The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VII, Number 1, Pages 6-12
Winter, 1982

Ken Kesey and Ecology

by Richard A. Hill

Richard A. Hill, a specialist in the literature of the Pacific Northwest, teaches at Concordia College in Portland.

Richard Chase says in The American Novel and Its Tradition that the best American Literature portrays contradictions and disjunctions, alienations and "radical disunities."(1) The individual, for example, is separated from the community – Hester on the scaffold, Huck and Jim on the river, Nick Adams in the woods. In addition to the alienation of the individual from society, our writers also discuss a disjunction which exits between the individual and nature. Whether seen as "hideous and desolate ... full of wild beasts and wild men," or as fulfilling and liberating, the wilderness, Richard Slotkin says, remained alien for the white explorers.(2) These separations, perhaps overstated in terms of historical reality, do serve a mythical function, and are bred in part by the mythic identification of America as the "new place," where old laws and values do not work and new possibilities may be explored. The locus of these explorations is the West, where the searchers help us define not only what the wilderness is but also who we are, "the whole of nature (being) a metaphor of the human mind," as Emerson says.(3) These quests in some recent fiction increasingly pursue possible unities in our experiences, ways that community may be created and a harmonious relationship with the land achieved. Ken Kesey is one such writer who, despite a relatively small literary output, has tried to articulate such a vision of wholeness. In discussing Kesey's writing, I will attempt to explain the ecological consciousness which he believes will allow true community and a healthy relationship between people and nature.

Kesey's fictional world is the West, geographically as well as mythically. Oregon for his readers looms immense and alive. It has mana and, like Greece or Norway in John Fowles' The Magus which "ignored man" and is "so vast that he could never tame it," Kesey's Oregon requires special commitment from the characters.(4) Kesey's West is in this sense a kind of existential reality where all value and meaning is thrown into question. As Jonas Stamper, family patriarch, puts it in Sometimes a Great Notion, stating the difference between the plains and Oregon,
Back on the plains, there is space, I will admit that a man back on the plains might feel a freezing emptiness in his bowels when he looked in all directions and saw nothing but what has gone before and what will come ... That place (Oregon) ... when I cast my eyes about, at fallen trees decaying under the vines, at the rain chewing away the countryside ... at things such as ... a soul cannot find the words ... such as plants and flowers, the beasts and the birds, the fishes and the insects! I do not mean that. At all the things going on and on and on. Don't you see? It just came at me so downright thick and fast I knew I could never get accustomed to it.(5)
Jonas leaves Oregon, unable to match the fertility and complexity of the land which goes "on and on and on" with any sense of meaning or power. But Jonas’ concern is Kesey's also. Not only in this novel, but in his other fictions as well, he dramatizes the "notions" or responses people make toward reality and significantly attempts to define the "great notion" which will allow purposeful action in the West for both individual and community.

It would not be hard to argue that Kesey tells what R. W. B. Lewis calls the central American story, "The solitary hero and the alien tribe. 'the simple genuine self against the whole world.'"(6) Indeed, the movie version of Sometimes a Great Notion, now called Never Give an Inch on TV, concludes with Lee and Hank Stamper running logs down the Wakonda River, with an arm tied to the boat, flashing that well known symbol of defiance involving the middle digit. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, too, Kesey dramatizes the archetypal battle between the individual and the system, represented by Randle McMurphy, whose shoes throw sparks when he walks, versus the Big Nurse, whose machine-like hate is like a "calm whir coming from her eyes."(7) She works for the Combine, a nation-wide system of controlling people's lives. In Cuckoo's Nest, which is flawed by its sexist underpinnings, the only hope of victory comes in escape, achieved when Chief Bromden runs away from the insane asylum, "into the sunset."

