Moments of Truth
When did you become an environmentalist?
by Dashka Slater
A recent survey of Sierra Club members revealed that many can point to a particular moment when they realized that their fates were inextricably linked to that of the earth. It might have happened in childhood, in a neighborhood stream or a grove of trees that served as a vast wilderness for the roaming imagination.
Or it might have happened later, when the creek was culverted and the woods cut down to make way for subdivisions and shopping malls. The revelation might have come while swimming with sea turtles in Maui or looking into the questioning eyes of a deer on the Pacific Crest Trail, but it could just as easily have come in Newark, New Jersey, on the banks of a neon-colored trickle that was once a pristine river.
Recently Sierra asked its readers--along with 11 prominent environmental activists--what inspired them to stand up and join the fight to save the planet. The responses remind us that there is no “typical” environmentalist. We heard from people who got involved after being sickened by toxic chemicals at work, and from those who heard the call while watching for songbirds in a reedy marsh. Many told of parents and grandparents who had opened their eyes to the wonders of the natural world--fathers who could identify insects and animal tracks, grandmothers who knew the names of wildflowers, mothers who took them to play on the banks of rivers. Others were inspired by books: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Daniel Quinn’s novel/manifesto Ishmael. A few had life-changing encounters with someone whose commitment to conservation was a lesson in itself, like Illinois activist William Rutherford, who inspired one then–high school sophomore with his insistence that “one person will make a difference.” Another dedicated his life to conservation in tribute to his wilderness-loving brother, who was disabled in a Mt. Shasta rockslide.
Villains can inspire as well as heroes. If timber executives knew how many people became environmental activists after stumbling on a clearcut, they might never authorize another. Similarly, George W. Bush’s plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling has galvanized many a hitherto closet conservationist. “These next four years frighten me,” writes Bryn Burnham of Winslow, Maine. “Will there be no wild land left for my grandchildren to walk with their fathers or mothers and discover a new plant, stream, or track?” In the pages that follow, 11 well-known environmental activists retrace their own paths. For more of our readers responses, see the Sierra Club Web site.
As different as the stories are, each has the same conclusion: When we work to save the planet, we are saving ourselves. “My motivations for protecting the wild earth are fairly selfish,” writes Amber Ayers of Salt Lake City, Utah. “The serenity and peace found on a mountainside have no replacement. This euphoria is worth fighting for.”
JIM BACA | ROBERT HASS | JULIA BUTTERFLY HILL | CYNTHIA McKINNEY | EDGAR WAYBURN | CARLA CLOER | LOIS GIBBS | CAROLE KING | THEO COLBORN | CARL ANTHONY | DAVID SUZUKI
When I was a television journalist here in town, I did the news the night that one of the Apollo spaceships was circling the earth. As they flew over, they commented on how the southwestern United States around New Mexico looked like it was under a haze. And I said, “Well, why the hell is that?” So I decided to do a series of stories on the Four Corners Power Plant and how it was affecting our blue skies. The stories led to the utility’s putting state-of-the-art scrubbers on the plant; it made all the difference in the world. It really showed me that there’s no reason to be trashing our landscape and air and water, that you could do things that would fix it.
How did I become someone who cares about environmental issues? Part one is growing up in the forties-fifties-sixties-seventies in Northern California, one of the most beautiful and most violently transformed landscapes in the country. Part two is loving the outdoors--hunting and fishing when I was a kid, and later birdwatching and teaching myself natural history. The third part is having absorbed by osmosis from the culture the environmental tradition in America from Thoreau to Gary Snyder.
But it was not until I was made poet laureate that I thought, “I’m the first person from the West to have this position; I should do something that embodies some of the values and concerns of western writers.” It seemed natural to reflect to the country in various ways the environmental ethic in American writing. I picked “watershed” because knowing one’s watershed is the key to thinking bioregionally, which in turn is key to practical stewardship. I was interested in kids learning about their watershed the way they learn, by smelling what kind of clovers they stick in their noses and stuff like that. If we as adults had to teach them about our watersheds, we would learn it ourselves.
