Episode 106: Nick Offerman
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Nick Offerman: Far too often when somebody behaves like a butthole and cuts you off, or just does something asserting their need to get where they’re going over everybody else, invariably three minutes later, you pull up next to them at a red light and you just look at them and shrug and say, “You have two children in the backseat of your Mercedes Schwarzenegger tank. Was it really worth risking their lives?”
Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. So every now and then, when someone notable writes something or shares something on social media that’s related to or at least adjacent to the things we talk about on the podcast, we tweet a greeting. “Welcome to the war on cars.” And that’s exactly what happened after we read a column last year in Outside titled “Nick Offerman’s Call of the Candy-Ass.” Most people know Nick Offerman from his time playing Ron Swanson on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parks and Recreation: Welcome to my haven.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parks and Recreation: Thank you.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parks and Recreation: You’re the first non me to set foot in this building in 10 years.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parks and Recreation: Um, Ron, none of this is up to code.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parks and Recreation: Sure it is. It’s up to the Swanson code.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parks and Recreation: There’s no drainage. Doesn’t seem to be any ventilation. You’ve got hazardous chemicals over here.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Parks and Recreation: Yeah, which only I’m breathing. It’s the same liberty that gives me the right to fart in my own car. Are you gonna tell a man that he can’t fart in his own car?]
Doug: You may have also seen his more recent and highly lauded turn as Bill, a survivalist whose fears of the apocalypse come true on the HBO series The Last of Us.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Last of Us: So what, you were a prepper or something?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Last of Us: Survivalist. Maybe you are decent people, maybe not. Doesn’t matter. We’re self-sufficient here. I don’t need you or your friend complicating our lives. Is that clear?]
Doug: In the Outside column, Offerman writes about Henry David Thoreau, toughness and the thing that got our attention: riding his bike to work in both New York and Los Angeles, and dealing with some rather hostile drivers. A lot of our listeners sent us the column with great excitement. “Nick Offerman. You know, Ron Swanson. He’s one of us!” That was a common theme. So we welcomed Nick Offerman to the war on cars—at least on Twitter. Now in this episode, we have the great privilege of actually welcoming Nick Offerman to The War on Cars.
Doug: In addition to his acting, Nick Offerman runs Offerman Woodshop, a woodworking collective in LA. He’s also a humorist and the author of five books, including one with his wife, the actress Megan Mullally, as well as the book we discuss in this interview, “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside.” As you’ll hear, it has a lot of overlap with the issues we frequently discuss here on The War on Cars.
Doug: One quick note: we depend on listener support to produce the podcast. To help out, head to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today. Starting at just $3 per month, you’ll get ad-free versions of episodes like this, as well as access to exclusive bonus content. Plus, we will send you stickers and a handwritten thank-you note. Now, on behalf of my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, please enjoy our interview with Nick Offerman.
Doug: Nick Offerman, welcome to The War on Cars.
Nick Offerman: Thank you very kindly for having me.
Sarah Goodyear: I think that we want to talk a little bit about how it is that you got here. There was a column that you wrote for Outside magazine that brought you to our attention. I mean, not that we didn’t know who you are anyway. Obviously, we know you from your role on Parks and Rec as Ron Swanson. But in the outside piece, you’re actually yourself, and you talk about the experience of riding a bike both in New York and in Los Angeles. And you talk about how you were riding from the Upper West Side to Red Hook, which is not far from where we are in Brooklyn right now. And you had kind of—well, you liked doing it, but you also had kind of a negative experience. Maybe you could talk about that.
Nick Offerman: Sure. I mean, I would open with a couple of caveats. I am a bicycle enthusiast. I love riding, but in my adult life, in my particular circus act, I usually have enough plates spinning that I can begin to thrive commuting by bicycle, but I never have time to, like, join any groups. So I’m always like a big fan of this effort, for example, but I’ve never ridden—I think in my whole life, the only time I’ve ridden a bike with other people is my hilarious, name-dropping mentor that turned me on to cycling, which is Conan O’Brien. We started riding together in Seattle of all places, and he used to dress in the full racing gear and slather himself in sunscreen. People might not be aware he’s actually 7’2″.
