Take a look at the picture, some sixties hippie? Actually this photo was taken in 1917. The fella in the photo was one of the ‘Nature Boys’ a small bunch of guys who in the early years of the twentieth century were perhaps what you might call proto-hippies, or forefathers of the flower power generation, and maybe much more besides.
By the 1940’s there was a small community of Nature Boys, no more than a couple of dozen in all living close to Palm Springs in Southern California, they sported long hair & full beards, their philosophy valued nature, ecology, organic farming, vegetarianism, living outdoors & being in the sun. The roots of this philosophy came from Germany & the Naturemenschen or Lebensreform movements that grew in the late nineteenth century, for me my recollections of old film footage are rather tied up with the rise of Naziism from the 1930’s. But in reality in Germany the movement was hijacked by the Nazis who turned it into an Ayrian vision of German vitality, eventually subsuming it into the Hitler Youth.
At the same time as Hitlers power was growing in Germany far away across the Atlantic & mainland US in California the nascent Nature Boys who in many cases were immigrant Germans, or the offspring of immigrant Germans and often Jewish were doing something very different.
The Nature Boys are best illustrated & explained by some of the individuals involved. Take for instance Gypsy Boots, a.k.a Robert Bootzin, the son of Russian Jewish Emigrees who had settled in California. Boots was born in 1915, he had an elder brother who died of TB and the effect on Boots of his brothers death was swift and strong, he dropped out of high school grew his hair long and began to wander. By his late twenties ( the 1940’s ) he was living in the wilds outside of Palm Springs in SoCal with other Nature Boys. They made their homes in caves & tree houses & washed in waterfalls, by the 1950’s he had married and settled in LA, setting up what was arguably the worlds first health store. He wrote books, became something of a fitness guru and gained a cult following in Hollywood. Numerous TV appearances followed & one show on which he was a regular guest he would make fruit concoctions for the host, Boots called them Smoothies, does that sound familiar? Boots lived to the ripe old age of 89, remaining a vegetarian all his life and a major influence in the health food & fitness movement.
Another nature boy was eden ahbez, he always wrote his name in lower case, he said only two words were worthy of being in capitals, God & Infinity. You may not recognise his name, but you will probably know the Nat King Cole song, Nature Boy, written by abhe (as his friends called him) in 1947.
abhe was born in New York in 1908, he spent much of his childhood in The Brooklyn Hebrew Orphanage, by the depression era abhe was living a hobo life, travelling the US by boxcar, living off the land, a vegetarian wanderer. He too settled in SoCal, another of the Nature Boys, he studied eastern philosophy and yoga and integrated it into his life, he wrote, he wore his hair long and sported the regulation Nature Boy beard. He liked his music and was a songwriter, writer & philosopher. In 1947 he tracked down Nat King Cole who was performing in Los Angeles and got back stage at a gig and passed Coles Manager the music and lyrics for Nature Boy. A year later the song became a hit, remaining at Number 1 for eight weeks.
abhe married Anna Jacobson, they had a son, Tath-Om, tragically abhe lost his wife young to Leukemia, his son to drowning. Perhaps he never really recovered from the loss, but he remained for all of his long life a Nature Boy.
The Nature Boys may be long gone and largely forgotten, but this small group of eccentric young men, children of Europe, set down in America are in no small measure part of the reason that today we can have our smoothies, in the raw foods movement, in vegetarianism, in the development and practice of Yoga & Eastern philosophy in the west and the hippy 60’s.
In their way they are a testament to the beauty and power of difference, in the ability of small numbers of people to make a difference & to the value of taking the path less trodden
There’s a rather poignant clip on youtube from the late 40’s or early 50’s, abhe, awkward, slightly other worldly, still relatively young, he talks about Nature Boy thus in the interview:-
“‘Nature Boy’ is really the story of my life,“I was born with a love for nature and a desire to find God. Finally I came to look upon nature as a great symphony, and upon love as the theme of that symphony, and suddenly a melody just started singing inside of me”.