He was just 18 when he died accidentally on December 23, 2005, while skin diving for ulua off the southeast tip of O’ahu, a long way out from Sandy Beach, the famed Hawaiian surfing spot. His name was Gen Daniel Enga Fujikawa, but after his death, with the blessing of Gen’s Japanese-American/Hawaiian parents — Linda, who is Buddhist, and Robin, a Christian — the family’s Buddhist minister honored Gen with the name Kikai Genshin. As Linda Fujikawa writes in Gen’s Book: A Guide to A Good Life, the memoir she is assembling to honor her son’s spirit, “Ki means to return. Kai is the ocean. Gen is the source. Shin is sincerity and truth.”
Gen Fujikawa was a hugely popular skin diver, fisher, surfer and good Samaritan on O’ahu, and his mother — a dear friend from college (The School for International Training in Vermont), whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years until last week when I visited O’ahu to pay respects to the family — says at least a thousand people showed up for Gen’s memorial in January; condolences came from as far away as Uzbekhistan and Bulgaria. Gen was known as a humble spirit, but his dedication to fishing and his compassion for others stretched far beyond his hometown.
Gen’s academy was the ocean. It’s where he learned all he needed to know, and it enabled him to feed others.
For many people — fishers, divers, surfers, schoolmates, neighbors and especially a large extended family — Gen embodied pure love, generosity, hard work, and good cheer, even if he did keep a room overflowing with fishing gear and photos. He was and still is a hero to the homeless population along the southwest coast, where Gen frequently distributed fish he caught to people dispossessed by the island’s fast changing economy. Gen believed passionately in sharing and unconditional love; Gen’s parents, his younger brother, Sho, and friends continue to honor that spirit, preparing and delivering food to the homeless and advocating for their well-being.
Most of Gen’s ashes reside in a beautiful koa wood urn masterfully shaped by Grandpa Kahalahoe, who shared Gen’s love of the sea. Family and friends distributed some of Gen’s ashes on the island of Molokai, Gen’s personal paradise; some ashes went to Japan, to Obachan’s house, to Toyama Bay, to Asano River, and to Miyagi, places where Gen grew his love for fishing; Gen’s diving and fishing friends scattered a portion of Gen’s ashes at Kaena Point, which had long been Gen and Sho’s favorite diving and fishing spot, located at the western-most tip of O’ahu. There, friendly spirits protected Gen. Alas, Gen died away from his home territory, in waters where the spirits turned hungry.
Linda wanted me to know her son’s story, starting at the Fujikawas’ humble, warm house in Kapolei, the island’s newly developing “second city,” which is taking over land formerly given over to sugar cane and pineapples. Linda, Robin, Sho, Kupipi (the dog) and Gen’s everlasting spirit (embodied by the altar holding the urn and many offerings) continue to thrive in this “out of the way” location, away from Honolulu, Waikiki Beach and the more stately neighborhoods of the eastern seaboard. Robin and Linda both teach on the east coast, at lovely Kapi’olani Community College overlooking the sea near Diamond Head. Robin, a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, has lived with the effects of polio since age four, yet his gentle manner and sharply inquisitive mind have distinguished him far and wide, on O’ahu and beyond. Linda is an Assistant Professor of Japanese, serving on the faculty of the Honda International Center. Both are highly regarded by their colleagues, embraced by their neighbors, and loved and admired by their huge family. They chose to be teachers, not fishers.
Gen’s academy was the ocean. It’s where he learned all he needed to know, and it enabled him to feed others. Linda drove me around the island to the spots where she and Robin had introduced Gen and Sho to the ocean, from the public-access coves at Ko Olina Beach (site of a Marriott resort development) to Wai’anae, Makaha and Makua along the southwest shore, to Waimea Bay and a beach house on the north shore, where the sand sweeps in a huge arc and green sea turtles are making a comeback, sunning themselves mid-day; to a scenic journey down the lush east coast, with a stop at Kahana Bay, a beautiful tropical park from which Sho derives his middle name; and finally to Sandy Beach itself, the site of Gen’s rescue efforts. As I looked on, Linda delivered freshly made granola to the lifeguards there, to thank them for their efforts at retrieving her son from the ocean.
The ocean claimed Gen’s life gently, quickly and painlessly through Shallow Water Blackout, an all-too-common loss of consciousness among surfacing divers. Gen had been a strong, self-confident diver, well-trained by skilled teachers; he had earned the respect of kupunas (wise elders) around the island. He faced the perils with eyes wide open. He was prepared to die, but lived life so immensely no one imagined the ocean would claim him so soon. Now everyone knows he gave his life doing what he most loved. His is the perfect example of a life well lived.
Many Rimbauds have haunted San Francisco. Once this city was resplendent with Rimbauds reciting fiery, fragmented poems in dingy cafés, drinking and carousing, ingesting all kinds of dope, defecating and puking in alleys on their stumbling way home. The general populace appreciated them for channeling our Bohemian spirit with anarchist fervor and literary zeal. They were our anti-heroes.
Now, in a city that even Beat-era poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti concedes has succumbed to the sludge of corporate monoculture, Rimbauds are scarcely seen or heard outside of the Haight and a few other select neighborhoods that still make room for wretched visionaries and vagabond geniuses. Who here now even knows who the original Rimbaud was?!
To loosely paraphrase and embellish upon the latest, most exciting tome in the always churning Rimbaud-studies industry – Graham Robb’s splendid Rimbaud (W. W. Norton & Co., 2000) – he was a teen literary terrorist of late 19th century France who famously sucked up to and came to dominate a married Parisian poet 12 years his senior, Paul Verlaine, who was smitten with the provincial lad’s radical verse, tender body, crude habits, irreverent attitudes, and vast, poetic insights into the nature of humanity, himself, and the written word.
Arthur Rimbaud shredded poor Verlaine emotionally, financially, and poetically (not that Verlaine didn’t try giving as good as he got), turned poetry on its head, gained ill repute as a sodomite, boozer and home destroyer, crossed paths often with the cops, and alienated every other poet and friend. He abruptly said “fuck you” to poetry at age 19 and went slogging around the continent and the East Indies, struggling to find work, constantly destitute, suffering countless indignities and hardships. He eventually made his way to mostly uncharted eastern Africa (Abyssinia/Ethiopia), there to take up trading – of coffee and arms mainly, and possibly of slaves, though Robb takes pains to note that while this latter “commodity” was being heavily traded in the region at the time, and Rimbaud certainly would have had contact with it, no evidence shows Rimbaud’s direct involvement.
