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Activist Naturalist
Dana Visalli

The bumper sticker on the car he drives says: “U.S. Out of North America.”

It’s a playful reference to something Dana Visalli takes very seriously: Peace on Earth. Visalli, 65, says he thinks the United States has done more than its fair share of disturbing that peace around the world since the end of World War II. He believes that some 20 million lives have been lost since 1945 thanks to needless American wars, he says.

photoDana Visalli first arrived in the Methow in 1970. Photo by Solveig Torvik

Visalli lives in a small, solar-powered, off-the-grid stucco home he built himself north of Twisp on property that adjoins the Methow River. He raises organic vegetables for sale at the Farmers’ Market, and as much hell as he can while trying to persuade American taxpayers to protest the use of their money to kill innocent civilians in foreign lands.

Later this month, he leaves for two months in Afghanistan. Visalli, who for 18 years has published the valley’s definitive ecological compendium, “The Methow Naturalist,” will put his master’s degree in environmental studies from Vermont’s Norwich University to use. He’ll be teaching Earth Sciences at a girls’ school in Kabul. The goal is to prepare 32 students, who are being trained for leadership, for admission to colleges abroad.

This will be Visalli’s fourth trip to Afghanistan. He also has been to Iraq four times, “bearing witness” to the suffering caused by what he calls “the insanity” of warfare, and teaching in schools for orphaned street kids.

“War is a god's way of teaching geography,” he says ruefully, explaining that he never expected to visit the Middle East, never mind to be standing outside the gates of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison amid grieving family members hoping to learn what fates had befallen their loved ones at American hands.

The fundamentalist mentality in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East “is in no small part” attributable to the country’s history with the English and American invaders, Visalli says.

photoVisalli grows organic produce and sells it at the weekly Farmers Market in Twisp. Photo by Curtis Edwards

That fundamentalism resonates a bit more personally for him this time. He admits to “a very small amount” of concern for his personal safety, since educating girls is a fraught undertaking in Afghanistan, thanks to fundamentalists and the Taliban. “They don’t want them educated by American males. That’s hazardous,” says Visalli. “Unfortunately, I’ll rarely leave the compound because it’s not safe.”

Visalli’s anti-war activism began when he was a teenager growing up in a family of four siblings in San Francisco, where his father was a medical doctor. It was a time when images of the Vietnam War carnage were served up daily on television.

“I was very concerned that we were killing rice farmers and their children for no apparent reason,” Visalli says. That concern led him to participate in an act of civil disobedience at the Oakland military induction center in 1968 that earned him 20 days imprisonment in a converted military barracks.

“My father knew that war was senseless,” Visalli says. But like most people, he felt that there was nothing he personally could do about it, Visalli explains. “So when I went to jail, they went skiing,” Visalli says of his family.

“Civil disobedience isn’t the problem. Our problem is civil obedience,” says Visalli. “The middle class is a problem,” he adds, because middle class people are comfortable, focused on themselves and their families rather than on what’s happening in the larger world. During the Vietnam War there was a compulsory draft, which focused much more attention on the war. The difference now is that “there is no draft,” and this has allowed most Americans to ignore what their country is doing abroad.

Like most, he felt there was nothing he personally could do about it.

Visalli still protests against having his taxes used to kill people. “I don’t pay income tax. I don’t file,” he says. He began his standoff with the IRS by putting the taxes he owed into an escrow account. When the IRS came calling, he told them he would pay his taxes if they could assure him that his money would not be used to kill people.

This proposal didn’t sit well with the IRS, which confiscated the $4,000 he had in his bank account, says Visalli. But he still had the $5,000 he’d been putting away in the escrow tax account, so he used that to restore the $4,000 to his bank account, he explains, smiling.

Visalli arrived in the Methow Valley in 1970, the archetypical city kid living in a Volkswagen bus, hoping to learn the skills needed to survive in a rural setting by his own labor. He learned carpentry and farming and taught for one year at Liberty Bell High School.

First he became enchanted with growing organic wheat. He bought three abandoned John Deere combines for $50 each. He cannibalized enough parts from two of them to make the third one run and went into the wheat growing business. But eventually, he says, “My affection for biology overwhelmed my love of farming.”

He traveled around the country showing a film warning of nuclear dangers.

He learned enough carpentry to make a living from that for awhile. But then, he relates, “It began to bother me to be placing houses all over the landscape.”

The arrival in the United States of Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, who became president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, drew Visalli back into political activism in the 1980s. He traveled around the country, showing a film Caldicott had made warning of nuclear dangers to the planet; it was a film then-president Ronald Reagan tried to ban, says Visalli.

“The Methow Naturalist” got its start with a small grant from the Bullitt Foundation in 1996 and has 400 subscribers who pay $10 a year for the quarterly publication. Now online at, it’s a mix of natural history, sustainable culture and organic gardening advice. There are political dispatches describing Visalli’s experience in the Middle East as well as information that ranges from such topics as fracking and composting to the birds of the Methow.

Visalli says he’s captivated by “the life that shares this watershed with us. How did these plants and animals come to exist? What’s their story?... There’s no end to the stories that nature spins.”

“I think biologists and naturalists just fall in love with life,” Visalli adds. “You can’t learn enough about it,” he says, “so you just get drawn in. It’s motivated really by the love of the beauty of the organisms they work with.”


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