JULIA BUTTERFLY HILL
I was raised to appreciate the environment, but I was never aware just how critical a condition our beautiful planetary home is in. I graduated from high school when I was sixteen, went straight into college and majored in business, and opened my first business when I was eighteen years old. That was my whole life.
Then in August 1996 I was driving a friend’s car when we were hit from behind by a man who had been drinking. His Bronco basically turned my friend’s car into an accordion and shoved the steering wheel into my skull. It took ten months of physical and cognitive therapy to recover.
I look back now and realize that that steering wheel was steering me in a new direction. I realized that money didn’t mean much if I wasn’t going to be able to walk, talk, and function. So I went on a search: Why am I alive? Why am I here? I thought I was going to go around the world but I never made it. I made it to the ancient redwoods of California.
I was raised in a very strict religious Christian home. My father was a traveling preacher, so I have spent more than my share of time in churches. And I have never ever entered a cathedral as sacred, beautiful, and powerful as those redwoods were to me that day. About two weeks later I saw my very first clearcut, and I felt as if someone had kicked me in my stomach. I was so naive, I just had no clue that these things existed. Someone showed me a picture of what that forest used to look like and I just started bawling.
I realized right then that something in me was shifting. Part of me didn’t want to get involved; like so many other people in this country, I thought to myself, “Oh there’s plenty of people working on this issue. I don’t need to do this.”
But in my prayers this answer came to me: “Julia, if you walk away from this injustice, your inaction is as much part of the destruction here as the actions of Pacific Lumber/Maxxam.” And I said okay, I give myself up to this cause. The first direct action I ever did was the Luna tree-sit. I found out what was happening in late July, early August. I was in the tree in November.
I would love to go hiking. I would love to go rafting, to commune with nature in the national forests. But I don’t and I never have. So you can call me the unlikely and unexpected environmentalist. I didn’t have any cathartic experiences that shaped my advocacy. It’s just common sense.
Environmental issues are not just rural or agriculture issues. Our quality of life in suburban and urban areas is determined by the amount of green space we have, whether we are able to move from place to place efficiently, the cleanliness of the creeks and rivers that people want to put their houses near. That’s why it’s important for people to be activists in the political sense: because at the end of the day, no matter how deeply felt and emotional one is about the environment, it’s political actors who will make the decision to destroy or protect it.
In 1946 I came back to the Bay Area after four years in the Air Force and saw what changes had taken place. The artichoke fields and pastures south of San Francisco had disappeared and were replaced by housing developments. Similar things were happening in the East Bay. Only to the north were there still open fields.
I had spent my summer vacations in the Sierra through the 1930s. My companion for the 1946 summer outing had just gotten a new job and couldn’t go, so I went down to the Sierra Club looking for a companion for a two-week trip. The people at the Club wanted me as trip doctor for six weeks of the High Trip, which had a hundred and fifty people on it plus a crew of thirty to fifty. I would have no part of it. I said, “No way.”
But I still couldn’t find a hiking companion and the Club people kept after me. I finally agreed to go on the first two weeks of the High Trip. And it was there that I saw the changes that had taken place in the Sierra. The grass was cropped so closely, some areas were desertified. I remember going across a particularly hot, dry, and dusty sand flat in the southern Sierra called Guyot Flat. I said to the leader, “There must be some better way to get to Mt. Whitney.” He said, “Did you ever read John Muir?” And I said, “No.” He said, “You should. John Muir spoke of the beauties of Guyot Meadows.”
I read Muir, read about what had taken place in Muir’s time when the sheep destroyed the meadows and turned them into sand flats. From then on I felt a personal obligation to do something about the Sierra and the hills of home.
I was the local Miss Tulare County. I was a sorority girl at UCLA. I was a member of the Young Republicans. My whole background told me, “You can’t change things--the government’s always right.” The one thing that was different about me was that my great-grandfathers on both sides rode their horses up the Tule River to a place called Camp Nelson, which is surrounded by Sequoia National Forest. In the 1930s, my grandfather built a cabin there, just a single-walled summer cabin, and I spent every summer of my life there.