With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.
In his new career Rimbaud persevered and eventually excelled under the harshest imaginable conditions, becoming one of France’s most infamous explorers and adventurers, a man of extraordinary cunning and ambition, portrayed by Robb as hard-bitten but fair, often reclusive but engaging and even charming in social circumstances, respectful of and perceptive about his African friends, neighbors, clients, rivals and potential enemies, all of whom in turn respected Rimbaud. Though he complained bitterly of his circumstances in plain-prose letters to his mother and sister, he felt at home under African skies, no matter that his hair had grayed and his skin turned leathery. He emerged a master of the incredibly brutal trading game, constructed of the same outlaw mold (judging from Robb’s description) as contemporary American commodities trader Marc Rich, he of the infamous pardon.
Rimbaud, too, was on the lamb – from his pederastic past, from scandal, from anything even resembling poetry, from the draft board he kept eluding, from the clammy climate back home, from his implacable mother, from the sheer miserableness of his life. He had been a superior perceiver; alas, others (save Verlaine) did not share his perceptions, nor even understand them. With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.
It’s a seamless life Robb vividly portrays, an enormous accomplishment. The great challenge for biographers has been to make sense of Rimbaud despite the distressingly slim documentation of his adult years and the marked difference in personas manifested by Rimbaud in his teens versus his 20s and 30s (he died agonizingly of a cancerous leg at age 37).
Invariably, every biographer comes to the question: Why did Rimbaud give up on poetry? And the answer to that question must serve as the transition from one Rimbaud life to another. Robb’s reply (in part): “Rimbaud’s interest in his own work . . . did not survive the failure of all his adult relationships . . . . Without a constant companion, he was writing in a void. . . . He might have felt in any case that his poetry had crossed the limits of communicability and turned into a simple waste of energy.”
Robb’s intimacy with Rimbaud’s poetry and the field of poetics shines in this work, and those who most savor textual analysis will feel amply rewarded by the book. But Robb’s skills transcend literary interpretation, gripping readers with his delight at historical sleuthing, eagerly filling in gaps with new information and insights and telling us where other biographers have gone astray (he’s particularly harsh on Enid Starkie, one of the first and most famous of Rimbaud’s biographers, who cleaned up Rimbaud’s image to suit Victorian tastes). Robb is both a master researcher and storyteller, having honed his skills on previous, highly acclaimed biographies of Victor Hugo and Balzac. He displays a poetic sensitivity not only to the vulnerable teen versifier but to the rugged adventurer, telling a well-documented tale sure to hold armchair adventurers in thrall with details of camel caravans, Koranic debates, bloody wars, secretive deals, intolerable climates, international intrigue, and daring escapades.
A sense of sheer delight at the subject matter pervades Robb’s Rimbaud. You sense his enthusiasm, and share it. He strips away veils of myth about Rimbaud, who since his death in 1891 has been romanticized to death. Careful not to take too much poetic license (unlike Jeremy Reed’s fabulously impressionistic Delirium, which goes overboard for a wonderful romp), Robb nonetheless breathes life into Rimbaud and all the remarkable characters in his Dickensian life.
From a queer perspective, one shortcoming of this work, as of all speculations on Rimbaud’s life in Africa, is it’s inability to track Rimbaud’s sexuality as a post-poet adventurer. Robb speculates a bit on the relationship of Rimbaud to an Abyssinian woman, Miriam, with whom the trader apparently had a liaison from 1884-86. But any hints of lingering homosexuality on Rimbaud’s part – apart from slim evidence of something between him and his long-time servant, Djami – have vanished. Says Robb: “In fact, there is no sign that Rimbaud had any lasting emotional attachment at all after 1886.”
While that may be true, the conclusion is unsatisfying. It is difficult to accept that the man who as a teenager flaunted his buggery and wrote paeans to the anus now had ceased to be sexual, or at least to take sensual delight in the Abyssinian and Muslim men who constantly surrounded him. Yet Robb, being a responsible scholar, dares not take readers into the realm of speculation, and we must be content for now, until some invaluable, long-lost correspondence turns up to help further demystify Rimbaud, to let Rimbaud remain sexless.
This review originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, March 15, 2001
Soon after I started reading the novel The Age of Shiva by Bombay-born, Maryland resident Manil Suri — in which the fabric of India unfolds from the perspective of a young woman coming of age just after India’s liberation from British rule — I had to double check the author’s name to confirm that a man, not a woman, was the writer. So few men have the knack for conveying the mind, body, heart and soul of women convincingly, and this novel, written chiefly in the first person, convinced me from the outset that I was experiencing India from a Hindu woman’s point of view. Suri’s portrayal of this woman’s interior life pulses with verisimilitude, and his descriptions of the political and religious currents swirling around her afford a gripping, deeply penetrating portrayal of India’s complex clash of cultures. The novel, Suri’s second, following The Death of Vishnu, possesses the same potent combination of exquisite intimacy, vivid portraiture, rich cultural insights and powerful setting and storyline that enraptured me when I read Anita Diamant’s brilliant The Red Tent, which took me deep into the heart of woman territory in the days of Genesis.
Suri’s novel builds its momentum amid events of Biblical proportion as ancient animosities between Muslims and Hindus give rise to turbulent politics, yet Suri keeps his sharpest focus on the tightly regimented world of Meera, growing up in a family that has known too much of wars, mass migrations, and shattered dreams. The cloistering environment, suffocating traditions, and male-dominated society Meera must navigate as she seeks her own independence illustrate the challenges for Hindu women that persist even today. Meera’s family, after fleeing the new Pakistan for old India, must cope with rising Hindu Nationalism, virulent anti-Muslim sentiment, strict religious traditions, and sharply limited options for women. They’ve settled into some form of upper-middle-class normalcy, yet through Meera’s childhood and as she reaches womanhood, the currents of history and tradition sweep all around her, constantly threatening to ruin her life.
“Everyone knows the bride isn’t supposed to return to her father’s house for three months,” Meera’s new mother-in-law tells her after she marries a young man from a poor family and soon regrets being away from the comforts her father had provided her. Her life with her ineffectual, sad excuse for a husband, and her will to overcome the domineering of her father, all drive her to pursue her perilous course in a turbulent world constantly buffeted by Lord Shiva. But she is Parvati, Shiva’s wife, able to overcome the brute stupidity and dull egotism of males while basking in the sweet sensuousness and keen survival instincts of the females in her life.
