Ben White Penetrates The Veil with Dignity
One of the Most Effective
Julia and Ben Jr. Have Lost a Father and a Friend
August 19, 2005
Ben White Penetrates
The Veil with Dignity
By Kelley Balcomb-Bartok / San Juan Journal
(July 31, 2005) -- Nestled in a seaside cabin along the shore of San Juan Island, Ben White, 53, passed away Saturday at 3 p.m. after succumbing to a six-month battle with cancer.
|Ben White ran for office on the Green Party ticket and promised to donate 10 percent of his salary to local schools. Credit: San Juan Journal Photo|
At the end, White was surrounded by family and several of his closest friends, including daughter Julia, son Ben and his father, Benjamin White Sr.
After a lifetime fighting for the rights of Native Americans, wild animals, and the environment, White's battle with cancer proved to be his last stand. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of abdominal cancer in late January and tried without success to have it removed through surgery and chemotherapy.
In the days just preceding his death, a steady flow of people from across the nation passed through his doorway on personal pilgrimages to share their love, respect and final goodbyes with an imaginative, irreverent and tireless warrior. As the final moment grew near, his breath "became a whisper", said David Howitt, one of White's closest friends during the past 19 years. "With each breath he just quietly faded a little more, until he became still."
The middle son of an Air Force Lt. Colonel, White was rarely still or quiet when expressing his lifelong commitment to wildlife, natural habitats and those that lacked the power or voice to battle authority or against indifference. At 16, he began a life of activism when he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan for a story on white supremacist groups for a high school newspaper.
He was arrested on numerous occasions during peaceful protests, chained himself to floating cages at the Ballad Locks to protest the slaughter of sea lions, and as a member of the Sea Shepherd crew helped blockade the port of Newfoundland in a 10-day protest against the slaughter of baby Harp seals near the Magdalene Islands. In 1999, at the age of 47, while in the bathtub, White devised what may prove to be his most publicized achievement during a lifetime of activism. He will long be remembered as the grandfather of the oversized, green turtle costumes worn by peaceful demonstrators during the WTO convention in Seattle in 1999.
As a member of the San Juan County Green Party, White ran for District 1 county commissioner in 2004. Though his bid failed, White again grabbed headlines by vowing to donate 10 percent of his salary to the public school system if he were elected. An arborist by trade, he founded the Natural Guard, a collective of young men and women he trained in the art of tree maintenance. He opened an office and served as Northwest regional director of the Animal Welfare Institute, a nationwide animal rights advocacy group.
His latest battle, however, did not make headlines around the world or cause a ripple in the evening news broadcasts, as most of his adventures often had. He waited patiently for what he liked to conceive as a new adventure, Howitt said. Friends and family also patiently waited and provided comfort and support through his final hour.
"The outpouring of support and love for Ben has been just incredible," said Ben's brother Wesley. "I honestly don't know how we as a family would have coped with this otherwise."
In January, while attempting to put a halt to seismic testing of a massive underwater crater off the Yucatan Peninsula, the first sign of White's terminal disease emerged in the form of severe stomach pain. The cancer was diagnosed following his return to the US.
Fittingly, White's burial and memorial service, as was his life, will be an unconventional celebration of life at his request. Today at 1 p.m., a funeral procession, led by eight WTO turtles as his honor guard, will leave Mariella Inn and guide his body to its final resting place at the Community Cemetery on Madden Lane.
Members of White's Natural Guard will serve as pallbearers. The Island Drummers, a local drum-circle group, will provide music for the procession. Graveside services begin at 3 p.m. A celebration of White's life will be held at the Mariella Inn following the service.
White's family asks that donations be made either to:
The Ben White Fund at Islander's Bank or the Animal Welfare Institute, PO Box 3650, Washington, DC 20027.
Journal reporter Scott Rasmussen contributed to this report
Copyright 2005 San Juan Journal
One of the Most Effective
Animal Protectors of Our Time
By Jim Nollman / San Juan Journal
(August 8, 2005) -- Ben White was one of the most effective animal protectors of our time. His genius was tactical, possessing a unique ability to simplify complex issues to cast a spotlight onto public consciousness. His bottom line was always to uncover the brutality that always seems to arise whenever humans (Ben referred to them as the "usual gang of greedy males") feel a need to kill, eliminate, bulldoze, cut and market the other beings that inhabit this planet with us.
|Ben in LA Harbor|
Credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
He is probably best known for inventing and leading the "turtles" at the celebrated WTO debacle in Seattle. Another campaign of his, getting jailed and then leading a very public hunger strike, showed the world the violent methods that US oceanariums employ to capture dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. It directly resulted in an end to the capture of dolphins in US waters.
Ben White had been a member of the board of directors of Interspecies.com for the past three years. Perhaps because of our own focus on art for nature, I viewed him primarily as a master of polemical theater. This description always brought a smile to his face, because he once confided to me that he served as a clown for animals. To me, his true work was closer in spirit to Abby Hoffman and Walt Whitman than to Greenpeace.
