Dean Kuipers!

Four didn’t seem like enough and six seemed like too many and so five it was. Specifically, The Live Five, a place in WONGDOODY space where we drag in figures of note and blast them with five questions about creativity. In the hopes that if you look at something long enough it might change how you understand it. For the better.

Everybody’s got their lanes. If you’re a fan of Wizard’s speech in Taxi Driver as he tries to talk down erstwhile political assassin Travis Bickle — “A man takes a job, you know? And that job…That becomes what he is. You know, like…you do a thing and that’s what you are.” — you’d remember his vote in favor of a certain kind of determinism. But things change, really, everything changes, and the stories that kept dragging lifelong journalist Dean Kuiper’s back and eventually into books and advocacy had everything to do with sustaining this planet we call home.

So he stopped fighting it, and starting fighting for it with the same kind of brio he had once brought to SPIN, Rolling Stone, and Interview magazines. Just this time for Outside, and a bevy of books on ecology — The Deer Camp, and Burning Rainbow Farm — Kuipers has gone all the way. From embedding himself with eco-pirates ramming whaling ships to covering the pre-legalized cannabis killing of Michigan farmers, he’s cast our struggle to keep our planet healthy as precisely what it is: an existential crisis.

So having him in for The Live Five, if it doesn’t help lower your carbon footprint today? Maybe it’ll do so tomorrow.

Was it the crime elements involved in the FBI/Michigan State police shootings and deaths of marijuana activists detailed in your Burning Rainbow Farm book that attracted you initially to environmental issues?

FBI and Michigan State Police snipers shot and killed Tom Crosslin and Rollie Rohm, the two guys who owned and operated Rainbow Farm in Michigan, because of a dispute over weed. They were big-time activists trying to legalize pot. The story was vastly more complicated than that, but it was clear the authorities should not have responded in the heavy-handed way they did, right from the start, and that injustice was what drew me to the story. I write stories for all kinds of reasons, but my favorite stories are the ones that can point us to a more inclusive, more local, and more ecologically sane culture. To a culture that grows specifically where we live, and which we can all survive. This was one of those stories.

Beyond the fact that two guys were killed for the crime of possession, the Rainbow Farm story grabbed me because of the rural culture represented there: the two owners were gay, libertarian, pro-weed, anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-militia, pro-“freedom” Deadheads. They had the Grateful Dead’s dancing bear as one of the logos for their campground. I had grown up 25 miles away from this place in rural Michigan, which was always a weird mix of hippie, rocker, gun freak and Christian conservative cultures, but this was the first time I saw a real way to gather all that together in one story. Of course, now we recognize this strange brew as the seemingly random mix of “freedom” defenders that erupted into electoral politics in 2016 to elect Donald Trump. But in 2001, the idea of a gay, Deadhead, marijuana activist who also supported David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh and the local militia was just beyond novel. It was unique and it was worth investigating respectfully.

But nature thrives in diversity; in fact, it depends on diversity to survive, and since we are part of nature, we depend on diversity, too. Our societies, however, are in constant tension over diversity. As Rousseau said, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Crosslin and Rohm behaved as though they were free, and then they were shot down on September 3 and 4, 2001. I learned about the shootings a few days later when the Sunday Kalamazoo Gazette arrived at my house in Los Angeles, with the big banner headline, “It just doesn’t make sense.” That was a quote from someone in the community, and it sums up our general belief in basic humanity: they were human beings, and there was no reason for them to be dead. Rainbow Farm is up and running again in some form, but I don’t know what the vibe is like there now. The “freedom” coalition that elected Trump has been ratcheting down the chains of late, restricting itself to pro-white supremacy, anti-LGBTQ, pro-conspiracy folks, so who knows what new cultures will be born in a bid to survive.

I had been writing about the radical environmental movement since 1988 though, and there was a shared belief in direct action that I recognized right away: if you wanted to change something – for instance, stopping a company from clear-cutting a forest – you just blocked them from doing it and then let the law come find you. That was happening at Rainbow Farm: they proselytized about legal weed by smoking weed. There was also an ecological angle to the pot movement that interested me. Many of the activists gathered at Rainbow Farm wanted to de-industrialize farming, get rid of the chemicals, and promoted organic food. They wanted to shuck the industrial systems that we know are driving a health crisis and climate change. Their interest in pot was about getting high, but in order to build support for the pot movement, they had revitalized interest in non-psychoactive commercial hemp.

Beyond traditional uses of hemp for fiber and oils, there were exhibits about Henry Ford’s all-hemp car, hemp building materials such as bricks and planks, hemp for biodiesel production, hemp plastics, and so on. The crowd there was open to innovation in order to cut down on the synthetics that pollute our lives every day. While “freedom” at Rainbow Farm meant not having to piss in a cup or not having the government dictate which parts of your property might be a wetland, it also meant freedom from corporate capitalism and industrial oppression. It was a mixed bag of freedoms, some ecologically beneficial, some not.