In this global age of shifting fortunes and cultures, India looms huge on the American horizon, yet we barely know our new cousins. For many here, India is a caricature of smiling Ganeshas, intense yogis, high-tech call centers, Bollywood and Gandhi. The Age of Shiva gets under the gloss, exposing the heart of India, connecting us emotionally and spiritually with our Indian kin.
From Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (Artisan/The Greenwich Workshop; 1995). Artwork by Stephen Lyman. Text by Mark Mardon.
The wilderness holds answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask. — Nancy Newhall
On an especially clear morning in Yosemite Valley, on the north bank of the Merced River, Steve Lyman awakes from a night of slumber and for a long while remains stretched out in his sleeping bag, meditating on the scenery surrounding him. A sublime daybreak, he thinks, especially with craggy old Half Dome already exuberantly awake and busy catching and pitching back the first rays of a new spring sun. It is an image the artist has absorbed again and again on visits to Yosemite—this is his 35th trip to the national park in the last 17 years—but one that, as usual, fills him with an eagerness and anticipation verging on giddiness.
Why the feeling of such elation is hard to say precisely. Perhaps it’s that the monolith’s wise, wrinkled face, beaming down at him, beckons him to begin yet another backcountry adventure, promising myriad discoveries along the way. Or maybe it’s that after too long a period of winter dormancy in his northern Idaho home, he will once more be shedding the trappings of the artist’s workaday life to run and climb free in the wilds, reveling in the majestic Sierra Nevada landscape, testing his mountain-climbing reflexes, regaining his bearings, stretching his senses to the limit.
His body is groggy at the moment, not from sleep but from a winter spent tending to work, family, and community. But soon he will rebound as he treks cross-country toward hard-to-reach places recommended to him by Yosemite National Park historian and good friend Jim Snyder, who has explored pretty much all of the park and knows which hiking challenges will earn Steve the greatest scenic rewards.
Within hours after embarking on the trail, he’ll once again become fully alert, attuned to the subtlest natural phenomena: a tiger swallowtail butterfly emerging from its chrysalis after a long winter spent dangling from a twig, newly resplendent in its lemon-yellow and black-striped gossamer apparel; blossoms of dwarf huckleberry livening a stream side, that will soon be yielding sweet berries for hungry black bears; the long, noisy kaaaaa of a Clark’s nutcracker, flitting from tree to tree in search of a mate, its black-and-gray plumage stark against the snowy ground at timberline.
Perhaps the simplest way the artist can explain his high spirits is to recognize his intense attraction to mountains and all the living things that abound in them, like that of John Muir, his spiritual mentor. Through his explorations and paintings of the wild country of the American West, he exults in the variety and depth of feelings evoked by the Range of Light and its rocky kin in Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and other rugged states.
Steve never ceases to marvel at the way a Yosemite landscape can emerge and vanish and re-emerge again as clouds and fog roll in and out of the valley. “It’s rather like a dream sometimes,” he says. “You turn your back, and the mountain’s gone.”
With his artist’s eye, Steve sees the mountains and valleys as Muir did, vivid in shadow and light.
“Pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white,” Muir wrote of a sunrise in his first summer in the Sierra: “Sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn.”
But even the urge to partake of such visual nourishment cannot in itself adequately explain why Steve so eagerly takes to the heights. It’s that old question: Why climb a mountain? The answer is not something that can be adequately expressed in words. The only way to understand what motivates a mountaineer is to seek out and engage the wilderness, for only in climbing the mountain does the answer becomes clear.
Many people have many ideas about what wilderness signifies. To those with a grasp of ancient history, it is the threatened remnants of the disappearing, primeval landscapes that once dominated this earth–Eden before Adam and Eve. For others of a scientific bent, it is a vast research library, field museum, and living laboratory all rolled into one. Legalistic minds tend to conceive of it as roadless areas undisturbed by motor vehicles, harboring particularly fine scenic or biological values worthy of public protection–areas where, as The Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Mining, timber, and grazing interests eye public lands as a free meal ticket, a commercial bounty ripe for the picking. Certain politicians beholden to those interests see wilderness protection as an outmoded idea, a prime target for budget cuts. Romantics in the tradition of Muir look upon mountains, forests, deserts, prairies, and wild seashores as conscious, breathing entities, sensitive to the way humans and other creatures touch them. This surely gets close to the heart of the matter, the artist nods to himself, else why would so many people run to the wilderness with such a yearning, as though it were their lover?
For Edward Abbey, wilderness represented nothing less than liberation. “It is my fear,” he once wrote in his journal, “that if we allow the freedom of the hills and of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may be taken with it.” Thoreau, who Abbey revered, put it even more concisely: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
For some unlucky souls, wilderness is no comforting companion. Nature appreciation is a fine art that requires tutoring. Those who have never experienced the solace and grandeur of such untamed wonderlands as Yosemite, Alaska’s Denali National Park, Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, or any of a thousand other untrammeled places may all too casually shrug off the importance of wild country, or even come to fear it. They may consider undeveloped landscapes to be environments separate from and uninviting to human society, places alien, remote, harsh, and inhabited by fearsome creatures.
Such thinking is as old as civilization itself. The very idea of securing hearth and home from the forces of barbarism came about from people’s struggle with a wilderness vastly more powerful than themselves, that seemed always on the verge of overwhelming them. Prior to the marriage of science and technology in the mid-19th century, which gave rise to the industrial age, humans may have shaped the land–as did the Romans, Egyptians, Hollanders, and even Native Americans, in different ways and to varying degrees–but they never never became divorced from it in pursuit of their livelihoods. As individuals went to work in factories and started consuming packaged products, however, many became estranged from it., to the point that they grew increasingly indifferent to it or even contemptuous of it.
Great writers of that time, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, warned us against our new found sense of superiority over the wilderness, but not against our impending alienation from it. Ultimately, man was an animal and the wilderness a great, untamable beast. Try as we might, it was something we would not overcome.
Technological optimism has changed that idea dramatically. As farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry observes in The Gift of Good Land, until the industrial revolution, the dominant images in people’s minds were organic: “they had to do with living things; they were biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial.” Now, he laments, people are referred to as “units,” the body as a machine, food as fuel, thoughts as “inputs,” and responses as “feedback.” In such a lexicon, where does the wilderness survive? Ours is a society that thinks it doesn’t need wilderness anymore, that believes people can invent their own life-support systems and artificial environments rather than having to put up with the inconveniences of nature’s cycles.
