The Power of Place: A Discussion with Derrick Jensen

Interview conducted in early 2010; I wanted to repost this for all my new friends/followers because I think it’s good and very important.  I know his work and his talks inside and out, so I tried to ask him many questions that he doesn’t normally get.  For further information about him or his work, see the links on the right side of my home page (“Actions Speak Louder than Words” and a link to his website/discussion forums)

JAN SMITH: The theme of this interview is a sort of tagline for my book:  rewild the west, and all the rest.

DERRICK JENSEN: I think it’s a hugely important work.  About twenty years ago I decided to go up to the Northwest Territories.  There was a road there that was really just unbroken forest for 300 miles, and I’ve never seen anything like it before.  It was really beautiful, but it also broke my heart, because of course that used to be the whole continent.  We can say the same thing about North Africa, we can say the same thing about Europe, we can say that same thing about the near East, we can say the same thing about Iraq, and so on.  There’s a phrase for this, something baseline, about how every generation remembers what it was like when we were kids, and how much worse it’s gotten, but we don’t remember how it was when our parents were kids.  There was a study that came out a year or two ago that migratory songbird populations have collapsed by 80% in the last 40 years in a lot of populations; bobwhites, whippoorwills, and so on, and that’s horrifying and terrifying; until I realized that 40 years ago was 1968, which is 10 years after Silent Spring.  Which means that they’ve already gone down 80% in 40 years, after they’d already gone down by 80%, and in the 1920s they were down 80%.  You know, we hear about it over and over no matter where; the passenger pigeons darkening the skies for days at a time—but we’ve also heard that was how Florida was, and Louisiana.  I tell this in my talks:  does anybody know why there are no penguins in the northern hemisphere?  There were—they were called great auks, but who remembers the great auks?

I think this project is incredibly important in terms of helping us to remember that we are fighting over scraps, and we shouldn’t be.  We should be living in intact natural communities.

JS: Right.  And the fight we have to fight shouldn’t be about fighting over scraps.  We shouldn’t say, “Don’t clearcut this 50 acres,” but then say nothing about the clearcutting of 2000 acres tomorrow.  We should say, “We want it all.”  And it’s really not about us, we’re not selfish, saying “GIMME, GIMME, GIMME!”  It’s that we humans—all humans—need it all, the natural world has its own rights, and the nonhumans need it all.  It’s about preserving life.

Now I want to get into this idea I’m calling the power of place.  You grew up in Colorado, right, and then moved to northern Idaho?

DJ: No, I moved from Colorado to Nevada for a couple years, then to northern Idaho, then eastern Washington, then here [Crescent City, California].

JS: Okay, so I kind of want to get a sense of why you moved to the different geographical areas in your life, and why.  There’s a lot of variation there.  Eastern Washington is high desert, which is very very different from the coastal redwood rainforest of Crescent City.  So what did you like and dislike about each area, and why did you move away to the new places?

DJ: Colorado because I finished college, and also because my father lived in Colorado, and I didn’t want to face the possibility of meeting him every time I went to the grocery store.  Also there’s way too many people.  I went to northeast Nevada because my sister lived there and I was starting up a beekeeping business, and that was a place I could find some pastures on which to put the bees.  But I got sick.  I moved to north Idaho because it was one of the prettiest places I’d ever seen.  Moved to eastern Washington because I went back to school.  And then moved to northern California because there were too many people in Spokane.  And I’d committed to living around my mom.  She wanted to live where there weren’t winters, and I wanted to live where there weren’t a lot of people.  This is what we came up with.  After I moved to Idaho I found that I’m very much a forest person; I never liked the desert, and I didn’t really like Colorado.  I have some fondness for it, but I’m very much a forest person.  I feel most comfortable there.

JS: So that place holds the most power over you.

DJ: Yeah.  And I’ve heard a lot about how we resonate with the landbases where we grew up, but in my case that wasn’t true.  Where I lived in Colorado was plains; plains are okay, but as soon as I moved to Idaho and then here I immediately felt at home.  I don’t know why.  I know when I go elsewhere it’s the same.  Like when I go to the deep south, to forests there, it’s very moving for me too.  Really forests anywhere.  I go to Los Angeles or San Diego and don’t feel at home.  I know people who absolutely love the desert and feel tremendous respect and awe and feel very much at home in the desert.  I can respect that, it’s just not me personally.

JS: So you’d feel out of place even when you went to natural areas in Spokane?

DJ: You know, Spokane is right near the edge of forests, and there were some forests right near where I lived.  It wasn’t thick forests like here; you can’t walk through these [redwood] forests, you have to go on a game trail.  In Spokane it was very open forests.

JS: After doing just a small bit of off-trail bushwacking in the forests of northern California last week, I posited that all this dark matter scientists say make up the majority of the mass in the universe might just be found somewhere in the redwood forests, they’re so dense.

DJ: Oh that’s funny.

JS: Do you think you’ll stay in northern California the rest of your life?  Do you think you’re at home and you’ll be happy staying there?

DJ: Well I’ll certainly stay the rest of my mom’s life.  I’m planning on staying here forever.  But you know, with global warming, I live at 17 feet elevation, so it could be underwater.  So I might be staying here for the rest of this forest’s life.  But we need to stop it before then.  I mean, who knows—I have no desire to leave.  But politically things are very bad and just getting worse in this country.  But I can’t see myself leaving, no, I’ll be here.

