Mark Solomon and Jeanne Clothiaux

Recorded August 27, 2005 Archived August 27, 2005 42:21 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MBY000434


Wife interviews husband about the building of thier home on the top of Moscow Mountain, activism, environmentalism, and his making of a giant mobile steel fire-breathing dragon

Subject Log / Time Code

- 35:00 - Creation of Giant Mobile Steel Dragon, and taking it for road trips


  • Mark Solomon
  • Jeanne Clothiaux


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00:06 Okay, my name is John Amico to I'm 32 years old. Today is August 27th, 2005. We're here in Moscow, Idaho, and I'm here with my husband Mark Solomon.

00:19 And I am Mark Solomon. I'm 51 years old.

00:24 August 27th, and we're here in Moscow, Idaho, and I'm being interviewed by my wife Shawna me.

00:31 Highmark feel like Terry Gross

00:35 So Mark talk a little bit about where we live. We live in a pretty special place Roscoe and close to 2,500 feet higher. It's extremely different than the area that Moscow is in which is this rolling wheat fields. We are truly up on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains with grape granite rock outcrops in ancient cedar trees in Moose and bear and cougars and all kinds of things running around.

01:13 And it's only 10 miles as the crow flies and this time of year summer time. We can we can drive there. So it only takes half an hour 45 minutes to get home. But the soon as the snow starts then we'll be on skis again and it can take up to two hours to get home because we're skiing uphill for couple miles and 1500 feet in elevation. Gain. How do you ski uphill? How do you keep from sliding backwards called skins, but it does work in our house on the mountain. We've got a big Root Cellar. So really the only things were carrying up for books and perishable food items at the house mark.

02:03 Well, it's a 6000 square foot timber frame all built out of salvaged materials that came out of what used to be the world's largest sawmill in Potlatch, Idaho. I was the Salvage contractor on that for two years in the early eighties and took out a million-and-a-half board foot of Timber planking and siding from the middle after the shot it down sold two-thirds of it to pay for the operation to buy the land and called 500,000 board foot up on the back of my truck. All Dragon truck just another story.

02:44 I started happily building away.

02:50 It was originally intended that I build the shop and then I build a house but after 10 years of building the shop it became obvious that the house may take awhile to get to sew part of the shop was remodeled into a house itself, which is where we've been living out how the house sits on the land what you see when you look out the front windows in on the deck. Will it really is the top of the mountain in the whole Top Ridge? So we're perched right on the ridge. If you go out the back door you fall down the north side to go out the South still go out fall down the Southside. I am looking out our window. We've got all the foreground of trees large and Cedar and and Grand Firs and then it drops down to the valley below where we got the Palouse when it's rolling doing like wheat fields and the Canyons of the Potlatch River in the Snake River and the

03:50 Clearwater rivers and then off in the distance the Seven Devils mountains in the Wallowa mountains and that's the view from the deck if we get up and walk around on the land we can see over on occasion over into the Cascade Mountains when it's real clear. So what inspired you to devote his 20 years of your life to building the structure, right?

04:14 How did you stay inspired? How did you not throw in the towel and just say oh, it's good enough after about 5 years.

04:23 Well, once you start there's really no place you can stop if you're committed to living there though. It's the other reason there aren't any neighbors for miles and miles in any direction is because we are at 5000 foot elevation and we can get up to 14 foot of snow and to live in 14 feet of snow means you have to prepare for it, I know it drives you crazy when I say it but he we really have to season their life.

04:53 We have six months of winter getting ready for winter.

04:59 That's really how it is.

05:04 And what is that until you should talk about what it entails you're getting all the firewood prepared and stacked split. What do you have to do steel up all the windows and doors and wants when there isn't snow on the ground which is generous. Usually the snow finally melts off at least from around the house the point we can drive in somewhere around the summer solstice the middle of June and then the snow can come as early as the second week of October. Normally it waits until around Thanksgiving. 6 months. Not only do you have to repair anything that 10 to 14 foot of snow broke over the previous winner. But anything that you might want to do that would enhance living like a sauna or building a springbok so that can be running water in the house or getting in the firewood. Whatever it might be has to

