(an interview with Jesse Ambrose.)
*Jesse Ambrose appears, peripherally, in my essay All Across the Desert Our Bread is Blooming! (Jan/Feb, the Believer.) The essay profiles an itinerant wild foods gardener named Finisia Medrano, a woman who’s been replanting the natural food systems of the Great Basin for decades, despite resistance from ranchers, Feds, police, and BLM. If you read the essay, you’ll note my admiration for Medrano, but you won’t learn much about the lives of the three people in her camp: Ambrose and two people I call, “the kids from Spokane.” I recently received a letter from Ambrose detailing some things he felt the essay failed to convey. Of particular annoyance were descriptors such as “scrawny kids” and “skinny kids” and what seemed a dismissive attitude. I’ve thought a lot about that letter in the last few days. On the one hand, I suppose it was my read on the situation that they were, indeed, young and impressionable people. It seemed to me that everyone in camp, including me and my friend Peter, were enamored of and more or less submissive to Medrano. On the other hand, print does lend an air of the definitive, though it should go without saying that a writer who visits a people or place for a few days is not positioned to offer an inclusive account. Ambrose went on to explain that “the kids from Spokane” were living on the streets before joining the Hoop, that they worked around the clock to gear up for camp, and in light of such sacrifices, I agree that the offending descriptors come off rather flip. “All of us who are, or who have been traveling with Finisia, have done so because of great conviction and months or years of hard work and sacrifice, both physical and psychological.”
And so, in the spirit of a third dimension, I decided to follow up and find out about the rest of his time traveling and planting on the hoop. (80+ days!)
LW: We can start wherever. But first, I guess I’m curious to learn how you explain the Hoop to your friends and family.
JA: Generally, initial conversations just scrape the surface. I’ll say something to the extent of, “The Hoop refers to the symbiotic, seasonal migrational cycle of harvesting and planting in wild gardens. It is a physical, social, and spiritual place. Essentially, learning to be on the Hoop means learning how to give life, even as you are feeding yourself; to give back more than you take.” Oftentimes people will want to know if I hunted animals. Sometimes I get asked if I’m an expert horseman now (I’m not). My mom wanted to know what I did to poop, haha. I think one thing that is very difficult to convey is that these gardens are ancient. They’re older than recorded history. They could be four or six times as old as recorded history, I don’t know. This sacredness doesn’t really register.
LW: It doesn’t. Also, this phrase “giving back more than you take” is easy to let slip by without understanding what that means in practice. In the most literal sense, you guys are giving back more seed each year, more roots, your labor, your time, your seed-laden shit, etc. But there’s also this mental and emotional labor. It’s seemed insane to me that Finisia had over 500 police visits, that there would be so much resistance to something so seemingly benign. But a line in your letter kind of pulled it into perspective, that to be out there planting the seed is “a direct-confrontation of the socio-psychological and political structures of dominant society.” It’s very basic. Most of us believe participating in industrial civilization is the only option, and to eat free threatens that premise… So, what kind of resistance did you face out there?
JA: The biggest and most obvious resistance was from the law. We had at least ten cop-visits during my time out there. It is illegal to plant on public land. I’m not sure what the laws are regarding private land. I think there are still restrictions on what you can do. The reality is, this way of life has been intentionally and systematically sought out and destroyed. The Buffalo were killed to cripple plains cultures, and the Columbia dammed to take away the Salmon from Chinook tribes. The story’s the same everywhere. In Europe the commons were taken away because people kept running off and forming egalitarian, self-sufficient communities. Prior to the rise of capitalism the ruling class was more or less constantly at risk of losing its power…
It is hard to believe that the cops prioritize harassing a trans bag lady, planting wildflowers with some friends, over cracking down on something more insidious like sex trafficking. But the symbiotic life-ways of indigenous people here and the world over are sought out, crippled and corrupted. The bottom line is civilization is a colonizing, slave-dependent construction, and as such it can’t co-exist with autonomous, sovereign, indigenous life-ways. I think the public, while perhaps not entirely consciously, is aware of this. People get defensive when we tell them what we are doing. They start explaining how what they are doing isn’t all that bad, or how they tan hides too, or how they can start a fire with flint and steel. Or they take an aggressive approach and call us low-lifers who just need to get a job. Grandma (Finisia Medrano,) of course, is a bible-thumping moral juggernaut, but I witnessed these patterns even before I entered Fin’s camp. Rewilding is inherently against everything we’re supposed to do, and choosing to go down this path makes a loud and clear statement. The first settlers who “ran away” to join the tribes were hunted. Today, a widespread return or revival of this way of life has been made all but impossible. Even seemingly trivial obstacles become more bricks in the wall. I mean, in all the county laws in Oregon that I’ve looked at, you can’t even legally camp year-round on your own land. You have to have a house with electricity and plumbing. Hunting and fishing restrictions get in the way. Parties larger than just a few people aren’t allowed in one camp. Etc. On the one hand, these obstacles seem innocent enough, but when you step back and look at the big picture, it easy to see the genocidal policies of yesteryear never went away. Of course, any indigenous person could tell you this! I could go on about all of the physical, psychological, individual and social resistances, but I am already rambling.