I have a memory of you embedding yourself on a Greenpeace ship that was ramming whaling ships. Did I imagine that?
Ha ha, no, you did not imagine that. I was on a ship with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1992, traveling the Eastern Tropical Pacific looking for illegal tuna seiners. Sea Shepherd, which is now best known for its TV show, Whale Wars, was founded by Paul Watson, one of the original members of Greenpeace. Some of their direct-action techniques include ramming whaling boats, or fouling the seine nets used by tuna boats that also kill dolphins, or generally interfering with lamentable practices like clubbing baby seals. These methods are dangerous, can be violent, and are often illegal, but if your goal is to save whales and other marine life, they can put pressure on industries to change their practices. If no one is out on the seas witnessing and resisting, industry can kill whales or dolphins or anything else with impunity. Iceland recently announced it was giving up whaling, and that was probably because of economic factors more than anything else, but few people can forget that Sea Shepherd sank their whaling fleet in Reykjavik harbor in the 1980s.
But while we were on our patrol in 1992, the Sea Shepherd crew ran across boats illegally fishing with long-lines in the protected marine sanctuaries around Cocos Island, which is part of Costa Rica. After zooming around yelling at them in Spanish to stop their illegal fishing, the Sea Shepherd crew ran their boats across their lines, tangling and cutting them, and chased the fishermen off under threat of the equivalent of a citizen’s arrest.
While I have stuck to a journalistic policy of not participating in these kinds of actions, I have been on hand to witness a lot of them – tree-sits and other forest defense actions, road blockades, animal liberations, banner hangings, lockdowns, office occupations, marches, timber sale demonstrations, and on and on. Direct action has always interested me as a solution that the powers that be find hard to ignore.
When I started writing magazine stories in 1987, I wrote equally about experimental music and about radical environmentalism. My first stories for EAR Magazine and other New York-based mags were about William Schimmel, an avant-garde classical accordionist, Sonic Youth, artist Christian Marclay, and a play featuring Lydia Lunch. People shattering and reassembling culture. The next year I wrote a piece for SPIN about the FBI infiltration and bust of Earth First! activists in Arizona. That mix stayed pretty much the same for 25 years, writing for SPIN, Rolling Stone, RayGun, Los Angeles CityBeat, the Los Angeles Times, and so many other publications. At the LA Times, I was a deputy Music editor in Calendar, their entertainment section, at the same time that I was running Greenspace, which was their environmental blog. That didn’t really work out that well, because there was too much to do, but I couldn’t quit doing either one.
Eventually, though, I became more interested in participating in solutions to our ecological problems, and I left the LA Times to join a solar power technology company. My brothers and I were also deeply involved in a wildlife habitat improvement project on our property in Michigan, which was the subject of my book, The Deer Camp. Within a few years, my wife Lauri and I became more and more involved with growing food on small, organic, local urban plots in Los Angeles. We took over an urban farm of our own in the Glassell Park neighborhood of LA in 2019. I have always had to write in the off-hours, including writing my books Burning Rainbow Farm and Operation Bite Back in the beautifully quiet hours between 2 and 6 a.m., and then going to work at the newspapers all day, and now I don’t work at any publication in particular but I’m still writing in the off-hours. The one great change is that I now write mostly about farming, so at least I get to write about what I do all day, and I’m not pulled in 45 directions at once.
Everyone it seems — unless you’re politically obliged to serve a constituency that likes burning diesel fuels and building pipelines while believing climate change is a hoax — is, at the very least, voicing concerns about issues like sustainability and so on. How much does this feel like a clear-cut product of forward motion, in other words, progress…and how much like just lip service?

We all wince when we see oil companies or Big Ag try to greenwash their images, but they’re only doing that because the strong desire to decarbonize our culture is real and they know it is real. The clamor for progress is genuine and growing, though the change is coming slowly. Since the 1990s, the world’s entire population has been alerted to the dangers of climate change, and the information coming from a bewildering array and overwhelming majority of scientists has agreed that this climatic shift is happening, and that human beings and all their technologies are the cause. Despite the Kyoto Protocols and Rio summits and all that, I don’t think this really hit home until this new millennium, when storms and calamities simply exploded all over the Earth. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the turning point, killing 1800 people and causing $125 billion in damages, and more importantly persisting in the media and our national consciousness. We’re still not over Katrina because now it’s Katrina all the time. The suite of hurricanes and cyclones, floods, wildfires, droughts, species extinctions, seawater incursions and other “natural” disasters is accelerating, and clearly accelerating. People in Australia have barely had time to catch their breath between disasters for the last couple decades.

Perpetual disaster is now having a new effect: psychological distress. More and more people are reporting depression, anxiety, substance abuse, violence, even suicidal ideation as a response to constant flood and storm and the degradation of place; these responses were always part of a natural disaster, but now we’re seeing it in people who’ve never been directly impacted by a disaster, but rather have seen so many of them in the news. Young people are reporting either that they feel hopeless, and also that they feel moved to do everything they can to change the culture for the better. We’re sensitive creatures. We can feel the change in our bodies. We know that the place where we live is being actually impacted by a changing climate, and that some of the changes will be negative. We feel what Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls Solistalgia – the pain of losing our natural home. We don’t have another one.

