David Nesmith, better known as Chicken, suffered a massive stroke in January. He is now home and making good progress, but requires around-the-clock care until he regains his self-sufficiency.
David served as conservation staff for the Sierra Club Bay Chapter for 17 years, leaving in 1999 (see November 1999 Yodeler, page 6, pasted below). For most of the years since, he has worked as facilitator for the Environmental Water Caucus, which represents over 30 organizations dedicated to saving the San Francisco Bay Delta.
In his spare time David is an avid whitewater rafting guide, including an active role volunteering with the Club’s Inner City Outings, sharing the joys of river rafting with youth.
To help pay for his health services, friends have organized a fundraiser on Mon., June 11, at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, featuring Maria Muldaur, Laurie Lewis, and the Midnight Ramblers. For more information on this event see http://www.freightandsalvage.org/david-nesmith-benefit-show-laurie-lewis-midnite-ramblers-other-special-guests.
For an article about Chicken’s remarkable presentation at the recent EBMUD hearing about the Mokelumne River, click here.
reprinted from November 1999 Yodeler, page 6:
Mr. Nesmith and Dr. Chicken
Chapter director moves to new job at Save the Bay
Even after 17 years working for the Bay Chapter, David Nesmith is still a good preacher’s son. Each time I ask him about his Sierra Club experiences, he manages to include an inspirational message.
The story begins when he was working for Friends of the Earth on congressional campaigns in different parts of California. Wherever he went, he found that it was Sierra Club that had the lists of people, that it was Sierra Club activists whom he was working with. When one of these mentioned a job opening for a Chapter conservation representative, he applied.
We interrupt this inspirational story for a scene on the Mokelumne River, where a newly trained river guide known as “the Chicken” is swimming ashore after being thrown out of the raft, while his friends in the raft wonder what the heck to do.
He got the job, and he stayed—for 17 years. He explains, “One of the things that continues to inspire me about the Bay Chapter, that has kept me in the Club so long—is that the Chapter has such a broad focus: there are any number of things that people can get involved in, there is something for practically anybody who has a care about the environment.”
The scene is the Chapter Office. David—it appears to be David, although everyone seems to call him “Chicken”—is cutting into a particularly gooey luscious chocolate cake.
“And Sierra Club’s commitment to a democratic process has such a broad scope. The decision-making brings in such diverse views: on one issue you may get the toxics people, the environmental-justice people, the air-quality people, the water-quality people.”
Another river scene, several years later. A more experienced Chicken is again guiding a raft. Kristine Harbeck, the Chapter fundraising coordinator, was supposed to bring brownies for today’s dessert—and she left them home. Suddenly she finds herself out of the raft and in the river. Is there any connection?
He gave examples. When San Francisco Airport threatens to fill two square miles of the Bay, some other organization might be interested just because of birds. But Sierra Club cares about the birds, as well as the problems of dredging and filling, and traffic, and development. When we approach greenbelt issues, we consider not just open space, but also population and transportation and agricultural land and livable cities.
The Chicken reaches for the giant bright-yellow plastic motor-oil jug by his desk, and takes a swig. Is it water, or is it vinegar? From day to day, one never knows.
Seventeen years includes a lot of high points. He lists a few:
- working with unions in Contra Costa to improve refinery safety. It was fun working “outside the box” with unusual allies. “But a lot of work still needs to be done.”
The basement of Alameda County Supervisor Mary King. David is fixing her furnace.
- adoption of the Alameda County East County Area Plan—imperfect as it is. “But a lot of work still needs to be done.”
- ”the brief glorious moment when we had a majority on the East Bay Municipal Utility District Board. Some of the good work continues to have an impact on the District, not enough, but some.”
- the successful effort over the last several years getting the Tri-Valley Group organized. They have so much important work to do out there.
The Chicken is taking a vacation (off running rivers, as usual). Newly hired Chapter conservation representative Mike Daley has been thoroughly briefed, and still everything unexpected happens. David would have known about these issues, but Mike feels like he is getting massacred.
David doesn’t just receive inspiration, but he gives it out.