Yet we are also living in a time when people feel increasingly that something spiritual is missing from their lives, that the natural rhythms and cycles that formerly sustained humanity are breaking down. Correspondingly, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of messengers and their manifestations: Angels, The Light, and even extraterrestrials. Their message, however, is, at the core, always the same: something has been lost, and without it people’s lives can never be full.
To Steve Lyman, once again enjoying the freedom of the hills, what civilization truly needs in order to shore up its crumbling foundation is a universal acknowledgement that wilderness, in the final analysis, may be the ultimate salve for psyches wounded by humanity’s alienation from the nature that gave it birth. Muir himself expressed the notion that wilderness, like poetry, music, art, and religion, nurtures that part of us for which science cannot account. In the mountains, he observed, there are times when a person’s soul sets forth upon rambles on its own accord, without consulting first with mind or body. On such occasions, “brooding over some vast mountain landscape, or among the spiritual countenances of mountain flowers, our bodies disappear, our mortal coils come off without any shuffling, and we blend into the rest of Nature, utterly blind to the boundaries that measure human quantities into separate individuals.
“ To spend time in the wilderness, observed Marion Randall in The Sierra Club Bulletin of 1905, is to touch something vital at the core of the universe:
For a little while you have dwelt close to the heart of things. . . . You have lived day-long amid the majesty of snowy ranges, and in the whispering silences of the forest you have thought to hear the voice of Him who “flies upon the wings of the wind.” And these things live with you long after the outing has passed and you are back in the working world, linger even until the growing year once more brings around the vacation days and you are ready to turn to the hills again, whence comes, not only your help, but your strength, your inspiration, and some of the brightest hours you have ever lived.
The snowmelt on the rim of Yosemite Valley, Steve observes as he packs his gear and prepares to set out on his trek, has hardly swollen the Merced. The river’s low water line and placid current are what he would expect during summer rather than early spring. But in the wilderness, expectations are often confounded. That’s part of the backpacking allure: the surprise, the serendipitous discoveries. Indeed, Steve has come to understand that the best journeys are often those arrived at spontaneously, without the burden of detailed planning. Rather than plotting every leg of a hike from start to finish and then attempting to follow the route step by step, he prefers to arrive at the edge of the wild country with no clear itinerary, to camp there for a night and let the mountains’ spirit embrace him during his sleep. That way, in the morning, he can embark on a more spontaneous, free-spirited, and fulfilling adventure. The wilderness itself will point the way. He likes to let the mountains be his guide.
The Fall of A Mountaineer Artist
Monday, April 22, 1996
Wilderness painter. photographer, and philosopher Stephen Lyman, with whom I had the honor of collaborating on the book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, died in Yosemite in April, 1996, having met with a freak storm and an unlucky fall from a perch in the Cathedral Rocks area of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite has known many exceptional painters — Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith among them — and great mountaineers, from John Muir to David Brower. Steve Lyman ranks among these stellar personages for his love and devotion to the Range of Light, and for his ability to express that love through his art.
Above is the opening chapter of our book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey. The chapter’s title, “The Unspoken Reason,” reflects Steve’s reluctance to say precisely why he journeyed into the backcountry. Such sentiments, he felt, could never be adequately expressed in words. “The Unspoken Reason” also, I feel, speaks to the question of why Steve, at too young an age, met his end in the valley that held such a claim on his heart.
My gratitude to former Sierra Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jonathan F. King for connecting me with The Greenwich Workshop and Steve Lyman.
Oil company seeks to exploit reserves under Waorani Indian homeland.
Northeastern Ecuador’s Napo River region has for centuries been home to the Waorani (Huaorani) Indians, a fiercely independent people who live in cane dwellings and wear only waist cords and a few ear, hair and neck ornaments.
But more and more, this land lush with tree ferns and orchids, sloths and anteaters, parrots, manatees, and Amazon dolphins has become a drilling field where multinational oil companies sink their bits and pump their fortunes. Since 1967, oil workers and contractors have swarmed to the area, bringing bulldozers, toxic chemicals, viruses, guns and alcohol. They frequently secure the sexual services of Waorani women by bribing their brothers with sugar, boots, axes, and chainsaws—good and equipment often pirated from company supplies. Sometimes the pilfering workers even contrive to blame the thefts on the Waorani.
One group of about 125 Waorani living in and around Yasuní National Park—one of the Amazon Basin’s largest rainforest preserves—has mostly avoided contat with oil workers. But its isolation from Western culture may soon be shattered. As early as March or April, Conoco Ecuador Limited, an affiliate of the Texas-based oil giant, expects to begin carving a road for pipeline construction more than 100 miles into the park, penetrating to the heart of the Waorani nation.
Not only will Conoco’s road carry oil crews and equipment into Yasuní Waorani territory, says the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, but it will draw colonists to the forest from all across Ecuador—speculators seeking to clearcut land for farms and cattle ranches. And that, the Defense Fund’s lawyers say, will prove so disastrous to the Waorani way of life that Conoco and the Ecuadoran government, which approved the project, could be held liable for ethnocide, a criminal offense under international law.
“The Waorani Indians face cultural annihilation if there are any major incursions into their territory,” says Karen Parker, a human-rights attorney retained by the Defense Fund. “They aren’t very adaptable to new influences. The Waorani are migrant people, hunters. Their territory has already been reduced to an area too small for their traditional lifestyle.”
Conoco officials strongly object to the allegation of ethnocide. “In fact,” says Conoco attorney H.J. van Wageningen, “we’re trying to avoid any harm coming to the Waorani.”
As evidence of their concern, Conoco officials point to an environmental assessment they commissioned from anthropologist James A. Yost, who lived among the Indians from 1973 to 1982. The company says it has developed policies based on Yost’s observations that will prevent disruption of the Waorani culture.
Among Conoco’s plans is a medical clinic for oil-company employees that would also be available to the Waorani. Whether that measure would suffice to guard against the spread of such diseases as influenza, which is alien to the Waorani people, is an open question. In areas of the Ecuadoran rainforest where flue viruses have been carried in by oil-company workers or tourists, may Waorani have died of secondary pneumonia.
