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One Nation Under Elvis

An environmentalism for us all

by Rebecca Solnit
Photographs by Larry Mills

Published in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Larry Mills

THE BIGGEST WILDERNESS I’ve ever been in—a roadless area roughly the size of Portugal with about fifty contiguous watersheds and the whole panoply of charismatic macrofauna doing their thing undisturbed—is another story. This one is about what happened afterward, when I and the Canadian environmentalists I’d been traveling with arrived at the nearest settlement, a logging town in the far northeast corner of British Columbia consisting of a raw row of buildings on either side of the highway to Alaska.

We were celebrating two weeks of rafting down the central river in that ungulate- and predator-rich paradise at the outpost’s big honky-tonkish nightclub, where the DJ kept playing country songs, to which all the locals would loop around gracefully, clasped together. But my compadres kept making faces of disgust at the music and asking the DJ to put on something else. He’d oblige with reggae, mostly, and we’d wave our limbs vaguely, dancing solo and free-form as white people have danced to rock-and-roll since the mid-1960s. Everyone else would sit down to wait this other music out. It was not a great movement-building exercise. How far were you going to get with a community when you couldn’t stand their music or even be diplomatic about it? I’ve been through dozens of versions of that scene over the years and got reminded of it last year by my letter from Dick.

He really was named Dick. From a return address in the exorbitantly expensive near–San Francisco countryside, he sent me a typewritten note about a section in a recent book of mine. He declared, “The country music parts of the US you love so much are also home of the most racist, reactionary, religiously authoritarian (i.e., Dominionist) people in the country. You don’t have to go far: just look @ voting patterns among rednecks descendants of the white yeomanry, if you wish to be polite) in the Central Valley. They love Bush and are very backward people by the standards of the Enlightenment. The Q might be, what is the correlation between country music and political backwardness, if any?”

My first question for Dick might be: which country music? You could cite Johnny Cash’s long-term commitment to Native American rights and stance against the Vietnam War (he called himself “a dove with claws”) or the song about interracial love that Merle Haggard wrote (but his record company refused to release, though the minor country star Tony Booth had a hit with “Irma Jackson” in 1970) or “I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again,” boldly sung by Tanya Tucker in 1974:


Our neighbors in the big house called us redneck
’Cause we lived in a poor share-croppers shack
The Jacksons down the road were poor like we were
But our skin was white and theirs was black

But I believe the south is gonna rise again
But not the way we thought it would back then
I mean everybody hand in hand . . .

Or you could just mention medium-sized country star Charley Pride (thirty-six Billboard No. 1 country hits), who also doesn’t fit Dick’s redneck designation because he is African American.

In terms of political orientation, you could cite the Texas-based Dixie Chicks, who refused to back down from criticizing Bush on the brink of the current war. They were, as their recent hit had it, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Though corporate country stars like Toby Keith stampeded to support the so-called war on terror, alt. country musicians like Steve Earle charged just as hard in the opposite direction. Country music is a complex beast, sometimes in resistance to or mockery of the mainstream and the rural South, sometimes a mirror of or hymn to it, the product of many voices over many eras, arisen from a culture that was never pure anything, including white. (And its current listening territory includes much of the English-speaking world.)

Another set of questions might be why Dick despises the people and places that spawned the music, and what larger rifts his attitude reveals. Answering them requires digging into the deep history of American music and American race and class wars, and into the broad crises of environmentalism in recent years.

Those wars about race and class are peculiarly evident in the stories we tell about Elvis. I was raised on the tale that Elvis stole his music from black people. The story told one way makes Elvis Presley a thief rather than someone who bridged great divides by hybridizing musical traditions and brought the lush energetic force of African-American music into white ears and hearts and loins. It ignores his many white influences, from bluesy Hank Williams to schmaltzy Perry Como, his genius in synthesizing multiple American traditions into something unprecedented, and the raw power of his own voice and vocal style. It ignores, too, the lack of an apartheid regime in American roots music. White country blues and white gospel were part of the rich river of sound that came out of the South long before Presley. Despite segregation, black and white musicians learned from each other and influenced each other. (Another view of Elvis, from Billboard magazine in 1958, stated, “In one aspect of America’s cultural life, integration has already taken place.”)

