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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Author examines scales of violence

Jensen views the abuse of the Earth through his own history of abuse

We’re all products of our past. And if that past happens to include abuse, then our options for a happy and fulfilled life tend to narrow.

Here’s one thing that many abuse survivors have discovered: The key to finding a measure of happiness in life comes not just from surviving the pain that life hands out, but from the decisions we make in response to that pain.

Take Derrick Jensen. He turned to writing. Having earned a master’s of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1991 from Eastern Washington University, Jensen has gone on to write a number of nonfiction books bearing such titles as “The Culture of Make Believe,” “Walking on Water: Reading, Writing and Revolution“ and “Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests.“

His literary accomplishments have won him a number of awards, the latest being the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award for his book “Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos.“

More important than prizes, though, is the fact that finding a literary voice helped give meaning to Jensen’s life.

And the book that may cut to the heart of what best defines Jensen is September’s selection for The Spokesman-Review Book Club: “A Language Older Than Words.”

Published in 2000, the book combines Jensen’s personal memoir with his overriding concern about the survival not just of individuals but of the entire world.

What stands out is Jensen’s blending of his own story, which involved abuse at the hands of his father, with that of the abuses being done to nature by all of humanity. One kind of violence, he says, is emblematic of the other.

Our collective reaction to the problems of a world that is running out of resources is little different from the feelings Jensen endured as an abused child. Both, he says, are steeped in denial.

“I don’t want to think about, so I won’t think about it,” he writes. “If I never think about it, it’s like it never actually happened.”

What happened to Jensen occurred behind closed doors. What’s happening to the Earth is there for anyone who wants to see it. And the potential for loss is incalculable.

As he writes in “A Language Older Than Words”: “In order to maintain our way of living, we must, in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves. …

“When we do allow self-evident truths to percolate past our defenses and into our consciousness, they are treated like so many hand grenades rolling across the dance floor of an improbably macabre party.

“We try to stay out of harm’s way, afraid they will go off, shatter our delusions, and leave us exposed as the hollow people we have become. As so we avoid these truths, these self-evident truths, and continue the dance of world destruction.”

But even in the midst of his fatalism, Jensen tries to find some sense of hope.

John C. Stauber, writing for Sierra (a publication of the Sierra Club), pointed out that Jensen’s “beautiful, disturbing memoir is a welcome relief from books that suggest painlessly shopping our way to ecological sanity and survival while sidestepping the enormous personal, cultural, and political changes we each must confront – books that list a hundred ways to save the earth but fail to remove a single dam.”

But as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly added, Jensen’s “visceral, biting observations always manage to lead back to his mantra: ‘Things don’t have to be the way they are.’ Jensen’s book accomplishes the rare feat of both breaking and mending the reader’s heart.”

Much of that feat is portrayed in a local light. In a 2003 review published in The Spokesman-Review, EWU professor Paul Lindholdt wrote: “Instances of local color abound in the book. Spokane was Jensen’s home for eight years. Here he raised bees and chickens, and fed coyotes to keep them from his flocks.

“Here he listened to our cultural histories, to the rivers and stars and stones, and translated what they said.”

What they’ve had to say may not be pretty. But passing on their messages has provided Jensen his life’s purpose.

Dan Webster can be reached at (509) 459-5483 or by e-mail at
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