06:04 Six-month window and it does also include putting in the 10 cords of firewood cutting the trees Hall in them in and stacking them and splitting them in now doing all that fun stuff. There's

06:19 There's time to tell a back but not a lot to all of this really got started this dream of living out during the back to the land movement and I'm wondering how your dream evolve into more of a Wilderness experience as opposed to more like Wendell Berry, you know where your your farming and I'm homesteading Country Side living, set up my blacksmith shop and was working away in town and happened to buy 5 Acres of ground out on the lower edge of the mountain that I build a little Shack on no running water 300 square-foot when they all lived in it for 12 years, but that meant that Out My Backdoor was the rest of the mountain, So it was my backyard and I would walk up the mountain as often as I could.

07:15 That became obvious to me that has Moscow Mountain is a very special place because of its somewhat unique geology with a big vertical fault that split the mountain in half and has ports out crops in the middle of it the Define the ridge there's water that seeps into the rock that comes out is artesian sources that's able to nurture cedar trees at 5000 FT elevation and I'll just is extremely rare. I don't really know of any other place in Idaho where we have cedar trees that are 10 ft in diameter 1000 years old that are growing that high.

07:57 So they they drew me there and I had always dreamed that someday. I'd just build a little squatter shack up on top of the mountain because I looked up the other property ownership and was owned by an old woman in Virginia total absence. He'll end the owner told enough to retire and I'll just be no build a little Jack and hang out on the side of the mountain to the cougars eat here, instead. You felt a very very very large Shack.

08:30 Right. Well, you know when when is it came to my attention that Sarah hearted died. I started the whole process of somehow negotiating to buy this land without any money in my pocket. I had a basic strategic choice to make as to how to have a footprint on that land like a build a little cabin and have a very very small footprint or I could build something larger and I thought about that six months of winter and I thought about all the stories I've ever heard of people going crazy in cabins in February cabin fever and said, I don't want to go there and right about that time when I was making the decision to purchase the land the Potlatch Mill closed and all the sudden I was the Salvage

09:30 Contractor on pad the ability to build something large, but can you talk about what six thousand square feet allows in terms of human interaction and creativity that a smaller space wouldn't because you definitely have ideas that interactions on the mountain are in some ways that they they strike people that they get to a deeper level. I guess I should say, so can you talk about how this structure even facilitates that will know it's like having your own private Ski Lodge particular in the winter time when people can come up and take a break and not have to leave because it's getting dark. It's getting cold. They're wet from sweat being able to come up to the top of a mountain and simply sit there and enjoy it to be able to go outside when it's 40 below zero and ski around in the Moonlight.

10:30 I know that there's a warm place to go to and it's not a life-threatening activity means that there's a whole different relationship with the the mountain either also means that people who are seeking those types of experiences know that they might have a place to go to and it's free. It's so it's so it attracts all kinds of people that are great people to have around

10:57 Only a small portion of the house or the of the building is actually the house and Co maybe 1500 square feet of it. The rest of it is my blacksmith and Welding & Shop Bedford also does great Duty as a great party space cuz it does have 30 foot ceilings 2 stage 4 bands all open space and that was intentional hunting. I've been a blacksmith for many years in Moscow. I built three different shops. So I I knew what it took not only to make a good creative space for myself. But also I've had a lot of experience throwing parties and starting in Moscow because if you own a big industrial space where you can make as much noise as you want by zoning 24 hours a day, then you know, what stretch the imagination as to what that could

11:57 Maybe this isn't just Pounding Metal. It's cracking up the tunes and having a good time on Friday night. The Cedars. Just what does it feel like to be in that old Majestic ancient cedar cedar?

12:17 Now the first time I walked up the mountain and encountered The Cedars and I didn't know they were there was just exploring and went over the edge of this draw and all of a sudden found myself in this Grove of trees that

12:33 Joan were so dominant in their presents that all you could feel was humble. Your mom describe that feeling is is like standing in Notre Dame Cathedral definitely a cathedral ceiling and even before I bought the the land I had investigated while Howard come these trees are here both physically and who's the ownership and why weren't they loved by the the state that was a gift from the federal government to the states as part of the Dowry as such as it was it was given to the each state in the west when they were admitted to the union and they were to be managed for the benefit of the public schools. So it's a section of land that part of it had been logged but even when

