Ponderosa Pine, who chanted in Bolinas, dies in Ecuador

Ilka Hartmann
PEOPLE: Keith Lampe, who called himself Ponderosa Pine, protested tree-cutting and chanted as a form of spiritual practice. He never wore shoes, said friends in West Marin, who are grieving his death this month and planing a local “bardo party.”  
11/26/2014

Keith Lampe, known to his friends as Ponderosa Pine, penned countless articles when he reported for newspapers and wire services. In his last years, he wrote sweeping emails about planetary woes on an almost daily basis. 

But if you ask about Ponderosa, it’s his chanting that imprinted on everyone’s memory, a low tone that resounded around town as he strummed along with a simple instrument that looked a bit like a 2x4.

“It was kind of his way of being,” said Doug Adamz, a friend and guitarist who connected with Ponderosa through music.

Ponderosa Pine died on Nov. 10, at 83 years old, in Ecuador. A Michigan native, he lived on the East Coast and traveled the world before coming to the Bay Area in 1968. 

He was an unflinching environmental activist who was jailed for protesting the cutting of redwoods and the building of nuclear power plants, and he organized a so-called All Species event to bring awareness to the rights of all living beings. He expressed his love of the earth in his rugged lifestyle, living barefoot and with few possessions, occasionally wearing a mask made of pine and chanting everywhere he went. 

Ponderosa told a friend that his father was an editor for a Detroit newspaper and that he had followed in his footsteps, starting as a reporter for the paper when he was just 18, in 1950.

He said the experience taught him about media corruption; one time, the city’s police commissioner told his secretary to provide Ponderosa with a fake I.D., a quiet trade for ignoring police scandals, Ponderosa said.  

He landed a job as a copy editor for the Pittsburgh Press and worked as a Paris correspondent for the International News Service before moving to New York City. In the mid-1960s he did press relations for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and co-founded the Veterans and Reservists to End the War in Vietnam. 

Ponderosa, who served as an artillery officer during the Korean War, burned his discharge papers and medals with other veterans in protest of the Vietnam War. He was “busted” while protesting the production of napalm in front of Dow Chemical offices, and again when he and other activists stole onto a navy vessel slated to go to Vietnam, in the Hudson River. He was arrested twice while protesting conscription during Stop the Draft Week and, in D.C., after tossing leaflets from the Senate gallery onto politicians below.

Ponderosa also spoke and wrote about traveling the world, meeting Allen Ginsberg in India in 1962 and, in 1960 in Japan, befriending the poet Gary Snyder. Mr. Snyder mentions Ponderosa in a poem in “Back Country,” a collection published in 1967. 

In “June,” part of a poem cycle written while Mr. Snyder lived in Japan in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he describes a classroom of children learning English. 

The poem begins “students listen to the tapes” and then recounts the scene—the teachers, the walls, the sunset—before listing words that seem less like the contents of a language lesson and more like an incantation: “strength strap strand strut struck,” “cord ford gorge dwarf forth north,” “try tea buy ties weigh Tim buy type/ flat tea bright ties greet Tim met Tess.” 

“Why that’s old Keith Lampe’s voice, deep & clear,” Mr. Snyder writes, perhaps influenced by some early version of Ponderosa’s now-famous chanting in Bolinas in the 1970s.

In 1968, Ponderosa crossed the country and moved to Berkeley with his then-wife, Judy, and their daughter. The focus of his protesting appeared to shift, but his style didn’t. A few months after arriving in California, he was arrested just north of Bolinas for “blocking a truck carrying redwood corpses from a nearby tree-slaughter site. This in fact was the start of the US environmental movement,” he wrote. (It was not the last time he would be arrested for trying to protect trees.)

His fervent environmental activism was sparked in part by Mr. Ginsberg, who in 1967 showed Ponderosa a book about the looming threat of melting ice caps. It helped kick off Ponderosa’s lifelong devotion to activism on behalf of nature.

At the All Species events he organized in the late 1970s in San Francisco, people wore animal masks and two of his friends, musicians Greg Schindel and Mr. Adamz, now living in Willits and Marshall, played music as Ponderosa chanted. (Mr. Schindel said his mask depicted a steelhead trout.)

