She was dressed in her trademark wide buckskin skirt, large-brimmed leather hat, and – despite the June heat – a thin wool sweater. Her long uncombed hair spread across her shoulders, giving her the air of a nineteenth-century gunslinger from a travelling Wild West roadshow – she could have been the sharpshooting Annie Oakley’s wilder older sister. The lines on her weatherworn face had the detail of a Dorothea Lange photo. She stuck her roll-up in her mouth to shake my hand.
As soon as I said ‘Hello,’ she started immediately, in a deep-voiced and very fast delivery, to tell me about my domestication.
‘The problem with you is that even your internal flora have been domesticated! It takes forty to fifty days to acclimatize to a wild food diet and some people begin to starve in that time.’
She was not interested in the social niceties of small talk. This could have been the result of thirty years of solitude on the hoop, or simply because Finisia wanted, above all else, to get her message across: the earth is dying and those of us who do not throw off our domestication are responsible for its death.
The type of slow, painful starvation I would experience if I were to live Finisia’s hunter-gatherer life could be prevented by the administration of ‘warm, spring bear poop’ as a high colonic enema.
‘How do you administer it?’ I asked.
‘You know, with one of those rubber whoopedy-doo things,’ she said, drawing a roller-coaster shape in the air with her finger. Those of us who are domesticated may suffer a fever from such an enema, but once that has passed and we have survived, our insides would be ‘rewilded’ and we would achieve ‘food freedom’. Until then, I remained an ‘ecocidal whore of Babylon’ – ‘Babylon’ being her name for civilization.
The afternoon sun was coming down hard. Finisia invited me into the shade of her tarp. Tired after a ten-hour drive from Missoula, Montana I took a seat on her thin sleeping mat while she sat cross-legged across from me. In the distance a few bald, mustard-coloured dollops of earth rose from the foothills of the Steen Mountains. Scattered around us were the necessities of a migratory life in the American West: a large pouch of tobacco, rolling papers, lighter, bug spray, knife, spade, eight small potatoes, a bag of coffee, a Mason jar of preserved buffalo meat (a gift from friends), a jar of jalapeños, a cookstove, a finger piano, some blankets and a drum made of animal skin, wood and feathers.
Finisia pointed out that one of the poles holding up the tarp is a titanium rod. ‘I can lift all kinds of rocks out here with that and chase my roots,’ she said, meaning the biscuit root or lomatium, the staple food that Native Americans have been living on for thousands of years, which was also her mainstay. ‘If it gets hit with lightning out here, it explodes and I turn into a pink mist,’ she said with an unexpected Irish-sounding lilt. At times her voice goes all cigarette-tinged Bette Davis. Her cackle lasts several seconds. She identifies as Irish-American but was partly raised by Native Americans. It was at her stepmother’s place on an Indian reservation near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho that her real education began at the knee of native elders, whom she referred to as her ‘other Grandmothers’.
In Growing up in Occupied America, a book she self-published in 2013, Finisia writes:
They taught me how to beat the rice of Benewah Lake … they taught me how to pick the seed pods of the yellow pond lilies, they taught me how to dig biscuit root… My brown skinned Grandfathers talked of Sacred Hoops that “the people used to live on until the whites came and killed us and forced us onto reservations to be assimilated or die.” They took us Salmon fishing, they mourned for the old days and old ways. My brown skinned Grandmothers and Grandfathers taught me we are living in Occupied America.
The sun disappeared behind the Steens, throwing a grey-blue light onto the vast landscape. The mosquitoes started buzzing, and every now and then I heard the stomp of a horse’s foot and the swish of a tail swatting the bugs away. Our conversation turned to the conflict between some of the ranchers in the West and those like Finisia who want to gather and plant seeds on public land, to give it a chance to be wild.
‘When I pick the piñon nuts in Nevada, I’m the felon! But the forests up here are dying and they’re busy trying to kill it as fast as it can grow because it’s interfering with the goddam grazing of a cow!’ Finisia started to cry and wiped her eyes with the back of her hands before going on. ‘So climate change has got the ponderosa forests dying and burning, the lodgepole forests are dying and burning, and ninety per cent of those forests will be dead and completely gone in ten years. That’s a fact. They’re never coming back. But I’m hauling the piñon seeds from Nevada and I’m the criminal. I’m the outlaw. I’m under indictment with Homeland Security as an extremist.’
She reached over and pulled a piece of paper from a beaded buckskin bag. It was the manifesto she wrote in jail, handed to the courthouse and sent to a friend to disseminate after she was locked up in Idaho in 2008 for planting seeds on public lands. I could just about read it in the fading light:
I would like it to be known that the reasoning in my violations is a deliberate act of civil disobedience. … I have been violating US Government treaties… by engaging in that indigenous life way that was disallowed to force the native onto reservations and to complete the genocide of that life way.
I find life in this civilized way unconscionable and immoral! I find myself without freedom of conscience in it. For twenty-five years I have been planting back the native food flowers of lomatium, cymopterus, bitterroot, yampa, lilies, and berries without permit on public lands… This is my duty to God and to Earth. I have been doing this secretly, knowing that I am a violator of statute, code and treaty…
This hoop in the west is the last place on earth where it is even possible to live in that symbiotic way. All over the earth this aboriginal planting has been done away with. The earth has been made to be like a girdled tree and here in my home in the west is the last small ribbon of bark…
I am sick at heart to have sneaked around like a criminal for 25 years doing this.
There is much of the nineteenth-century, mountain-man outlaw in Finisia with her buckskin, her jail time, her horses, rifles and foul mouth, but the model she most identifies with is the hunter-gatherer, the original inhabitants and stewards of this land.