13:33 I've been logged in 1958 the state Forester took the sale map and rode around cedar trees to a big circle and said park now that he's even loggers are recognized. This is extraordinary. I made a personal commitment to those trees and to the mountain at that time that I would make sure that they were protected and would not ever be cut that's been ongoing battle. I thought I was done with it 10 years ago. But once again creeping up because the nature conservancy Lisa's running out arrange a shotgun marriage between the state then The Nature Conservancy to lease the cedar trees from them for old girls preservation. The intent would be that they were is going to

14:33 Preserve them by exchanging that land and getting it out of state ownership that hasn't happened 10 years has gone down the road. And once again, it'll be time for Creative campaigning and organize. Good luck.

14:48 I'm on your team.

14:53 I want to go back to the days before you moved to Moscow. I think you spent a good deal of time six years right at Arcosanti in Arizona. So why don't talk about Arcosanti and the architect Paolo soleri and in his ideas and how they've influenced you.

15:10 Well, let me step back to some little bit for that to how I got to arcsin cuz it's important. I was I was working in Cleveland after I essentially the blackmailed my high school principal into letting me leave as a graduate before the end of the senior year and was working as a community volunteer doing organizing teaching Street kids to some basic labor skills as well as music.

15:41 Adams when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and I was working a hundred yards from the Cuyahoga River at the time on that spontaneous cleansing of the river by by fire was a very very powerful the experience to a to see and observe and know that the urban landscape as we knew it in the 60s was really in trouble and it got me thinking and exploring what other people might be doing because of its vulnerability to natural disaster. It was really in trouble for other reasons in trouble because

16:20 The late sixties we didn't have any National Environmental laws. We had steel mills and petrochemical Facilities just dumping their discharge right into the river. I was just basically toxics do that pollution permeated the the entire Community as well. So I started looking at what was being done creatively to address. The urban issues was also the 60s or is lots of things happening on the social front, but you in terms of nuts and bolts architecture there a little communes here and there and then a little potential communities, but I found Paolo soleri building Arcosanti the first prototype of ecology in the central Arizona and this is when you're 17 years old, right?

17:14 Yeah, I'm 17 and went down to the desert and somehow I'll talk them into letting me stay there. I went to night school and learned welding and became the welder for the place and picked up blacksmithing by myself while I was there. Well, what is Arcosanti Auntie is the intentional building of a community that is designed.

17:46 Or fostering human interactions of of a qualitative quality sense

17:57 It was a community is a community if that are finished that would house 5,000 people on an 8-acre footprint of ground on 860 acres of land is owned by the community. It would be a tall structure no vehicles inside large solar greenhouses that are powering it and it embodies. So Larry's concept of arcology architecture in ecology and it was to be a prototype to show that we could build a cityscape structure City scale structures that would

18:37 Lead to not only a better life, but maybe insularis Vision a synthesis of human energies. It hadn't had a chance to occur because we lived on a linear sprawl scale pretty much ever since we stopped being no mat with the inhabitants of our cassani have ownership over their peace, or will they just be residents with would there be rules for the residence? What was the vision for Community? It was it worked out?

19:11 Is how we we envisioned it but

19:17 Those are details. It's never got a chance to go to happen because

19:21 In the mid-70s, we ran into the continual problem of

19:28 A

19:30 Community that has a charismatic leader who's the dominant force that person unless they're extremely able to get that clamp down on change on we are growing as a community and he did not want to see any of that change happen. So many of us most of us left. And what was the specific change that drove everyone out wasn't it that you wanted to form some small little community of building some structures temporary structures to live in while you're building a large structure rather than just started crashing out on floors and and Corners to start building the attributes of a community and instead of just being in strawberry.

20:30 Schools and communities and other types of infrastructures soleri Simply didn't want to see that happen, which was too bad, because

20:45 Those of us that were there and they were probably 50 of us were not only very committed to what we're doing, but we were extremely able and what we were doing the construction site with cranes and cement mixers welders all kinds of fun stuff and when we left we took that only the skill level away, but we took a lot of the knowledge of the way and the drive and it never really did recover but it's still going. Are you hoping that it's reinvigorated with some energy? Can you imagine how it could be? What it what would it take a

21:31 He's in his late eighties at this point two of the key people from that the time are still part of the strep part of the community and I hope that they will be able to reinvigorate it at that time.

