Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Farewell to the Man Behind Ecotopia

HE wrote a book that a lot of people haven't heard of, but one that influenced many and presaged a lot of the way we live now, especially on the West Coast, where it's set. That's Ernest "Chick" Callenbach, the Berkeley author of the book Ecotopia. Chick, as he was known, died on April 16.

This month has seen a lot of death in my world -- a very dear elderly relative, an old friend's mother, drummer Levon Helm -- and this one has a lot of meaning for me. When I met Callenbach, at his home in Berkeley in 2008, he struck me as one of the sharpest and most physically fit 79-year-old I'd ever encountered. (I remember him telling me how he walked from his house to the post office every day, which was quite a hike.) I also liked his sincerity, decency and sense of humor.

Because of a reissue of Ecotopia -- a slim novel which looks at a future in which Oregon, Washington and Northern California have seceded and begun an environmentalist utopia with a woman president -- I spoke to Callenbach for an article which became my first piece for the New York Times, my first piece of work after my layoff from the LA Times, and the first post on this blog. HERE's that story, which the paper titled, "The Novel That Predicted Portland."

My story looked at how hard Callenbach struggled to get the book published -- two dozen rejections.

“It was rejected by every significant publisher in New York,” he told me. “Some said it didn’t have enough sex and violence, or that they couldn’t tell if it were a novel or a tract. Somebody said the ecology trend was over. This was New York, circa 1974. I was on the point of burning it.”

Like a lot of '70s culture, the book ended up seeming less antique and more pertinent as we moved into the 21st century the limits to our resources became unambiguous.

I don't often stay in touch with former subjects; here's one I really wish I had.

(Here is a good obit from today's LA Times. And here is one from the New York Times.)

R.I.P., Chick.

UPDATE: Salon has run a piece found on Callenbach's computer in which he looks, as hopefully as he can, to the future. They stand in some ways as his final words.

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