A Fresh New Story from the Old: Jim Olson’s “People of the Dune”

FLOW’s founder, legendary environmental attorney Jim Olson, writes more than winning legal briefs. He writes books, too, including the first book on Michigan environmental law and several novels. One of those, The Mound People, published in the 1980s, has now given birth to a fresh novel, People of the Dune. Both versions of the story wrestle with values that the law does not fully address – the intangible but towering inherent values of land and water in the face of expectations of property rights.

With a formal launch 7 p.m. June 26 at The Alluvion in Commongrounds, 414 E. Eighth in Traverse City, People of the Dune is about to stir the debate and express Jim’s own deep commitment to protecting the natural world and honoring indigenous knowledge.

The book can be found at local bookstores, or ordered direct from Amazon, Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, Ingram Sparks. Two children’s books created by the Olson family, The Thunderstorm Party and The Reindeer and the Easter Bunny, are also available at bookstores and online.

We asked Jim to answer some questions about the story behind the book.

Our first question is very basic – – what’s the book about?

The book is an allegory that spans 2000 years. At the center is the fate of a sacred mound buried by the shifting sands of a coastal dune. Whether it will be developed or protected is a question that ends up in the lap of a rural circuit judge, who must decide the fate of the dune and the sacred mound.

This is a fresh version, really a sequel, of The Mound People. Why did you decide to return to the story?

Two years ago, to procrastinate on the final revisions for another writing project, I picked up and started leafing through The Mound People and stopped at the chapter “The Trial.” I reread the unnamed judge’s short decision denying the injunction against the removal of the sand mound. Something between the lines seemed to be troubling the judge when he said in his decision. “You see, until a law is passed that says land or natural resources have a value beyond mere use… I have no choice but to rule in favor of the defendants.” His words pulled me back into the story. Who is this judge? Why did he seem to be apologizing for the law or himself? What did he really think, feel, experience?

I gave him a name–Odom Holmes, after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in a 1908 decision that stopped New York from diverting a New Jersey river, “There are benefits of a river that might escape a lawyer’s view.”

Why doesn’t the law embrace natural values or the beingness of nature “beyond mere use” or private rights?

Then I started rewriting what happened in the trial, his remarks, and Judge Holmes seemed to have more to say. He started asking more questions: Why doesn’t the law embrace natural values or the beingness of nature “beyond mere use” or private rights? What about the commons of the place where we live, places untouched remnants of the world where plants and animals live, the unique features of the earth itself? If life depends on these commons, are they not as much a part of reality and human experience that shape the law as private property that limits individual exploitation of these commons as private property?

Judge Odom – I started thinking of him as “Odie” – took on a life of his own. So, as I let Judge Odie start writing, I realized that a new book was emerging, so, not knowing where it would lead, I let Judge Odie take over.

How does this story fit in with your years of experience as an environmental champion in the courts?

Well, I think in mostly representing citizens, their (our) need and connection to place and community collides with the relentless blade of civilization’s desire for wealth. In our country, and around the world, we are taught that we thrive, even depend on, progress defined by the economic equation that labor plus natural resources plus money equals Gross National Product–now Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In other words, progress means growth, and growth has to come from one of the inputs, meaning that by definition, these inputs must satisfy the paramount demands of the economy—we and the environment are subservient to the “Great God Progress,” as Justice William O. Douglas once characterized it.

As I asked at the beginning of The Mound People and once more in People of the Dune: “What will it be, ‘Mind’ or ‘Mound?’ Desire or reality?

I realized that when it comes to our natural world or the commons on which we all depend, the burden of proof was upside down, the law in effect contrary to reality.

Over time I came to understand that the concept of private property was a thing of the mind, maybe starting with Descartes “I think, therefore I am,” separating mind from nature. In effect cutting off the mind from reality. So, I eventually realized that when it comes to our natural world or the commons on which we all depend, the burden of proof was upside down, the law in effect contrary to reality. To conform to reality, the burden of proof must be on those who desire to extract or exploit to show that what they have done or propose to do will not impair the fundamental value and connection between nature and life.

How do indigenous concerns and communities play a role in your book?

Indigenous people have lived in relationship to the reality of nature–hunting, gathering, settling and growing food in conformity with nature, seasons, weather, always dynamic, and changing. There was no personal concept, no cultural concept, of private property or even property for that matter. And while Native American sovereign tribes today must interact with the world of property and commerce, at the same time their view of themselves as in relationship with nature and the world around them, sometimes as spirit, continues fundamental to their culture.

Some fear this is akin to something pagan. But this fails to understand that the notion of relationship to trees, lakes, rivers, animals or others is a recognition of the divine in and behind all things– call this divine grace God, Great Spirit, or whatever, that lies beyond or behind all things, seen and unseen. Too, it’s important to remember that all of us come from people who lived and saw reality and nature in the same way, and it is there somewhere buried in our consciousness, genes, or heart. The mound buried under the dune and the dune itself become sacred in the book, maybe to remind us of this lost connection to nature and divine spirit.

I think the expectations of property and economic gain have simply gone too far, meaning beyond the inherent limitation imposed by the reality of nature. Native cultures remind us that we all have this heritage, that springs from nature and reality of earth itself. It must be renewed, balanced, harmonized–like the “spirit mounds” of the Hopewell, Woodland Indians of 800 to 1000 or more years ago harmonized the earth and sky worlds as one.

Do you have more books or writing in the pipeline?

I hope to submit the novel Waterspout to a publisher this year. If possible, I’d like to revisit an unpublished novel, The White Deer, written with a Council of Arts award in the late 1980s. Beyond that, who knows. I’m almost 80. Possibly a book about the people and lawsuits I worked on over the years since the early 1970s, asking how might those help us meet the challenges we face today. Like anyone my age, I hope to continue to do what I can for as long as I can, but time with Judy and our family means a lot.


2 comments on “A Fresh New Story from the Old: Jim Olson’s “People of the Dune”

  1. Ken Sanford on

    Great arrival of what looks an interesting read. I especially appreciate the comments on the need too consider the reality of constant growth of the physical world while ignoring the consequences to nature and the sustainability of all the things, physical and cultural, that provide the significant pieces of our lives


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