On the surface, Sometimes a Great Notion appears to be another story of individual versus society. The Stamper family is led by Old Henry and Hank, individualistic loggers who flex their muscles in a battle against the townspeople and union. But Notion is more complex and the story it tells concerns the creation of strong community. Teddy, the bartender, one of numerous point of view characters in the novel, explains the community strength of the townspeople. Represented most typically by Boney Stokes, who believes that nobody can make it alone in Oregon, the townspeople in effect seek community by evading individual responsibility. They are like animals motivated by fear, Teddy says, for whom it is "natural…to bunch together for protection...not be right or wrong or good or bad, just be pulling. They don't have to think...Like specks of mercury rolling into the big piece and nothing to be scared about…because you're just a piece of a bigger piece getting bigger rolling across the land into an ocean of mercury."(8)

People in this type of community are like Eric Hoffer's "true believers" who, as Kesey shows, are prone to "us vs. them" thinking which is uncreative and the motivating force behind many groups.(9) As a contrast, Notion shows a positive view of community with the trio of Old Henry, Hank and cousin Joe Ben Stamper on the last day of logging in the woods. The key element of this smaller group is that, unlike Teddy's "ocean of mercury,” this true community requires the strength of each individual who yet is able to merge into the group, surrendering individualism to the needs of the group. Kesey explains the strength of the Stamper "team."
Until the three of them meshed, dovetailed…into one of the rare and beautiful units of effort sometimes seen when a home-town basketball squad, already playing over its head, begins to rally to overtake a superior opponent in a game's last minutes ... every tiny piece is clicking perfectly. When this happens everyone watching knows. that this bunch-right now, right this moment-is the best of its kind in the world! But to become this kind of perfect group a team must use all its components, and use them all with the pitiless dedication to victory that drives them up to their absolute peak, and past it.(10)
The end of the novel. which involves the merging of Hank and Lee into the "dance of Hate and Hurt and Love" and Viv's departure to findher own individual identity, dramatizes the formation of good community rather than mere defiance against the town or a paean to the individual. What allows for or is the basis for this kind of community is also an object of authorial concern. We may see more clearly the source of individual and group strength in Kesey's depiction of the relationship between people and nature, seen both in Notion and in "Over the Border," a screenplay published in Kesey's Garage Sale. One place to start is Kesey's idea of strength and weakness, characterized in Notion by Hank and his half-brother Lee Stamper, who both attempt to control their worlds. Hank epitomizes strength and action. His motto is contained on the plaque-originally sent from Kansas by Jonas Stamper with the inscription "Blessed are the Meek, for They Shall Inherit the Earth" - which Old Henry paints machine-stop yellow inscribing his own message, "Never Give A Inch." Lee, on the other hand, uses the strategies of weakness, seen in the emotional walls he has built around himself for protective isolation. Kesey shows that neither Hank's obsessive strength nor Lee's search for sanctuary are viable notions, and, with the theme of drowning, articulates a third method of control, an ecological perspective toward the land.

Proper attitudes toward drowning (within the novel's scheme of values), which is part of the "great" notion referred to in the novel's title, are seen in Joe Ben Stamper, a savior figure in the novel (nailed to the log after he drowns). Lee is only too anxious to drown. In the scene on the beach involving him in a ritual reenactment of his childhood, Lee sees the futility of action and advises the birds scurrying over the waves to stop. "A half-dozen steps and you end this frantic game. You don't win, but you don't lose either. A stalemate is the best you can hope for, don't you see? Silly bird ... Stop the game completely, stop the frantic hassle.”(11) In contrast to Lee who awaits drowning as the only answer, Hank refuses to "drown" or bend to the control of others (in the fight against Big Newton, Hank says "he can't run me out to sea").(12) Joe Ben's death provides another response. Trapped by a log in the river after a logging accident, Joe Ben makes peace with what he has formerly seen as his enslaving heritage, exerts the strength he has and, dramatizing that there are forces in life beyond human control and comprehension, drowns in tune with these forces, seeing his life and death as a cosmic joke.

With Joe Ben, Kesey shows that true strength involves an ecological attitude toward control. Control does not involve the ability merely to manipulate and have power over the world. It does not involve freedom as that term is often understood. Rather, Kesey believes control comes from relationship, a recognition that one is a part of rather than apart from the world. Joe Ben's strength resides in his ability to be "immutably tuned" to the forces of nature in a world where events are meaningfully connected. His death shows the power of nature, which is seen as an "inflexible and pitiless taskmaster," but his life shows the power people may have when they are in tune with these forces, "in God's pocket," as Joe Ben puts it.(13)

The Indian term wakonda, the name of the river in Notion, clarifies this idea of relationship. A term used by various Indian tribes of the Great Plains to refer to the sense of mystery and power felt in nature, wakonda is symptomatic of their mythico-religious view and denotes the "something in common between all creatures and all natural forms, a something which brings them into existence and holds them intact.”(14) In Notion, this something is called the "main party," and whether it is interpreted as Nature or God, it implies a power with which the characters need to be attuned in order to have control.

