Interview with David James Duncan

by PAUL K. HAEDER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & nlander Interview with David James Duncan.

PKH: Talk about writing, and young people trying to take a stab at writing as a career in a world of Flash videos and Internet messaging. We've got so much conglomeration of media - a majority of publishing houses in the USA owned by less than 10 corporations. And, the ungodly fact that the kids today in K-12 are averaging 10 minutes of outside reading a day. What can you say to aspiring young writers to stick it out?

DJD: To writers at the moment I would say, yes, it's a struggle to keep our frail art form together, but hey, it's a damned interesting time! Humanity is in the midst of a massive transition, so human communication is undergoing a transition. A tough-minded response to your question might be something like Robinson Jeffers' line: "There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and that life's end is death."

All human endeavor -- including even our literature -- is transitory. I've spent my life immersed in the myths, scriptures and bardic songs of the world -- the best records of the best things human beings have said, sung and done for thousands of years. A little familiarity with this body of knowledge takes a lot of the stress out of living in a time of transition. The decline of literacy causes a lot of hand-wringing. But literacy is itself a recent human development -- and a lamented development by the bards and singers of the oral cultures that preceded our literate one.

To learn to live with the earth on the earth's own terms is more important to me than literacy. I lived on the Oregon Coast at a time when the most ancient Sitka spruce groves in the world were being converted daily into the L.A. Sunday Times. There was, in my view, nothing in the Times' stories of that era that compared in beauty or import to the trees that were slaughtered to create the newspapers. The news those trees were emitting was something invisible, called oxygen. The news those trees published constantly was keeping the planet alive. We killed them in the name of literacy.

"A boat is more than an investigative tool," Robert Kennedy said recently while on the Colorado, the threatened American icon. "It's a reminder to the public that you own this waterway." It's pretty universal throughout civilization that there are laws of waterways stating that they belong to the people. Code of Justinian, Magna Carta, and constitution. Why have we allowed polluters, developers, and politicians to virtually destroy our connection to rivers and streams?

DJD: First off, I haven't allowed any such thing, at least not directly. I've spent my life resisting polluters, developers and politicians who destroy waterways. And my connection to rivers and streams is a vivid part of my daily contemplative and recreational and economic life.

My downfall is as a consumer. The mistake the American people have made, from the very beginning, is to place faith and trust in an inhuman financial entity generally known as "the corporation." Jefferson saw it coming. "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength." We did not crush the moneyed corporations. We enthroned them. And corporations are not human. They don't eat, drink, or breathe, hence have no particular allegiance to clean food, water or air. They possess no beating heart or soul, hence fear no God, and no punishment for misdeeds in any kind of Hereafter. Corporations contain humans the way a cult, a sedative, or a TV contain humans. They dominate, "monoculturize," dehumanize, mesmerize and misinform us, and make us pay and thank them for it.

Corporate transformation, corporate disempowerment, corporate accountability, corporate humanization, corporate spiritualization, is the crucial (in)human topic of our time.

The essay you wrote on Washington State's salmon rehabilitation projects was read by Congress. You wondered, tongue in cheek , whether Congress "still reads." Talk about that specific essay's effect on politicians - do they read?

DJD: My salmon essay to Congress was extremely friendly, actually. I was trying to create a little love for the most magnificent fishes that swim. The line you cite was an attempt to irritate the deadbeats into reading me long enough to realize that financial support of salmon recovery is a very good thing for the United States of America. I had a small, definite job to do: try to get salmon recovery funded. And it was funded. Insufficiently. But it's a start!

"Censoring Science" is a new book out on the Bush Administration's fascist attack on Dr. James Hansen's work with NASA on climate change. Did you ever predict when you were a struggling young writer cutting lawns and looking for the perfect stretch of water from which to cast that you'd see this sort of crap happening in the 21st Century? Why, if so? Why not, if not?

DJD: I've been surprised from time to time by the American people's eagerness to vote for ways to increase their own suffering and their children's destitution and Mother Earth's degradation. But I refuse to despair. Salmon are my totem creature and salmon don't despair. They keep trying to return home to their mountain birthhouses and create a beautiful new generation no matter what kind of hellhole industrial man has made of their rivers. Mother Teresa spoke with the heart of a wild salmon when she said, "God doesn't ask us to win. He only asks us to try." I'm in the business of trying. I leave the scorecard to the Scorekeeper.

"The 'environmental movement' is a caterpillar in the process of being transformed into a much more beautiful butterfly. It's time to let the e-word go and find a butterfly of a word." You said this in an interview. We are now at the time when the climate is changing dramatically, because of all sorts of tipping points, including all the green house gas emissions humans are spewing; because snow packs are going, going, gone; glaciers are receding; the oceans are acidifying; the list goes on and on. If this isn't the moment for the globe - unfortunately, the USA has to be part of the charge - to get its act together, what will it take?

