In the interests of promoting both our sites, here’s an interview I recently did with my friend Liz over at WanderBuzz. Especially if you like to cook, you should check out her page!
Mr. Chops, Hillbilly Environmentalist
Mr. Chops: He’s been called a time traveler, a dumpster-diver, and a guy who “should just go live in the wild.” His philosophy is remarkable in many ways – he happily follows a lifestyle that marks him as “old-timey” or “backwoodsy,” but simultaneously cares deeply about the environment and makes deliberate decisions to live in an eco-friendly way. And he is not alone in his outlook. In many ways, he is part of a vanguard of emerging Hillbilly Environmentalists, whose inspiration toward green living comes from a close relationship with the land and a desire for a return to the small-scale, sustainable practices of the past. I had the invaluable chance to ask him some questions about the intriguing lens through which he sees the world.
Many people (myself included) might place these two identities (Hillbilly and Environmentalist) in very separate spheres—like apples and oranges, or really apples and giraffes. The merger of the two in your lifestyle is remarkable. Now, did you always consider yourself to be both, or did one aspect of the philosophy emerge before the other?
I’ve just always been Me.
But really, they’ve both been part of me for my whole life—we were (unbeknownst to me) pretty poor when I was growing up, and I have never not lived in The Bottom. My parents were big back-to-the-land-ers in the 70s/80s (second-wave hippies?) Both of them were big into frontier America stuff.
I always heard my grandpa say he was a ‘flatland hillbilly’ raised on gravy, growing up in southern Indiana. My parents made sure that I was at least going to be a cultured hillbilly, as opposed to all of the uncultured rednecks in our area.
I guess the environmentalist part emerged first (from discussing the Valdez at age 5), as I wasn’t aware of really being a hillbilly.
Growing up on a large rural farm meant that from my infancy I have been in nearly constant contact with some form of nature. Unlike a city-dweller (who could, in theory, go years without experiencing any more nature than wind, rain, and pigeons), someone living where I come from would have to actually go out of his way to avoid nature. It seems that simply breathing the air back home allows one to experience more of nature in the country than one could ever find in a city: the air carries a unique aroma of grass, manure, river water, and all manner of decomposing material; in short, the air smells like LIFE.
When did the synthesis happen in your life? What brought it about?
Being poor leads to conservative (in the conservation sense) actions. From an early age, I learned to embrace a simple life, to not equate Happiness with Things (thanks, Thoreau!).
While always aware of it, it wasn’t until probably mid high school that I started fully embracing the frugal-homesteader/plain-living stuff which started out a few years before as ‘learn native edibles so I can live in the woods’.
As to when the synthesis came to the surface, it was Sept 13 2007; I noticed a synthesis of Palahniuk (anarcho-primitivism), Mao (students & farmers as guerillas), and PBS Frontline
(turn your back on the Cool Hunt; make your own culture—which I couched in Pirate terms). Building on deep threads (rebelliousness etc.), I started to pick and choose elements from disparate sources to form eclectic Modern Me.
What do you think are the hallmarks of “Hillbilly Environmentalism?”
Being in tune with natural cycles (moon phases, equinoxes, seasons); humility before Nature, and a strong sense of history.
The environmental side comes from a deep connection to the land: when you know where something comes from, you are more likely to protect it. (Erik Reece?) Emotional connection = Value = Protect.
Hillbilly side comes from spending lots of time with Depression survivor grandparents from a young age, and/or being poor at a young age. I’ve always been taught to prevent waste; “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” is a mantra I follow to this day.
However, simply being in close proximity to the land doesn’t necessarily result in this ideology. Without a proper base, poor & rural can equal redneck.
rural, poor, & conservative = redneck?
rural, poor, & conservative-conservation = Appalachian/foxfire hillbilly?
rural, poor, & liberal-conservation = hillbilly environmentalist?
Overall, would you call the ideal liberal, or conservative?
I lift elements from both sides of the spectrum (the Left/Right spectrum, NOT Dem/Rep). I’m old-school conservative—I like traditions and want to conserve what I already have, but the liberal half can see when something is broken or outdated or needs replacing.
I really got the best of both worlds—being raised by liberal Yankees in a rural environment so that I got all the benefits of the outdoorsy, self-reliant, character-building conservative childhood, but in the context of a nurturing home built on trust and respect.