LW: You’re not rambling. How did those police visits resolve?
JA: Most of the police visits I was present for were friendly enough. There were a couple of times we got verbally reprimanded for crossing over onto private property or something. I know in the past some hoopsters have been put in jail and/or fined. But while I was out there, they just came by to remind us that we would be charged if they caught us planting, or to remind us that we can’t shit within 100 yards of the creek, (that right is reserved for the cows!) I also think he meant feet; afterwards we were scratching our heads wondering if it was really necessary to walk a football field’s distance to dig a hole. Or they came by to remind us we can’t stay on BLM for longer than two weeks, or to warn us that a rancher was moving their cattle in, or to tell us to take down our portable electrical fence for the horses (even though it’s less damaging on the habitat than tying them to sage brush)—you know, basically to check in on us. Sometimes a local rancher would call the cops because they were pissed we were on, what they deemed, “their graze,” even if it was public land. One time a cop came to warn us about a death threat that was posted up the road for us, scrawled on some printer paper and etched into a painted raccoon skull (I think they thought it was a coyote, but it wasn’t.)
LW: Did you guys ever find out who left the death threat?
JA: We never found out. Could’ve been annoyed ranchers or it could’ve been kids dicking around. Hell, it could’ve been the cops for all I know!
But in general, the cops are nice and we know each other on a first-name basis. More often than not, they show up because a disgruntled neighbor called them. The law enforcement folks are just doing their job, and may be nice enough, but their job is to monitor our activity and try to catch us red-handed. You can really only blame them for harassing us to the extent that that you could blame an individual soldier for contributing to a war.
I should also point out, that not all hoopsters get as many police visits as coyote camp gets. We could have traveled more under the radar and tiptoed around all of the locals instead of interacting with them, and things like that. But in Fin’s camp, part of the mission is to make a splash.
LW: So, the three of you spent 80 days on the hoop with Finisia (is that right?) How much seed did you get planted?
JA: I think it was technically 81 or 82 days, but yea, somewhere around there. I believe we had around 150 lbs. of seed that found a home.
LW: 150 lbs. of seed, what kind of acreage are we talking?
JA: Hm. I’m not really sure how many acres we planted. We planted in more than one place. Where I’m currently staying in Washington is 2 acres, and on the Hoop we spread seed across areas much bigger than this. Maybe condensed it’d be comparable to 3 to 5 solid acres? Hard to say!
LW: Was there a point in time where you felt something significant shift in yourself, some block you had to move through, or a revelation you hadn’t anticipated? I know that’s kind of vague.
JA: Honestly, every week was a process, something new to learn or digest. It’s really hard to pinpoint one big revelation or challenge. So, here’s a couple. I learned how apparent the expensiveness of human life becomes when you’re trying to live symbiotically. We depended on the horses almost entirely, so their well being was at least half of our effort. That encompassed everything from walking them to water two or three times a day, to making sure our packs didn’t rub their hides raw, to making sure they couldn’t get tangled in anything when tied up. Furthermore, a personal costume could consist of 4-8 deerskins. The rope we make often comes from plant fibers. How much food people individually eat is mind-boggling. You might get to what seems like a big garden, but if you stay long, harvesting from it, you will decimate it. The number of plants and animals we depend on quickly adds up. That’s why it is so important to plant back.
We grow up in civilization learning to exploit everything we touch. Just learning how to be a part of a real human community means constantly unlearning and relearning everything. And that’s just one aspect of learning how to participate in the larger plant and animal community of life in a good way. Everything from the language we speak, to the family unit, to the way we perceive consciousness, to the way we perceive time is inherently hierarchical, aggressive, and exploitive. It all needs to be unspun and relearned. There are all sorts of tendencies we develop in city life that get in your way on the Hoop. These are the individual resistances that I alluded to earlier. Insistence on having things your way, failure to communicate healthily with the people and animals around you, constantly trying to improve technology, procrastinating on things that need to be accomplished—things like that. A big block for me was learning how to get out of my head, and become more aware. Generally, in civ, most people consider me to be pretty aware. Some people consider me to be too aware. But on the Hoop you can’t live inside your head, or else you’re gonna fall down a canyon, or you’ll get dehydrated, or you’ll fall off your horse, or you’ll step on a rattlesnake, or not see your impact on the gardens. I fucked up enough times to learn I wasn’t as aware as I thought was.