At another event, the Unity Fair in San Francisco in 1975, Bolinas photographer Ilka Hartmann recalled Ponderosa telling the crowd that he wanted to express the killing of animals on the highway. 

“Everyone fell totally silent… He made a very, very deep sound for a long time, for the pain of all those animals, and it reverberated throughout the park,” she said. When Ms. Hartmann sees a dead or injured animal on the side of the road, she still thinks of that moment, she said.

Though many friends still living in Bolinas recall accompanying Ponderosa to protests, he is also widely remembered just walking around town or along Agate Beach, feet bare to connect with the earth, hair cascading down his body. He chanted in a single tone while strumming a stringed instrument; he didn’t play melodies, instead favoring a looser, ambient style. 

He also chanted with Mr. Adamz and Mr. Schindel downtown. The two musicians would play together every week where the Coast Café now stands, calling themselves Kindred Souls. The whole town would be there, dancing, carousing or joining in the music while Ponderosa “vocalized,” Mr. Adamz said.

Mr. Adamz met Ponderosa—his first friend in California—when he was 23, while auditioning for a gig in San Francisco after moving from Texas. He and Ponderosa drove to Bolinas in Mr. Adamz’s Volkswagen van. 

“When we got to Highway 1, winding along the coast, he’s sitting in the back of my van chanting to the tones of my engine. It was kind of one of those ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ moments.”

Ponderosa introduced him around, and invited him to join a group that congregated on the Big Mesa every full moon and stayed out all night, singing, dancing, drumming and chanting.

Mr. Adamz said Ponderosa didn’t seem to belong to any particular religious tradition. “I feel he was definitely on the spiritual path, and that informed pretty much all of his decisions… If anything was his religion, that was it: loving earth and nature,” he said.

One time, Ponderosa had his famously long hair cut (by Bolinas artist Arthur Okamura), perhaps to win the favor of his girlfriend’s father. Some people didn’t recognize him; he looked more like an East Coast professor than an impassioned environmental activist. But the grew the hair back, and he kept it long for the remainder of his life as it turned from dark brown to silvery white.

Eventually, the expense of living in coastal California got to Ponderosa, who realized he could actually live on Social Security income in other, more affordable parts of the world. He traveled to Mexico and Asia, with stints back in America, before ending up in Ecuador. There he continued chanting, and began sending friends almost daily newsletters of his own thoughts on current events as well as articles he collected from the Internet. 

His politics were radical. He suspected the United States government of changing weather patterns to maintain the drought in California, and accused mass media of being complicit with big corporations and the government. Every email was signed, “Keith Lampe, Ro-Non-So-Te, Ponderosa Pine, Volunteer.”

He talked recently about returning to Bolinas to see his many friends, but his health took a turn for the worse a few weeks before he died, as his kidneys failed. He knew the prognosis wasn’t good. He consulted with Western doctors, who apparently could not help him, according to the last email he sent. Then he consulted a shaman. 

“Too much compassion for plants and animals causes a lung problem,” the shaman pronounced.

Perhaps the last person from Bolinas to see Ponderosa was Jerry Bojeste. He was traveling through South America when he ended up in Vilcabamba, and a bell went off; didn’t he know someone here? He checked his address book and realized Ponderosa, whom he had not seen in many years, must be nearby. After asking around, a woman eventually led him up a mountain path near a river. There was Ponderosa.  

Mr. Bojeste said Ponderosa seemed happy. They had a little wine and talked about the letters Einstein wrote to a daughter that were made public several years ago; in one, Mr. Bojeste claims, Einstein says love is part of any grand unification theory of the universe.

“You can send love from your heart to anyone in your neighborhood, anyone you love, in the U.S., in the world and the cosmos. So love is faster than the speed of light,” Mr. Bojeste said.

Ponderosa never made it back to Bolinas. But his chanting—in people’s memories, in recordings online, in his home on the mountain in Ecuador—must have signified not just a love for the earth and the trees and the animals, but for his friends back home, too, who can still hear it.

 

A bardo party, or a celebration of passage, for Ponderosa Pine will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 30, at 4:30 p.m. at the Bolinas Community Center.