Conoco Ecuador recognizes that the most severe threat to Waorani society would come from colonization along the new pipeline road. The company points out, however, that such settlements in Yasuni National Park is forbidden by Ecuadoran law. Colonists can be turned back, the company maintains, by means of around-the-clock police surveillance at key checkpoints along the road; those who ship through can be detected by satellite monitoring of the entire park.
Anthropologist Yost isn’t reassured. “Colonists in all parts of the developing world have proved time and again to be tenacious and relentless,” he says.
Yost believes the potential for disaster in Conoco’s roadbuilding scheme is enormous. “Imagine the world of the Wao,” he wrote in his environmental assessment, “a person born tinto a culture that has a technology limited to stone, wood and fiber; a person who has never seen a horse, much less imagined an automobile. . . . Imagine how easily this erson’s sense of well-being is going to be challenged when the age-old sollutinso fo survival o longer work and he or she has no sense of control over the future.”
Acknowledging that oil development seems inevitable in the face of world demand for energy resources, Yost nonetheless advised Conoco Ecuador that his personal preference would be that no road be built into Yasuni National Park. “No matter how sensitive Conoco or any others going into the area might be,” he observed, “the Waorani will undergo some wrenching changes.”
This article appeared in Sierra, “Hot Spots,” March/April 1990.
World Enough and Time: Successful Strategies for Resource Management, by Robert Repetto, Yale University Press, 1986.
The Global Possible: Resources, Development, and the New Century, edited by Robert Repetto, Yale University Press, 1986.
Ever since the publication of The Global 2000 Report to the President in 1980, which Jimmy Carter commissioned to be the most detailed study of natural resources ever compiled, those who burn the midnight oil in resource-policy institutes have struggled earnestly to sway the thinking of the powers that be. Typically, the analysts are divided into two groups: the technological optimists (I call them TOs) and the environmental realists (ERs). The former promote progress at any cost, advocating exploitation of all the world’s resources; the latter call for restraint and conservation, seeking to preserve something of nature’s wealth for generations to come.
Global 2000 seemed to be a boon to the ERs because it tended to legitimize their views. “If present trends continue,” it said, “the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically. . . .” But their satisfaction soon turned to dismay in the face of biting attacks from the TOs, who decried the report as bleak pessimism, flawed in its conception, and a waste of taxpayers’ money. The TOs said that accepting Global 2000’s conclusions would place a serious economic drag on society. The attack was effective: The powerful were vindicated and the TO worldview became a cornerstone of government policy.
In light of this rebuff, two new publications from the World Resources Institute may have a profound effect on the ER viewpoint. World Enough and Time and The Global Possible breathe sheer light and optimism. They envision a grand future and point to bold ways in which humans can shape their world for posterity. Indeed, they so alter the usual thinking of the ERs that we may well have to change the acronym to Eos, for environmental optimists.
Not that these books are free of the inevitably dry prose and endless repetitions that characterize institutional studies. They are, bot be frank, full of such things. Robert Repetto, who wrote the first book and edited the second, has done his best to give them some momentum, despite the inherent weightiness of the subject matter. It is clear, though, that not even the denseness of the material could obscure the central idea of both books: that sustainable development is possible, and that we can manage resources so our children will have their rightful inheritance. Not only do the books tell us we can do it, they tell us how.
This is truly can-do environmentalism. Repetto spells out the possibilities: “Agricultural production can expand to meet all future demands . . . without exerting destructive pressures on marginal lands, water resources or ecological systems”; Economic growth can be sustained with markedly lower energy inputs . . . that do not imperil the climate or the natural environment.”
And so on: Forest resources can be stabilized. Nonfuel minerals can be supplied. Pollution can be markedly reduced. Cities can be made healthier.
All these things and more can be done, given the will of the powerful to do them. And it is clearly the powerful that these books are trying to persuade. The proposals presented here are aimed at motivating decision-makers in private organizations, businesses, the scientific community, international organizations, developing nations and – most important – the governments of industrial nations. These are the ones who can say “yes, we can.”
But there are certain imperatives: transition to a stable population with low birth and death rates; transition to high efficiency in production based on increased reliance on renewable resources; reliance on nature’s surplus without depletion of its resource base; economic transition to sustainable development and broader sharing of its benefits; and striking a global political bargain that recognizes the common interests of all nations.
Not all these possibilities, Repetto says, are expensive to achieve. In some cases they represent a low-cost approach. One example is the 3M Company of St. Paul, Minn., which saved 60 percent ($200 million) in annual operating and maintenance costs by reformulating products and redesigning processes to eliminate more than 90,000 tons of air pollutants, 10,000 tons of water pollutants, a million gallons of wastewater, and 150,000 tons of solid wastes each year.
Very little of what is presented here is new. These programs have been advocated elsewhere for many years. It has been suggested before that materials, credit, and technical support be given to help farmers restore degraded watersheds. Establishing comprehensive protected areas of rainforests to conserve genetic resources is not a new idea. It has been said that the educational and employment opportunities for women should be increased, both to improve their welfare generally and to contribute to a decline in worldwide fertility rates. And yet there is something in the enthusiasm and optimism – the vigor – of these books and their prescriptions for progress that is quite exciting. Hundreds of ideas are explored.
What Repetto and the contributors to The Global Possible have done is to take all the old, stale prescriptions and breath life into them. They have put them into a context that is believable, supportable, and feasible.
With The Global Possible and World Enough and Time, yet another institution has emerged to try to influence the thinking of the powerful. With the brashness of can-doers, this time the ERs might succeed.
Mark Mardon, a director of the United Nations Association of San Francisco, is Sierra’s editorial secretary.
This article appeared in Sierra, September/October 1986.
The Last Extinction, edited by Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory, The MIT Press, 1986.
It wasn’t so long ago that for John Muir and the likes of him, it sufficed to protect wilderness because it was “Godful,” a beautiful “celestial city.” But modern conservationists, Rutgers biologist David Ehrenfeld laments in his contribution to The Last Extinction, seek to preserve wilderness primarily to protect “a potential source of new drugs to cure cancer, of hydrocarbons and fuel oils from plants, of natural rubber, of genes for insect resistance of crop plants,” and so on, intoning the whole litany of “useful” purposes wilderness serves for humankind. This is dangerously close to adopting the ideological rationale of the enemy, Ehrenfeld says, echoing the sentiments of the deep ecology movement. One supposes that for him the enemy consists of developers and industrialists, exploiters of the natural environment.
