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February 26, 2004

Subversive nuance

At the large public ceremony held in late 2000 to honor the life of David Brower, Julia "Butterfly" Hill — the charismatic, willowy mystic who'd just spent two years in a redwood she named "Luna" — took the stage. There was an expectant hush among the audience. Julia was a celebrity, perhaps even more so than the man we'd all gathered to honor. She went to the podium and began to speak, and before too many sentences went by the hush in the audience turned to astonished murmuring, and then outright grumbling.

Julia's tree Luna had been vandalized a week or two before the event, sawn nearly through. A complicated system of metal braces was bolted to its trunk, and it was hoped they wouldn't break in the first good storm. Few things in this world are as strong as a thick redwood trunk.

And Julia got up on stage and condemned the injury to her tree. She read a poem she'd written when she'd heard of the vandalism. She wept over this deliberate insult to her activism.

As the audience grumbling grew louder, I waited for the rabbit to come out of the hat. Dave had been run out of his job at the Sierra Club three decades previous. That week the Wawoma Tunnel Tree in Yosemite, a giant sequoia thousands of years old, fell and was eulogized on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, next to the story of Brower's Sierra Club ouster, with a headline referring to a fallen giant. I waited for Julia to reveal the grand simile tying Dave to Luna — her writing too unsubtle for metaphor — but it never came.

It never came. She'd been invited to speak to honor the foremost environmentalist of her time, and she mentioned his name not once. It was as if the bubble that surrounded her atop the tree had followed her down its bole and two hundred fifty miles into Berkeley. Later, at the after party, a ring of sycophants shielded her from the astonished angry glares of those who'd seen her performance.

Engagement is the enemy of sanctimony. Celebrity militates against engagement. Julia is not a bad person: just young enough to have begun to believe what the sycophants told her. She needed a mother-in-law to set her straight.

There are people with character strong enough to withstand the buffeting of the sycophantariat, whose need for real engagement overwhelms the urge to take the flaks seriously. The year after Dave died, a friend asked me to give Wendie Malick a ride from Oakland to Hopland, near Ukiah. By the time the pickup truck was cutting through the fog rolling down the Waldo Grade, my awkward crush was lost in cameraderie; talking about the landscape, about our shared hometown, about politics and pets and the things that come up in conversation on a hundred-mile road trip. When we stopped in Healdsburg for coffee I'd almost forgotten about the movie star thing, enough so that I was surprised when the waitress asked for her autograph.

Wendie works in a variety of activist capacities along with her paid jobs. She does some high-profile eco stuff in LA, putting her celebrity to good use, but she also does things like homebuilding and founding medical clinics in poor countries. I suspect many of the people she helps don't have a clue what she does for a living.

I don't know that such work is inherently better for the world at large than sitting a hermit's watch in an endangered tree. There's a lot of work to do in the world, and different types of people are best suited to different types of work. It may be that enviro prima donnas have a crucial role to play in keeping things from going to hell.

I don't know. I'm not the arbiter of such things; I'm just a writer. All I know is what kind of person I'd rather drive to Hopland with. Sanctimony is the enemy of engagement.

This week, I'm reading David Oates' book Paradise Wild, one of the best books on activism and environment and nature and life I've read, well, ever. There is a current, Oates maintains, that links certain environmental activists with their putative foes on the far right. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, he points out, and the difference between activists bombing a hybrid poplar farm — out of the mistaken fear that the trees are genetically modifed — and activists bombing abortion clinics, often runs no deeper than the logo on the faxed press release. Decide you're right at all costs, and the rest of the world becomes the enemy.

Ah, to live in an age when nuance is a foreign, subversive concept.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 26, 2004 10:09 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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A lot to ponder here. You're right about Hill, folks I know had bad experiences with her here too. Sanctimonious, yes. Chewing out your hosts because they dare to take you to a restaurant where the coffee isn't fair trade organic and the napkins aren't cloth? No cause, however worthy, can excuse such rudeness. Hers is the fanaticism of the recent convert, however; I'm sure she will mellow in time. Your main worry, about nuance being endangered in the society at large - I'm afraid I don't see much hope for a turnaround there.

Posted by: Dave at February 27, 2004 05:54 PM
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I'm gonna play devil's advocate for a bit (and I'm not a huge Julia Hill booster, nor was I familiar with this story before reading the post; just offering an alternate perspective):

The timeline is interesting... keep in mind that Luna was just vandalized. Hill had a rather intense and prolonged spiritual experience involving that tree, and the fact of it's near-destruction would undoubtably have still been paramount in her mind after so short a time. This doesn't excuse her behavior at Brower's memorial- that was pretty crass, and it sounds like she missed a great opportunity for a relevant metaphor by not tying her recent experience into Brower's life/work/memory- but it would certainly seem to explain it.

That being said, I agree with you 100% that "fundamentalism is fundamentalism," and share your lament regarding the lost art of nuance. Quiet, understated activism always seems to work more effectively than sanctimony and solipsistic chest-beating, even if the results take longer to come to fruition.

Apropos of nothing... or perhaps everything... I'm pretty tired, and initially saw the title of the post as "Subversive nuisance." Take from that what you will.

Posted by: The Bone at February 27, 2004 09:32 PM
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Maybe the humility required to understand the value of humility is something that only comes with age and experience. That's why it's so remarkable and powerful when someone like, say, Desmond Tutu, speaks for an hour and never mentions himself once.

Posted by: beth at February 28, 2004 10:48 AM
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Your last sentence sums up a lot of what I've been feeling these days. I don't know quite how to explain the feeling -- sort of like despair and frustration intermingled with a fierce determination to do _something_.

As for the fundamentalist of both sides thing, I was reminded of when I was teaching. One thing I often told students, particularly the brighter ones who were to the right of me on the political spectrum, was that I would much rather have students who disagreed intelligently with me than ones who blindly and unthinkingly mouthed my beliefs back at me. The former position is more respectful of my ideas, among other things.

Posted by: Rana at February 28, 2004 02:28 PM
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