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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Couple enriched by living simply in Chesaw

By Mary Stamp

In their retirement at Chesaw in the Okanogan Highlands, Jere and Rick Gillespie live simply, a lifestyle they chose when they entered the “back to the land” movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Rick and Jere Gillespie
Rick and Jere Gillespie

They anticipate their retirement will be enriched as they continue their commitments to the peace and environmental movements, and as they find new ways to use their skills in publications and photography.

They feel enriched just living “in the peace and beauty of God’s country,” with clean air, fresh mountain spring water and friendships of many years.

Jere gleans spiritual nurture from the wisdom of the earth she sees around her, attuned to the rivers, mountains, grasslands, birds and life forces surrounding them and connecting to the earth.  Her spirituality connects to justice, which she believes will come as people learn to live sustainably on the earth.  Jere and Rick grow and preserve much of their food.

From his interest in biological science, Rick believes that people can learn to live on limited income within self-contained ecosystems, bioregions, which provide natural resources that connect people to the land.

Jere learned recently that she has lung cancer and will be undergoing therapy and treatments to survive it.  To follow her progress, go to www.caringbridge.org/visit/jeregillespie.

To help support her recovery visit this fund-raising site.

They connect to the world of ideas through books and internet, which they access via satellite, to continue their activism.

Rick’s commitment extends beyond the Columbia River watershed as he seeks to help people understand and find solutions to the Palestine/Israel conflict.  He organizes opportunities for people to learn about it through the Peace Festival, the Day of Peace and the Mothers’ Day Walk.

Their choice years ago led each of them to give up earning money and to avoid being swept into the world of consumerism.

That eventually led Rick, who was teaching in Portland, Ore., and Jere, who grew up in Maine and studied at the University of California in Berkeley, to wind up in the Okanogan Highlands where they met.

Rick, who graduated from Portland State University in 1967, taught high school for nearly five years.  He worked towards a master’s degree in 1976, taught at HeadStart and was a Home Start director in the Coastal Range, when he became disenchanted with the Vietnam War and influence of “the military-industrial complex driving conflicts.”

He left Portland in 1978 and looked for places to live on the land near Sandpoint and north of Colville.  He worked on orchards in the Okanogan Valley, but quit because of the spraying.  In the early 1980s, he was a chimney sweep and lived north of Chesaw, a one-street village with a store, café and art gallery in an area surrounded by farms and ranches.  There is no post office or school.

The Gillespies’ home, built in 1902 as a bank in the frontier mining camp of Chesaw, was a post office from the 1920s to 1940s, and then the home of the postmistress.  They bought it in 1983.

They have fixed it up and paid it off with savings from 12 years he taught at Wenatchee Community College in Omak and seven years they both taught at the Colville Tribal College at Nespelem.

Jere, who was involved in 1960s student struggles on campus in Berkeley, left without finishing her degree, went to Oregon and came to the Okanogan. 

“I dropped out, upset by the Vietnam War.  I did not want to earn a living and pay taxes that would support the war,” said Jere, who first lived on a wheat farm, had her first children and entered the environmental movement.

Her concern about environment was sparked when her nurse-midwife’s second pregnancy miscarried because of a mole-like growth common among those exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“Area leaders were talking of using that chemical to reduce milfoil in the Okanogan River,” Jere said.  “I went to public meetings discussing using the herbicide.  I wrote letters to the editor about what dioxin did to people in Vietnam.”

Newspapers did not do investigative reports on it, so with others, Jere started a newspaper in 1978, The Okanogan Natural News, which she published every two months. 

After she met Rick, and they moved to Chesaw in 1983, she focused on child rearing, cooking and cleaning, while both continued publishing the newspaper.

From reading “Co-Evolution Quarterly,” they learned about bioregions, natural ecological and geographic areas defined by a watershed and interrelated plant and animal life.

“It’s important to be aware of where we live, so we understand the dynamics of the sources of our water, air, soil, winds, food and natural resources.”

Rick said that the people who lived there before European settlers came survived without transportation to grocery stores outside the region.

We need to respect the life forces of the area,” he said.

For example, Jere said that in Chesaw they drink mountain well water from the source, a stream that runs through the village from Mt. Bonaparte and flows eventually into the Columbia River.”