As an alternative to this utilitarian approach to conservation, Ehrenfeld urges us toward stewardship of the planet, an ancient concept that most can be comfortable with. But in so doing he seems inadvertently to admonish and contradict some of the other contributors to The Last Extinction. Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory have brought together seven authors with conflicting styles and viewpoints in this wide-ranging, uneven, sometimes clumsy discussion of the extinction crisis. The result is a hodgepodge of opinions in a book that never quite hangs together.
Kaufman, a curator at the New England Aquarium, reminds us that plant and animal species worldwide are vanishing at a rate approaching and possibly exceeding that of the Late Cretaceous, when all dinosaur lineages abruptly ceased. This mass extinction, he says, demands immediate attention as one of the most serious problems facing the world today.
Most environmentalists could not agree more. Just to make sure we get the point, though, the editors include an entire chapter devoted to paleontological evidence of mass extinctions. David Jablonski concludes that the current extinction of species is not only occurring earlier (by half) than it ought to be in the usual 26-million-year cycle, it is also being caused primarily by humans. Good information – but for conservationists, merely an update on old news.
The next chapter, focusing at length on the endangered Amazon, reflects the book’s spotty coverage of its topic, neglecting vast bioregions of the world in favor of an almost exclusively Western Hemisphere approach. “Just as the Garden of Eden was given to Adam and Eve to use,” Ghillean T. Prance writes about the disappearing rainforests, “the Amazon comprises a wealth of useful species that we cannot ignore.
This is exactly the sort of materialism that Ehrenfeld warns against. Even so, the motive to secure a potentially infinite supply of medicine, food, and fuel plants becomes compellingly clear in light of the vast number of animal and plant species that stand to be lost in the spreading destruction. The question, then, is how to allow for essential development while maintaining the integrity of fragile rainforest ecosystems. The answer, Prance says, “is not to create a vast biological reserve as a playground for naturalists and rich tourists,” but to practice a balance of conservation and utilization. This means exploring the rainforests to learn “as much as we can from what is left of their indigenous culture.” It means that botanists and zoologists must conduct an urgent inventory to discover the “useful” native plants and animals: capybara, turtle, deer, tapir, agouti, and others. It means developing sustainable agricultural systems, relying more heavily on trees and perennial crops than on exposing areas of fragile soil to the leaching, compacting power of tropical rains. The emphasis of all programs must be on maintaining diversity. Otherwise, mass extinction will spread at an irreversible rate.
A well-written but philosophically disturbing part of The Last Extinction comes toward the end of the book: a discussion about the role of zoos and aquariums as repositories for genetic material during the coming centuries of habitat upheaval.
In a chapter entitled “Riders of the Last Ark,” Thomas J. Foose of the Minnesota Zoological Gardens observes that the “demographic winter” now settling in will last anywhere from 200 to 1,000 years. This will be a period characterized by enormous, uncontrolled human population growth, resulting in the devastation of wildlands, the disappearance of wildlife, and the disruption of ecosystems. We will be unable to prevent the destruction of many habitats; so zoos and aquariums, Foose argues, must serve as animal and plant refugee camps. These institutions must equip themselves to preserve examples of animals and plants against the day when their lost habitats can be restored. But since it is neither physically nor economically feasible to keep captive and alive all the species whose habitats are being destroyed, Foose maintains, it will be necessary to preserve them in another way: as germ plasm in a “frozen zoo.” The raw genetic material of as many animals and plants as possible must be preserved.
This is an extremist concept that demonstrates the severity of the extinction crisis, and Foose argues it well. Genetic diversity is vital to the survival of species. Large habitats allow for large gene pools, but “gene pools are being converted into gene puddles.” Already, remaining wildlands have become virtual “megazoos,” islands of unspoiled habitat in an expanding sea of human settlement. These megazoos are important because of the genetic diversity they harbor. This is why the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has developed a “species survival plan,” which has species coordinators deciding which plants and animals may board the ark of survival. When there is not enough space, hard decisions will have to be made about whether to preserve a species ore let it go—a decision Foose and others call euthanasia.
“Many zoo professionals believe euthanasia will be essential if the conservation responsibilities of captive facilities are to be fulfilled,” Foose says. But equally appropriate and less euphemistic would be the war-related term “triage,” the allocation of treatment to disaster victims according to a priority system designed to maximize the number of survivors. This is what Foose and his colleagues are advocating.
Ultimately one has to wonder to what extent this view is wound up with the author’s intimate involvement with and faith in zoos. After all, they are by no means universally accepted by conservationists. To some, the mere presence of zoos encourages the perception that we can safely allow the disappearance of natural habitats while maintaining zoos as our arks. The reassurance this notion offers is deceptive, in that it allows us to be complacent in the face of continuing environmental destruction.
Conservationists will have to face this issue squarely. Have we appointed our zoos and aquariums to act as arks? Can we believe that after a thousand years the “frozen zoos” will be able to release re-constituted species into rejuvenated wildlands? The answers to these questions are based on countless assumptions that must be sorted out. The public must take responsibility for decisions that will shape the environment of the next millennium.
This article appeared in Sierra, March/April 1987.
Redwood National Park dedicates a grove to forest defenders Edgar and Peggy Wayburn.
“The last time we went up to Redwood National Park was in 1989,” says Edgar Wayburn as he guides his car onto the tarmac of a small airfield north of San Francisco. “During the battle, though, we used to go up a lot.”
In less than two hours, the Sierra Club’s vice-president and his wife, Peggy, are due at the park to take part in an event celebrating the Club’s centennial. Fortunately, despite some coastal fog, the weather looks perfect for flying. Waiting for us beside a four-seater Cessna is Woodward “Woody” Payne, a volunteer pilot with Project Lighthawk, the environmentalist air force known as “the wings of conservation.” We climb aboard, Woody passes out headsets, and the plane is soon en route to Arcata, California, not far from the park.
The “battle” Ed refers to was the fight during the 1960s and ’70s between conservationists and timber interests over the establishment and later expansion of Redwood National Park. Ed became a leader in the fight, and the Wayburns threw themselves into the cause, scouting the most suitable areas to be accorded federal protection. Their ardor sometimes led them to tread surreptitiously across private timberland that they had been expressly forbidden to enter.
“We’d hear a lumber truck coming and would dive into the woods or hide among the logs,” Ed recalls. Many of the loggers carried guns, the Wayburns knew, and didn’t much like conservationists.