Well, the progress that’s been made…assuming it’s really been made, was it creative grunt work getting it to happen? Or did folks just wise up?

I have a great photo of myself in probably 1971, when I was about 7 years old, standing on my grandfather’s farm in Michigan with a sign I’d made myself that read “Stop Pollution.” I go into this in some detail in my book, The Deer Camp, but in the 1970s, I witnessed Michigan go through a radical environmental transformation. Many people will remember that in the late 1960s, the Rogue River by Detroit, like the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, was so polluted it would catch fire. You couldn’t eat a fish caught out of a river in Michigan, because the water was riddled with PCBs and Dioxin and whatnot. The deer herd was about one-fifth of what it is today. The wolverine – the mascot of the University of Michigan – had been extirpated. If you could find a living wild mink, just about the wildest creature around, it was like witnessing a religious miracle. Then came the huge suite of environmental laws that turned this all around: the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the creation of the EPA – many of them signed into law in the early 1970s by President Nixon.

Suddenly, there was legal backup for activists demanding that industries change their ways. The grunt work you’re talking about was done by those thousands and thousands of local activists who worked to change their town, their stretch of river, their industrial site. The power of local! There was still insufficient money to actually clean up a lake or river or brownfield, but the polluters could be dragged into court and – probably as important – state governments could be forced to create responsible environmental policy. Beyond these laws, Michigan passed a bottle return law that probably changed people’s perceptions of their outdoors more than anything else: very quickly, the ditches were clean, because bottles and cans were worth money.

By the late 1980s, when my younger brothers were in high school, they were catching beautiful trout out of old culverts, ditches and creeks around our place in Michigan that would have been absolutely toxic and dead a decade earlier. The thought of fishing those places had never entered my mind. The change was real and it happened pretty fast all over the country. Nature responds beautifully to a modicum of attention and care.

Today, there is enormous pressure and active tinkering to undo these laws, especially the Endangered Species Act. As the wolf-hunt issue has shown us, when you take protection off any of these creatures or places, decades of work can be undone in only a few days – sometimes only a few hours. California saw the same thing with mountain lions: the second you take protection off them, people wipe them out. Why would we go backward and then have to do all that grunt work all over again? Because as soon as your river is on fire, or your pipes have lead-tainted water in them, or you notice that there is no wildlife, people will start complaining again and demand action.

What is it about earth-bound issues that’s attracted unlikely bedfellows like Charles Manson who was very into ATWA (Air Trees Water Animals) and the folks from the quasi-Satanic Process Church of the Final Judgment and their ultimate move into the Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS), as well as the more pro-social groupings?

I honestly don’t know anything about the Manson family or the Process Church, other than what I read years ago in sensationalistic books, the information in which was probably less than reliable. But an appeal to nature is easy to understand in almost anyone seeking radical change, especially as a reaction to a technologically or ideologically oppressive culture. I have seen first-hand that the defense of nature can turn some well-intentioned people against humanity, and that is a bad turn. But more and more, we should all be thinking of how to nurture and maintain our place in nature as a bedrock of reality.

We are part of nature, and our minds are part of nature. Your mind evolved on this planet in communication with birds and wind and rivers and bacteria, and so on. As so much in our global culture wants to separate us from nature, our mental and physical health is threatened. It seems that we are already seeding a culture-wide disassociation from empirical reality, as evidenced by the spread of conspiracy and “alternative facts” and the new equivalency attributed to fact and opinion in public discourse. This is not a problem that will be solved by more information. It is a problem that should be addressed by more contact with the earth.

Your so-called smartphone separates you from nature. TikTok separates you from nature. The absolute horror they are calling the Metaverse separates you – maybe forever – from nature. What about lab-grown “meat”? Indoor farming? Cryptocurrency? Do you see how the list could go on and on? Technology’s solution for every problem is generally not to restore natural processes, but to circumvent them, at great expense, to make someone rich. Leaving us dangling in ever-deeper alienation and uncertainty.

We have developed a reality problem: fewer and fewer people see themselves actually participating in the physical process of nature, or even understand why they should. Why think about nature when you disappear into the Xbox all day? But you can’t really be separated from nature. You still eat food, you wear clothing, you build shelters, you get sick and well again, your cells replace themselves at exhausting rates, you are born and die. Most important, you are constantly – every second – in sensory communication with the material world around you. The temperature. Surfaces. The brightness and quality of light. Weather.  Sounds. You are embodied on this earth, and your mind is responding to the physical world, no matter what else you are also doing, trying to make sense of where you are. This should be reassuring to everyone. The material world still matters. Embracing that world, restoring it, choosing it, even for just part of your day every day, is essential to the health of your body and mind, and also our democracy.