When I was about twelve, I talked my parents into getting me a horse. I rode that horse all over those hills and found the old trails that my parents had hiked. At that time, there were no roads in that part of the Sierra Nevada; it was just as untouched as when John Muir saw it.
One summer I stumbled onto a road way back there; it plowed right across the trail. I remember thinking it looked so alien. The next year all that was left of the forest was charred, bulldozed earth. I honestly thought there had been a natural disaster, a fire or a storm. But the Forest Service had clearcut it. I didn’t become an activist until some yahoos bought thirty-two acres at Camp Nelson and were going to make a condominium village out of it. They planned to pave over the entire meadow. I had a friend who was an attorney and she sent me a copy of the California Environmental Quality Act. I found out that since there was a master plan they had to do an Environmental Impact Report. Eventually we stopped that project.
A couple of years later, a ski resort was proposed in the Slate Mountain Roadless Area right in the heart of the Sequoia National Forest. My friends told me, “You can’t stop it, you’re wasting time, you’ll make a lot of enemies.” I thought they were probably right, but I remember seeing in this idealistic way that if I didn’t try I’d always wonder if I could have done something. And we did stop it, too.
One thing I got from my parents is a very strong sense of right and wrong, and I knew that what was happening was wrong. I had no idea that it would lead to twenty years of work, but I guess it became part of my identity.
When I moved into my house in Love Canal in 1974, I was a full-time homemaker with two small children, and my goal in life was to be the best mom I could. Michael was a year old and perfectly healthy. In the four years before I found out about Love Canal, he had developed a liver problem, a seizure disorder, epilepsy, asthma, a urinary tract disorder that took two surgeries to correct, an immune deficiency similar to AIDS where at one point he had absolutely no immune system, and a lot of chronic skin diseases. I didn’t connect it to anything other than that God had given me this sickly child and I’d do my best to make him well. I carried my second child at Love Canal and she developed a rare blood disease where her body interpreted her platelets as a virus and was destroying them. It was bizarre and they had no clue what made it come on or what would make it go away. I thought, “Why is this going on?”
It wasn’t until 1978 that I picked up the local newspaper, which talked about the toxic-waste dump and the chemicals that were buried in there and the health effects from exposure to those chemicals. I saw that benzene causes seizures and blood disorders, vinyl chloride causes liver abnormalities, and I just thought, “Oh my God, God didn’t give me a sick child, it’s the chemicals that are making them sick.”
I was incredibly shy. All I wanted to do was to get Michael out of that kindergarten. The school board wanted a doctor’s statement saying that it might not be healthy for him to be there. So I brought them these documents and I handed them to the head of the school board. He said he wasn’t going to accept them because they referred to the area as unsafe, and if it was unsafe for my kid then it was unsafe for all four hundred–some children and they were not about to close the school because of one hysterical housewife.
I had no political experience, so I did what most people do in the heat of frustration--I cried. I just sat there and cried. That’s when I decided to go door to door to see if other people wanted to close the school as well. So I started talking to people only to find out that the illnesses went well beyond the school system. People had chemicals bubbling up in their basements. They thought of it as a nuisance issue, because many of them had sump pumps, but they had to replace them every year because chemicals ate through them.
If my kids hadn’t gotten sick I don’t think I would be here today. I got involved because of a justice issue. They decided because I was a woman, because I only had a high school education, because I was a full-time homemaker, that I could be dismissed. And that my family could somehow be sacrificed for a bigger picture.
Primarily I am still about justice. Most of the people I work with are other Lois Gibbses, if you will--regular folks. Most of them are concerned about an environmental threat, and most of them are being dismissed in the exact same way I was.
When you think about what makes air breathable and water pure and our soil healthy, it comes down to trees. I’ve always loved trees and forests, I don’t know why.
When I moved to Idaho I saw how local people, with the encouragement of industry, let whole ecosystems be destroyed in the name of commerce. That’s when I became a conservation activist, because I’m a person of action. My solution to problems--sometimes when I should stand still and think--is to act.
