Diane Wilson—the author and activist who has raised such a righteous ruckus over the environmental devastation caused by BP, Formosa and Dow—has written a marvelous new book that’s sure to piss off all the right people. Brazenly titled Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth, it’s an extraordinary work for two reasons. There’s Wilson’s valiant character, which shines on every page as she regales her readers with tales of founding CODEPINK, her hunger strikes, and harrowing jail terms. And there’s Diane Wilson’s sublime writing.
The second virtue is easily overshadowed by the first. I mean, sadly, when you write a book about chaining yourself to an oxide tower at a Dow Chemical plant, then being (repeatedly) pitched into the county jail, and beaten by guards, and going on the lam, and getting hunted down by your woefully apolitical bail bondsman, some readers tend to privilege content over style. I suppose it’s one of the pitfalls of being a warrior poet. People get carried away with your heroic exploits, and forget about your commendable use of alliteration. Alas, alack.
For my money, Diane Wilson is one of the best Texas writers, with a voice of wild, ringing, hair-raising beauty. The naturalness, grit, and operatic power of that voice seem totally original. If you’ve read Wilson’s first two terrific books, An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas and Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus, then it’s possible you already know what I’m talking about. If not, here’s a brief excerpt from the start of her new volume:
“I have kin above and below dirt in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, but Texas was the worst idea my wanderlusting grandpa ever had. After Grandpa gave in to his everlasting notion to move, again—leaving all his bank notes to a brother in Oklahoma who got rich on them after Grandpa took his ten kids and went to Texas—hell started looking good.”
Pure honky-tonk poetry, isn’t it? Here’s another great line: “I was committed. I was bacon in a hot skillet.” And another: “I was fine as a fiddle where I was: anchored on a boat in the middle of a very salty sea where there was intuition to the exclusion of rationality, dreams to the exclusion of language, and mysteries to the exclusion of a clanking, cranky town.”
But despite Wilson’s contemplative streak—she describes herself as “a borderline mystic”—she’s never, as her books make clear, permitted to drift for long. Her life entails more frying in the skillet than lolling on the open water. Like her previous writings, Diary of an Eco-Outlaw pulls double-duty as a work of literature and a work of politics. It’s not a diary, or a conventional memoir. Nor is it a work of propaganda. It’s a spiritual journey—in the tradition of Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain—of a South Texas shrimper and mother of five whose circumstances conspire to transform her into a world-class hell-raiser. On that journey, she gains the priceless insight that fear—the clammy, stomach-jumping, cold-knuckle experience of it—can be interpreted as a sign that you’re heading in the right direction. While charging a barricade at book’s end, Wilson reflects, “The whole time I was drunk on the idea that I would never [again] be this free … Anything could happen here. Anything.”
“How can a person be brave and principled enough to take such an unflinching stand?” Wilson’s admirers ask themselves. “To serve hard time in Texas jails and manage four hunger strikes in a row?” Wilson insists that, by going with that “spirit-pure-gut thing,” by forsaking “the love of normalcy,” anybody can achieve a state of grace. And it’s her triumph, as an artist and activist, that I believe it.