The Stark Effect

IN

Our reporter Kate Hannett’s account of the making of ‘Wild a state of mind” short film with Philip Stark. From the West Coast of Scotland to the West Coast of America, September 2018.

The week before we traveled to California the news back home was filled with images and reports of the deadliest fires in decades across the state. North of San Fransisco, across the bay, the Camp Fire smoke had drifted in blanketing the bay. It felt like we could have landed anywhere. No city skyline, no Golden Gate bridge, no Alcatraz to see. The apocalyptic feel only heightened by the hush the fug created. Chilled out millennials walk around in surgical masks, not built for filtering the tiny micrometre particulates of fire smoke. Is this a panicked trend or health necessity? We forgo the masks to the horror of trendy baristas we encounter.

Firing up the unnervingly gas guzzling free ‘upgrade’ of the hire truck, we take the hour drive to Berkeley. Notorious as one of America’s hotbeds of social change and political unrest through the 1960s and 70s, Berkeley saw a shift with an stream of self-identified ‘earth activists alongside the radical left together with a rainbow of a fresh new generational influx…it was a place we were excited to explore. 

We headed straight to the Berkeley University campus to find Professor Philip Stark. “What time do you get in? This event is the night you arrive and quite on topic.”  Philip emailed before we had even left the UK to invite us to attend a panel discussion with Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, the plaintiff in the widely reported Johnson v. Monsanto case; Lee fighting the case that his terminal illness is a result of using herbicides from Monsanto. We arrived on campus, amidst a bright buzzing courtyard of young students performing intricately synchronised group dances to heavy beats, alongside the campus’ manicured flowerbeds – it’s the ‘East Asian Union Night Market’ – looking up to the building to the left I see the glowing strip lights of a conference hall five floors up. We leave the party to head up. 

Up there we enter the room, packed to the gunnels; the topic of a herbicide use on campus and the scientifically celebrated panel a has attracted quite the crowd. Questions are taken at the end of the panel. Before introductions, I first hear the man we’ve been waiting to meet pipe up on the edibility of the plants that being fought with the use of the herbicides under scrutiny.  This is the man who eats his weeds. 

We meet Philip and his partner Daphne and a quick agreement is made to head a few streets down to Cesar for some sustenance. Tonight is a flamenco dancing extravaganza, we are told, a new and unexpected addition to their regular haunt. Cesar is nestled next door to another haunt of Philip’s, Chez Panisse – world renowned brainchild of Alice Waters – slow food activist and advocate for local sustainable agriculture. I sense every thread of this man’s life leads to another of considered and educated (and educating) lifestyle choices. 

Philip Stark

Philip has re-tuned his life to follow nature’s flux and for that we applaud and admire him. 

The next morning, the smoke lingers on. We head to Philip’s house, nestled up in the Berkeley Hills. Winding the contours of the hills up and up we arrive at his home of several decades, an unassuming blue timber clad home, with juniper plants lining the steps. Almost as soon as we are in the door Philip is into the cupboard under his bookshelf pulling out jar after jar after bottle after jar of his home concocted tinctures. From pine and purple sage, Californian poppy, juniper and lemon to mustard flower. All gleaned and preserved in his preferred locally distilled high proof, un-aged brandy. It’s a colourful sight. Big flavour and experimentation are high on this man’s list.  Attracted to big bold flavours, textures but more than that tailors them to his specifications. “I like to swim upstream in the consumer chain” – repeatedly evident in a constant desire to seek out the most hands-on and direct route to creating what he needs. Be it running sandals he makes himself, roasting his own coffee beans, making his own soda water with an aquired CO2 extinguisher and a keg tap, cycling everywhere and not being dependent on a fossil fuel consuming vehicle to foraging for suplementary foods – Philip has formed an intimate knowledge of every part of his life needs and studied it to make it the most efficient and least impactful methods available to him. He is a statistician by ‘day job’ – working on the intricacies of the working all manner of statistical workings – he jokes that he and collaborator Tom call what they do ‘computational epistemology’ “it’s fun to get to know how the world works – what can you learn about the world from numbers.”. His scientific observations make us realise how he has analysed and improved the efficiency of so many parts of his life. 

One evening Philip invites us for dinner at his house. We are welcomed in for a roast chicken dinner. His daughter Naomi is home from New York for Thanksgiving and there is a paternal warmth from Philip welcoming us all into his house, the banter between the family dynamic is very amusing. We observe the instances of ‘Dad jokes’ increase and the tone of humour, frivolity and getting to know one other is set for the night. Daphne comes round with her aging dog Pepper (fur laden with goosegrass and twigs from the walk up the hill) and round the table we feast on a delicious meal peppered with three-corned leeks and mugwort from the patio. 

Philip is intensely interested in so many topics – in both his working and personal life – though they all seem to intertwine. To say he is a polymath is an obvious observation – but it is the intensity and relish he exudes with it with that is infectious. Like all the people we have met on this wild journey, there is an infectious desire to join the rage against the machine. 

On our last evening, we went to Tilden Park with Philip. When time allows Philip will run up to the park from his house, taking a run for 2+ hours. But on the way, he fills his pockets with ‘weeds’. Running short pockets bulging with various brassica mustard leaves and flowers, chickweed, bay nuts…whatever is on the trail at the time – a foraging superhighway.   

“Sometimes I take my shorts off and shake out the pockets but I won’t do that for you today.” Brassica negra leaves and flowers and couple of bay nuts in hand, he places them in a sieve, rinses them and revives them in a salad spinner. It’s a wellrehearsed sequence. And it’s for dinner later. Philip tries to tell us he isn’t a forager. That his knowledge limited. It’s far from that. As latin names roll off his tongue and he puts another handful of leaves in his pocket, he’s a modern-day forager.  

We leave California with the feeling of having met someone who is true. To themselves, to their ideals and who is trying to educate us all. Philip has re-tuned his life to follow nature’s flux and for that we applaud and admire him. 

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