It was not really surprising but, well, disappointing to hear that I'd been called an "eco-terrorist" by one of my neighbors. The news was second-hand, of course, which somehow made it worse. Whoever pronounced the judgment, whether she or he, hadn't bothered to tell me about it, but let it slip, off-hand, as if it were a well-known fact.
"Him? He's an eco-terrorist," as though there was nothing more that need be said, as though I had it printed on my business card, "Bob Heilman, Eco-terrorist."
I did what people usually do when confronted with something odd and shadowy and disturbing. I feigned indifference, laughed and pretended that it amused me. After all, what else can you do in such a situation? It was merely an anonymous slander, not meant for my ears anyway and no doubt committed by someone whose life is probably a good deal sadder and more wretched than my own.
Still, I resented the accusation. The wound formed a scab and I couldn’t resist picking at it. I began foolishly marshalling my arguments, standing before an imaginary judge and jury, reviewing decades of my statements both public and private to see if there was anything I'd ever said or done that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that I am a menace to my neighbors.
At first, I focused on the first half of the odd compound word, "eco," as in "ecology." Yes, I'd spoken and written about environmental matters. I can't help it, having lived in Douglas County, Oregon, during a time of harsh words and desperate acts centering around what are known as forest management practices.
Generally, I've come down on the side of the soil, water, sunlight and air. But, I've always been of two or three minds on this and nearly every other matter. I suppose it's a natural approach for me, a character trait that lead me to writing and one that has been reinforced by the craft itself, with its necessary habit of carefully observing and then describing what I see.
Besides, I have worked in the woods and the lumber mills, and my sympathies have always been with working-class people like myself. Of all the many sides in the old-growth forest debate—government, science, industry, environmental and community—I’ve always sided with the working people. They, the workers, seem to be the least at fault and the most often misrepresented. They have been reviled by environmental activists and the subject of great crocodile tears shed by corporations allegedly worried about their well-being.
Terror, then, the second half of the ungainly compound may explain this. Although I have always opposed extremism and its violent expression, yet, somehow someone is afraid of me—frightened enough to denounce me as a terrorist. Why me? Why anybody? I cannot say, except that it is human nature to try to put a face to your fear.
I can’t say that I blame my accuser much. We have been told to be afraid many times by our local politicians and business leaders who, for reasons of their own, keep telling us to fear the future and to blame each other. The word itself has come into use from politics and not from any need to accurately describe people.
When fear grows, the temptation grows to embrace ideology. A rigid and simplistic systematic approach offers the comfort of relief from doubt and the promise of a ready-made answer to every troubling question. We fear moral ambiguity with its obligation to admit that we don't always have a simple answer, that we might be wrong, that, many times, the choices are not clearly right or wrong but often the hard, sad choice between tragedies.
Conflict, I believe, is unavoidable in a free society; compromise, I believe, is essential to preserving it. Complexity is what I find wherever I look, whether at the natural systems which provide us with life or the culture and politics with which we deal with nature and each other.
Still, it's an unsettling experience, sad and a little scary to know that for someone in my little home valley my face is the face of what they fear.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.