Before ‘Dune,’ Frank Herbert learned how ‘white men are eating the Earth’

The New York Times
New YorkUpdated: Oct 23, 2021, 07:39 PM IST


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Native Americans' warnings of environmental catastrophe inspired the landscape of 'Dune'. Now their tribal lands are flooding

The planet, or what’s left of it, is barely recognizable. Once verdant, it’s now a parched wasteland. The rich shelter in air-conditioned bubbles, leaving everyone else to face the storms and sand.

This vision of climate apocalypse is all too familiar today, but in 1963, when Frank Herbert started serializing his science-fiction epic “Dune,” it was deeply strange. The novel’s story of a planet that had become a desert — replete with psychedelic drugs, mystical visions and political assassinations — fit awkwardly with the chart-toppers of its time: “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Still, the dark novel gained a cult following and, eventually, millions of devoted readers. Denis Villeneuve’s star-studded film adaptation is being released this week, and it’s receiving not just critical acclaim but also appreciation for the “clear contemporary relevance” of its ecological themes. Mr. Herbert’s tale of climate change no longer seems odd. It is in many ways the story of our time.

How did Mr. Herbert foresee our predicament? The environmentalism of “Dune” had a source close to home. Native communities had suffered some of the worst environmental harms in the midcentury United States, and Mr. Herbert had close contacts among the Quileute and Hoh peoples of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Indigenous environmentalists alerted him to how much damage industrialism had wrought. They warned him that it could become planetary in scope, a warning that he passed on in his influential novel.

Mr. Herbert was interested in Native American issues from the start. While fishing near his home in Western Washington as a youth, he met a Hoh man he described as “Indian Henry,” who “semi-adopted” him for two years and taught him “the ways of his people,” Mr. Herbert told his son and biographer, Brian Herbert. This was almost certainly Henry Martin, known also as Han-daa-sho, a fisherman who had suffered police harassment while living on the Quileute reservation in La Push, a village on Washington’s Pacific Coast.

What lessons did Mr. Martin teach Frank Herbert? In the 1970s, Mr. Herbert wrote a novel, “Soul Catcher,” seemingly based on their relationship, that offers some clues. It follows an older Hoh man who teaches a white teenager to subsist from the land. He also explains how white people had stolen Hoh lands, harassed Hoh people and logged the forests.

Mr. Herbert’s education continued via his close friendship with the environmentalist Howard Hansen. Mr. Hansen, also called cKulell, was raised in La Push. He wasn’t an enrolled member of the Quileute Nation (his parentage was obscure), but he conducted his life “based on Quileute Indian teachings,” he wrote. A Quileute elder, Lester Payne, helped train him in Quileute lore, making him as a cultural repository for the small tribal nation.

Mr. Hansen was Mr. Herbert’s best friend and godfather to Brian. He was also, like Mr. Herbert, a writer. While Mr. Herbert was developing “Dune,” Mr. Hansen was writing his own book, a memoir called “Twilight on the Thunderbird,” which Mr. Herbert read in manuscript. Mr. Hansen’s book told how white-run logging companies had transformed La Push. It was a “massacre,” Mr. Hansen wrote, in which the dense, damp forest was converted to “mud” and “baked earth.”

Mr. Hansen shared his chronicle of environmental devastation with Mr. Herbert. And he shared with him the contents of an ecology book, which he’d borrowed from a Native friend, warning that a similar fate might await the entire world. “White men are eating the Earth,” he told Mr. Herbert. “They’re going to turn this whole planet into a wasteland, just like North Africa.” Though initially “startled” by that view, Mr. Herbert agreed, responding that the world would become a “big dune,” according to Mr. Herbert’s son Brian.

In Brian Herbert’s understanding, the environmentalism of “Dune” was partly based on conversations between his Mr. Hansen and his father. Mr. Hansen himself felt that he had “contributed many of the ideas” of the novel, his widow, Joanne Hansen, told me. “They explored the idea of Dune, a planet without water,” she said. “They spent a lot of time talking about that.” Ultimately, she continued, her husband felt that “Dune” contained numerous ideas of his that Frank Herbert had “expanded on.”

Mr. Herbert’s fascination with Indigenous societies shines through in his novel. “Dune” follows Paul Atreides, a young man from another planet, as he navigates the desiccated planet of Dune. Paul’s guide is an older native-born man, Stilgar, who teaches him to live off the land, much as Henry Martin taught a young Frank Herbert. Stilgar’s people, the Fremen, shape their society around the giant sandworms that swim through Dune’s desert waves — not unlike the whales that Quileutes were still harpooning in living memory. As he learns Fremen ways, Paul comes to reject the imperial society he was born into and, in a sequel, scorns “believers in Manifest Destiny.”

Native peoples were at the cutting edge of environmentalism in Mr. Herbert’s day, and they still are. And, as Howard Hansen predicted, the scale has enlarged. It’s no longer only wilderness that needs defending, but also the delicate balance of gases in our shared atmosphere. Here, Indigenous activists have been indispensable, leading resistance to fossil fuel extraction, for example at the enormous protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Fossil fuels and the damage they deal matter greatly to Quileutes, who are contending with some of the worst that climate change has to offer. Rising tides, combined with a deforested landscape that no longer holds moisture in place, have left La Push at risk of catastrophic flooding. The Quileute Nation is now soliciting donations for its “Move to Higher Ground” campaign to relocate its coastal school to safety.

There is a painful irony here. Seeing what logging had done to La Push inspired Howard Hansen to warn Frank Herbert that the world might become a “wasteland.” With Mr. Hansen’s input, Mr. Herbert wrote a novel, “Dune,” imagining just that. The novel proved prescient, helping readers think about the environment not just on the level of lakes or forests but whole planets.

Today, as predicted, Earth’s climate is changing. And La Push is drowning.