‘I’ll be watching the superstorms from my cave while the rest of you are blown to pieces,’ she laughed.
For Finisia, like many rewilders, the rot of civilization began with agriculture. Once we became sedentary and started storing our food rather than going out to find it, we became landowners. Our gaze shifted from seeing land as belonging to all people to seeing it as something to be owned and exploited. Once grain was stored, it could be taxed. It became a commodity. The West is full of people trying to escape dependence on Big Agriculture, Big Oil and Big Government. For some, living sustainably consists of incremental urban rewilding; for others it is living off-grid, by the light of homemade candles in tiny solar-powered homes. Finisia’s radical rewilding approach is the most extreme, the most severe, the most committed. For her, the life of the hunter-gatherer is the only climate-change-proof one.
‘I’ll be watching the superstorms from my cave while the rest of you are blown to pieces,’ she laughed.
It is hard work living this way, and dangerous. You have to look after your horses because you rely on them, you need water and you need to know how to cross difficult terrain. There are fences, there is barbed wire, there are roads you have to take sometimes when you can’t cross certain ground because of barriers. Drivers are not used to seeing a pack string – animals tied together – and the horses can get spooked. In fact, just knowing how to tie a pack string is an art. Very few people have the strength to live like this anymore. It is a criminal offence to plant or harvest on federal lands or stay in one place for more than fourteen days, which makes this way of life illegal as well. Stewarding the earth in a sustainable way means breaking the law. You cannot afford to be ill or get hurt on the hoop as your physical strength and your wits are indispensable. And then of course there is the solitude, the big empty space, where, as Wallace Stegner wrote,
People are few and distant, under a great sky that is alternately serene and furious, exposed to sun from four in the morning till nine at night, and to a wind that never seems to rest—there is something about exposure to that big country that not only tells an individual how small he is, but steadily tells him who he is.
Few of us would survive both the physical and the existential challenges.
I asked about winter camp because Finisia was trying to find a spot from ‘Samhain to Beltane’ (translated from the Pagan as: from ‘Halloween to Easter’) for her horses and for herself. The people behind Burning Man had just bought more land in Nevada, and Finisia was going to offer them some creative planting – painting the Mona Lisa in the desert in biscuit root – in return for a place to live over the winter. But it wasn’t looking hopeful. Now that they’d gone corporate and were catering to the Tech Bros, flying them in by helicopter and providing wealthy festival-goers with air-conditioned trailers and waiting staff, she wasn’t optimistic that her brand of grassroots rewilding would be of interest to them. When I asked Finisia about how she had been getting through winters, she did admit to getting food stamps from the government, and I could see from her face that it pained her to the core. She felt that if there were enough people doing the hoop and planting and gathering, she wouldn’t have to rely on the government.
Eventually she asked, ‘So, wanna do some digging?’
We crawled out from under the tarp and got in my rental car. After driving for maybe forty minutes, we stopped. The whole way, Finisia had been screwing her eyes up at the scrubby tufts of sagebrush, looking for the pale green lacey tops of the biscuit root plant. She could see what most of us could not. This land was certainly not passive, nor silent. The invisible heartbeat – the one that so many of us cannot hear – kept Finisia company, drove her on, kept her alive. We stopped and walked into the desert a few times, but found nothing. We drove some more and then got out of the car again and walked for maybe a quarter of an hour until the hot sun had us sweating. We nibbled on wild garlic and onions as we went. Finisia was becoming anxious as she wasn’t finding any lomatium. Their roots are traditionally dried and pounded into flour and made into cakes that can last for months, which is perfect for hoop life, but Finisia preferred to sauté them fresh in oil with wild garlic.
The invisible heartbeat – the one that so many of us cannot hear – kept Finisia company, drove her on, kept her alive.
We made our way to a tree in the distance and sat in its shade for several minutes. Finisia rolled a joint and began singing a mournful Shoshone song called ‘Hone Jon’. It was about a peaceable spirit that moves with us. As soon as we got up and began walking again, Finisia found some biscuit root. We were elated. The atmosphere lifted. I could see so much life around us. We were not in a desert; we were in a garden. So many roots diving into the darkness under the ground. Finisia showed me how to dig one up, gently, without harming it. As you dig the root, its seeds fall, ready to be replanted – a perfect symbiotic circle. The roots looked like thin, pale carrots. I put a few in my pocket to cook later.
‘There’s another song in Shoshone about yampa,’ she said when we got back to her camp. ‘When its seed is ready to plant, the root has already shrivelled. Very tricky for food that way. So, if you really want it around, you have to leave a whole bunch of it undug and gather its seed and plant it deliberately. It acts like a domesticate. It is our pet, the song says. You have to give it extra attention.’ Her voice was low and focused, as if she were talking about a favourite child.
We were standing next to her tarp preparing to say goodbye.
‘Write your piece as a grand narrative,’ she instructed me. ‘Forget your fucking essays, write my story as fiction, baby.’
Finisia and I hugged. I felt bereft at leaving her alone to plant these wild gardens. She was so very alone in this vast landscape.
When I got home to my bungalow in Missoula and started unpacking, I opened her book. Inside the front cover she had written: ‘With understanding comes brevity; with wisdom comes sorrow. Sure ya wanna step? Sounds like a slippery slope to me.’
Surrender won the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize in 2018 and was published by Fitzcarraldo in May 2019. Blending memoir with reportage, criticism with nature writing, the book explores the changing landscape of the American West, inspired by a two-year stay in Montana.
All photographs by Joanna Pocock