Jessica Cejnar / The Triplicate
Derrick Jensen was just a kid when he began pushing back against the status quo. His father had broken his sister’s arm and, like any youngster might, Jensen wondered why. In the second grade, when a subdivision was built on the meadow that was his playground, he asked where the meadowlarks and garter snakes would live.
“I was driven by the question, ‘Why do we do crazy things?’” Jensen said. “Fast forward to college when I was asking the question about people working jobs they don’t like. I started asking myself if the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of time doing things they don’t want to do, what does that mean for society? Who is really being served?”
Jensen’s need to answer this question, combined with a love of writing, produced more than 20 books and countless magazine articles, including his most recent “When I Dream of the Planet in Recovery,” published in the spring 2016 issue of Yes! Magazine.
He has taught creative writing at Pelican Bay State Prison and Eastern Washington University. His latest book, “The Myth of Human Supremacy,” will be released next month.
“In my heart I was always a writer,” Jensen says, but a good head for math and science in high school got him a scholarship to the Colorado School of Mines. He earned a degree in physics, but tried to figure out how to make a living at writing.
“When I was 26 I was calling myself a writer, but I wasn’t doing much writing,” Jensen said. “I dedicated my life to writing. I went back and got my MFA and then there’s a magic number people sometimes throw out, that is 10 years between when an artist really starts intensive study and when (he) produces truly creative work. That was true of me.”
Born in Nebraska and raised in Colorado, Jensen’s career took him all over the west. He moved to Del Norte County with his mother in 1999. She wanted a place with mild winters and he wanted an area that wasn’t overcrowded with people.
“We searched for many years and found Del Norte and absolutely fell in love with it,” Jensen said. “It’s so incredibly beautiful.”
Throughout his career Jensen has used his fascination with the natural world to tackle topics seemingly unrelated. His first book, “A Language Older Than Words,” wrestled with themes of domestic violence and violence against the natural world. The central idea was that before you can exploit somebody you have to silence them. He said he explored that concept by looking at how our culture has silenced women, children, other species, other races and other cultures.
In his latest book, “The Myth of Human Supremacy,” Jensen challenges the notion of human superiority over other species by bringing up brain size in other animals as well as research into the intelligence of plants. He points out that scientists have created a dictionary of plant language, chemical messages sent from one species to another to protect themselves from insects.
“I’ve experienced this before,” Jensen said. “When I lived in Spokane, Washington, I had this shade tree that got an infestation of aphids. It was a terrible infestation, the tree was dropping leaves everywhere. I didn’t know what to do. About a couple weeks later, hoards of ladybugs showed up and I have since learned that what happens is not only are plants sending out messages to other plants, they’re sending out calls to predators. In this case ladybugs.”
He points out that plants communicate with other species they compete with, a notion that’s foreign to many humans.
“The biggest problem facing the world, the real physical world, is the notion that humans are separate from and superior to everybody else as opposed to one of many,” Jensen said.
For his latest magazine article, Jensen said he thought about what he hopes his work would help accomplish. “When I Dream of the Planet in Recovery,” calls up prairies full of buffalo, who bring the wolves, waterfowl and prairie dogs with them as they return home. Jensen writes about oceans teeming with fish, salmon leaping over broken dams to their spawning grounds and wetlands buzzing with dragonflies, frogs and newts.
Jensen, who has written for New York Times Magazine and the Audubon Society, said his rule is while he won’t say anything he disagrees with, he doesn’t have to say everything he agrees with. He said he was fine with the message Yes! Magazine wanted him to convey.
He said Yes! Magazine requested the article from him and since its content is upbeat, he thought about what would make him happy.
“The editor asked me, ‘What do you mean in the time after? The time after what?’” Jensen said. “I don’t specify in the piece. The reason I don’t specify is Yes! Magazine (discusses) voluntary transformation to a sustainable way of being. I don’t believe that’s going to happen in the time after the collapse of civilization. From a buffalo’s perspective it’s doesn’t matter whether we have voluntary transformation or whether civilization collapses.”Filed in Interviews of Derrick Jensen