise money for the ‘eyeballs’ in India, as he says. He is clearly a person who does his own inner spiritual work in a very persistent way and then matches it with his walk in the world.”
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“We just finished our 24th year,” he begins. “It originally started as day care for Sufi kids. I thought it unjust that parents should be penalized spiritually, not being able to meditate and stuff, because they had kids. So I said ‘Give me all your kids,’ and we concocted this little circus arts day care. We discovered that perhaps the kids would be better off without the parents and the parents would be better off without the kids, so we rented the next camp down the road, which was maybe two miles away, and turned it into an overnight camp.” A decade or so ago, the Hog Farm acquired its permanent country land outside Laytonville. “I knew instantly it was ideal for our camp,” Wavy says. In addition to the oak grove for camping, the Farm boasts its own lake (Lake Veronica with a raft named George) and a 350-foot water slide from Marine World.
Each summer, Camp Winnarainbow conducts four two-week sessions for kids, a one-week introductory session for seven-year-old novices, and a one-week session for grownups. Volunteer teachers share such skills as juggling, unicycling, tightrope walking, and trapeze, as well as music and art. “Grownup camp is just like kids’ camp,” Wavy explains, “except you get to stay up late and you don’t have to brush your teeth. We’re not trying to turn out little professional actors or circus stars, although it does happen. What we’re really into is producing universal human beings who can deal with anything that comes down the pike with some style and grace. We’ve been pretty darn successful at that. A lot of the kids who are running the camp now started as campers when they were seven.They can usually do it on a unicycle while juggling three balls. We curry both hemispheres of the E brain. In school, kids learn numbers and letters; we teach timing and balance, which I think is equally important – without competition, except with yourself.”
According to Wavy, his commitment to the kind of work he does was indeed a product of the ‘60s. “That’s when I knew this thing was real,” he says, “that it was the only game in town and I wanted to go to work for it, whatever it was. There is a wonderful chapter in The Wind In The Willows, where the mole and the rat rescue this little baby otter who was actually being protected at the moment by the god Pan. Of course the otter’s parents were beside themselves and all, and they saw Pan and they worshipped him, and he gave them the best gift of the gods, which was to sprinkle forgetfulness upon them so they wouldn’t be tortured with the memory of that amazement. I could have used a little of that, because I’m always looking for that mega-, ultra-divine lick. It’s like the cosmic carrot that keeps me in the movie. I began my study of comparative religion and service out of lust for that stuff. It’s another kind of greed. Once you realize the interconnectedness of all stuff, there’s no going back. I have an old Gravy line, ‘We are all the same person trying to shake hands with our self.’ Remember that the next time you say, ‘pass the gravy.’”