Can’t Improve on the Lede of This Article

Jan. 8, 1976, Page C-2 

By Nancy Skelton, McClatchy Newspaper Services 

Sacramento — Peyote. Snakes. Pocketknives. Pregnant goats.

An odd combination to begin with.

Odder, still, when they come up, front and center, at a Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.

But these were subjects chosen this morning by anthropologist-writer Gregory Bateson, who delivered the main address at the annual gathering held to seek God’s help for state leaders during the coming year.

His aim, he indicated in a text released earlier, was to show that the words “religion” and “prayer” have a lot of different meanings to a lot of people.

Some pray, he said. Others celebrate. Some simply affirm “there is something bigger in the world than money, pocketknives and automobiles.”

 “One thing children have to learn about pray,” Bateson said in an aside, “is that you do not pray for pocketknives.”

The speaker, a senior lecturer at the University of California and the former husband of famed anthropologist Margaret Meade, told of the time a fellow anthropologist wanted to film a peyote ceremony of the Native American Church.

The Indians were under extreme pressure to stop using the drug – an outlawed psychedelic – in their religious rite.

The anthropologist felt a sensitive film would dramatize that the Indians did, indeed, have the constitutional right under the freedom-of-religion amendment to do so.

The Indians refused the film – although they knew it spelled doom for their cherished ceremony.

 “They were choosing their integrity over their existence,” Bateson said. “(They refused) to accept the pragmatic compromise … they could not picture themselves engaged in this very personal matter of prayer in front of a camera.”

This is religion, as defined by sacred peyote rites, according to Bateson.

The Prayer Breakfast speaker, an acquaintance of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. then turned to the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”

With rotting corpses all around him on the deck, the lone sailor – as Bateson recited the poem – spots “blue, glossy green and velvet black” snakes in the water.

He watches them coil and swim in grace and amid the stinking horror, finds peace.

Buddhists call it Enlightenment, Bateson said.

“I think it is important here, where we are discussing religion as related to government, to notice how often Enlightenment is a sudden realization of the biological nature of the world in which we live. It is a sudden discovery or realization of life.”

And, finally, Bateson turned to the Book of Job.

After much soul-searching and the sufferings of pride, Job was asked by God:

 “Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?”

God was letting Job know that in the simplest acts of nature lie the greatest mysteries, said Bateson, concluding:

 “As a citizen, I would be much happier about the world in which I live, about how my civilization is going to treat the world – the sorts of pollution and exploitation it is going to engage in and all the rest of that – if I felt really sure that my governors and my representatives know how many months the hinds fulfill and how they bring forth their young.”

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas MacBridge of Sacramento was master of ceremonies at the event, attended by several hundred state and government officials in the Sacramento Convention Center.

Inspirational music was provided by the Sufi Choir of San Francisco, the same organization which performed at the governor’s election night victory celebration in November 1974.


(Editor’s Note: Two years later, Brown appointed Bateson a UC Regent, which he remained until his death in 1980. The 250,000 square foot Bateson Building at 1600 9th Street is named after him. The building incorporated passive heating and cooling systems never before been used by the state that resulted in 75 percent lower energy use. Within a year after the building’s dedication in 1981, employees filed a class action lawsuit saying working there made them sick. There were mold issues and engineers determined the ventilation system wasn’t providing enough fresh air. The results of the tests eventually caused some of the building’s innovative systems to be abandoned.  Bateson was a mentor and friend of Sim Van der Ryn, the state architect who designed the building. At the building’s dedication ceremony, Van der Ryn said this:

“Most of Gregory’s life was spent trying to illuminate the wholeness that is in man and the natural world. We are all part of what Gregory called ‘the pattern which connects,’ which is the form of life itself. Gregory’s search led in many directions: the function of language and thought; the nature of human cultures; biology; and the connection among living things. In the last month of his life, I asked him what single thing was needed for people to grasp a new way of looking at their world and he told me, “People are mad for quantity, yet what is significant is difference.” And so it is with this building named to honor Gregory Bateson.”)





  1. I too would wish that ” my governors and my representatives know how many months the hinds fulfill and how they bring forth their young” — and I certainly wish that this particular governor also understood the extent to which public education in this state depends upon the provision of bus transportation, both for rural students to attend school at all, and for urban students to attend integrated schools in general, and to be able to benefit from magnet schools serving their special interests and talents.

    For the most part, it appears that the elected officials elected by the vast majority of public school students’ parents support increased revenue/tax increases to restore and maintain public education, yet their constituents seem to be the first to be punished when the elected officials representing a large segment of private school parents refuse to support the needed funding.

    So long as budget cuts continue to penalize only those who can’t afford to send their children to private schools, those who can afford an alternative will continue to send anti-tax representatives to Sacramento.

    Instead of going after those who favor state support of education and public health/safety services, why not target budget cuts at services within districts where legislators block revenue increase measures?

    If folks in those districts truly support shrinking government then they won’t mind a bit. If, however, as I suspect, they only support shrinking services they don’t need, perhaps they’ll send a message to their legislators that it is time to drop the knee-jerk “no taxes” posture and grow up before we rank 50th in public education spending.

    Comment by Celtic Snake — 1.24.2012 @ 3:32 pm

  2. P.S. I love the Bateson Building’s architecture and the philosophy behind it. Alas, the original ventilation system not only made many people sick — unfortunately a few of them (including a dear friend and dedicated, capable public servant, Opal Gulley) actually died of maladies attributed to that ventilation.

    Comment by Celtic Snake — 1.24.2012 @ 3:38 pm

  3. A delight to read Nancy Skelton’s unique perspective, observing and reporting on a California moment that passed too quickly. Even those who thought they were newsmakers learned the political realities from Nancy Skelton.

    Comment by Rose King — 1.24.2012 @ 10:35 pm

  4. This was especially appreciated. I looked up to her in high school, where she was a few years ahead of me. Thought of her while viewing the Press Corps fundraiser honoring George Skelton, and seeing their daughter dancing.

    Comment by JoAnn Anglin — 1.24.2012 @ 11:31 pm

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