Essential Reads

The Greenpeace to Amchitka
An Environmental Odyssey

Robert Hunter
Arsensal Pulp Press, 2005, $19.95

Ask any activist about egos in the movement and prepare to stay awhile. The book by late journalist Robert Hunter, The Greenpeace to Amchitka, is no exception but it’s probably more entertaining. The activist crew is warned early on to avoid self-importance with its accompanying and potentially destructive loss of perspective. But the advice is hard to heed. Thirty-four years after The Greenpeace’s maiden voyage, Hunter remembers the vessel as “a floating paranoid grandiosity trap.”

In 1971, Vancouver was a convenient border-hop for Vietnam War draft dodgers and was home to the world’s largest expatriate crowd. When the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, a Vancouver-based anti-war group, heard about the US plan to detonate a hydrogen bomb——250 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima—underground off Amchitka, an island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain, they chartered an 80-foot halibut boat to get there first. Aboard the temporarily rechristened Greenpeace were twelve men—the grizzled captain, the engineer, and ten “eco-freaks,” most in their twenties—armed with a Geiger counter and good intentions.

Everything seemed lined up for a successful two-week protest run: a strong web of media contacts, homebound wives coordinating the effort, even a nod from the Prime Minister and broad public support in Canada. They gobbled their rations too quickly and were amateur sailors at best, but bigger unknowns began to overshadow the countless trivial annoyances. Is Fineberg, the only non-Canuck on board, an undercover CIA agent? Is it more effective to try to change the system from within the Establishment or on the outside-or in the middle of the Pacific? If they manage to reach the three-mile territorial limit off Amchitka and the bomb is still scheduled, what do they do then—jump in a skiff and pray to their oft-invoked Tolkienian characters?

When the test is delayed, the struggle becomes all about continuing on or turning around. Hunter, wondering at what point one has fulfilled an obligation, wryly considers titling the book, “Cop-out on the Way to Amchitka.” The journey took 43 days, most en route. The looming detonation becomes almost inconsequential, as communal conflicts supercede the big blast. Hunter, only 29 when they embarked, becomes at times a nearly insane observer. In true gonzo fashion, his story of overlapping personalities and ideologies is Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with a Green streak. With photos every few pages, readers get visual candy to document the tension and the triumph.

The Greenpeace sailed before the days so-called ecoterrorists and environmental nonprofits were commonplace. Today the international nonprofit that was born of the Amchitka protest celebrates Hunter, who died of prostate cancer last year, as the person who “invented Greenpeace.” One can’t help but wonder what the author who described the trip as being “as much about ego as ecology” would have to say to that.

Recovering the Sacred
The Power of Naming and Claiming

Winona LaDuke
South End Press, 2005, $18

In Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming, Winona LaDuke delves into how tribes fight against the destruction of their home/holy lands. When her exploration journeys off the map into other realms of the sacred—imagery and names, ancestors’ bones, DNA—she discovers that whenever there’s “a problem of two spiritual paradigms and one dominant culture,” irony abounds. Museums conserve sacred objects with toxins, endangering the health of those who repatriate them—Kachinas so contaminated scientists classify them as toxic waste. Academic researchers try to save a genetic record instead of providing essential services to those who could perpetuate the genes. Prehistoric stands of wild rice become threatened by pollen drift, mining, and bio-pirates.

Though filled with a standard cast of bad guys—even a neo-Nazi——towards the book’s end LaDuke offers up a few stories that aren’t atrocious. Some tribes are regaining the power to define what’s sacred, to the spiritual, ecological, economic, and cultural benefit of their communities. The Nez Perce, for example, are buying land optioned by white Washingtonians. Diabetic elderly Ojibwe are receiving traditional foods from a native-run program. Wind energy on the Pine Ridge reservation has the potential to produce 4,500 times the electricity residents use; the Lakota recently signed a $300-million wind development contract.

LaDuke charges most Americans would be hard-pressed to name ten tribes. She’s probably right. But read her newest book——full of almost too many details——and you’ll have dozens of vulgar abuses, plus a couple bright spots, to go along with the names.

Primal Tears
Kelpie Wilson
Frog, Ltd., 2005, $13.95

Up for an escapist read with a bit more depth than your average thriller? Although built on a ridiculous premise (woman gives birth to hybrid bonobo/human child), Primal Tears hits enough sociopolitical bull’s-eyes to stay absorbing all the way through. Sage has an idyllic childhood on a multigenerational Oregon commune (a couple crusty hippie elders in attendance, along with Mom and stepdad—Sage’s real dad swings through the branches at a bonobo sanctuary in San Jose). But the parents grow increasingly isolated and protective, and it turns out they’ve got good reasons—the local Christian right isn’t thrilled with Ms. Combo Gene. The three take off bushwhacking through the Trinities, escaping helicopters and rifle-toting searchers. After that, things rapidly go global, and soon Sage is traveling worldwide at the behest of a Bill Gates-like billionaire, seeking support for “my people”—bonobos—by urging her other people to put a damper on the overpopulation and habitat destruction imperiling all creatures. Feminist politics mixes in, along with tree sits, living off the land, and lots of partying. Surprisingly, the left is often as craven as the right. Leave this book on your plane seat and surprise the next passenger.

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