The particular song Elvis was supposed to have stolen from R & B singer Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog,” wasn’t a vernacular expression of African-American culture, and it wasn’t her creation anyway; it was written by two New York Jews, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Elvis’s first single featured a cover of the song “That’s All Right Mama” by Delta blues singer Arthur Crudup, but the B-side was a cover of bluegrass star Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” as perfect a mix of southern musical traditions as you can find. Elvis was repeatedly charged with being a racist—most famously in rapper Chuck D’s 1990 song—on the basis of a comment he never actually made. James Brown and Muhammad Ali thought otherwise, and some Native Americans claim the part-Cherokee Elvis as their own.

The story that Elvis stole his music from African Americans as told by, for example, my now-deceased, uber-leftie, America-hating, and otherwise wonderful aunt, turned rock-and-roll into a mostly white child miraculously born to a purely black family. It was a way of saying that cool and correct white people could love rock-and-roll—white music with roots in the South—but dodge the sense that they had any affinities with white southerners; they could imagine them as wholly other and hate them with ease, with a fervor and disdain that spilled over pretty easily to all blue-collar rural people, to the white American peasantry, basically. That hate had and has wide currency. Ask Dick.

The story that racism belongs to poor people in the South is a little too easy, though. Just as not everybody up here, geographically and economically, is on the right side of the line, so not everyone down there is on the wrong side. But the story allows middle-class people to hate poor people in general while claiming to be on the side of truth, justice, and everything else good.

I grew up surrounded by liberals and leftists who liked to play the idiot in fake southern accents, make jokes about white trash and trailer trash, and, like the Canadian enviros, made gagging noises whenever they heard Dolly Parton or anything like her. If Okies from Muskogee thought they were being mocked, they were right, in part. This mockery was particularly common during the 1970s and 1980s, but it has yet to evaporate altogether—after all, Dick, who judging by his typewriter was around then, wrote me only last summer. My aged mother continues to make liberal use of the term “redneck” to describe the people I grew up among (though they were just suburban conservatives), and last summer I met a twentysomething from New York at a Nevada campout who told me he too was raised to hate country music. He was happily learning to love it, but late, like me.

My own conversion to country music came all of a sudden in 1990, around another campfire, also in Nevada. The great Western Shoshone anti-nuclear and land-rights activist Bill Rosse, a decorated World War II vet and former farm manager, unpacked his guitar and sang Hank Williams and traditional songs for hours. I was enchanted as much by the irreverent rancor of some of the songs as by the pure blue yearning of others. I’d had no idea such coolness, wit, and poetry was lurking in this stuff I was taught to scorn before I’d met it.

HATING WHITE SOUTHERNERS, particularly poor white southerners, and often by extension any poor rustic whites, seems to be a legacy of the civil rights movement. So far as I can tell (I came later), well-meaning people outside the South were horrified by the culture of Jim Crow, with its segregation, discrimination, and violence—and rightly so. Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent time in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, and I myself was horrified by the racial violence that transpired during the chaos of Katrina and some of the everyday apartheid and racist vileness that persists in the region. But I also recently ran into raging white racists on the periphery of Detroit, Michigan, right across the river from Canada. And the last ostentatious racists I met were the middle-aged heir of a fabulously wealthy family whose hallowed name is smeared all over the Northeast and his yachting buddy, right here in left-coast ultra-urban San Francisco. Racism is pervasive. The pretense that it belongs solely to poor people who talk slow lets the rest of us off the hook.

So on the one hand we have white people who hate black people. On the other hand we have white people who hate other white people on the grounds that they hate black people. But that latter hatred accuses many wrongfully, and it serves as a convenient coverup for the racism that is all around us. The reason why it matters is because middle-class people despising poor people becomes your basic class war, and the ongoing insults seem to have been at least part of what has weakened the environmental movement in particular and progressive politics in general.

