Mark Shipley, 27, and Michael Thompson, 60, met in Chicago in 2003, and both participate in the Chicago Honey Co-op. Begun by Michael Thompson and others, the co-op raises honey bees and other food plants and crops on the west side of Chicago. After hearing about the AREA issue theme, Michael and Mark decided to interview each other as an exploration of friendship across generations. The following conversation was recorded at Lula Café on September 29, 2008 over the Monday Farm dinner.
Mark Shipley (MS) Growing up in rural Kansas in the 1950s in an area being overtaken by the suburban American Dream, how is it that you didn’t fall for that suburban mania and malaise?
Michael Thompson (MT) It had to do with the fact that I knew that I loved men, and I knew that I was both separate and gifted in that way. I trusted following my desires. I was shaped by a combination of taking pleasure in food, and in the desire to be happy. My first memory as a child was of gardening, and of falling to the ground as a Boeing B52 bomber flew very low overhead. We lived near Boeing. How do people your age think about desire?
MS Talking about desire, I always think about a small radical school that I attended in Urbana, IL called School for Designing a Society. We used to call it SDAS, and people used to mix this up with SDS, which is one of the ways I began to learn about that movement. In SDAS we made a list of our desires, and our task was to design a way to nest all of our desires in our lives or in the projects that we were involved in—it was a whole school based on desires, in a sense. Through that school I met the Radical Faeries, Patch Adams, Bernardine Dohrn, and others. It was my introduction and launch into the counterculture. Wasn’t the 60s largely about desire?
MT Yes, it was about resisting what society expected of you, focusing on the destructive war in Vietnam.
MS Why did you come to Chicago in 1968, and how does that relate to your life now?
MT There was going to be a big demonstration around the DNC. If you were a teenager at that time, Chicago was the place to be. I was 19.
MS Were you against the war?
MT Yes. When I was 18 I took a bus to the Pentagon from St. Louis that the League of Women Voters had organized. I had five dollars in my pocket. Abbie Hoffman and David Dellinger were there. It was a protest against the war, and they were going to try to levitate the Pentagon (laughs).
MT I’m not kidding. That’s the reason I went. The idea was so absurd and funny. What does activism mean to you?
MS It is related to desire. The word makes me uncomfortable because it implies that some people aren’t activists. We are all actively creating our lives together, creating our direction at all times.
MT Another reason I moved to Chicago was because of the music, which was another deep desire of mine.
MS What music?
MT Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Howlin’ Wolf and many others.
MS All Black musicians?
MT Yes. They were great artists of the time.
MS For years I didn’t understand your interest in Jazz and Blues. I declined all your invitations to the Velvet Lounge. Suddenly one day I realized that what Jazz and Blues is to you, hip hop and breakdance is to me.
MT And House… There’s no shortage. An itemized list would be fine with me, from Haiti to New Orleans.
MS Did you move to Chicago also partly for its culture, and to avoid the repressive rural culture of your upbringing?
MT Yes. I had it [rural culture], I studied it since I was a small child, and I didn’t need it. Moving here, I realized that I could bring it here. This was a radical thought at the time, just so we’re clear. It was unspoken, I said it to myself and nobody else. The words urban agriculture were never muttered.
MS Were there people who understood it but didn’t have language for it?
MT No. Well, there was one I can think of. Her name is Susan Nelson. I’m sure there were many others. There was a community garden that grew vegetables, and there were guerrilla gardens.
MS Was that a term at the time?
MT Yes, as I remember.
MS Was there only one community garden that grew food?
MT There were others. When you and I met, it was at a (gulp) permaculture meeting. We both had the same goal, two generations apart, which was to grow all our food in the city. That’s why I wanted to speak to you.
MS When did it become a movement? Would you say it is one?
MT Yes, it’s a movement. At least ever since I read about Luther Burbank and Rodale as a child.
MS I mean urban.
MT So do I. I know Luther Burbank was urban. It’s a fine line.
MS Did you hear the word veganism in the 60s?
MT Yes, it was used back then, I’m pretty sure. Why do you ask?
MS For me it started out about ethics, perhaps stemming from my Catholic upbringing. Animal torture horrified me, and that is how I began to think about food.
MT I was also aware of the torture.
MS You were aware of factory farming in the 70s?
MT It was ramping up then, we slowly noticed it. In the early 70s we were most interested in unprocessed meals and healthy food.
MS Is there more information about it now?
MT Yes, and there is also a lot more of it happening, more torture and harm.
(At this moment Lula brings out a quadruple honey desert made of our honey. Some gawking.)
MS We haven’t talked about sex yet. That has a lot to do with why you moved here, right?
MT Yes. Growing up in Southern Kansas was dangerous for a gay man. I assumed I would be killed. I’m not exaggerating. On the other side, I wanted to meet the culture of a diverse city.