Moonlighting as a pharmacist, I worked in various high-mountain and farm communities in Colorado, where people are dependent on surface water. The valley where I lived was downstream from coal mines, and we sold lots of anti- inflammatories and arthritic medications. When you went a little higher above the mining activity you didn’t see that kind of thing, but eighty to ninety percent of babies born there developed jaundice. I became fascinated by the health effects in these different communities. What was the common denominator? The common denominator seemed to be drinking water.
I thought it was time that someone really began to learn about water quality in the West. I’d be out irrigating my farm, I’d be standing behind the counter in the drugstore counting pills, and I just felt that I was here for some other purpose, that there was something more I should be doing with my life. So at fifty-one, I packed up and went back to college. My goal was to become an expert on western water quality. We were overusing water, misusing it, and reusing it, and we weren’t taking into account the integrity of the whole system. But the problem that I discovered--endocrine disruption--grew out of looking at an entirely different aquatic system, the Great Lakes.
I was working in the environmental field for a long time before it came to me that the way issues were being framed was really problematic. The idea of protecting nature separate from people was crazy--it didn’t make any sense. On the other hand, the idea that you could promote human well-being without also making sure that the basis of life on the planet would work didn’t make any sense either. How could you have social justice without a healthy planet?
I had a contract with a number of firms to work on a plan for the Berkeley waterfront. The Southern Pacific Railroad had planned to build a whole new downtown there. There was a lot of opposition, and at one of the first meetings there were all these people who spoke eloquently about why it was important to protect our front-door relationship with the Bay. Then an African-American man got up and said, “You know, you can’t eat open space--we need jobs.” What really shocked me was that the environmental groups started booing him. I thought, “Wait a minute, I thought we were all on the same page here.”
When we started the Urban Habitat Program, the idea was to get people from communities of color to help us resolve this conflict. And when we started the program we found ourselves in the midst of a national movement--there were literally hundreds of other groups around the country in communities of color, most of them focused on toxics. But it wasn’t just about the fight against hazardous-waste facilities, it was about everything--grocery stores and freeways and housing and parks and open space. We’ve benefited enormously from people who insist on taking a biocentric perspective, but we’re not going to solve the problem if we’re not going to deal with humans.
In 1962, when I was an assistant professor of genetics at the University of Alberta, I was asked to appear on a local television show. My intent was to talk about why science was important and why Canadians should fund science more generously. But then Rachel Carson’s book came out and changed my life. Once you read Silent Spring it was impossible to look at the world the same way. So I, like millions of people around the world, was swept up in that first green wave.
DDT was invented in the 1800s; when it was found in the early 1930s to kill insects this was hailed as such a wonderful discovery that the guy won a Nobel prize. It was only after huge amounts had been used and birdwatchers began noticing that eagles were disappearing that biologists discovered biomagnification, the concentration of material up the food chain. This was a dilemma for me as a scientist--how the hell can we manage our new discoveries when our knowledge of how the world works is so limited?
For me another big change happened in the late 1970s when I went up to the Queen Charlotte Islands, the western archipelago that extends down from the Alaska panhandle. There was a big anti-logging battle going on in the land of the Haida. I interviewed one of the Haida leaders for my show, The Nature of Things, and asked why he was opposing logging when there was ninety percent unemployment in his community and a lot of the loggers are Haida. He said, “If they cut the trees down, we’ll still be here but we won’t be Haida anymore. We’ll just be like everybody else.”
At the time I didn’t even understand what he meant. It was only later that I realized that here was a profoundly different way of looking at the world. He was saying the Haida don’t end at their skin or their fingertips. The trees, the fish, the birds, the air, the water--all of that is what makes the Haida special. The land embodies their history, their culture, the very reason why the Haida are on this earth.
After Rachel Carson it was the Haida who suddenly revealed a way of looking at the world that I’ve since found exists everywhere in the aboriginal world: We are born of the earth, we are sustained by the earth, and we go back to the earth when we die. There is no environment “out there” and we are here and we have to regulate our interaction with the environment. We are the environment.
Dashka Slater writes frequently on political and environmental topics. Her novel, The Wishing Box (Chronicle Books), was named one of the best books of 2000 by the Los Angeles Times. Up to Top