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Reflections On EPIC’s Annual Achievement Awards

Humboldt County’s Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), founded in 1977, has a modest name. Indeed, information’s uses are modest: the gravest warnings are useless if they do not spark action toward safety. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres exclaimed despairingly upon this recently, as he lifted his eyes from the vast array of environmentally destructive activities taking place around the globe:

“The world must end its suicidal war against nature”.

Every year (EPIC) celebrates individuals who make use of environmental information, with the presentation of Outstanding Achievement Awards. This year it honored people who have attempted the all-but-hopeless hopeless task of changing our suicidal direction. The Semper Virens Award went to two powerful leaders of the Indigenous Renaissance. The Yerba Buena Award was handed to a lifetime proponent of Direct Action.

Indigenous cultures in both North and South America have deep spiritual ties with the earth. In fact both Bolivia and Ecuador have written the Rights of Mother Earth into their Constitutions.

In the last decades, as if responding to Earth’s plight , Native peoples have made a monumental spiritual effort to recall their cultures, decimated by European colonial destruction. The recipients of the Semper Virens Award, Priscilla Hunter and Polly Girvin, of the Coyote Valley Pomo Tribe, exemplify this effort. 

In 1976, Priscilla Hunter helped legally resurrect her Tribe, which had been terminated. As Tribal Administrator, she built up infrastructure, leading it out of the economic, educational and cultural desert in which modern life had left it to flounder. Then she and attorney Polly Girvin turned to the natural environment, in the creation of the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, protecting 4,000 acres in Mendocino. 

They protested the Navy weapons testing off the Mendocino Coast, and the Mendocino Forest Products Wood Pellet Production Plant air contamination in Calpella. 

Currently they lead the movement to protect the largest State forest in California, the magnificent Jackson State Forest, which, bafflingly, and in spite of the State’s own 30x30 project, continues to be logged.

EPIC’s Yerba Buena award is named for a native plant found widely along our coasts and hillsides. It is used as a remedy for a vast assortment of ailments. The award recognizes healers. This year it honored Jack Nounnan, who has spent his 90 years addressing the multiple maladies besetting our human civilization. As a youth he enlisted to go to Korea,where he learned the folly of war. The rest of his life turned into a pilgrimage. He taught at an impoverished northern Canadian public school, protested at the San Onofre nuclear plant was arrested at the Nevada Test Site. In El Salvador, he protested the massacres. He was active in Nicaragua after the earthquake and during the Contra attacks. 

Back in the States, he founded a refugee settlement for immigrants in Pomona, California. He arrived in Humboldt in the midst of MAXXAM’s assault on the redwood forest and threw himself into the campaign. He spent an entire winter protecting the forest in the snows of the Mattole’s Rainbow Ridge. For years he was an informal environmental educator on the steps and in the arcades of HSU and in Council chambers, and, simultaneously, down on Second Street, around the Mission, at the Courthouse during “Occupy”,or talking with and reanimating homeless and less fortunate members of our community.

After his arrest 3 years ago, for locking his head through Stafford Gate, protesting HRC’s destruction of owl habitat in the Mattole, his case came for trial this month. Jack came to court with a six page statement, expecting to explain the necessity of direct action to save the planet. However, the Judge wearily dismissed his case, and would have none of “whatever point you’re trying to make”.

Looking out over the Courtroom, contemplating the great pile of other cases on the dock, most of which would simply receive later date settings, she, too, might have added despairing words, from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres:

“We are gridlocked in a colossal global dysfunction”.

Indeed: Jack’s locked-down head, the Court, the world’s suicidal Lockstep. It is a tribute to EPIC, that, in the words of W. H. Auden,

“Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,”

in its cheerful modesty, EPIC continues to 

“Show an affirming flame.”

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