John Daniel: A good animal, too
When the throaty calls of sandhill cranes
echo across the valley, when the rimrock flares
incandescent red, and the junipers
are flames of green on the shortgrass hills,
in that moment of last clear light
when the world seems ready to speak its name,
meet me in the field alongside the pond.
Without careers for once, without things to do,
without dreams or anger or the rattle of fears,
we'll ask how it can be that we walk this ground
and know that we walk, alive in a world
that didn't have to be beautiful, alive
in a world that doesn't have to be.
With no answers, just ourselves and silence,
we'll listen for the song that waits to be learned,
the song that moves through the passing light.
"Ourselves" from Common Ground by
John Daniel (Confluence Press, 1988).
Reprinted with permission.
The corkboard wall outside John Daniel's writing studio in western Oregon displays a collage of bizarre artifacts. A fur-and-rubber gorilla hand reaches for a blue wooden spoon near a Victoria's Secret camisole, and a beer-coaster depicting four bikini-clad women dangles from a Copenhagen tobacco can next to an empty package of jalapeno sunflower seeds.
“All items I've found on my daily bike ride," Daniel explains, indicating the road bike propped against his garage door.
The 60-year-old author and sometime college professor has crafted a career out of contemplating the Pacific Northwest through mementos both literal and intangible. The author of three memoirs, two books of poetry and two books of nature essays, he's twice won the Oregon Book Award. His works mingle memories of wandering through the '60s with a guitar and a taste for recreational drugs with advice for modern-day liberal tree-huggers, urging them to be more compassionate toward the denizens of the timber towns.
He writes frankly about his alcoholic, union-organizing father and his mother -- who lived with him in the late stages of Alzheimer's -- and then slides into ruminations on the wild turkey snacking on his garden and the madrone he split for firewood during a winter of solitude. Comparing its curls of peeling bark to oversized cinnamon sticks, he declares it “the only tree I ever wanted to eat."
On his porch under towering Douglas firs, flanked by pots of salmon-hued impatiens, Daniel considers his home state with its timber-town environmentalists and lumberjacks, its history of spotted owl battles and allegations of “eco-terrorism." As the Oregon flag snaps in the breeze on its rooftop pole, Daniel recounts the unlikely path he took to become an environmental writer.
The story is also told in his first memoir, Winter Creek (Milkweed, 2002). He came to Oregon in 1966 to attend Reed College, but dropped out “to major in drugs and self-doubt." He reveled in the Northwest's wildness, taking up rock-climbing and finding employment as a choker-setter for Weyerhaeuser. “I loved the trees of Paradise, and I also worked to level those trees," he notes of his time spent on logging crews. “I wanted to do the great Northwest things as a youth. I wanted to wear suspenders and cork boots and a tin hard hat."
He laughs easily, leaning back in his chair in khaki shorts and a blue T-shirt that matches his eyes. “It was a great education for an environmentalist," he says, “to be exposed to clear-cuts -- massive stumps sometimes nine feet in diameter." He decided that clear-cuts weren't always bad: “In previously logged places, where we've turned the forest into plantations, we could keep them that way. But let's offer a little more diversity and leave a little more wood on the ground -- allow a little more wildness back in," he says. “And why leave those pecker-poles? It's such lip service to the idea of ecological responsibility."
The work taught him to love big trees and to respect the people of the Oregon timber towns. “Some of these people have lived in place for three or four generations," he observes. “They have different ideas about using the land and what one can extract from it, but they love it. And I don't think we've expressed enough generosity toward those people."
Over decades of migrating between cosmopolitan cities and tiny towns, relocating from deserts to forests to his current home in western Oregon, Daniel has pondered life from the perspective of the Northwest's disenfranchised loggers. “These folks lost jobs," he says. “Some of them were jobs on which you could support a family and live a middle-class life. To them, it feels like they've been steamrolled by a coalition of the federal government and green-oriented people from cities and suburbs who don't give a damn. It's too easy for us to tell them, ‘Well, you could open an espresso stand.' "
Daniel's sense of regional responsibility and his determination to report on the flora and fauna and inevitable politics of place came to the fore when he moved to a ranch in south-central Oregon in 1973. He took a railroad job and spent the rest of his time drinking beer and crafting poems that found their way into environmental magazines.