Right-wing politicians may serve the super-rich with tax cuts and deregulation and privatization galore, but they also dress up expertly in a heartland all-Americanism that has, at least until Bush’s plummeting popularity, allowed a lot of rural Americans to see them as allies rather than opponents. The right has also done a superb job of portraying the left as elite and hostile to working-class interests, and the class war going on inside and outside leftist and environmentalist circles did this propaganda battle a great service. The result of all this has been a marginalized environmental movement—more specifically, an environmental movement that has alienated the people who often live closest to “the environment.”

Of course dreadlocks and ragged clothes weren’t exactly diplomatic outreach tools either. I spent some of the 1990s with and around activists in the public forests of the West, and a lot of the supposedly most radical had a remarkable knack for going into rural communities and insulting practically everyone with whom they came into contact. It became clear to me that in their eyes the worst crimes of the locals did not involve chainsaws and voting choices but culture and what gets called lifestyle. It was a culture war that got pretty far from who was actually doing what to the Earth and how anyone might stop it.

Grubby, furry, childless pseudo-nomads who could screw up all they wanted and live hand to mouth until something went wrong and the long arm of middle-class parents reached out to rescue them scorned the tough economic choices of people with kids, mortgages, and no bail-out plan or white-collar options. Some of them did great things for trees, but their approach wasn’t always, to say the least, coalition-building. It also wasn’t ubiquitous. There were some broad-minded people in the movement, and some who even hailed from these rural and poor cultures, and Earth First! always had a self-proclaimed redneck contingent—but the scorn was widespread enough to be a major problem. And it seemed to be part of the reason why a lot of rural people despise environmentalists.

I remember talking to a young rancher in an anti-environmental bar in Eureka, Nevada, who humbly presumed that environmentalists, including myself and the group I was with, loathed him. His hat was large and his heart was good. Whatever you think of arid-lands ranching, he seemed to be doing it pretty well. He boasted of grass up to his cows’ bellies, talked about moving the cows around to prevent erosion, and deplored the gold mines that are doing far worse things to the region. We were clearly on the wrong track—the environmental movement as a whole, if not the Nevada activists I worked with, who did a decent job of bridging the divide, but why was there a divide? The bar in Eureka, as of last July, still sold t-shirts emblazoned with the acronym WRANGLERS (Western Ranchers Against No-Good Leftist Environmentalist Radical Shitheads), a slogan about as diplomatic as my letter from Dick.

THE SOCIALISM AND PROGRESSIVISM that thrived through the 1930s saw farmers, loggers, fisheries workers, and miners as its central constituency along with longshoremen and factory workers. Where did it go? You can see missed opportunities again and again. Some of the potential for a broad, blue-collar left was trampled by the virulent anti-communism and anti-labor-union mood of the postwar era. More of it was undermined by the culture clash that came out of the civil rights movement. By the 1980s, when I was old enough to start paying attention, the divide was pretty wide. And environmentalists were typically found on one side.

The environmental justice movement set out in part to rectify that. The founding notion was to address the way that environmental hazards—refineries, incinerators, toxic dumps—are often sited in poor communities and communities of color. But class and thereby poor white people very quickly vanished from the formula. Toxic dumping in a rural North Carolina African-American community is said to have launched the environmental justice movement in 1982, but the prototypical environmental injustice had been exposed a few years earlier, in the mostly white community at Love Canal in western New York. It wasn’t an anomaly either. The 1972 Buffalo Creek flood occurred when a coal-slurry impoundment dam on a mountaintop in West Virginia burst and killed 125, left 4,000 homeless, destroyed many small communities, and devastated the survivors—almost all of whom were white. And modern-day coal mining continues to ravage poor, mostly white regions of the South in what environmental journalist Antrim Caskey calls “the government-sanctioned bombing of Appalachia.” Caskey describes how “coal companies turn communities against each other by telling their employees that the environmentalists want to take away their jobs.”

