Edson, Alberta -- Just before midnight, and the campfire shoots spears of light through the spruce trees. I'm here with a feisty group of nature enthusiasts, among them the province's fiercest eco-warrior, Wiebo Ludwig.We are camping in this backwoods along with eight of his family members because, though masters of self-reliance domestically, they're hungry to learn more about forest survival from Mors Kochanski, the Wizard of the Woods.
Ludwig, standing above me in a blue shirt and wilderness vest, took the rap for widespread oil and gas well vandalism in Alberta's oil patch and spent 21 months in jail paying for it. There, he says, he honed his woodworking skills, carving tables with clawed legs, and planned the next phase of his campaign. "Instead of fighting, sometimes you have to lie down and accept things," he muses.
And now, minus a minute or two, he's almost a free man. At the stroke of midnight, as the Earth Summit gets underway in Johannesburg, Ludwig's parole expires. No more confinement to Trickle Creek farm. No more reporting to the RCMP.
Tonight he's in combative form, indulging in a passionate debate about women as he downs his intoxicating homemade dandelion wine.
My partner, Angela, is not enjoying the repartee. In fact, they're shouting at each other. He's waving his arms and shaking his bushy grey beard. Ludwig doesn't relent: in God's universe, women defer to men and men to God.
I find myself staring into the fire for relief, trying to work through the paradox that, although this man is a patriarchal diehard, a fundamentalist, anti-gay -- and unbearably arrogant -- we have few differences on the ecological front. Dare I say I admire him? A few years back I stayed at his rambling farmhouse, where I marvelled at the family's self-reliance. But he remains an imperfect hero.
His latest project intrigues me; it's something I could imagine myself devising. He's going to outfit a helicopter and a sniffer bus. The radio-controlled miniature chopper will fly into the toxic gas flare stacks to gather air samples. The sniffer bus will analyze poisonous benzene and radioactive emissions from flare stacks and gas processing plants. If the government won't monitor the toxic gassing, he says, he and his family will. The 40 souls at Trickle Creek work that way.
"It's a deep spiritual thing for us," he tells me in a tone that brooks no argument. "We are stewards of the land and we have an obligation in this life to fight against corruption and abuse, and fight for what everyone is entitled to: a healthy environment. When the oil industry starts to push on us and put heavy pressure on our health, we won't roll over."
His long-term plan is to continue Trickle Creek as a model God-fearing, hierarchical micro-society -- but one based on the best sustainable principles. "Our culture,' he says, "is in a lot of trouble. We would like to build an alternate, visible answer to that rather than just mouth off about all the problems in our society.'
His family believes the best way to clean your hands of the human rights abuses and ecological crimes of the likes of ExxonMobil (Esso in Canada) and Shell is to stop giving them your money. So they heat their buildings in winter with wood. A self-built windmill fills their batteries with electricity. Solar panels track the sun, gathering clean kilowatts from the sky.
If they run low on electricity, they fire up the backup diesel generator, which runs on waste vegetable oil collected free from restaurants. That's an oil that's both renewable and carbon neutral. (Plants suck up carbon from the atmosphere when they grow and put it back when they're burned.)
They'll be making fuel alcohol from potatoes and barley on their farm soon and already cork a thousand re-used bottles of wine yearly.
Every other day the women bake 12 loaves of bread from their own organic wheat that they grind themselves.
Mamie Junior is studying dentistry. Harmony tends 50 herbs and makes the medicines. Salome tends the sheep. Each member of the family has his or her established role. Their community of 40 survives on just $12,000 cash a year. That's less than a dollar a person a day, about what half the world survives on. (The average North American is closer to $70 per day.)
And so the dilemma enfolds me. Such profound commitment from such a retro worldview. Hold the male God, hold the self-righteousness -- if Trickle Creek ideas trickled down into our daily lives, we'd be reconnecting with the land, breathing cleaner air and moving way beyond the Kyoto Protocol.
And if we made our own wine and grew our own herbs, we might be -- just could be -- happier people.