21:49 Why not talk about growing up in New York and just life in New York and and how going in and out of the city expose you to think that I didn't get exposed to for example growing up in Alabama.

22:04 It's kind of people are puzzled by how this New Yorker ended up in this very rural remote place in Idaho. So I think it would be interesting to talk about why you how you were able to abandon New York. Well, yeah, I'll hit it really starts with my first memory, which is of

22:22 Walking around the UN Plaza while basically all I remember is seeing knees and flagstones cuz I was probably two or three years old, but now in the fullness of time, I've come to realize that that was a protest against the atmospheric testing a nuclear bombs Pete Seeger was singing in my folks were there are going to do the same thing ban the bomb that was the nature of my childhood. I spend too seems like at least every other weekend on some pick-up line or protest March in civil rights or whatever.

23:04 In New York City. In fact just read in the paper yesterday about Joan Baez showing up in Crawford, Texas and her commenting that wow. This is just kind of like protesting the Vietnam War. And the first time we did that and there were 10 people. I think I was one of those 10 people because there were like 10 or 15 of us with Joan and Bob Dylan walking around Washington Square and Theo the early sixties do on the weekend.

23:43 So even though I grew up in the suburbs and not in the city itself as soon as I was able to to to go into the City by myself Junior High School. I started hanging out at the ethical culture Society on Friday nights and Saturdays and Friday nights. We had just kind of like this youth group, you know where we just get together and talk about whatever was the important issue of the day and through guided meditation. Send.

24:16 Folk dance wherever husband the wholesome entertainment and I'd stay over and on Saturday mornings.

24:24 I was kind of a big brother English tutor to a whole family of Dominican kids the pain there was this program again through a school called. Send a WhatsApp to Spanish Harlem and bring down a busload of these kids that are coming each time and spend the day with us spend the morning working on the English skills. And then in the afternoon, we will talk to some movie theater until is letting us in free or Museum or the or something. I like to ring around the city with the kids. So it was really just a the transition from that when it became obvious to me that staying at high school was a silly thing to do in this late 60s can't relate to that at any time to go to

25:14 Bandana Cleveland made it to Arizona and then when Arizona was was folding up I was like, okay now what am I going to do? I've got welding skills that got blacksmithing skills.

25:30 Parents who are professionals. We just love it if I go to school, so let's see why when I study physical Metallurgy what's happening when I'm hitting a piece of Steel with my hammer what's happening to the crystal structure of a metal so I kind of looked around and said, okay. I'm in the west. I don't want to leave the West I've been in the desert. I don't want to do any more desert too many people on the coast is too many people in Colorado that leaves me the kind of Inland Northwest look at the catalog and a couple schools up there, Idaho Moscow. Okay, let's go there.

26:07 Just showed up here started being a rabble-rouser pretty much from day one.

26:15 And I December 18th 1953 that day. So talk about the dragon truck. You're known around here for being Dragon man. In fact you even receive mail via the US Postal Service that was address similar to Dragon man Moscow Idaho right now is pretty shortly after getting here and deciding that going to school was really just not my cup of tea. They wanted me to be an engineer and I don't think that way so I set myself up as in business has Idaho Forge and Fabrication when you say you don't think that way I think you think very much like an engineer in your dad was an engineer. So what do you mean when you say I don't think like an engineer I do engineers.

27:04 I think engineers.

27:07 Identify a problem and then find a solution and I try to live in a larger World in which I see an intersection of a number of problems and not just one and try to understand how the system is creating those problems. And what is the underlying assumption that needs to be changed? I don't believe in Band-Aid, So that's what I mean by not thinking like an engineer. Thank you. So continuing with dia.

27:42 Story about the forge

27:46 A traditional blacksmithing Motif is dragons ever since you go back into the Middle Ages, you'll find dragons in in churches. Even there. Just something that Blackness of thought they crawl out of the fire at you no matter what you do. So I would always do every once awhile before judging a dragon just for practice and play and people would walk in the shop and they asked me what I was doing and I'd say on forging a dragon and a doll smile to go on but they don't smile. That's what they want and all of your dragon smile too, by the way.