DJD: The desire to save the world is too big for any of us. I'm less than three feet in circumference. The Earth is 25,000 miles in circumference! I can't wrap my arms or head around my sweet Mama. So I don't try.

Instead, I try to live the advice of Mother Teresa. "We can do no great things -- only small things with great love." When small things are done with great love, it is not a flawed you or me who does them: it's just love. I have no faith in any kind of political party, left right or centrist. I have boundless faith in love. The only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist or activist in times like ours is by doing a daily and nightly, faith-driven skein of small things, each of them done with all the love I can muster.

What is the role of the media - not just TV and movies - but the entire mess of media tools in bringing this ignorance and conspicuous consumption mentality into focus in 2008? We seem collectively stupid to not realize the value of retrofitting our country for rail travel; for mandatory carbon taxes on polluters; on developing a land ethic; re-energizing local economies; and bringing back wilderness; the salmon. Discuss your relationship with the media, with publishing, with the repetition of talks you give to various groups.

DJD: The key to ongoing hope, strength, and effectiveness, for me, is to think small. Not big! Small. Look at your hands. Right now. They're not large. They can't do much. But they can do something. Right now.

I trust my hands more than my mind. My hands are enlivened by my lungs and heartbeat and by the Earth and by Spirit directly. Only indirectly are they guided by the mind. My aging hands have done so much cool stuff it staggers my mind.

There is a fabulous story by Raymond Carver called "A Small Good Thing." It's like a scripture to me. In it, a baker who has been an asshole to some customers who failed to collect a birthday cake, finds out that the reason the couple didn't pick up the cake was that their child had been killed. At the climax, the couple goes to see the baker, wanting to kill him in return. Instead, he serves them fresh cinnamon rolls and hot coffee with his two small hands, and he joins them, and they talk. He admits he's a fool. He admits he's made many mistakes in his life, but none bigger than harassing them in their time of loss. Yet he's certain that the cinnamon rolls and the coffee, in this time of grief, are what he calls "a small good thing." This story makes me bawl like a baby. It's so simple and beautiful and true. It also makes me crave cinnamon rolls every time somebody I love dies.

The daily doing of "small good things" -- with one's own two hands -- transforms the doer. Transforms consciousness. Opens the heart. Sharpens the mind and senses. Too much media does the opposite. Too much "news" especially. I feel a vibrant energy and keen focus in solitude and silence. This beautiful energy gets lost when I tune in the smoke and mirrors being manufactured all day by centers of media and political power. When those glorious Sitka Spruce groves died to create L.A. Times "news stories" and ads and info-crap, it taught me something. No one on earth remembered any of that printed crap a month later. But the stumps of those glorious trees, and the voices of the kids who played in them, are still there, and they still haunt me.

When I'm haunted I try to put it to use. Instead of gathering media information by the ton, I spend a lot of time shedding such information, tuning in a mysterious internal spark instead. This spark may or may not "change the world." But I've seen it galvanize mere information and pierce the world, again and again. When light shines out in darkness, the matter of this world is pierced so deftly and completely that I'm left with an almost physical certainty that matter is just spirit in a denser form. This moves me deeply. And so energizes me, giving me new life and courage, again and again. The conversion of matter into spirit, of ignorance into awareness, or hate into love, is the grand purpose of human life, according to my bibles. So I don't try to "make news in the world" or "save the world." I try, all day every day, to be true to a mysterious light that pierces the world.

Salmon embody such a huge cultural, spiritual, and historical significance to this part of the world. What is it going to take to remove those four lower Snake River dams?

DJD: The conversion of matter into spirit, ignorance into awareness, and hate into love, will remove the dams. I don't know when, but I feel it will happen. Five thousand five hundred miles of fertile salmon streams are being given a hysterectomy. The removal of those four dams is the largest workable ocean-fish restoration project possible on the planet -- in a time when we've lost 90% of the ocean's fisheries.

My wheat farming friends who now oppose the dams are living examples of the conversion of ignorance into awareness and matter into spirit. My desire that their wheat-barging and irrigation systems be cost-effectively replaced by railroads and pumps is an example of the same. Farmers and fishers are brothers and sisters now. That's as it should be. As it once was. It's right out of the gospels, actually. And tthe outcry of the nation's chefs also heartens us. "Loaves and Fishes" should be served to the world by our region forever.