In "Over The Border," the religious dimension of Kesey's work and his view of nature are developed. In this screenplay, he specifically depicts the "kind of thinking" necessary for a positive relationship with nature. By implication, he also provides a solution to the fascist tendencies in those who feel connected to the source of power in the universe. In this screenplay set in Mexico, control still resides in the coordination of people and natural forces. The main character Devlin Deboree explains, "I know it has something to do with waves ... with becoming aware of all the waves and then actually ... willpowering those waves like rocking gently in a bath tub, until you are controlling the waves ... getting in step with the forces of nature until you are calling the cadence hup two three four."(15) Deboree practices this kind of control with military efficiency and significant success in the screenplay. In a symbolic battle, interpreted by reading the I Ching, for example, he defeats an agent of the "principle of Darkness."(16) One of the women, whose child is born in tune with nature's fertility is able to "control" the sea and "cause" the Mala Rojo or Red Tide to disperse, making the sea clear again.

Kesey, however, does not assume nature is benevolent. In the screenplay's climactic event, he shows the destructive power of nature and the human need to deal with cataclysm. The outlaw Devlin Deboree characterizes the value of wildness ('I’ve harkened to the call of the vigilante wild") as a means of obtaining power.(17) When nature shows its destructiveness, however, the waves of the ocean crashing over the cliff and carrying Deboree's dead son Quiston with them, "Over the Border" testifies to the need for another human characteristic as well. The screenplay approaches tragedy in the seemingly inevitable death of Quiston and destruction of Deboree's prideful power. Deboree finally realizes the need for humility as a complement to his strength and prays to God for forgiveness. "Over the Border" finally is a comedy, showing the intricate relationship between people and nature which is Kesey's "Whole Truth," a belief that people have certain freedom and strength but also a need to realize human frailty and remain humble in light of cosmic and natural complexity and power.

The source of Kesey's notion of control is a belief in God and the inter-connectedness of reality which allows forceful action. It is then finally a belief in unity. The kind of control demonstrated by Deboree and his friends in "Over the Border" is informed by Yung's principle of synchronicity, an "acausal connecting principle" which assumes the unity of people and nature."(18) Kesey's thinking is based on a set of values which proceeds from this relationship. His close attention to even minor characters in Sometimes a Great Notion tokens an awareness of the needs of each individual to make sense of life, to develop what Dorothy Van Ghent calls a "coherent schematization of reality."(19) Such schematizations are rooted in more than the subjective perceptions of each person however. It is clear that there is an objective reality to which the characters respond. The key to Kesey's idea is that he does not see people and this objective reality as being separate but rather as connected. Kesey's views of this relationship may be understood by comparison with the epistemology of Jean Piaget. Piaget argues persuasively against views of both the innatists like Noam Chomsky, who believes, for example, that language constructs exist in the mind and thorough-going behaviorists like B. F. Skinner, who believes that reality is imposed on the receptive brain by external sensations. Rather, says Piaget, people learn by assimilating the external world into their personal perception of reality at the same time as they accommodate their world views to reality. In Psychology and Epistemology, Piaget explains,
In short, elementary knowledge is never the result of a mere impression made by the object on the sensorial organs, but it is always due to an active assimilation of the subject, who incorporates the objects to his sensorimotor schemes . . . Learning in terms of experience is therefore not due to pressure passively felt by the subject but to the accommodation of its assimilation schemes. A certain equilibrium between assimilation of objects to the subject's activity, and the accommodation of this activity to the objects thus forms the point of departure of all knowledge and is presented at the very outset in the form of a complex relation between the subject and the objects.(20)