28:29 So I said this is interesting. I wonder what would happen if I made a larger Dragon. So I made a fabricated Steel Dragon a few feet long and people smile to Daddy bigger. Okay. Well, let's take it off in another state. I made one that was 12 feet long and Hot Wheels and in a little propane tank on its belly and blinkers in his eyes and would roll around town and breathe fire.

28:55 That got people's attention and they smile even more. So I said hi.

29:02 I want to take this on the road. Let's do something big. So I took my my work truck which is a 1955 GMC 2 and 1/2 ton truck and just rolled it into the shop with a whole bunch of Steel took the cab off completely. So all it was left where the brake pedals and the steering wheel and built a new cabin the shape of a 12-foot High dragons hit with an open mouth and teeth and turn signals of them up in the front teeth and headlamps in the nostrils and neon eyebrows and the driver and the passenger Forum the pupils behind the eyeballs and breathes fire start now goes down the road at 60 miles an hour.

29:58 I'm a little details on things like that to count the others of Forge Dragon. That's up underneath one of the Dragons horns or ears that I consider the pilot fish that steering the dragon. It's telling it where to go. It's perched up there. And then on the rear bumper to warn people as they come up to pass it says weird load so they won't freak out when I get up the front right off the road.

30:26 And it does make people smile everywhere, except Utah. I've driven it all over the West.

30:33 I did do one chat with you to Portland and it was just over the top. I couldn't believe it. Even though law enforcement didn't know what to do. Cuz you were willing to bet that we would get pulled over driving across the country and you lost we must be must have seemed really normal in something.

31:04 Now if I think all the cops see it and they say someone else must have already really check this out because it certainly didn't start here or I would have heard about it. So I'm really just not going to mess with it. Will you tell the story about the when you were taking the charcoal the first Sirius road trip for the dragon truck was for the first blacksmith International artist blacksmith conference in Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz, California, and the the organizers asked me to pick up the fuel for the forges at the Fuel Depot in the in Portland to bring it down on the dragon truck. That was Foundry Coke and I called ahead to Albina fuel on his head. Look I'm carrying the sauna an open Flap that I have a little side boards on it, but it can't be just loose it'll blow off of there. So, can you get your package it for me and they said all sure not a problem. So I go over to pick it up and they've got it all.

32:04 And burlap sacks that are all stamped 5 kilos Colombian.

32:13 And I think it's huge amount of us, you know, probably twelve foot high mound of these things on a rope them on and put a bench seat out of a pickup truck out on top of it for a good passenger view because I'm hauling some blacksmiths down with me as well. And we set off to California and it's a big truck is kind of low to have to stop at the weigh stations in the ports of Entry wait at the California line at that sunrise.

32:40 How do I pull in and breathe some fire at the guy standing in the way booth? And

32:47 He just kind of shakes his head and looks in his coffee conference calls over to his the other guys in the shop too. I come over and take a look at this and pull up to the window and he says okay buddy. Where are you going and I say Bay Area figures.

33:08 What are you hauling and I say Coke and he says sure buddy. Keep going and you are where do you go from that story? That's a good one will feel the return trip was almost as interesting now. We'd spent four days down in Santa Cruz with this at this amazing conference with Samurai sword. Smith's and all kinds of things and a guy that I barely knew actually went to school here back in the fifties was a blacksmith in the Bay Area boat Hickory was in charge of the entertainment and Bows. So kind of kinky blacksmith and he makes wrought brass and bronze chastity belts and breast cups and all kinds of things that fit right in with some of the scene in the Bay Area. So he brought a lot of some of his his client helps for the entertainment or basically strippers from the tenderloin and they're all dressed up.

34:08 Is is regalian Togo's and things and

34:15 On the way back, he bummed a ride with all of the entertainers who were perched on the front of the dragon and draped over the horns on we decided that well as long as we're just cruising around. Let's go Cruise Chinatown in a dragon truck with all these women decorating and it was astounding how I'm breathing fire going through downtown Chinatown San Francisco, even though I knew that it was it was a good thing when the ancient Chinese man in their black robes in a little black slippers and black hats would actually look up from the pavement and look across and see the dragon truck and smile before they went back down. I was thinking I wish I could have been there.

