In conversation: Paul Joosse

Life on Wiebo Ludwig’s farm: head shaving, dandelion wine, and surprising humour

Head shaving, dandelion wine, life on Ludwig’s farm

Photograph by Ian Jackson

While writing his dissertation on radical environmentalism, Paul Joosse, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Alberta, began examining a string of bombings in 2008 and 2009 targeting EnCana gas installations in northeast B.C.’s Tomslake area. Speaking to rural people who felt under siege by the oil and gas industry, Joosse heard one name pop up again and again, often with admiration—that of Wiebo Ludwig, convicted in connection with similar attacks on gas wells in Alberta 10 years earlier. Joosse felt he had to interview Ludwig, leader of a radical Christian community in Hythe, Alta., called Trickle Creek, and talked his way onto Ludwig’s farm. Over multiple stays there, he got to know him, and wrote a chapter of his dissertation on Ludwig and his followers. Ludwig died this month of esophageal cancer at age 70.

Q: How did you first meet Wiebo Ludwig?

A: Fittingly perhaps, I met him on the set of a TV show—Alberta Primetime. That’s the thing about Wiebo Ludwig. As much as people like to point out that he loved courting the media, it was reciprocal—journalists loved interviewing him, because he would always give incredibly pithy, often humorous soundbites that would make you think. He was also fond of keeping you thinking, especially in terms of his involvement, or not, in any criminal activity. He loved tap dancing over the laser beams, saying just enough, but not enough to incriminate himself.

Q: He was a suspect in the Tomslake bombings, and also in the 1999 death of Karman Willis, a 16-year-old girl shot on his farm while joyriding with friends one night. Ludwig was never charged in either crime. Was he involved?

A: With all of the criminal activities, both the bombings and the incident with Karman Willis, I’m not convinced either way—of anything. I didn’t make it my objective to, quote-unquote, crack the case. I knew the RCMP had tried their hardest—in fact, they’d brought the interrogator from the Robert Pickton case out of retirement to interview Ludwig—and they weren’t able to get anything. And, of course, innumerable reporters have asked about his involvement. So I just refrained from asking those questions. But they did get raised, because he raised them. He said, ‘Do you think I’m the Tomslake bomber?’ And I had to reply, ‘I have to consider that that’s a very real possibility.’ And there was a twinkle in his eye when he heard my response. He was a strong, charismatic figure—a combative personality. He was also fearless, and I think that inspired his community.

Q: The RCMP claimed they found his DNA on two letters written by the Tomslake bomber—evidence that led to a search warrant and a raid on the Trickle Creek farm. Yet he was never actually charged.

A: The prosecutor decided it wasn’t enough. The RCMP wanted to charge him with extortion, but they weren’t able to. If they actually had DNA evidence, you would think that that would be enough.

Q: Something the RCMP apparently did uncover on the farm was 75 grams of marijuana. Is marijuana part of their lifestyle?

A: I never witnessed consumption of marijuana. They said it was to aid the sheep in childbirth. But the marijuana goes toward defying what a lot of people think about them, which is that they’re puritanical. And in no respects are they that way. They like to have a good time, eat good food, make their own wine—I’ve tried their dandelion wine, blackcurrant wine, I’ve tried their cheeses. I often found myself leaving the farm with a package of these goods.

Q: What’s a typical meal like there?

A: It was a big meal in the dining room. They usually had one table for each family unit, and it would start with a prayer and a devotion. They’d eat and there’d be lots of conversation. And then often there’d be singing—they would use the now-outdated blue psalter hymnal from the Christian Reformed Church. They had fun. Our discussions, even about the most weighty theological matters, would often end with the crack of a joke. And so there was sort of a joviality there that perhaps you wouldn’t expect from a family that’s in such a pitched battle against industry.

Q: What are their religious beliefs?

