San Diego Where do you find a refuge from the 20th Century? Down a dusty drive in the highland backwoods of Potrero, about 45 miles east of San Diego. It sits huddled beneath clusters of century-old olive and California live oak trees, sheltering a house, two cottages, a trailer, and a metal barn.
This is where Harriett Molloy, 69, a self-confessed "canary from the coal mines of the industrial age," has founded a refuge in the cleanest air she can find in America. "The winds of Potrero blow east and west," she says. "They come off the ocean or the desert. Most of the time they don't blow up from the industries of Mexican Tecate. So far, we can breathe pollution-free."
As soon as you pass beneath the part serious, part humorous wooden sign reading "The Last Resort" and move inside her weatherworn house, you notice subtle differences. Wood is bare, unvarnished. Floors are tile. No wall-to-wall synthetic carpet. No gas heaters or stoves. All electrical energy. Where she allows paint, it's nontoxic, Molloy says; it's been given weeks to breathe out its fumes. Bedding is natural fiber, aired for about a week or more to lose its manufacturing smells, or preferably, already well-used. Even new magazines hang out in the sun, clipped to laundry lines to be "outgassed" - to let the sun leach their chemicals until they're safe to read. Televisions, computers, and refrigerators cluster on the porches of each of the three units - two cottages and a separated part of her house - which Molloy rents out to fellow environmental sufferers. All electronic equipment is kept away from the rooms, so their plastic exteriors and electronic components can have air to dissipate the chemical smells they emit. And, says Molloy, this allows the high-voltage radiation of the TV and computer screens' x-rays to disperse safely.
"Everything we get is secondhand," says Molloy. "Building timber, clothes, computers, TVs, beds - not because they're cheap, but because we need them to have lost their toxicity. We have to find old mattresses, but not ones that secondhand stores have gassed to sanitize them. Having chemical sensitivities affects every aspect of your life."
Molloy and her tenants living on this chaparral-covered property even have to agree on what dish soap, laundry soap, and shampoos they'll use. "No one can be allergic to what anyone else is using," Molloy says. "We're here because we couldn't take the perfumes and pesticides and gasoline smells of city life. So we all understand."
Kitchen dishes are washed with special nondetergent "degreaser" soap. Molloy washes her hands with a coconut soap bar from Mexico. She walks in shoes that are pure leather and have been sitting for weeks in the sun to "outgas."
We talk in a sunroom looking out at a grove of olive trees. I wonder if it's because the olives are dropping pollen that the windows are closed. But Molloy says it's because the winds can get strong up here. Molloy has a moptop head of straight, gray hair. She's been building up this refuge since she arrived in 1979 barely able to walk, poisoned, she says, by the environment of the Midwestern world she came from. "By the time I got here," she says, "I was sensitive to every food but two: carrots and squash. Although I could cope with certain meats, as long as they weren't loaded with hormones."
That meant, believe it or not, "eating lion. Llama. Beaver. Hippo. Because I didn't have an allergic reaction to them. I got them from a specialist wild meat shop in Chicago. I did especially well on llama."
She passes a bowl of organic strawberries sitting on a bed of white sugar - Oregon beet sugar; cane sugar is off-limits. The salt on the table is unrefined sea salt; ordinary salt, she tells me, "can contain sugars and fat." Molloy says her "multiple chemical sensitivities" - still not accepted by mainstream medicine as much more than neurosis - are also called environmental illness and indicate varying degrees of debilitating malaise caused by our industrial age, everything from chemicals to electromagnetic forces.
Molloy swears she is not a neurotic and that her suffering is real. "The other day, I was helping an author compile facts, Xeroxing a heap of papers. I started getting sicker and sicker. I began to ache. Then pulsing pains. I was becoming mentally out of it. I became physically weak. I had to make myself get away from the copying machine and its chemicals before I could recuperate."
In her previous life in Wisconsin, Molloy was a businesswoman who worked in the recording industry, a bank, installed computer systems in a clinic, and designed and built houses with her husband. But after she started becoming chronically tired and sick in the '70s, moving more than once just to find an environment she could live in, her husband ended up leaving her in frustration. That's when she came West alone. "Potrero," she says, "has been known as a healing place for asthmatics since the '30s. "You should have seen me when I arrived. I came in on my last $1000, with oxygen to help me breathe, weak legs, in a wheelchair."
She also came in despite "an endless string of doctors" who told her it was all in her head, that she was mentally ill, not environmentally ill. "I was in pain. Psychological and physical. I wanted to kill myself. The man who saved my life was Dr. Theron Randolph [an Illinois-based clinical ecologist]. He told me I was trace-sensitive. That it was real: I had multiple chemical sensitivities and multiple food sensitivities. His clinic at last gave me a point of reference."
In what seems to her a miraculous series of events, she arrived in Potrero, heard of this property for sale, persuaded her thenPex-husband to sell a piece of land they jointly owned back East, and was able to put a down payment on Potrero just in time. She set up a nonprofit group called Community for the Environmentally Sensitive and began renting out spare rooms and the two cottages on the property to others desperate for a chemically unchallenged life. By word of mouth, her place has become a refuge. Since 1979, "20 to 30" people have come here to live.