by Wally Graves
While the rest of the nation struggled with the enigma of the Heaven's Gate suicides in Rancho Santa Fe, the North Coast saw its own post-mortem drama unfold these past weeks with the death of Earth First! activist Judi Bari.
Bari, 47, died of cancer in her home down the road in Willits on Sunday, March 2. Her wish that her cremated remains be scattered in Pacific Lumber Co.'s Headwaters Forest 11 miles southeast of Eureka was blunted as PALCO President John Campbell -- after first giving permission -- withdrew the offer when he learned state law prevented such strewing of remains.
Bari's imaginative and tenacious challenges to PALCO's timber harvest plans had helped make a national icon of Headwaters Forest, sparing some of the old growth, so far, from the ax. Did Bari's dying request to be returned to that forest spring fully from the love of the woods? Or was it tinged with a final, ironic gesture of victory?
The Times-Standard editorialized that "To some, the lifelong in-your-face activist was a pest.... To others she was a wood sprite...." concluding, "Had her environmentalism not been so radical and dogmatic, her contribution would be recognized as important by all sides in the timber wars."
Then came the letters:
"I found your editorial on Judi Bari's passing to be both offensive and disgraceful." -- Brian Mau, Freshwater.
"The Times-Standard's shameless pro-timber bias is fatally at odds with this apparent attempt by your paper to treat Judi Bari as a human being." -- Kevin Bundy, Environmental Protection Information Center, Garberville.
"I recently read that 'Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.' Even if she had little, you might exercise some." -- David Thompson, Arcata.
"If Pacific Lumber has no objections to the ashes being scattered on its property, it should be their decision -- not the state of California's decision." -- Richard Marrs, McKinleyville.
"Shame on this paper for the smarmy editorial about Judi Bari. When some corrupt old politico or industry hack heads for hell, you wax poetic over the old vermin." -- Joshua Kinch, Eureka.
Whether Bari's remains have found -- or will find -- their way to Headwaters is a private affair. Her survivors, by law, could have strewn her remains three miles at sea, scattered them in the cemetery's rose garden, bought a columbarium niche, sent them into space like Timothy Leary or taken them home in a simple urn "for their mantel." Other plans risked a $1,400 fine.
This is important. From the ancient Greeks to the North Coast Native Americans, ceremonial disposition of remains has assured peace to the deceased, and put to rest the fear of ghosts. Might we ask, "Is Judi Bari in heaven?" Or, to the skeptics, a scarier question, "Does heaven exist?
Two weeks after Bari's death Time magazine asked that very question in its cover story, which revealed that four out of five of us Americans believe "in the existence of heaven where people live forever with God after they die." (Only a third of us believe in hell.)
This must have been reassuring to the relatives and friends of the 21 women and 18 men in Rancho Santa Fe who, the day after Time came out, decided to hop a ride on a UFO which was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Their ticket: a lethal vodka cocktail laced with barbiturates, and a plastic bag over their heads.
Here we face a collision between the 3-D world (39 neatly clad, fully intact bodies, or in Bari's case, an eight-inch-high urn six inches in diameter about half full of white bone meal) in confrontation with the spirit world of afterlife, heaven and hell.
The Rev. Daniel Price, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Eureka, commented on radio station KINS that the "Heaven's Gate Cult went tragically astray" because "souls are not bodies and bodies are not souls, but this cult seems peculiarly confused about what kinds of things they are talking about at all when they say they want to leave their container to travel to a spaceship. Souls have no spatial or temporal existence, spaceships -- as far as we know -- do; especially if they are said to be following Hale-Bopp Comet."
I phoned Pastor Price to ask whether he thought the Heaven's Gate people were in heaven.
"That's a good question," he said, pausing. "They're in some other place. They're not here. Only God knows.... He might even forgive them."
Price said that while he respected the cult's complete dedication ( "In a country enamored with religious pluralism it's not easy to find anyone who is willing to die for what they believe") he wondered whether "Heaven's Gate" might not be more appropriately "Hell's Threshold."
Either way, there's no question in his mind that heaven and hell exist.
On the very Sunday that Bari died in Willits the question of afterlife was much in the minds of some people in the Manila Community Center on the north spit of Humboldt Bay.
They were watching a two-person play called "Gertrude Stein and a Companion," a dramatic dialogue between a dead Stein, speaking from an afterlife, and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, still alive and mourning her companion's departure.
The irony here was that tough-minded Stein in real life did not believe in an afterlife of the body or the soul. She announced, "Dead Is Dead." Toklas, however, upon Stein's death from cancer had embraced the church, and was dedicated to seeing Stein in heaven. The play posed the question whether Stein lived after death, or did she survive only in Toklas' imagination?
There stood Stein, dead (yet full bodied, vested, strong voiced, with clipped hair and the mien of a Roman emperor) brought to life in the form of actress Peggy Metzger speaking to her companion Toklas, alive (yet thin, fragile, dressed in mourning black) -- played by Pamela Lyall.
For a full month Director James Floss took his vagabond troupe of two women -- one dead, one alive -- to Manila, thence to Arcata, on to Blue Lake and finally Briceland, spreading the hope of afterlife -- like a traveling Medieval mystery play -- and giving the North Coast a peek at an immortality that Stein herself would deny.
And all the while Hale-Bopp's brilliance lit our pre-dawn sky above the hills to the east southeast, and displayed its million-mile tail in the evening sky over the ocean to the west northwest while we continued to wonder: Where are all those people now?
Wally Graves, who lives in King Salmon, writes from time to time for the Journal.
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