A: They’re Christian. One Bible verse that Wiebo was fond of quoting is Isaiah 24:5: “The earth is defiled by its people. They have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.” This idea of covenant means there’s a relationship between God and people that’s based on a trust. The Trickle Creek families moved away from contemporary society because they felt it had gone off track. And our dependence on fossil fuels is a large part of that. That’s why they tried to establish a new way of living more in accordance, they thought, with a Biblical rather than a consumerist vision.

Q: Their operations at Trickle Creek are said to be extensive.

A: That’s what Wiebo hoped would be his legacy, really: the straw-bale houses, the biodiesel refinery, the bee-keeping operation—an alternative vision for how you can live without being dependent on the oil industry. They frequently claim they’re 80 per cent off fossil fuels.

Q: Apart from radical environmental movements, you study “new religious movements,” or cults. Should we think of Ludwig’s group as a cult? It’s been reported in the past that followers who refused Ludwig’s requests would have their heads shaved or be banished—things most people would lump in with cult behaviour.

A: I know this practice of head-shaving did take place, and I think it perhaps can still happen. I don’t know the precise things that lead to that punishment. I know several people have had their heads shaved—including Wiebo Ludwig, at one point. And I do know people can stay and submit to those punishments, but they can also leave—people have left in the past, and they’ve also come back.

Q: What about the intermarriage at Trickle Creek—how has that shaped the group? You would think at some point they’ll need new blood.

A: There are rumours out there with no basis whatsoever about polygamy or incest—all those things that typically get thrown at alternative religious groups. But none of that is happening, as far as I’ve seen. It was a community essentially founded by two patriarchs, Richard Boonstra and Wiebo Ludwig. Ludwig had mostly sons and Boonstra had mostly daughters, and they intermarried. So for that generation, everything worked out. Now they’re getting to the point where the next generation is old enough to start wanting to make lives of their own, and I think they’re heading for a crisis.

Q: Will the group survive Ludwig’s death?

A: I think they will. Everybody wants to know who Wiebo’s successor is, and I know he appointed one. But you don’t replace a charismatic leader. Rather, you take the practices and beliefs of that leader and you formalize them into traditions you can then repeat. That’s how traditions start in religious communities. I expect that rather than one of his sons becoming the new Wiebo Ludwig, we’ll see this routinization. Very often there are also attempts to keep the leader’s physical presence in the community in some way—we see this with skull preservation in Papua New Guinea, and we see it in the strange case of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who on special occasions is still wheeled out to preside over the council meetings at University College London. Wiebo Ludwig is going to rest in a coffin of his own making and he’ll be kept in a concrete crypt above ground at Trickle Creek. They’re doing that so that if the community has to move, they can bring his body with them.

Q: Many of the issues Ludwig championed are legitimate. Yet many would argue he dealt with his concerns in altogether the wrong way—with violence and property destruction. A lot of people call him a terrorist.

A: I’ve walked around Edmonton with him and been in Grande Prairie with him, and people often came up and said, “You’re Wiebo Ludwig—I want to say I appreciate what you’ve done.” They’d shake his hand. I don’t have a stake in this, but this is what happened. And yes, there are people in Hythe who do not like him at all. I think the death of Karman Willis is an indelible stain. He never admitted to being involved in it or knowing anything about it, but his legacy is tied to that event. Many people like to see him as a retrograde figure, as a fundamentalist, as old-fashioned. Yet I think you can also see him as being in the vanguard of this comingling of Christianity with environmentalism. If scientists are correct and we’re heading toward a perilous situation environmentally, it stands to reason you will more often see this pairing of traditional Christianity with environmental causes.

Q: When you last spoke to him you must have broached the topic of his illness.

A: I talked to him on the phone maybe 2½ months ago. He was resigned to his fate. He knew death was coming. He was happy he’d had the chance to make peace with his family members and spend time with them before the end came. The one thing he did express was that he hoped the passing would occur without a lot of pain. And I was able to hear from the family since then and that was the case. He was an extremely interesting person to talk to. I think I’ll miss him in that respect.

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