“I began to care about a landscape for the first time after living in that country long enough to feel that I belonged to it," he says of Oregon's sagebrush and juniper desert, “long enough to hear coyotes at midnight and to feel somehow that I was a member of that place." He found himself writing about the land, about the coyotes and the injured great-horned owl he tried to rehabilitate. “I found that it was the beauties and mysteries of that particular natural world that stirred words in me," he says.
His newest book of essays, The Far Corner: Northwestern Views on Land, Life, and Literature (Counterpoint, 2009) includes meditations on the landscape and its destruction. “It's the first time in an overt publishing way that I feel like I'm reporting on and about my region," he says. “I'm interested in humankind living in nature. If we can't reclaim and restore our membership in nature, then it's not going to go well for us. We seem to be consummating a divorce from the natural world. That's bad for it, and terribly impoverishing for us."
Yet Daniel's life appears anything but impoverished. Today, he lives on the tranquil, verdant acre of land he purchased with his wife, Marilyn. To get to their modest, cozy cedar house, one must navigate a long, narrow road past fir-covered hills and clear-cut summits frequently topped by a single lone tree. Daniel waxes poetic about his world, the people he chats with at the post office, about short double-lattes and his delight in hefting a pint with friends at the local brewpubs. “I'm an optimist in the long term, especially when I get away from news a while," he notes. “When I'm listening to news of the land in close relationship, I can't help but be an optimist."
In Rogue River Journal, published in 2005, he offered upbeat bulletins on the land he cared for during his winter of solitude in southwestern Oregon. Reflecting on his discomfort with sterile packages of meat, he concluded, “I should be willing to kill the flesh I eat ... if I can't do that, I'll have to make do with rice and tofu, and that is a future I cannot face." He contemplated shooting a cabbage-ravaging wild turkey for his Christmas dinner, but -- captivated by the bird's humility and resourcefulness -- surrendered the battle and declared himself the real turkey.
“There's too little humor in nature writing," laments Daniel, whose favorite bumper sticker reads Earth First -- We'll Log the Other Planets Later. “It may be the biggest weakness of the environmental movement that it takes itself too seriously. Things are dire, but if you can't laugh, especially at yourself, there's something petrifying to the spirit there. Laughing will make us better environmentalists."
Although Daniel doesn't consider himself an activist, he believes that his spirited observations add to the environmental conversation. “To praise nature is to decry its ruin," he says. “We need people writing and speaking on all the channels, from the most strident misanthropic points of view right through the spectrum to people who aren't really speaking politically at all."
He says today's environmental activists could learn a lot from the civil disobedience protests of the 1960s. While he finds tree-spiking dishonorable and calls the arson perpetuated by the largely Oregon-based Earth Liberation Front “counterproductive," he praises Earth First! co-founder David Foreman's actions during a sit-down logging protest. “He grabbed hold of the bumper of a moving truck and put his life in danger," Daniel says. “That's an example of moral direct action. When the environmental movement acquires the dignity of the civil rights movement, we will have arrived. If you can commit to acts of serious moral witness, then you've got a shot at getting something done."
In the face of war and global warming and the deforestation taking place just down the road from him, Daniel gets a lot done. He chairs PEN Northwest, which works to defend freedom of expression, administers the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, teaches at conferences, and wields a pen against those who would harm the natural world. “Seeing deer, pronghorn, a bear exhilarates me and opens my heart to a sense of common critterdom," he says. “I remember that hey, I'm a good animal, too. I'm pretty sure we humans are well capable of extincting ourselves," he adds, “but I don't think we're capable of extincting life on earth. There's something wonderful going on with this experiment of green."
He waves a hand toward his acreage. A yellow rope dangles from a fir limb 50 feet up. Last year, Daniel ascended the tree several times. “I haven't yet climbed this year, but I will," he says. Then he describes an idea he has for his first novel.
“I know there will be a precocious youth and a crusty old guy." He smiles, and mischief lights up his eyes. “The old guy might go up to an area about to be clear-cut and spend a few nights in a tree.