MS You knew it was safer?
MT I hate that word. I wasn’t looking for safety. I wanted to achieve, have fun, live a long time. Why did you decide to leave the city?
MS It was partly my ideas—partly ideological—and largely visceral. It was and still is hard for me to handle the abuse of land and people represented and perpetrated in and by cities. After working on farms and hitchhiking and hopping freight trains around the country, I learned that I thrived in wilder places, in more natural, complex environments.
MT Why did you move back?
MS This is my home, I grew up here. I have a history and a past here. I don’t have another home, and I realized that there is not a single place in the city that I know of where people, together, are living in a good way with land, having a healthy relationship with it. So I wanted to make that place. Like you, I wanted to bring into the city the intimacy with land that largely exists outside of the city.
MT Did you find that?
MS I’m in that process right now. Back to sex–I’m wondering how sex was different for each of us in these different times. I always thought a major difference in eras was that I grew up with the fear that if I fucked the wrong guy without sexual precaution I could die. You didn’t have that fear?
MT There’re a lot of other STDs besides HIV/AIDS. There are a lot of ways to have sex–fucking is only one. They’re all fun.
MS What was ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) about, what did it mean to you?
MT ACT-UP was two things. I wanted to honor my brother, Daniel, who died of AIDS. Another reason was because it was so sexy. Everyone knew it was sexy and if they didn’t admit it they’re fools. Everybody involved was sexy and smart. Until then, HIV/AIDS was perceived as a gay man’s disease, everyone thought it only afflicted gay men. But we already knew otherwise, that it affected straight and gay, men and women, and that it was spreading globally. ACT-UP was a worldwide movement that made it known that this was a serious global epidemic, not a gay disease. There were other reasons I participated, but those are big ones.
MS As long as I’ve known you, you haven’t really identified with movements…
MT Except food movements.
MS Yes. Are there any other movements you’ve identified with?
MT The Yippies. I didn’t call myself one but I identified with them. Certainly the Anti-Contra movement. It was very important and I worked on it. The organic food movement predates all of these. Prison reform. I’m kind of bored listing these. What movements are you involved in?
MS I identify strongly with the Luddite movement against industrialization. The food movement of course. Land movements such as the landless peasants’ movement in South America and beyond. I’m pretty intrigued by the relatively recent anti-civilization movement and anarcho-primitivism or green anarchism, though don’t know if I would call myself part of that movement. And of course the environmental movement, if you can call it one movement. I consider myself allied with many social movements, but I see relation to land and land reform as fundamental to all of these. I feel that things like anarchism and desire are inclusive of everything I’ve mentioned.
MS Can you speak to your relationship with young people?
MT Young people in the last decades can be credited with so much experimentation in music – the AACM and free jazz founders for example. Young people are experimental. I’m interested in experimental approaches, experimental arts.
MT Because it’s unpredictable. Gardening and sex are very much that way. I’d like to ask you some questions. What are your first memories?
MS I remember breakdancing in daycare at five years old at Edgewater Hospital while my parents worked there. I remember shitting my pants and the daycare workers letting everyone watch while they cleaned me up. It was humiliating. I think those were my earliest memories.
MT Has music influenced you?
MS Yes, hugely. For fear of sounding cliched, music is power. It’s like breathing, sex, and food—totally essential.
MT Why does this interview seem like a good idea to you?
MS I’m fascinated with older people. I have mostly hung out with older people most of my life. I feel like I learn more from them. I like the idea because it’s interesting to me the intersection of being engaged in the same work but being from different eras with different perspectives and backgrounds. But it is the same sensuality, the same work…Why is this interview interesting to you?
MT For many of the same reasons. Especially that when we met, that you wanted to grow your own food, which is so important and so sexy. And the issue of having intergenerational influences seems to be part of a solution to many problems. I guess for me it’s an educational thing to have a younger person to work with. I learn from you, you learn from me: it’s an exceptional and valuable thing. One thing I like about youth is the strength. This is a hard line of work…We haven’t talked about beauty, have we? What is life without beauty? Our gardens are about beauty.
MS Can you think of any other salient differences between our generations, any differences in quality, approach, or perception?
MT It irritates me when people draw boundaries around generations. I’m not interested in that at all. I do want to pass on what I’ve learned. This whole generalization about era is off-putting.
MS One thing I admire about you is your openness and enjoyment in sharing, and the fact that you don’t judge or condescend to younger people or people less experienced. That’s very important for young people.
MT I just heard an interview a few days ago with Johnny Cash. He said something like “I’ve learned more in the past decade from 19 year olds than I’ve ever learned from anyone in my own generation.” To be able to have young people teaching me about the world in my time, that’s a great gift.
2. “Get Rhythm: A Tribute to Johnny Cash” (“Dylan” segment), broadcast September 2008 on American Routes, WBEZ.