A Conversation with Peter Coyote

June 2011

In the 1960s, Peter Coyote established a counter-culture movement. He continues to promote conservation of the Earthís resources, acts only in sophisticated roles, and is openly critical of the political system and its overall message. People who have never met Coyote probably imagine him as a raging radical with a loud voice, unwilling to go unheard.

That is not Coyote. He is gentle. He is kind and grateful for everything he has. From his smooth, gray hair to his pale blue eyes to his calm demeanor, nothing about him seems threatening.

However, the man who stood in the open pasture at the Symphony in the Flint Hills was the same man who organized protesters who gained access to and held concert with National Security Adviser MacGeorge Bundy by fasting for three days on the White House lawn. He was arrested numerous times for performing the controversial ďThe Minstrel Show, Civil Rights in a Cracker BarrelĒ production in city parks across the United States.

Coyote tore through the first half of his life in a blaze of blunders and glory, learning lessons he would not soon forget.

Something has changed about this man. How does he think, and how is this writer, musician, philosopher, actor, narrator and environmentalist motivated to continue his work?

What do you think of the Flint Hills?

Coyote: You know, Iím embarrassed to say that I have never been to the Flint Hills. I spent a lot of time in Kansas City. Thomas R. Bentonís daughter was my first serious girlfriend. I came here to visit, and Iíve filmed here, and Iíve never been in this country. I went for about a two-hour walk, and I was flabbergasted about how beautiful it was, how magical. So, Iím really soaking it up.

Iíve been buying plant identification books and history books, and I went to hear Ralph Mandelís archeological speech about the paleo-Indian digs in Mill Creek. Iím really interested in early people. So, I think you all live in paradise. I thought I lived in paradise.

How would you compare the Flint Hills to your California oceans?

Coyote: Well, itís hard to rate Godís work. You want to watch those lightning bolts and things.

But one of the things that Iím so struck here by is how quiet and how tranquil it is. I think there is something very secure in the fact that you are surrounded by space. You can see enemies coming a long ways off, and these dirt roads, thereís not a lot of traffic. You donít hear the hum of the freeway, and I noticed itís the only place in the United States that Iíve ever been where my Verizon phone doesnít get a signal. So, I think thatís all pretty special.

Before coming here this weekend, were you aware of groups attempting to preserve these grasslands?

Coyote: I was aware that you were trying to conserve this area. That was one of the things that made me accept this. And when I found out that this was a local citizen-based attempt to create an economy and some non-destructive work opportunities to save a piece of land, I jumped at it. Because itís about the only thing celebrity is worth. You know, itís to shine a flashlight on something thatís worth having light shined on it. So thatís what brought me here.

How would you view the Kansas governor and legislatureís move to cut all funding for the Kansas Arts Commission?

Coyote: Well, I think your governor, like all businessmen, has failed to understand that art is research and development for culture. If you look at all the countries that are kicking our butts, making cars and sexy products that people want, they are all cultures that put design and art as pre-eminent.

All the Asian cultures, itís not just economy. Itís that they know how to make stuff beautiful and elegant and appealing.

Sony didnít come out of nowhere. Honda didnít come out of nowhere. Toyota didnít come out of nowhere. They came out of cultures where itís an art to wrap an egg, and those kids are trained and know how to use a brush at 3 years old. So, I think it is incredibly short-sighted. He could cut a little bit of money that goes to his corporate cronies and teach people how to have experiences, which we found in California where I ran the state arts council that teaches children to engage 100 percent of themselves, and they never get over it.

They make better doctors lawyers, plumbers, whatever, because theyíve learned how to use both hemispheres of their brain. Left and right, logic and intuition. Itís just completely short-sighted.

I donít know the man. Iím sure heís okay, but I think heís making a terrible mistake and selling out future generations.

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]