35:14 Moving to back to little bit of a more serious discussion about the land ethic stuff that we touched on earlier. Can you talk a little bit about when you spoke with Gary Snyder and what he told you about how to be an environmentalist?

35:29 Well, I actually wasn't speaking with him that's just was reported to me.

35:37 I've always loved Gary Snyder and I have met with him on other occasions, but

35:41 Young woman in this in this lecture that he was in asked him Gary. What should a young person do to be an environmentalist. What's the best thing I can be doing and he's put it plainly into words and he said stay put

36:03 And that's what I've done. That's what it takes. You have to know where you are before, you know how to appreciate it and wants to know how to appreciate it. You can understand what's wrong with it and how you need to go about helping it heal and then helping fix it and it only happens when you stay in a place. You can't both know the the natural environment and the community that affects a natural environment unless you stay someplace. So what does it mean no foreign travel doesn't mean no foreign travel doesn't mean taking trips. No trips, but it does mean that

36:44 If you want to be affected as an activist, not unless it was just as an environmentalist post as an activist staying put is the place to be.

36:55 So let's talk a little bit more about

36:59 How you taking your ideas like staying put and put them into real action? Cuz you're an activist and well first I took on pesticide issues here because there was a potential spray program. That was not only unnecessary but was going to use a very toxic pesticide in my question. Why well, there went all my farming clients and how often do that when I've been sharpening plowshares for people doing all kinds of farm working. All of a sudden Farmers Market have anything to do with me. Was that a sad time? It was very sad sad realizing that speaking up was going to have a very negative effect on.

37:47 Some of the things I also like to do which is to work for people not mad at that similarly drive away the loggers by getting engaged in Forest work. And then I took on the Cowboys on the Open Range issue and soon all I was left with which university professor at that point. I decided to sell the business to someone that could continue to do the work but wouldn't be driving people away and continue on pretty much full-time as a activist ran for County Commissioner one got recalled for being to go to county commissioner went on the being a executive director of the largest Environmental Group in the region cost. The mining companies billions of dollars in cleanup costs. They were hoping to avoid by being good at what I do.

38:40 I untap could just simply continue doing that work. You said something that strikes me is counter-intuitive that you got recalled for being too good at what you did. So, can you explain how you get recalled for big clientele? If you want to be a politician and just simply keep getting elected then and you two things that please people but don't change things and I view the role of someone in elected office as a being a leader and that means of sometimes you may fall but that's okay. It's tough when it happens, but it's okay, just means that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing. It's great. If you can actually affect the change and bring people along at the same time, and I think I

39:40 Gotten better at that in the last 15 years since the recall 15 years 10 years. If you just if you weren't going so far ahead of of the people that they might have agreed with what you were doing that they had time to process but they're on the outside reading the paper wondering what is this element up to it's something different every night. I wasn't going to stand around and wait then worry about the next election instead. I was going to do what needed to be done and we did it was very very good for the county and still is good for the county and I'm glad of it a great talk about the Silver Valley in that clean up.

40:28 When I was director of the lands Council, we were facing worst lead pollution in the country which comes out of the Silver Valley Mining District in North Idaho where for hundreds of years, they or 100 years. They had disposed of Thera are tailings and their leftover materials by simply dumping them in the river that had left 1.5 billion tons of lead contaminated sediments that are moving Downstream through the Coeur d'Alene system into the Spokane system and isn't even killing things along the way it had been entirely in Idaho issue at the Active intervention of all the politicians in an extremely dirty story that we don't have time to get into what I did has director of the lands Council was blow it out a Spoke out of Idaho and involve Washington buy clear.

41:28 Demonstrating that it's moving into Washington making a 10 minute video making 10,000 copies that video on hanging in people's doors all through Spokane. So all of a sudden politicians can't catch up to it. They have to assume that everyone is very concerned about it and they will then be concerned that as soon as we put the washing delegation and governor on it and it was more than just an Idaho issue. Then it was a national issue and it has ended up with a

42:00 Well at least a half a billion dollar judgement against the mining companies for cleaning up the first part of the pollution.

42:10 Thank you, Mark. Thank you.