Dana Kokubun recalls his support many years ago when she was a young staffperson working under David. “He is one of the few people who has changed the way that I am. He allows you to become the type of person you can become without inserting himself too much in the process. He helped me through a passage of my own.”
Alameda County planning commissioner Earl Hamlin explains, “One of the pleasures of being a planning commissioner was getting to know David well. One of the pains was getting to know David. He doesn’t mind being the heavy. He’s made me work harder and better.”
One of the pleasures of working in the Chapter Office has been having David for a boss. He mostly let staff do their jobs with frequent encouragement and little interference. But when we needed support, he was there.
The scene is the office of Save San Francisco Bay [where Chicken worked briefly after the Bay Chapter and before the Environmental Water Caucus]. Newly hired conservation director David “the Chicken” Nesmith is learning the ropes of a new organization. (“Unlike Sierra Club, it’s a staff-driven organization, and here we are expected to know a limited number of issues in depth rather than just having three sentences about every imaginable subject.”)
Here at the Bay Chapter we miss him, but he’s not far away, and he’s really doing about the same kind of work as before, for our Bay Area environment.
Don Forman, Yodeler editor
David “Chicken” Nesmith
Peace activist; environmental activist; river runner.
David attended CalPoly studying chicken husbandry in the late 1960’s with the idea of being a food missionary to the world: providing food for the world’s hungry, one chicken at a time. As a senior in college he was drafted, and became the first conscientious objector in Santa Maria, CA. He did alternative service with International Voluntary Services (IVS), who sent him to Viet Nam where he raised chickens as part of the U.S. pacification program. Tipped off to flee by Vietnamese friends, he was rousted out of Hue during the Tet offensive. Shortly afterwards, he returned home, newly married to Carlie who was also an IVS volunteer. They brought home an adopted infant son who was half-Vietnamese and half-American G.I., who they named Christopher. Once home they did peace work and teach-ins through the Methodist Church; had a second child (Ilona); and settled in a commune in California.
After Viet Nam, Chicken’s focus turned to the environment. For some years in the ’70s he worked for National Land for People. For 17 years he was the conservation director of the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, using the skills for working with and sponsoring volunteers he had developed in his peace work, while developing his deep understanding of environmental issues. He continued his water policy advocacy as the co-facilitator for the Environmental Water Caucus, which represents over 30 organizations dedicated to saving the San Francisco Bay Delta.
In the 1970’s he also began running rivers, on the Green with his longtime friend Walter, and in the ’80s graduated to whitewater. Soon he was a fixture in the Friends of the River spring training program, followed by work with Healing Adventures, (a similar organization to ETC., with many cross currents), and most recently with Inner City Outings, a part of the Sierra Club devoted to training urban youth for wilderness travel.
He is a consummate rower. His love of the river and his enthusiasm for bringing people together (‘they are my species!’) creates communities. It is not possible to be with Chicken on a river anywhere in California or Colorado or Utah without someone recognizing him at some point in the trip. Even when he is not specifically recognized, strangers see his spirit: on a Dolores trip in the 90’s the leader of another group hailed him as a ‘silverback’ after spending a week parallel boating.
For those who have spent intimate time with him in the wilderness, we hear his crow at dawn; we have received an orange-juice container (or a bleach container) with our names printed on it for our water in the desert; we have had our gear organized; our tie-down vigorously checked; we have witnessed the ‘barn sow’ mood on take out day (the kind of cow that roams and grazes contentedly all day and when it’s time to amble home, she wastes no time and does not dally along the way). We have heard the admonitions depending on the circumstances. One: if your feet are cold, put on a hat; if your hands are cold, put on a hat; if your anything is cold put on a hat. Two: in the desert be sure to have a hat, sunglasses, water, and shoes.
In addition to his two children, he has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild and another great grandchild on the way!
Our friend Chicken suffered a massive stroke on Jan. 31. He is now home and making good progress but requires around-the-clock care until he regains his self-sufficiency. Thank you for contributing to his recovery so that Chicken may soon resume his important work protecting California’s precious waters, bringing peace to this planet, and inspiring all of us who love him so much as a mentor, a father, a grandfather, and always a friend.