For example, guns are a modern conservative issue, but I see them as a part of Classical Liberal (i.e. Founding Fathers Libertarian) idea (i.e. don’t infringe on my rights); but I mostly have them around for historical significance, and they are only to be used when respectfully/stewardship hunting, or when defending nonaggressively (Jedi).
What makes your philosophy different from other eco-friendly ways of living?
Perhaps that instead of ‘looking forward’ as some other country-raised-Lost Boy-environmentalists do, I look backwards and draw inspiration from the past (pioneers, Injuns, cavemen, etc). Also, my historical/anthro academic background lets me see the big picture and patterns.
It’s also definitely not based on consumption (unlike the modern capital-G ‘Green’ movement/lifestyle).
Like, I just saw this kit in a magazine, that would let you grow your own herbs, with a tray, trowel, and three plastic cups, all made out of recycled yogurt cups. It cost $35. Why not just reuse actual yogurt cups?—Reduce and Reuse being way more important than Recycle.
My view of money comes from both non-industrial societies and my frugal upbringing. To me, paying money at the store for something that can be made for free is absolutely ridiculous (and often, the handmade will be better quality). For example, apple cider costs four dollars a gallon at the grocery, but I can make several gallons in an afternoon, and all this costs me is a few hours’ time and a little elbow grease, with the additional benefits that come with working outdoors.
And in my individual case, really damn eclectic. I am puzzled by so-called Green people who are just looking for and latching onto easy identities (and their accepted views) without really thinking about them.
I borrow from Everything.
So what do you think people see when they see you?
Especially after the latest Beardo fest, I have a problem with people who unthinkingly buy into every accepted tenet of a culture/ideology, making them walking caricatures/stereotypes. Being a granola treehugger does not require you to wear tie-dye, have nasty hair, and use drugs. You CAN pick and choose. If you look like a stereotype, you don’t give others a chance to get to know you?
To look at me when I’m normally out in public, it might be hard to tell I’m a far-left, anti-civilization environmentalist, because in terms of dress, I usually present myself to the world as fairly no-nonsense & conservative (few words or patterns, & classic styles), but with oldschool militarism (Indy-esque) (and maybe some fem elements just to mess with the Right); but 95% of the clothes are secondhand or surplus, and quite likely modified in some way by hand.
Of course, all this eclectic pick-and-choosing of elements means that I can both fit in with anybody, and nobody at the same time…no one can be 100% consistent.
I’m too militaristic for the hippies. I’m too hippie for the military, etc…
What’s the hillbilly take on big-picture stuff like climate change? Does it matter? Can your lifestyle rectify the situation?
This makes it sound like there’s a united hillbilly movement and we all share a stance! If you have a proper close connection to the land/Nature, you’ll see how it doesn’t really matter, as the planet has survived, and will survive much worse than what we’ve done to it—‘Life finds a way’ (Ian Malcolm). Also, George Carlin: ‘Relax! The planet is fine! …the _People_ are fucked!’
Remember, humility is important—don’t push your lifestyle on other folks. If you’re doing something right, others will recognize this.
Besides, in this case individual actions or lifestyles can’t make a difference because the big dogs holding the power so absolutely overshadow them.
Really, the lifestyle/behavior of a minority rarely gets anything done. Popular support would be needed, and the culture wars have pretty much ensured that won’t happen (anything even slightly out of the status quo will get you branded liberalprogressive/ hippie.)
My personal (and pretty out-there, downer) take is: we’ve become so stuck in our rut that the only way to build a better world is to wait for the old one to collapse. Or, drawing on Palahniuk, do what you can to speed up/ensure the collapse and then live a fulfilling Injun life afterwards.
Who else is a good example of a hillbilly environmentalist (if anybody)? Who do you look to for inspiration?
Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer Liberation Front
, for the most part. And Thoreau (whom I’ve been learning, in a fashion, since I was about six), of course.I also like Lost Mountain
, especially because of all of Reece’s apocalyptic and war-language.
Any closing thoughts?
If all the history-major liberal parents would move from the city (where they just breed more White hipsters) to the country and raise their kids there instead, there might be more hillbilly environmentalists.