JS: You talked in one of your recent books about eco-tourism and jet-setting all over the place; you know, this week we can go to the Everglades, next week Glacier National Park, then the redwoods.  But you talked about vacationing at home in your bioregion; sticking to it, learning the intricacies of that place.  Why do you think it’s important to find a place you love and stick with it?

DJ: Well for a couple of reasons.  Actually I think where I liked writing about it best was in the zoo book [Thought to Exist in the Wild:  Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos].  Because one of the things I say is that people go to these exotic places, or in this case, people go to zoos—one of the excuses for the existence of zoos is that we need to have a connection to wild animals.

JS: Such a joke.

DJ: And that’s true, but it’s not really a connection to wild animals if they’re in cages.  There’s another lesson to be learned there; if you want to see bears, you should live such that bears want to see you.  I think it’s a very very bad lesson to be teaching children especially:  that you can destroy a landbase but still see the bears on whose land you’re living.  So what I say there is that instead of going to a zoo, you should go outside and get to know the creatures who live in your home—even if you live in the city!  In Thought to Exist.., I thought, okay, I’m gonna go to the worst place in this entire area, the most life-unforgiving place and see what I see.  And I went to the McDonald’s parking lot.  There were some little landscaped bushes right next to highway, between Highway 101 and McDonald’s.  I sat there for about 30 seconds and I started seeing spiders, I saw sparrows hopping along the ground, I saw seagulls, I saw some bumblebees even though it’s a little cold.  Those beings are just as important and we need to get to know them.  As we’re doing this interview, it’s a little cold here and I’m starting a fire.  I’m putting some old scrap paper into the woodstove.  Just a moment ago, and I felt really bad about this because I didn’t see it before I put it in.  But there was this little tiny tiny spider that was living on this used scratch paper pile, and I accidentally burned it when I put it in the woodstove.  And my point is that even something as absolutely sterile as a box full of used scratch paper still has living beings in it.  This is not to say that, well, since they can live there, then that makes it okay that forests are destroyed.  I’m not saying that at all.  What I’m saying is that there’s life right next to us and we should get to know that.

There are a lot of problems I have with the whole eco-tourism thing; one is that it’s just the same sort of pornographic mindset that’s killing the planet; that it’s there for us to consume, whether we consume it through the timber industry or whether we consume it through our eyes.

JS: Loving it to death.

DJ: Well, it’s more like…I remember Linda Hogan years ago wrote about nature writers who go to Yucatan Peninsula and they end up writing about themselves.  You know, what do you know about the place?  Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was at one point driving all over the place and I think in half a year I slept in 130 different places.  Most of the time just throwing my backpack down by the side of the road.  And I realized pretty quickly that for all I was driving around, I may as well just be sitting inside a small theater with different scenes projected onto the windshield.  Because I wasn’t getting to know any place at all.  Absolutely no knowledge obtained.  All you’d have to do is turn the car into a little theater and blow in some different scents—and it doesn’t really matter, you’re still you.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that years ago I interviewed Vine Deloria, and one of the things he talked about is how all his students at the University of Colorado, they’d go hiking over a weekend, and they thought they were connecting with nature.  But what he would say is they’re not, all they’re having is an aesthetic experience.  In order to really get to know a place, you have to live there for a really long time to start recognizing the patterns.  I’ve lived here for 10 years and I don’t know the patterns.  Recently there was a very bad year for banana slugs—they’re everywhere here—and it was a really bad year for them.  Was that a strange thing or was that a pattern?  And in this case they came back the next year.  I just noticed this last night—this year is a very good year for mushrooms.  Which is kind of odd because it’s been very dry until a couple days ago.  It also hasn’t been very cold; November is usually the coldest month here:  what does that mean?  I mean it takes a long time to start to see the patterns of who comes when.  And that’s true with human relationships too.  You can have this really amazing weekend affair that’s really passionate, and that’s one thing.  That’s also not the same as getting to know someone over a long time, it takes a long time just to know humans’ patterns.  Or to get to know a dog’s patterns, a dog’s preferences.  I live with this dog 24 hours a day and it still takes a long time for us to get to know each other.  How much more so when you have the additional complexity of all these different beings who are all just as sentient and alive as we are?  I mean the trees have just as much preferences as we do, and just as much of a subjective existence.  And to get to know them takes a long long time.  And of course that’s a good thing, that’s a fine thing.  It takes generations to really get to know a place.  I read somewhere about how some indigenous peoples, I don’t remember who, knew that martens make a major migration every six human generations or something.  How do you know that unless you’ve lived there long enough for that to have happened three or four times.  Once you’ve lived there for 18 human generations, then you might know that.

I just got a note a couple days ago; people always ask me if I will edit their work or if they can edit mine.  I always say no because I have to know someone really well before I feel comfortable with that.  If I were to edit a book of yours, what I would have to do is figure out what you want to say, and how you want to say it, and then help you to say it better.  And it takes a long time to get to know someone well enough to know what they want to say.  And to enter into those relationships.  It’s even more so if we don’t both speak English, or don’t both even speak human.  It takes a really long time to get to know another well enough to know what is in the others’ best interest.  I mean some things are pretty obvious—it’s not in a forest’s best interest to be clearcut, we can know that.  But what does a forest really want?

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The rest of this (extended) discussion can be found under both the BEST OF THE WEST header and the OTHER WRITINGS header above.  Thanks!

HERE  is a link to my review of Jensen’s book Lives Less Valuable.

HERE is a link to my review of his graphic novel As the World Burns:  50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay in Denial

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