We've bridged a rhetorical abyss created by cynics like Slade Gorton and Larry Craig and the BPA that greases their palms. We've jettisoned a lot of hate and ignorance. We just breached a dam in Missoula, Montana, and it's been a cause for huge celebration by every kind of cowboy and Indian and realtor and Rotary Club member you can imagine. The upper Clark Fork River fishes and farms better by the day. Five-thousand five-hundred miles of streams await the same treatment near here.

You love rivers, writing, the fabric of cultures, the language of clouds and shadows and your own sense of humanity in nature. What message will you give people coming to your two appearances in Spokane? What sense of hope? In these times of destroying cropland for growing corn and wheat for ethanol? A time when destroying ecosystems like rainforests in Indonesia to fuel the Danes' and other Nordics' desire to get off OPEC and fossil fuel by investing in energy from palm trees makes sense to people? Help center some positive message for us, David, from all of this.

DJD: The whole time I've been answering your questions a spring snow has been falling out my window and a billion aspen and cottonwood leaves are budding, and bluebirds are arriving from Central America, and the hummingbirds and ospreys aren't far behind, and wild turkeys and killdeer and meadowlarks and Canada geese are calling and mating, and rainbow and cutthroat trout are running up the creeks for the spawn, and opportunistic brown trout are following to eat the eggs that don't settle in the redds, and the first buttercups are blooming, and the elk and Black Angus and sheep are all calving, and our horse Bonnie is growing a foal. And the ten heroic elementary school teachers who helped my daughters transform from illiterate five-year-olds into beautiful intelligent young women are helping other kids do the same down the road at Lolo School. And in your town and mine amid all the business and ruckus and "news," people are smiling at each other even when they're not paid to smile, and going out of their way to help each other when there's no money in that either. The other day I watched a skinny white-haired trucker block an entire freeway with his semi to protect a woman who'd fallen asleep at the wheel and crossed a meridian and smashed into a guardrail right in front of him. He risked his life, though her stunt had threatened his life, to safeguard her. He leapt from his cab and ran, his shock of white hair brighter than the falling snow, to help this perfect stranger. Did he make the news? No. Yet people are constantly living and loving and serving in ways that make no "news." So I tend to defy that corporate product. "If it bleeds it leads?" How cynical can you get?

If it evinces love and kindness, let it lead your story-telling and thanksgiving. If it's a gift from Earth to you, let it lead you like headlights on a dark night. Bluebirds and kindergarten teachers and heroic truck drivers are news. There are no smoke and mirrors in the soul's realm. Your hands can serve the soul's realm. Look at your two hands and figure out some simple way to serve. Offer help on a highway. Play somebody a good tune. Teach a kid to play a tune. Knit somebody a scarf. Make it bluebird blue.

Today (March 31) is Cesar Chavez Day. You consider him one of dozens of heroes. What is it about him -- or any man or woman that you deem a hero -- that strikes you as most important about them?

DJD: I've had a Trappist monk friend for forty years, Brother Martin (a Chicano monk, recruited to contemplative life from a baseball field!) who tells me every time I see him, "Cesar Chavez was the most Christ-like man I've ever met." Why? You'd have to be in the presence to see "Christlikeness," I reckon, and I never met Chavez. But I know from those who knew him that h practiced small-scale compassion activism. And that he lived for and served others for the simplest and best of reasons: he sincerely loved those others. I know he knew those he served intimately. Knew their pain and suffering and shared it intimately. Yet he didn't demonize those who caused this suffering. His life of love and service is the opposite of a World Bank project or a papal decree or a government program. It was grass roots love. Love from the ground up, not the top down. Love with the mud of the fields all over it.

The "most important thing" about such heroes? Chavez's respect for other migrant laborers and for himself was grounded in his sense that Christ Himself lived within each of them -- that the kingdom of heaven truly was within them. Not up in the sky. Not in Rome. The kingdom and God and angels were right there in the fields of California. Why does this belief strike me as crucial? Because when you live and breathe in the daily understanding that the people working your fields each have the kingdom of heaven within them, and that God and the angels are out there working with them, you don't spray those people with insecticides and pesticides and cheat them out of a livable wage. On the contrary, you revere them. Like Cesar Chavez did.

David James Duncan will be in Spokane April 15 and 16. Noon at the Spokane Club, April 15. Contact Sam Mace with Save Our Wild Salmon for information on this luncheon - [email protected]. April 16 at Spokane Community College, Lair Auditorium. 7:30 as part of Get Lit. Free and open to the public.

Contact Sam Mace here in Spokane with Save Our Wild Salmon for a high resolution copy of a really great image that might help illustrate my story on DJD.

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About The Author

Paul K. Haeder

Paul Haeder is a contributing writer to The Inlander. He is a communications instructor at Spokane Falls Community College and a student in the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program at Eastern Washington University.