Mike Culver’s one of those men you’d be incredibly lucky to resemble later on in life. He’s pushing 50, fit, good looking and brilliant in that way peculiar to old Southern radicals. He has a beautiful old house in Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood, a fantastic little family and a wonderful analysis on the world as sharp as it is compassionate.
One dark summer morning me and Greg Wells went over to pay Mike a visit. We all sat outside on his foyer drinking mint tea and discussing sex, politics and all other matter of important things. Mike was telling us about how difficult it was to raise his two adopted sons under the omnipresent flags of the late great Confederate States of America. “So every time we drive down Monument Avenue, the only place on Earth where statues of losers are still honored, my sons and I discuss all those stone men who made bad choices. ‘Cuz afterall, we are nothing more than the sum of all our choices.”
He said a lot of amazing things that day, but none stuck with me more than that last line.
Fast forward four years and an armload of shitty situations later. I’m standing on a rock outcropping on the Makah Reservation in Northwestern Washington, on this absolutely magical promontory where the Pacific meets the Straight of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains dive straight from snow capped peaks, past temperate rainforest into gorgeous turquoise seawater. The place is positively ejaculatory. Me and Kestrel had been chumming around the Makah Rez surfing and filling our brains with more intense history and wild nature than humynly possible. We were gawking at surf scoters, pigeon gulliemonts and black oystercatchers (all amazing seabirds) when suddenly, out of nowhere, Mike Culver’s deep Southern drawl popped into my head. “We are nothing more than the sum of all our choices.”
Boom. Hit the rewind button a bunch of years. Me and Deadboy were sitting in a meeting of famous eco-defenders somewhere in Western Oregon. We were by far the youngest, least seasoned people in the room and consequently, we were also the most aggressive and militant. We had just been “honored” with the opportunity to drive two powerboats in a hunt sab of the Makah People’s ¸ber-controversial whale hunt.
After 200 years of oppression and being only triple digits from extinction, the Makah had resurrected their culture, their language and their autonomy and were engaging in what I would later learn was the final step in reclaiming their culture, the sacred rite of hunting a whale. It turned out that as part of forcing the Makah to assimilate into European America, the government not only forced the Makah children into boarding schools and outlawed their native language, but stripped them of the backbone of their culture, whaling. And here me and Deadboy, two working class punks barely out of puberty, had been recruited by a well financed group of radical white vegans, to shut down this exercise of indigenous rights through any means fucking necessary.
PETA officials on the other side of the continent had funneled an armada of powerboats to us and our mission was simple. Call every media outlet available. Motor out to the whale grounds and with cameras rolling, put our bodies between the Makah harpoons and the whales. If that didn’t work, we would ram the Makah boats. “We’ll do anything to save those whales; anything.” Gero said to Deadboy and I with an ominous wink. And we would have too. Anything.
Thankfully the hunt sab fell apart before it ever hit the water as not only was it a completely racist insult to native people, but it also more than likely would have resulted in a loss of human life, most notably, me and Deadboy. Between being shot by angry Indians, tense cops or just drowning in the 50 ft water, the ways to die were as numerous as the reasons we should have walked right out of that meeting. But being young and militant, we would have done anything to fulfill our righteous arrogance and impress the older eco-defenders we adored. And the sum of this series of decisions could have been tragic.
It felt incredibly weird being on Makah land so many years later. Although perhaps the strongest willed people I’ve ever met in my life, the Makah had treated us well at every turn. The recent resurrection of their ancestral homeland at Ozette had added oil to their cultural flame and they were fiercely dignified in a way I wish all people could be. But here I was walking around with the dark secret that I, under the influence of upper class vegans and environmentalists, had come within an hour of choosing to give my life to hinder their cultural resurrection. And as we drove down the Coast from Makah land, through the Quinalt and Quiliute lands, so many more situations popped into my head where my choices, guided by older people I respected, had almost cost me my life.
Rewind a few more years from when me and Deadboy almost joined the vegan white supremacist action. Me and a gang of youngsters had been recruited to go play cat and mouse in an active logging site on the Coast. We donned our camo, put up our hoods and headed out towards the sounds of saws. I came upon a logger who was 90% done felling a huge hemlock and following the spirit of Dave Foreman (or rather what Dave Foreman had said in ECODEFENSE and hundreds of pages in the Earth First! journal), jumped right in the path the tree would take on its way down.
I shouted at the top of my pubescent lungs, “Stop your saw asshole! Stop your saw!”
The logger looked up, not with hate or anger in his, but with fear; fear for my life. He stared at the tree then back at me with tears welling up in his eyes. Then, he shut off the saw. At the time, I took that for a victory. Later, after I had spent my first couple hundred hours working in the woods and found out what holding wood and a barberchair are, I took it as a logger willingly risking his life to save some ignorant kid’s ass. Sadly, not every situation would work out this way. Gypsy was killed when he chose to put himself in the same exact situation only a few years later. And even after Gypsy’s death and a hundred near misses, there’s still a perpetual call for young people to go risk their lives playing cat and mouse when the tactic has NEVER saved a forest. And this is anything but accidental.
The youth, particularly young men, are the most easily exploited tools in any good ideologue’s toolbox. There’s a good reason why the people in uniform getting blown up by improvised explosives in Iraq are mostly young men. Why the people blowing themselves up in shopping malls and in front of employment offices are young people. Why the people recruited to do the dirty work of any underground organization be it the Hoover Street Crips, the Aryan Nation, or Earth First! are always young people. Why the people rotting in prison for eco-sabotage actions are almost always young. There’s a point in everyone’s evolution where the heart is bigger than the mind. Where concepts seem more important than consequences. Where our take on the world is so narrow, so easily influenced and manipulated that given the slightest encouragement, we’ll do just about anything. Now I ain’t saying there’s anything wrong with having a big heart, quite the contrary. But the brain needs to keep the heart in check every now and again to make sure that the old heart will still be beating in the future.
Like it or not, as Mike Culver said, we are the sum of our choices. I am lucky as hell the math worked out the way it did for me, but know all too many people who weren’t so lucky. You can ask any of my dozen or so brothers in prison about choices. All of these big hearted men got caught up in making a series of bad choices that led to them spending years in concrete cells for selling drugs, getting in a fight or killing someone. And everyone of them can, by a simple act of subtraction, point exactly to the one choice that led them to an entirely different, entirely worse, life.
So whenever a choice appears before you, particularly ones based on militancy, politics or religion, get the bullshit detector out. Think hard and long about not only what is being asked of you, but where you will be when things go bad, ‘cuz they almost always do. And if in doubt, wait. Research. Keep your cool. Given some time for reflection, bad choices can typically be weeded out before they happen. You are far too valuable an asset to the world to die prematurely or spend the next 50 years in a cell all because of a bad decision or two. The world is a vastly different place than it was even ten years ago with the consequences of bad choices getting increasingly painful with every Congressional Session. It’s more important now to live smart than it ever has been before. So stay tough, stay free and most importantly, stay alive.
PS- Check out IGNITE, OROKU, DEATHMOLD and the STOCKYARD STOICS if you can. All amazing bands, all amazing people with that precious balance of heart and mind.