“This is where the Redwood Highway was put in the 1920s,” Ed says through the static of the headphones as we pass over the valley of the South Fork Eel River. About 60 miles from Arcata we get a good view of the North Yolla Bolly Mountains and the southern flank of the Trinity Alps, with Mt. Shasta prominent on the northeastern horizon. As we skirt China Peak, Peggy points to a huge clearcut scar on a hillside. “It’s been scalped,” she says sadly.
A momentary retreat of the coastal fog lets us slip into the Arcata airport, where we meet park ranger Aida Parkinson, who shuttles us north in her van on U.S. 101 along the shore. Logging trucks bearing freshly cut redwood sections pass us, heading south to lumber mills. Each carries several small- to medium-size logs, but Ed says the trucks will often carry only one huge log each. “Not much anymore,” Peggy corrects. “There aren’t that many big trees left.”
We pass three lagoons and a freshwater marsh before the highway turns inland, bringing us to the village of Orick beside the Redwood Creek estuary. The hills beyond are part of the national park, and we head toward them. Today’s ceremony will take place among redwood groves along Skunk Cabbage Creek and at Davison Ranch, properties recently purchased by the Save the Redwoods League and the California Department of Transportation and turned over to the national park. The cows were removed from the ranch, and elk have moved in.
First to greet the Wayburns upon our arrival at the ranch is Jean Hagood, a resident of Orick who has long kept her house open to Sierra Club activists. We join a group of about 30 others, including Wayburns’ daughter Laurie, and Marty Fluharty, chair of the Sierra Club Centennial Committee, who has arranged this event. Park Superintendent Bill Ehorn calls for all to follow him, and we head down a trail into the heart of grove R-10.
For a moment in the cool quiet of the trees, it’s possible to forget that 95 percent of all coast redwoods have been logged and that only a small fraction of the original ecosystem remains intact. Certainly the redwoods around us look exactly as Ed described them for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1973, after he wandered among “their deep brown and gray fluted trunks,” which soared above and all around, “solid and straight and somehow reassuring” for having stood in their places for at least five centuries.
It’s a distinguished lot that assembles around the edges of this steep, ferny glade: Doris Leonard, a longtime activist and wife of climbing great and former Club president Richard Leonard (absent today because of illness); one-time staff forester Gordon Robinson; two former Club presidents, Ed Wayburn and Richard Cellarius, and incumbent president Tony Ruckel; Redwood Chapter stalwart Lucille Vinyard; Club Chairman Michael McCloskey; and Michael Fischer, the Club’s fourth executive director. Many of these people fought in the redwoods campaign for decades.
Also here is John Dewitt, president of the Save the Redwoods League, a venerable organization whose relationship with the Sierra Club has sometimes been contentious, despite close links between the two groups. The League historically cooperated with the timber industry to buy up small, museum-like parcels of forest for inclusion in the California state-park system. In contrast, the Club sought federal protection for extensive ecosystems. The two groups locked horns in 1964, when the National Park Service first proposed the establishment of a redwoods park. The League and the Club differed over which watershed to protect – the relatively small but picturesque area of Mill Creek, or the much larger, more diverse expanse of the Redwood Creek watershed. In the long run, the Club’s view prevailed.
Calling for everyone’s attention, master of ceremonies McCloskey unveils five carved wooden plaques, each representing a virgin redwood grove along Skunk Cabbage Creek. These groves will be named in honor of the Wayburns, the Leonards, all Sierra Club presidents past and present, the Redwood Park volunteers, and Fred and Francis Speekman, two prominent contributors to the Sierra Club Foundation.
First to be recognized are Ed and Peggy. At the top of the slope, in front of a particularly massive old sentinel, Ed looks about at his fellow tree-huggers and clears his throat. He’s supposed to make a speech on the redwood campaign’s history, but has left his prepared comments back in San Francisco. Gamely, he launches into an extemporaneous reminiscence. “I’ve always been a sucker for redwoods,” he says, going on to recount how, in 1955, he and Peggy were made heartsick by the destruction along Bull Creek, which had its upper slopes logged and was then ravaged by a flood that sent debris roaring through the creekbed, ripping out hundreds of the trees. That’s when they resolved to devote themselves to preserving the remaining ancient forest. The effort was carried out locally, in Congress, at the Interior Department, and directly with President Lyndon Johnson. Their dream of a park was finally realized in 1968.
At 4:30 p.m., after all the speeches are made and lunch is concluded back at the ranch, we return to the plane with Woody. A strong headwind sweeps down the runway as we take off, and the Cessna lifts up quickly, banks, and soon is flying out of sight of the park, over Pacific Lumber Company clearcuts.
“My goal in writing Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture was to create a better society,” says activist, historian, and philosopher Arthur Evans of the radical gay history published 20 years ago by Fag Rag Books and still in print today. “Every sentence in the book has a political edge to it. Some people view that as a weakness; I view it as a great strength.”
Evans’ tone on this recent afternoon in his tidy Upper Haight Street apartment, where he has lived since the mid-’70s, is one of both aggressive pride and bold defiance. No doubt he has his critics in mind when he touts his own work’s determined bias and intentional lack of neutral “objectivity.”
Though the first and undoubtedly most famous and influential of Evans’ three books to date (the others being The God of Ecstasy in 1988 and Critique of Patriarchal Reason in 1997), Witchcraft, which painstakingly documents centuries of persecution of gay and lesbian pagans by Christians and others, has never been regarded seriously by mainstream scholars, not even by those who are gay or lesbian.
Not that Evans has ever sought mainstream recognition or praise. On the contrary, he has always relished working outside academia. But operating in near isolation can be a lonely endeavor, bound at times to rankle even the most stalwart misanthrope.
Never has Evans harbored any great love for mankind. Which is not to say that, as an openly gay man, he hasn’t loved specific men, and maybe even certain classes of men (likely those who live up to his rigorous ethical standards, or whose marginalized existence as victims of persecution exempts them from critique). But for men in general, Evans holds a great contempt.
The males of our species, Evans has averred both in his writings and in numerous conversations with this writer over the years, are responsible for most of the ills of this world. The term he utters repeatedly with special contempt is “patriarchy,” generally coupled with industrialism, militarism, and organized religion, especially Christianity.
When such man-made institutions “were used to suppress what was called witchcraft and heresy” in Medieval Europe, insists Evans, they “actually created the grounds for reinforcing misogyny and homophobia in the modern world.
