At Home with Mike Mills

The American Director Waxes On His Love of Thoreau and Forestry in Wilder Quarterly

Photographer Nicholas Haggard shares this unseen contact capturing artist and filmmaker Mike Mills meandering stoically amid the flora and fauna of the Silver Lake garden he shares with wife Miranda July. Known for feature films Thumbsucker and Beginners, Mills’s eclectic and restless creativity has seen him collaborate with Marc Jacobs, produce music videos for Air and Pulp, and even try his hand at forestry. Shot for the second issue of gardening journal Wilder Quarterly, Mills splits his time between L.A. and his conifer-surrounded high Sierra retreat bordering the National Forest near Lake Tahoe. Acquired 12 years ago and located on the site of an old hydraulic gold mine, the property requires regular clearing of manzanita to prevent the shrubbery “choking” the forest. “Mike is a great role model for conservation,” says Wilder publisher Celestine Maddy. “He discovered it slowly, immersing himself and then taking thoughtful action. More importantly he’s an explorer spending a great deal of time outdoors just watching the wild.” In addition to Mills’s backyard musings, Wilder’s winter issue features the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, and the floating gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico. In this excerpt from CBS News Radio host Rich Awn's feature for Wilder Quarterly, Mills reveals the unlikely connection between forest stewardship and punk music.

What sparked your interest in conservation?
I was a back-to-the-land, join-a-commune book junky. That influenced me to buy [the property]. Over the years you end up learning all this shit you never would have thought. You learn from walking around. Thoreau wrote beautifully about walking. He used to walk four hours a day and often in the same place, because he thought you needed repeat viewings, especially in a forest, to have a real understanding of it. I find that to be especially true in a conifer forest. There are different seasonal things, weather things. Trees fall over, things shoot up, things die––a very dense city of processes going on.

What have you learned through living in the woods?
It's made me more sympathetic to the people who do timber harvesting. It’s a classic thing: a city person moves into the woods and becomes a really annoying environmentalist. People that live in mountainous areas tend to be much more pragmatic: shoot guns, use chainsaws and cut down trees. I've met so many nice, super-intelligent people that live [out there] that my views have gotten much more broad than the average conservationist, to be honest.

How has your relationship with land affected your work?
It would be really hard to trace how it's influenced my work, but for sure it has. I do a ton of work there, writing and graphics. I just finished a bunch of new posters that I did up there. But it's not obvious. It’s a space that just allows… well, it's so fucking quiet. It's quiet but at the same time really busy––not with the internet or magazines or whatever, but with wind blowing through trees, the sound of deer cruising around. That creates a weird energy. 

Do you find new direction and inspiration at the retreat, away from all the distractions of the city?
The older I get, the easier it is to tune out the different radios: the internet radio or the “worrying about your career” radio. You just get tired of doing that. I'm good at being anxious, but less and less so. In the middle of the woods you just forget about everything. It’s overwhelmingly alive and real and happening in front of you, sort of enveloping. That's a really profound thing that's beyond description.

Can you give an example?
[American poet] Gary Snyder writes about this idea that there's no better way to get better connected to the wilderness than to be afraid of a mountain lion or a bear. That really reprioritizes our lives in such a radical way. It unravels this world of the internet that we're all stuck in. Any time something prompts you to dissolve our world, a world that pretends to make sense––the world of images and mainstream stories––suddenly they stop making sense. Any time you break out of that, it’s sort of a “punk” moment. When I'm worried about an avalanche or getting lost or which way that bear was going, it’s not unlike when I saw Public Image Limited play for the first time in Los Angeles in 1980––just breaking apart what you thought was the most important story.

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