In 1987, they renamed their publication Columbiana to reflect that they live in the Upper Columbia Interior Northwest bioregion. 

Living on the edge of the National Forest, they covered forest issues. The Forest Service, interested in timber sales and developing a forest plan, connected in the 1980s with the back-to-the land people living in the hills near the forests.  The new pioneers complained about the timber sales and clear cutting near their homes.

Jere and Rick began to expand the reach of the publication, hoping to make it pay by publishing 2,000 copies quarterly. They published 20 issues in print.  Today, they publish it online, not in print, at Columbiana.org.  Their access to the web is by satellite.

They also sponsored conferences, published pamphlets and helped start two organizations, Tonasket Forest Watch and the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, the latter dealing with mining.

When the Crown Jewel Mine wanted to open a gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain, which rises above them to the east, Jere raised concerns that mountain-top removal, open-pit mining would pollute the watershed with acid mine drainage and possible cyanide leakage.  She reported on that type of mining as the Forest Service was writing an environmental impact statement.

“We discussed how open-pit. mountain-top removal mining would affect the lives of people here,” she said.

After a 10-year effort, the mine was denied a permit.  Another company bought rights to the deposit and built an underground mine.

The 1872 Mining Act, written in the era of prospectors and pick axes, not multinational corporations, permits a company to mine a deposit on federal land if they follow state laws and preserve the water quality.

In the late 1990s, Wenatchee Valley Community College in Omak invited Rick to teach.  They moved to Omak in 1999.  Jere studied social science through Washington State University’s online degree program, graduating in 2004.

In 2004, the college asked Rick, who taught biology, zoology and computer science, to teach through Northwest Indian College at the vocational rehabilitation building in Nespelem on the Colville Confederated Reservation.  He taught for seven years.

For five years, Jere taught social science and environmental science there. 

Because classes had just five to 10 students, she came to know the students, learning about their lives, families and tribal history, and deepening her desire to know more about the Native Americans in the region.

Rick found students open to learn about issues and structures affecting their lives.

The Native Americans are natural environmentalists,” Jere said, concerned about the loss of their land, forests, salmon and way of life. 

“We felt their grief,” she said.  “Through education, we sought to open doors of hope.  By learning environmental sciences, they could find jobs with their tribe to manage the resources,” she said.

While they lived in Omak, Jere, who grew up Catholic, and Rick, who grew up Presbyterian and became Catholic, were involved with St. Mary’s parish on the reservation and helped with Cursillo retreats. 

“I always had a sense of serving my community based on my faith,” said Rick, who became disenchanted as he realized that Scriptures were not followed.

The Gillespies resonated with the Native American traditions respected by the parish, especially the emphasis on gratitude for being provided with sustenance.

Throughout the years, Rick promoted peace.   He is involved in Veterans for Peace, veterans issues and issues related to Iraq, Israel and Palestine.

In the 1980s, they helped organize the first Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace, with peacemakers from Okanogan County, Stevens County, Seattle and Wenatchee meeting Canadian peacemakers at the Peace Park on the Osoyoos-Oroville border for speakers and a ceremony.  At the first walk, the Canadians built a mock cruise missile and wanted it returned to Boeing because cruise missiles built there were being flight-tested over Canadian land.

Several years ago, the parents of Rachael Corrie, Dick and Cindy, came to talk about her death when she stood in front of a bulldozer to block it from tearing down a Palestinian home.

In 2013, they will help plan the 30th annual Mothers’ Day Walk.

Last year, Rick helped organize a Peace Festival the Saturday before Mothers’ Day, to hear from a family who lost two sons in the Middle East.  About 70 came to a dinner, music and dance at the Community Cultural Center in Tonasket, started by the “alternative community.”

Last year, the speaker for the Sept. 21 International Day of Peace Celebration was Capt. Paul Chappell of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, Calif.

This year, they showed the film, “Five Broken Cameras,” about a father who bought a video camera to take pictures of his baby son—and of the weekly demonstrations at the wall around Palestinian land. 

Jere’s and Rick’s latest effort is working with people to challenge the relicensing of Enloe Dam on the Similkameen River in North Central Washington.

For information, call 509-485-3844 visit Columbiana.org, or email j.columbiana@gmail.com or rickg@columbiana.org.