Ben was my friend. Although we both traveled a lot, he and I did our best to have lunch together two times a month for the past four or five years. I got to experience his deep intellectual curiosity, his love of literature, his keen interest in tree morphology, his studies to build a home for himself and his children utilizing Japanese and indigenous forms.
We both attended the International Whale Commission's meeting in Japan three summers ago. Afterward I led him to a remote hot springs village deep in the mountains. For two days, we got to walk the streets wearing our bathrobes and carrying our towels back and forth from our little bamboo inn to the famous healing waters, where we shared the bath mostly with old people we soon learned were survivors of the Hiroshima bomb.
The memory of Ben smiling broadly, dressed in his woolen Hapi jacket over a Ukata bathrobe, and pointing at the ceramic penises for sale in every store, is the vision I carry of Ben White.
Ben died last Saturday of cancer. For the past two weeks, I'd visited his bedside four times to play an Indian raga and watch him slowly recede before my eyes.
The last time, Friday night, he was breathing at such a slow rate, I couldn't imagine his body getting any oxygen. It was difficult to play that evening. Trying to figure out how to introduce exotic sound into that silent room took all of my musical experience and strength. Yet despite the fact that everyone present knew that death was already living in the room, Ben managed a weak smile midway through the performance.
I like to think of it as a sign from Ben the geographer, Ben the canny ambassador, offering us a hint that the other side is as interesting as the life he was exiting.
Copyright 2005 San Juan Journal
Julia and Ben Jr.
Have Lost a Father and a Friend
By Liza Michaelson / San Juan Journal
(August 8, 2005) -- Ben White died of cancer last week. People all over the planet will miss him, but no one will miss him more than his two kids. Julia and Ben Jr. are too young to lose their dad.
Many people spoke at his open-air service, so many that I can't remember who made the comment that has stuck with me. They said that when Ben moved to Friday Harbor years ago, he foresaw the comings and goings required by his work and made a conscious effort to pick a community that would surround, protect and help raise his kids. Hardly a season went by for Ben which didn't include an overseas trip to protect an ancient forest, or a group of wild animals in their habitat, and he couldn't take his kids along on all of them.
My first memory of Ben is a Saturday morning six years ago when he called to say he heard we had built a rope swing in our woods. His only plan for the day was to volunteer his time to somebody on the island and he offered to erect a platform for the rope swing so people could get a better ride. He explained that the community always seemed to be giving to him so he often chooses a Saturday to give back.
He arrived around noon with four kids -- two of his own and two that he was caring for. He explained he was a little late because he had fed them all a big pancake breakfast. Then he proceeded to build us a king-sized platform, 8 feet off the ground, guaranteed to give every leaping swinger a thrill.
When my daughter, Maria, started hearing the lore of Ben White and his nonviolent actions to protect animals around the globe, she was greatly inspired that he actually lived here amongst us.
At age 10, she spoke out at a county commissioners' meeting about the fact that she didn't want to see a cell tower go up on the mountain-top property adjoining ours. Ben pulled her aside later and promised her not to worry. "If they build it, I'll take it down," he said with a conspiratorial wink. She fell into worship of him and his style.
Ben took Maria along for a tree-sit in the redwood forest when she was only 14. She came back having learned more about what it takes to engage in an act of civil disobedience and what it takes to find common ground with people on two sides of an issue, than if she had spent years in classroom discussions. I can't imagine where I found the trust to send her off to the redwoods like that, but somehow I felt that if she was with Ben White, it was OK.
Last year when she was 17, Maria woke up on Father's Day with the realization that although she had no living father to celebrate and honor, there are many men who have provided love and guidance in her life. By 9 a.m. she was making phone calls to all the men who had parented her, and Ben was one of them. Aside from her two uncles, there were seven men and they all live on this island, each one a powerful presence in her developing years.
At the end of the day's celebrations for Ben, after his body had been sung into the grave and we returned to the waterfront lawns of Mariella Inn for feasting, my heart filled with feelings of gratitude for this Friday Harbor community. As marimba music performed by friends filled the air and dusk began to settle, I spotted a darling little baby held on one hip by a young father who was trying to fill his plate in the potluck line. This is the season for salmon and blackberry cobbler, and there was plenty of food.
I asked to hold the baby boy and walked away with him in my arms to dance. A friend was captivated by my pudgy, contented armful, and asked for a turn. We didn't even know that baby's name, but that was OK -- he was a Friday Harbor baby, one of our own.
Only much later did I realize how amazing it is that there is still a place on the planet with this level of trust. I have traveled to three continents this past year, spending time getting to know people in villages and being invited into their homes, meeting their families, eating their food. Yet, it is at these age-inclusive gatherings of our community, here on San Juan Island -- at a memorial service, or a wedding, or a birthday, or an anniversary -- that I feel most connected and alive.
You chose well, Ben. I can say with assurance, although you never planned to leave your kids for quite this long, you found the right nest.
Copyright 2005 San Juan Journal
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