The right wooed rural white people (and then screwed them), the left neglected them at best, and the electoral maps everyone made so much noise about in the 2004 election weren’t about red states and blue states, they were about urban islands of blue surrounded by oceans of red. The anti-environmental and often corporate-backed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the Wise Use Movement of the 1980s did their part to deepen the divide by convincing rural whites that their livelihoods were threatened by environmentalists and persuading them to embrace pro-corporate, pro-extractive-industry positions. And small-scale farmers losing their land were receptive to right-wing rhetoric that claimed to feel their pain and pinned the blame on liberals or immigrants or environmentalists, rather than corporate consolidation, globalization, or other macroeconomic forces. During the Clinton era when rural right-wingers feared the United Nations and “world government” (remember the black helicopters?) and the militia movement was strong, I wished that the anti-corporate-globalization movement could have done a better job of reaching out to these descendants of the old Progressives, Wobblies, and agrarian insurgents to tell them that there were indeed schemes for scary world domination, but they involved the World Trade Organization, not the UN. An environmental movement, or a broader progressive movement, that could speak to these
communities would be truly powerful. And truly just.

Pieces of it are here. The Quivira Coalition and many other groups across the West have found common ground with ranchers; land trust organizations and others have forged alliances with farmers; the whole premise that the people who actually produce the resources that the rest of us use are necessarily the enemy is fading away. I think of the fantastic work being done by good-old-boy-like activists I’ve met in the South—a land preservationist getting lots of conservation easements from the local Charleston-area gentry and a big red-faced drawling guy doing extraordinarily great environmental justice work with the African-American community in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. And of people like Oakland’s Van Jones, who are thinking about how jobs and the environment can come together as a goal. Even presidential candidate John Edwards, himself the child of North Carolina textile millworkers, talks about class and poverty in a way no one in the mainstream has in many years, or decades. The argument that a healthy environment can bring more revenue into rural communities through recreation and other benefits has more credence nowadays, and hardly radical constituencies like the lobstermen of Maine have recognized the relationship between their livelihoods and the health of the oceans. But much remains to be done.

The environmental movement’s founding father, John Muir, was himself a Wisconsin farm boy, and he did not so much flee the farm for the wilderness as invent wilderness as a counter-image to the farm on which his brutal father nearly worked him to death. Muir worked later as a shepherd and lumber-miller in the Sierra Nevada and much later married into an orchard-owning family, but he didn’t have much to say about work, and what little he did say wasn’t positive. The wilderness he sought was solitary, pure, and set apart from human society, corporeal sustenance, and human toil—which is why he had to forget about the Indians who were still subsisting on the land there. This apartness and forgetting so beautifully codified in Ansel Adams’s wilderness photographs has shaped the vision of much of the environmental movement since them.

The Sierra Club, which Muir cofounded with a group of University of California professors in 1892, saw nature as not where one lived or worked but where one vacationed. And traditional American environmentalism still largely imagines nature as vacationland and as wilderness, ignoring the working landscapes and agricultural lands, whose beauties and meanings are widely celebrated in European art. More recently, as environmentalists have found themselves dealing with more systemic problems—pesticides, acid rain—they’ve begun to shed the sense that the rural and urban, human and wild, are separate in ecological terms, but that awareness has done little to actually connect rural and urban people and issues.

Today, rural citizens see themselves in an unappreciated, fast-shrinking middle zone between wilderness and development (even though agriculture is often the best bulwark against sprawl). In many ways, rural culture is dying, and that seems to push many rural people into near-paranoia. During the water-scarcity crises in the Klamath River region on the California–Oregon border, farmers spoke of “rural cleansing” and seemed to believe that environmentalists wanted to empty out the countryside. Some of them do. Rural life, other than sentimental fantasies of an idyllic past, cowboy fetishism, or the pseudo-ruralism of people who live in rustic-looking settings but commute to work in the white-collar economy, is largely invisible to most of us most of the time. It’s true that agriculture and wilderness are often in competition—the farmers of the Klamath Basin are competing with salmon for water. But if rural culture and rural life were positive values also being defended, the negotiations might go better.

Wallace Stegner wrote forty-seven years ago that “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” and something else will go out of us if the resourcefulness, rootedness, and richness of rural culture disappears. It’s why the environmentalist-rancher coalitions are so noteworthy, and the new alliances forged to resist the Bush-era oil and gas leases across the arid West. But they are only a small part of a culture and a movement that need to do a lot more.

One step would be to stop letting the right wing frame the debate. More significantly, we need to seek ways to sustain both rural life and wildlife. The small solutions—fencing riparian habitat, allowing wildlife corridors, reorienting farms toward sustainable agriculture and local markets and away from chemical-heavy industrial production—can be cooperative rather than competitive. The large solution is a culture that values all of its fulfilling landscapes—the ones that sustain us bodily as well as imaginatively, the tilled lands as well as the wild. Of course one complication is that rural life itself has been increasingly industrialized in ways that produce, rather than a picturesque farm scene, a sort of food factory operated largely by exploited and transient workers and run by offsite profiteers. Reforming this will be good for both human rights and the environment—as well as our health and our tables.

IF, AT THE START OF THIS STORY, the great divide was manifest in musical taste and distaste, that too has begun to close, as musical genres bleed into each other and no longer provide the airtight identities they once did. The young don’t seem to care who owns what music, and a lot of them have distinctly downwardly mobile tastes—garnished with irony, but not with scorn. (After all, a lot of them are downwardly mobile in this ruthless economy.) Race has gotten a lot more complicated in their lifetimes (and ours), both in abstract ideologies and in actual liaisons and general hybridizations, and so has music, above and beyond all those suburban white boys who wanted to be rappers in the 1990s.

The late-twenties writer and music aficionado Steven Leckart wrote me last year about the splendidly hybrid music and tastes of his generation. “I get the sense that the phrase ‘everything but country’—which was rather popular when I was a teenager—is starting to go out of fashion,” he said. “When Jack White of the White Stripes produced Loretta Lynn’s last record and was nominated for a Grammy, that may not have been on teenagers’ radars, but it’s certainly reflected online. So you have a thirteen-year-old who happens to like Beck navigating with a click to the White Stripes and then to Loretta Lynn, and if he likes what he hears with Loretta even just a little, he will continue to explore those roots.” The Farm Aid lineups over the last decade suggest another kind of crossover: everyone from Billy Joel and B. B. King to Dave Matthews has played alongside Willie Nelson and a regular array of country musicians. Maybe the music that once divided us could unite us as we wander this unfenced aural landscape.

Fortunately, I think Dick might be a relic. There are particular organizations as well as general tendencies that make me hopeful. Among them are the resurgent interest in where food actually comes from, the growing tendency to condemn less and build coalitions more, and a stronger capacity for thinking systemically. And then climate change is an issue that could unite us in new ways as it makes clear how interdependent everything on this planet is, and the extent to which privilege and consumption are part of the problem. The solutions will involve modesty as well as innovation.

The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory—that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead. It might mean giving up on the environmental movement as a separate sector and thinking more holistically about what we want to protect and why, including people, places, traditions, and processes outside the wilderness. It might even mean getting over the notion that left and right are useful or even adequate ways to describe who we are and what we long for (or even over the notion of rural and urban, as food gardens proliferate in the latter and sprawl becomes an issue in the former). We must also talk about class again, loudly and clearly, without backing down or forgetting about race. This is the back road down which lie stronger coalitions, genuine justice, a healthier environment, and maybe even a music that everyone can dance to.

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Rebecca Solnit, a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, is an Orion columnist and a contributing editor to Harper’s. She is the author of twelve books, most recently Storming the Gates of Paradise, and lives in San Francisco.

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