Hard Truth: Lessons from the Outdoor Classroom
Some writers gravitate out of the mainstream. Jessica Meadowlark Plachta was born there.
Starting elementary school in rural Rollins, Montana in the early 1970s, Plachta was taunted by classmates who surrounded her at recess, taunting, “You don’t believe in Jesus. You’re going to hell!”
In fact, Plachta hadn’t heard of Jesus. Born in a commune in Spokane, Washington, she spent the first half of each year in an old Army tent, living and traveling through Pacific Northwest forests with her parents, leaders of a band of hippie tree-planters.
Kids in Rollins spread rumors that the Plachtas had poisoned the local water supply with drowned cats.
“They realized we were aliens. We were aliens from a different planet,” Plachta said. But the different planet the Plachtas inhabited — a world of blistering hard work, a semi-nomadic life and open attitudes toward sex, drugs and life in general — provided a classroom of a different sort for Plachta.
Her life is her art, she has said. Through writing a memoir, she is finding a way to share both.
She remembers climbing up on the tongue of a camp trailer at around age 6 to watch the woman inside give birth. Another time, she perched on a mountainside and befriended a boulder sparkling in the light of a sunset.
“I grew up with a pack of kids of all ages. We were wild, free, barefoot, scrappy little creatures. We entertained ourselves by finding morels and playing on charred log stumps,” Plachta said.
Though her family was poor — she recalls two pregnant women in their group vying for the same plastic bucket to use as a camp chair — her upbringing was better than idyllic, Plachta said.
“There’s something about living that close to the earth in such an unfiltered way. … There was a certain bliss to everything, even if I was miserable and wet and cold, which I was a lot of the time. Still, I was happy. There was this wonderful immediacy to … oh what bird is that crossing the sky?”
Now 45, with a husband, a 7-year-old son and a job at the Haines Public Library, Plachta is building her own home in the woods 25 miles from town. She weighs in on local environmental issues and, as a member of a popular puppet troupe, tackles adult issues using humor and metaphor.
Soft-spoken, respectful and articulate when testifying at public meetings, Plachta finds art in day-to-day life, just as she found it in the iridescent indigo of a blue jay’s tail feather as a child.
“I feel like humans, however amazing our art can be, we are still just echoes of the Great Artist, if you will.”
Her activism hasn’t assuaged her fears about the future. “Seeing the collapse and endangerment of whole ecosystems — to me that’s terrifying and profound. It’s difficult for me to bear witness to that without falling into despair.”
For direction, she’s looking to her roots. She’s conducting in-depth interviews with the extended tree-planting family that raised her, documenting those years in the first-person voice, seeking answers to questions about love, commitment and healing the earth.
“I want to tell it from their perspective, as best I can. It makes more sense to have it unfold kind of naturally that way,” she said.
In the memoir she’s writing, Plachta also wants to capture what she felt as a child, a time when everyone in her world wore a halo.
“I think a lot of my life has been trying to tap back into that childhood joy. I feel we’re all so wounded and disconnected by this modern life, that part of my work on this project is to try to understand that, to find a pathway back, and try to put markers along the trail.”
She also wants to honor her parents.
During the late 1960s, many young people experimented with alternative lifestyles. Plachta’s father Gus Plachta made a commitment akin to a religious vocation.
A devout Catholic and an Army ROTC candidate at Gonzaga University, Gus began to question why the United States was fighting in Vietnam, then fasted for 40 days hoping for guidance. He ended his fast a dedicated pacifist and testified in court to earn status as a conscientious objector.
“He was raised God-and-country, do-what-you’re-told and all that,” Plachta said. “Part of what fascinates me about my dad is that he made this incredible change and he kept it his whole life. … The values of brotherly love and service he was raised with weren’t so different. He just overturned the execution of them.”
Through a friend, Gus met Cathy Lina Conrad, who was working at an underground newspaper. In a communal house they shared with the local chapter of the Black Panthers, Gus and Cathy were married with The Beatles’ “Imagine” as wedding music.
A part-time job sparked Gus’s interest in tree-planting and he formed his own company. He viewed the work as helping mend a damaged environment. Their job was to follow the loggers and plant seedlings in the vast clearcuts of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana.
In 45 years, Gus and his crew planted tens of millions of trees, what Plachta describes as an impressive contribution to Earth’s forest “lungs” and a testament to his belief that a sacred spirit inhabits every living thing. At 73, Gus is still at it, planting vineyards along the Columbia River.
Plachta sees as her father’s deeper contribution the example of his life: quiet leadership, integrity and adherence to ideals. Though most no longer plant trees, the core of the work crew is still together, still supportive and loving of each other, as are their children, she said. She hopes in telling the stories of what she calls “an otherwise invisible subculture,” others might see new possibilities in their own lives. Art, she says, should be transformative.
“The poverty and hardship they went through didn’t erode their spirits. They’re still spiritually whole, truly earth-loving people, and that’s a hard thing to be, these days.”