Those who have delved into Evans’ Witchcraft understand very well that the image of “midnight hags” hunched over stew pots, muttering “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble,” is not merely Shakespearean artistic license. Rather, that sort of prejudiced characterization stems directly from the relentless campaign by Christians over the course of centuries to wipe paganism off the face of the earth.
The people who came to be called witches in Medieval Europe were believers in pagan gods. They practiced ancient agrarian rituals and celebrated human sexuality, including homosexuality. For this affront to the monolithic, sexphobic, and harshly intolerant Christian church, according to Evans, they paid a dear price.
“The term ‘witchcraft,'” says Evans, “originally derived from ‘wicca,’ a word that meant knowledge of craft or skill. A witch was a woman, or sometimes a man, who was skilled in the craft of communicating with the powers of nature, of conjuring them up. This could be good or evil, depending on the intentions of the practitioner. However, from the Christian point of view, it was all evil. They viewed it as a form of heresy, the hankering after false gods.”
“Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality.”
Particularly repugnant to the Christians was homosexuality, adds Evans: “A lot of the people accused of heresy were accused because of their sexual practices, not primarily because they were advocating heretical dogmas.”
In a time when conservative gay Catholics like Andrew Sullivan hold sway in the gay community, preaching the gospel of assimilation while an adoring gay choir sings the virtues of Puritanism, writing about witches in relation to queer people still sounds, well, radical, and radicals these days are an endangered breed of political animal.
Yet, a surprisingly large number of queer people have not only read Evans’ book, but taken to heart many of its historical lessons. So profound has been the volume’s influence over the years, Witchcraft has assumed a place of primary importance in the annals of gay and lesbian history.
By the time Evans started work on Witchcraft during his first years in San Francisco, he had already established his radical gay credentials as an activist in New York City. He joined the radical Gay Liberation Front soon after the Stonewall uprising, where he and friends formed the Radical Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and homophobia.
“We didn’t have queer theory in those days,” says Evans. “We had something better: gay activism. I’m not a queer theorist, I’m a gay activist, and proud of it!”
Soon after, Evans and others founded the militant Gay Activists Alliance, where they engaged “zaps”- non-violent, face-to-face confrontations with homophobes in positions of authority.
Sodom and SF
Eventually Evans wearied of urban life and politics, so he and his second lover, Jacob Schraeter, left New York in 1972 to live in a small wooded settlement outside Seattle that they named New Sodom. After two years in the commune, Evans and Schraeter moved to San Francisco, where Evans was to make his most lasting contributions to gay culture.
“In 1975 I helped create a group in this room called the Faery Circle of San Francisco,” says Evans. “We held rituals, trying to evoke the pagan sensibility of nature and sex.”
As he soon discovered, similar gatherings were taking place – by coincidence – across the country, with queer pagan groups in New Mexico, Washington state, and Texas.
“For the most part we were independent flowers popping out of the soil,” Evans laughs. “It was a really wonderful spontaneous outburst.”
Participants in the Faery Circle were the first to buy and read Witchcraft when it was published in 1978. The book got a further boost after 1979, when Harry Hay and friends formed “a gathering of radical faeries.” Soon, large regional faery gatherings were taking place around the country, with Evans’ book being widely read by the participants.
“The book reaches far beyond faeriedom,” says Evans, “either my early vision of it, or Harry Hay’s. The central theme of the book, and one that I think makes it relevant to every generation of lesbian and gay men, is its insistence that being gay is not just an isolated fact hanging in the air. Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality. That is the cornerstone of everything I’ve ever written.”
A celebration of the 20th anniversary of Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture took place at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 24, 1998 at A Different Light Bookstore, 489 Castro St. in San Francisco. Evans encouraged those interested in queer history to first read The God of Ecstasy, a re-working of Euripides’ The Bacchai, which details the persecution of gays and lesbians in ancient Greece and Rome.
Arthur Evans died Sept. 13, 2011 at the age of 69 in his apartment in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.
For years I’ve been writing about this man, one of the most intriguing artists/human beings I’ve encountered, a former dot-com boomer in The City who jumped off the bandwagon just as the bust loomed large, selling off all his belongings and returning monk-like to his artist/musician roots and joining the mass artist exodus to Portland. There Holcombe Waller hangs with an artsy crowd including such other queer San Francisco exiles as filmmaker David Weissman, visual artist Stevee Postman, and a bunch of others who moved north to find community. Yet he’s missed here, and many of his fans will be on hand to greet Holcombe enthusiastically when he returns to San Francisco to perform on Sunday, December 4 at Café Du Nord (2170 Market St.; www.cafedunord.com), which of course is the great funky former underground speakeasy where the cool crowd-in-black goes. In the circles I inhabit, word of Holcombe’s recent artistic surge has been passed eagerly around, with everybody saying the dark, brooding genius has been creating some of the most exciting work of his career, which means a lot, since his latest album, Troubled Times, emerged recently as one of the banner albums of our fractious era, addressing the angst and anxiety so pent up in a society at war with itself and the world. Holcombe is a rare talent, so distinctive, yet so far un-tarred and feathered by the ravenous mainstream press. He’s also a true survivor, something his friends can attest to, and that his official biography points out.
In June of 2001, Holcombe suffered a devastating car accident that left him unable to stand or even sit up and play guitar, a severe blow to his music career. Following September 11th, Holcombe went through a spiritual crisis. He developed strong animosity toward automobiles, as well as a displaced phobia of elevators. He remained addicted to anti-depressants, prescribed to him since a suicidal period in college. Finally, he realized that a major life change was in order. Through the help of a strict yoga regimen, raw-food diet, and the shamanic use of San Pedro cactus, Holcombe weaned himself of the anti-depressants, quit his corporate job, sold every possession except his recording equipment, and went on to make Troubled Times with long-time friend and collaborator Ben Landsverk. It was a good move, a wholly successful transition in life. His haunting, plaintive voice with its soaring high falsetto notes will take you into a moody world characterized by pessimism — “Literally the End of the World” is one of the anthemic songs on the Troubled Times album — but which offers a break in the clouds, rays of sunshine that will beam down on you and transport you to a safer place. The world may be decaying, but Holcombe will rock and cradle you, so relax and let his gentle voice lift your spirits.
The fact that I know Holcombe through yoga circles means nothing. I’m sending that subjective energy directly into the ground and stomping on it just to prove I’m being totally objective when I say Holcombe is one of the great artists of our day and if you haven’t been paying attention, listen up! Head to Cafe Du Nord on December 4 and catch a truly inspiring show.