Other thinkers see this relationship between subject and object similarly. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for example, Robert Pirsig says that we are wrong to believe man and nature are separated. There is a unity between internal and external reality which contributes to the quality of life. "Man is not the source of all things, as the subjective idealists would say. Nor is he the passive observer of all things, as the objective idealists and materialists would say. The Quality which creates the world emerges as a relationship between man and his experience. He is a participant in the creation of all things. The measure of all things…”(21) The process Piaget describes as assimilation and accommodation and Pirsig says is Quality, Gregory Bateson, the late anthropologist and systems planner, calls "flexible organism-in-its-environment."(22) People are always trying to make sense of the world and, in Bateson's view, are part of their environment in such a way that, in terms of human behavior, we cannot describe the precise point where the person stops and the environment begins. Rather in understanding human action, Bateson perceives a relationship between people and their environment. People are like cybernetic systems in the sense that they have "governors" which serve the purpose of control. They need to maintain efficiency in their lives and to keep the system from running wildly in order to insure survival. (23) For humans, the selection of fact from the myriad possibilities serves this governing purpose. The human problem lies in the proper selection of fact and in definitions of human efficiency, both of which may be understood in terms of vision. For Bateson (and Kesey) true proficiency means the survival of the whole system of the human and natural world.
This whole system that Kesey perceives allows him to view people and world in a context which permits values to be created. He believes that, as part of the whole system, we have the responsibility to exert human power and choice in creating the world at the same time as we need to regard a natural world that defies control and complete comprehension with humility and respect. Kesey makes this latter point when he talks about the "I-Thou" philosophy of Martin Buber, explaining Buber's relevance in terms of the difference between two styles of wildlife photography. We look at the pictures of Sierra Club photographer Elio Porter and those used in Weyerhaeuser Company advertising and contemplate the difference, Kesey writes.
Now since they (the two pictures) are both pictures of the same thing what really is the difference in the two pictures? The consciousness on the other end, excellent! Now, one further question: how do the two consciousnesses differ? Precisely: Elio Porter is in relation to the world he pictures whereas poor old Weyerhaeuser is in possession of the forest he pictures.(24)

Kesey's ecological perceptions finally recognize both the strength and weakness of human beings, relying neither on exclusively subjective nor objective views of reality nor exhibiting the possessiveness of a Weyerhaeuser nor what Leo Marx calls the simple pastoral view of those who think nature is merely beneficent. Rather Kesey sees humans in a relationship with nature implying a kind of law which dictates a more complex control. This law enables Kesey to make a helpful statement about the nature of real community, which requires both individual autonomy and the merging of the individual into the group. He also demonstrates a better relationship with our natural environment, one which encompasses the needs of both civilization and nature. He understands the interrelatedness of both needs and grasps the necessity for the survival of the natural environment as inextricably connected with our own survival. Such an ecological consciousness is not absolutely new in America but it is a positive heritage from the '60s and a part of a search for a healthy unifying perspective which may provide a new sense of tradition in America.


(1)Richard Chase. The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, N.Y,: Anchor Books, 1957), p. 7.

(2)William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Anthology of American Literature: Vol, 1. Colonial Through Romantic, ed. George McMichael, Second Edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980), p. 38.
Richard Slatkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), p. 560.

(3)Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature," Anthology of American Literature: Vol. 1, Colonial Through Romantic, ed. George McMichael, Second Edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980), p. 1007.

(4)John Fowles, The Magus (New York: Dell, 1966), pp. 52, 277.

(5)Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion (New York: Viking Press, 1964. Bantam Books, 1965), p. 22.

(6)R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955. Phoenix Books, 1958), p.111.

(7)Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Text and Criticism, ed. John C. Pratt (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 26.

(8)Sometimes a Great Notion, p. 375.

(9)Sometimes a Great Notion, p. 404.

(10)Sometimes a Great Notion, p. 476.

(11)Sometimes a Great Notion, p. 298.

(12)Sometimes a Great Notion, p. 324.

(13)Sometimes a Great Notion, p. 272, 441.

(14)Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, ed. Frederick Webb Hodge (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Press, 1910), p, 897. Ernst Cassirer also discusses the term wakonda in Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Dover Publications, 1946), pp. 64-69.

(15)Ken Kesey, "Over the Border," Kesey's Garage Sale (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 49.

(16)"Over the Border," p. 132.

(17)"Over the Border," p. 158.

(18)Carl Gustav Jung, "Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle," The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (London: Rutledge and Kegan Paul, 1955).

(19)Dorothy Van Ghent, "On a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," The English Novel: Form and Function (New York: Rinehart, 1953), p. 263.

(20)Jean Piaget, Psychology and Epistemology, trans. Arnold Rosin (New York: Viking Press, 1971), pp. 107-8.

(21)Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (New York: Bantam Books, 1974), p.368.

(22)Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), p. 429.


(24)Ken Kesey, ''The Bible," Kesey's Garage Sale, p. 174.