If I were to summarize the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my relationship to the Hoop, it would be that it is past time—in my words—to Grow The Fuck Up. It’s time to acknowledge where we’re coming from and where we’re at, time to be truthful, time to live for something besides ourselves, time to participate in a bigger picture, time to take responsibility, time to eat some humble pie, time to respect that which deserves respect.
LW: Can you offer some concrete directives to those who might wish to Grow The Fuck Up, as you say? What are some ways people can support the return of the hoops?
JA: I think there is an invitation—a mandate—for people who hail from the dominant culture like you and I do, to enter into a deeper story. It’s time to re-member what it means to be a human, to return to our original instructions. The unspinning of our domestication is an often uncomfortable, murky labyrinth. I don’t think there’s any five-step program I could outline on how to GTFU. Intact cultures have elders that guide their children to maturity. We’ve killed or lost our elders. But there’re plenty of Voices who are our elders. Next to ancient cultures that still carry songs delineating how to process a mammoth, the dominant culture is but an infant… I don’t think there’s a five-step program, but I think the first step would be to listen. If you aren’t listening to the imminent collapse of all ocean life or the raised fists of indigenous communities, then I don’t know what to say to you. However if you are willing to truly listen, I think you’ll start hearing some things.
Basically, here’s the landscape rewilding hoopsters have to navigate: We are refinding a home, knowing we have lost, killed, or forgotten our own ancestral home and must recognize our role as colonizing occupiers of someone else’s home. We cannot steal someone else’s culture. Nor can we pick and choose our ancestors. Our ancestors were traumatized traumatizing individuals, and in all likelihood, they’re still doing their thing. We have to take a hard look at that ugliness we carry. For some, GTFU might mean killing the permanently juvenilized monster child, because it doesn’t want to die. Rewilding is exciting, because it means constantly having your world turned upside down, and constantly learning new ancient things. But rewilding is also very hard, because the more you learn, the more you feel what has been lost.
Even though there are Teachers available to us, there are no clear or easy answers, and needing answers is something we’re going to have to get over. The ultra-rational juvenile insistence on knowing everything is part of what got us into this mess. We are afraid of what we do not know because we can’t control it. There are things we’re going to have to come to terms with, or let go. Climate change is irreversible. Passenger pigeons can’t be resurrected. Even if all industrial pollution ground to a halt, nuclear waste facilities will be with us for millennia. The wild world is in tatters and we ought to be walking in grief every day. Our calling is to adopt a willingness to proceed, knowing we can never undo all of the destruction, knowing we may be unsuccessful, but in hope that maybe future generations will inherit something worth inheriting, and because it is the right thing to do.
Basically, in my mind, the only things worth doing are strengthening what remains or defending what remains. Plant seeds. Plant food for yourself, food for the beavers, food for the hummingbirds. Learn when to harvest so the plants and animals can reproduce. Learn how to fight the advance of the pine bark beetle. Pull some Scot’s Broom. Send supplies or join the land defenders on the frontlines. Join the Tar Sands resistance. Educate people on the value of wolves. Become a lawyer and fight for these life-ways. Educate yourself on how to be an ally to the indigenous peoples fighting occupation. Go to them and ask them what they need. The options are many. Be of service. For rewilders on the land, we need supplies and monetary assistance, and we need land. A lot of my friends are running fundraisers, trying to start schools, or to pay for their animal’s feed, or to feed themselves and visitors over winter, or to gear up, or to learn a lost skill like tending wildfire or working with buffalo. For many of us, the dream is having sanctuaries we can stay at over the winter or as we travel in the warm seasons. Access to land is important.
LW: Thanks. Last question. I know you’re back in a city now, at least temporarily. What’s next? Will you rejoin Medrano’s camp this spring?
JA: I still have student debt to shoulder through. I’m committed to a job until midsummer. I am uncertain at this point what’ll be after that for me. Fin informed me she won’t be in NE Oregon too much longer, she’s planning on returning to Nevada, which is home for her. My girlfriend and I want to spend some time with different rewilders and naturalist students, learning more about the many great things happening. I have a few personal “earworms.” Aspirations I’d like to explore further. I’d like to learn more natural horsemanship. I want to learn to hunt with a bow. I want my Wilderness First Responder. I want to make or acquire a complete gear-set for tending these gardens long-term.
One big ambition for me is to facilitate bringing these pursuits to teenagers. I find that I often get along well with teens and would like to see that age group find this path as fulfilling as I have. Rewilding is very exciting. I think if I had these connections when I was younger, I would have been thrilled. I enjoy sharing some of the things I know, but I’m uncertain at this point if I would want to be a part of a “school” per say, or teach classes myself, or if I would rather head a different direction. Whatever it may be, I’m looking forward to exploring more wild places and deepening my knowledge and connection to the plants, animals, and communities of life on this planet.
*Dear Reader, if you’d like to help support rewilding efforts with land or labor or money, check out the links below: