Making ripples 

David James Duncan goes fishing for the unconverted

Lolo author David James Duncan’s newest nonfiction book, God Laughs & Plays, is a collection of talks, essays and interviews compiled under the subtitle “Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right.” The Independent exchanged e-mails with Duncan about his new publisher, religious dogma and spirituality and its dangers prior to his recent departure for a two-week book tour.

Indy: From a business-of-publishing perspective, I’m interested in your choice to put this book to work to help launch Triad Publishing and draw attention to the fledgling Triad Institute. In the past you’ve published through the Sierra Club. What can you tell me about the Institute, its reasons for being, your reasons for throwing the weight of your writing behind it, and the pros and cons, from an author’s perspective, of choosing a venue for your work based on that venue’s political perspective/program?

DJD: I “sold” God Laughs & Plays to Triad for an advance of zero, frankly, because the head of Triad, Laurie Lane-Zucker, somehow knew that I had written such a book. I didn’t know it. Honest. What happened was this:

Laurie heard me give a somewhat-angry-but-ultimately-hopeful talk about the deadly conflation of neocon politics and fundamentalism in Honolulu, in January 2005. He then walked up to me and said, “I want to publish a bookful of that kind of material for Triad. It will be our first book.”

I didn’t know Laurie yet, except to say hi. And I thought Triad was the name of the Hong Kong mafia. So I said, “That wasn’t a book. It was a talk.”

Laurie remained positive that I had a bookful of such talk. I said I doubted it, and was working on a novel anyway. He asked me if, when I got home, I would see whether I had any more such stuff. I said I would, because I felt fascinated and a little confused by his enthusiasm. I knew Laurie had been co-founder and executive director of the Orion Society. I publish often in their magazine. I knew he’d left the Society to launch a new organization, Triad. The organization was still somewhat inchoate—Laurie is just one man, bright and energetic as he is.

What attracted me to Triad even so was a comment that Paul Hawken, and Wendell Berry when he visited Missoula last year, and many other visionary people have made—which is that the billion or so people who marched in 600 cities worldwide against the U.S. invasion of Iraq are a sure sign of a disorganized, unrecognized, peace-loving, comparatively cultured, compassion-driven, progressive “other super power.”

This possibility resonates with me. When I go on the road for a reading tour, I meet the most wonderful people night after night. Alert, conscientious, largely open-minded people who do not give you anything like the feeling that humanity gives you when you study it at, say, Wal-Mart. Every time the most popular man on the planet, the Dalai Lama, agrees to speak almost anywhere but Antarctica, as many people as the sports arena (or whatever) will hold turn out to see him. These people aren’t Tibetans and most aren’t Buddhist. They just love this fine old monk’s incessant wisdom and his ceaseless advocacy of radical compassion. While the Bushies were launching the first bombs of their ill-fated war two years ago, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu were sitting together in front of 30,000 people in Vancouver B.C. talking about peace, and about the balancing of the head and the heart, and laughing their heads off for no reason, between comments, simply because they love each other so much. And have you heard Tenzin and Tutu laugh? Those two are a contagion! So naturally they made the 30,000 laugh, too.

There’s a lot of power in that much good feeling. Maybe even some disheveled but potentially lovely new “super power.” It’s going to take something super-powerful to knock Clear Channel and Rush Limbaugh and George Will punditry out of the minds of the people, and Al Franken and Hillary Clinton don’t look to me like the power required. So Laurie’s idea of a group like Triad that helps identify and organize all those people appeals to me.

I see hope in the Internet. If millions of struggling, good-hearted people grow vividly aware of each other, and help further each others’ good dreams and yearnings, things could change. Maybe we could start to blog with the Chinese about Tibet. Maybe we can figure out how to mass-produce the precise manner in which a few counties in Pennsylvania have managed to kick corporate brainwashing out of their election process. I don’t know what all is possible. Any idea this big is bound to sound half nuts to a guy from Lolo who thinks a 14-inch trout, a 5-inch dick, and the Missoula Independent are big deals. But it’s fun to expand our thought bubbles in this way. And it is Triad’s, and everyone’s, good fortune that there are people in this world, thank God, who don’t think as small as I do. Wendell Berry and Paul Hawken and my publisher Laurie and some of the people on the Triad advisory board among them.

So I rewrote the best of the heap of Christian-related material that stems from all this, added some fresh stuff, and Triad landed its first book. And I landed that fat five-zeroes-but-no-front-digit advance! Whooeee! And if there truly is a budding but disorganized Progressive Organic Sustainable Peaceable “Triadic” Super Power, who knows, maybe next year I’ll eat! And if there isn’t, I’m still happy to cast this book out on the waters to fish for such an elegant dream.

Indy: The Triad Institute is self-described as “devoted to developing and advancing a new vision of citizenship that is simultaneously local or ‘place-based,’ national, and multinational/global.” What is your perspective on the role of Western Montana and its residents in developing such a new vision of citizenship? What kind of role might we play in such a transformation? What might such a community look like?

DJD: Your guess may be better than mine, but several things occur to me. One of the strengths of Montana, which other places might want to try and emulate if we were networking with them, is our relationship with our rivers. Insofar as Montana is any longer truly the “Treasure State” we’ve realized that our rivers and open spaces and mountains and plains and working ranches and parks and wilderness are our treasure. In helping others mine true treasure, the manner through which we managed to lay cyanide heap-leach gold-mining to rest here might be something that could be studied and perhaps emulated by those in places where the same battle has not been won. Our land trusts and conservation easements are pretty canny, too, compared to some places. And I’d like to clone our Clark Fork Coalition and send them forth to all the world’s rivers.

At the same time, other places have a lot to teach us. There are, for example, no billboards in much of the U.S. Whereas in Montana—sigh. At a meeting up in the Flathead I once saw a community planner from Virginia, when asked a sincere question about Montana’s visual pollution problems on the roadsides, simply break down and cry.

These are small things because I am, as said, a small thinker. But I’m a big dreamer. So who knows? Maybe if a small thinking big dreamer hangs out with some big thinkers at Triad, we’ll create something beautiful together. Maybe others in Montana will get involved, too. There are some tremendous human beings in this state.

Indy: Can you compare and contrast a bit on that vision of citizenship as it relates to your conception of your own role in the local/global community as a writer and teacher of writing?

DJD: I don’t teach writing much anymore, except in private, so I’ll punt on that part of the question. As for my role as an author, I feel that big dreams can be hugely directive in the lives of people who are much better than I am at getting concrete jobs done.

In fairness, I’m not totally inept in my dreaminess. I’ve been directly involved in the realization of a few pretty great things. I’ve also been involved in losing fights against the destruction of some pretty great things. And I have come to value both kinds of battles equally. Winning is more fun, certainly. Helping to kick Phelps Dodge and Canyon Resources out of Montana are thrills I’ll never forget. But if the Blackfoot River, today, were the heap-leach dump Marc Racicot so badly wanted it to be, I could countenance its death a little more easily for having fought like hell for a year to try and prevent it. Putting up a fight brings peace to your sorrow when you lose.

Indy: The book contains a very funny description of your response to a young animal rights activist, wherein you position trout fishermen as the protectors of mayflies. Can you discuss the role—the necessity and/or pitfalls—of dogma as it relates to organized religion, spirituality, and environmental advocacy?

DJD: Religious dogmas are meant to be windows and doors, not brick walls. And intuition is meant to trump literalism, I believe, in environmental advocacy as well as in church. Jesus pointed us to the spirit, not the letter, of every kind of law. So I’ve held forth in defense of windows and doors and intuition and spirit. You mentioned Sierra Club earlier. I’ve never been a member. To me, it’s just another church.

Obviously, many churches, Sierra Club included, do some good. But virtually all churches also end up worshiping their walls instead of their windows and doors. And I’ve always had better luck depicting the stupidity of wall-worshipping when I speak of it indirectly. To tell a high church Anglican and a Jehovah’s Witness that, gosh dangit, they just need to try and get along, doesn’t accomplish jack. Whereas, in The River Why, when you see a high brow British fly fishing poobah and a fish-murdering yet appealing worm-dunker going at each other hammer and tong, but finally working out a certain reluctant but sweet understanding, people not only get it, they laugh while they do. That’s why God Laughs & Plays, to be honest, is the first and last wild ride of the Evangelist DJD. I am not looking for a new career as a priest with no white collar. I’m touring this book for two weeks—often speaking in churches, of all the godforsaken places—then diving happily back into my long daily river walks and my unfinished novels.

Indy: What are your thoughts on the possible confusions and similarities (and the dangers and opportunities thereof)—in a reader’s mind, or in an author’s life—of the roles of writer and prophet?

DJD: It’s eerie how much pulpits and lecterns look alike, but consoling, seeing how differently preachers and writers tend to occupy them. When most of our preachers have surrendered to a faux-nationalistic, violent, nonsustainable neocon psychosis, though, who but writers are left to speak a little truth? I have offered some churchless sermons in service of a dream so beautiful it recently set a billion or so people in 600 cities marching against a war, only to be called “a focus group” by Bush though his war has bankrupted us economically, morally and environmentally. It was worth what it took out of me to make this book just to remind readers that what Jesus said about that mighty march was “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

I truly love Jesus for this very reason. But I’m a storyteller at heart, not a ‘prophet’ or preacher. Reminding people of what the gospels actually say is simply being an accurate reader—the same work I’ve attempted, as a writer and writing teacher, all my life. If America has sunk so low that being an accurate reader now looks like you’re setting yourself up as a prophet, that’s more a sad comment on the state of America and its leadership than on the simple duty of every accurate reader.

David James Duncan reads and signs God Laughs & Plays at the UC Ballroom Tuesday, May 2, at 7 PM.

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