Nick Offerman: And he’s—he’s like an Olympian. He’s a gorgeous, athletic specimen. But he does such a great job of coming off like a gangly dork. But he’s an incredible athlete. And he turned me on to that. And then we were living in New York. And again, it was through his influence that I bought my first road bike with clip-in shoes. So I still feel like a freshman all these years later. But it was—a specialized Tarmac was my bike, and it’s still my road bike. I love it. God, it’s beautiful. And so yes, I was commuting. I’d found this shop to rent on the piers at the bottom of Van Brunt below the fairway there, Civil War-era piers built of stone.
Nick Offerman: It was the stone excavated one. They dug the Erie Canal, and they brought it to town and used it as ballast and ships. And I found this space to build my first canoe, which I’ll have to take that on another podcast, I guess. Is there a canoe podcast? The War on Motorboats?
Aaron: The War on Diesel Ferries.
Sarah: [laughs] Yeah.
Nick Offerman: And in my investigations, to find, like, an affordable shop space to commute to from our place on the Upper West Side, I discovered that to get to Red Hook, it was either two trains and a bus, or I could try and incorporate a water taxi, or if I took a cab, it was—and this is pre-Uber, it was exorbitantly expensive. And all of these methods took longer than simply riding a bicycle all the way down the West Side, cross over around Wall Street and catch usually the Manhattan Bridge, or sometimes for a treat take the Brooklyn Bridge and try to dodge pedestrians. Either way, and then drop all the way down to that street that ran along the East River in Brooklyn, all the way down to Red Hook.
Nick Offerman: And it was just joyous. I mean, rain or shine, to be able to command a city with that concentrated population by bicycle—for a novice no less—was just magnificent. And so I loved it. And I was in great shape simply for my commute. It was win-win across the board. Did I eat shit a couple of times waiting at a light in Chinatown? Yes, I did.
Nick Offerman: But fortunately I’m a comedian, and so I think I got some applause on one of them. In any case, the thing I wrote about was one day, just again, not having, like, a peer group as a cyclist, I sort of made all these mistakes on my own and, you know, I could run things past the few people I knew who cycled around the city, but nothing could have prepared me for the day that I was hauling ass down that street below the BQE along the East River.
Doug: Furman Street.
Nick Offerman: Furman Street. Thank you. And it was always hilariously empty, and everybody’s sitting in traffic 80 feet above on the Expressway. And I was in some sort of reverie hauling ass. And on the whole commute, there were sections of the Hudson River bike path where you could really kick it into gear and try to, like, go for speed, which just cracks me up that you could do that in New York City. And Furman Street was another place I could do that. So I, you know, had fun pretending I was a real cyclist, and would get into the hunched-over racing position and just try to, like, crank out a stretch of a couple of miles as fast as I could. And I was in this sort of reverie and a car zoomed up next to me, and somebody leaned out the back passenger window and spanked me fulsomely on my gorgeous, enormous butt cheek.
Nick Offerman: And I mean, I was—I was so flabbergasted. I pulled off. I was terrified. Like it was really scary. I was going so fast that I—I could have easily wrecked, but I also just was—I just couldn’t believe this weird, sophomoric sort of bullying violation. You know, they screamed and laughed and zoomed off. And I was so upset. I was so emotional that I thought to myself, “Man, if I had a weapon, I would come after you.” I had the bicycle version of road rage. I was—I was really upset.
Sarah: I’ve had that exact experience on a country road in Maine, so a very different setting. But it’s very upsetting because you are—you’re feeling good, you’re on the bike, you’re feeling in control, and then here are these people who kind of come along and make you feel you don’t have control over anything. You’re not a free person on your bicycle, you’re just sharing the road with a bunch of idiots.
Nick Offerman: It’s amazing. And as I continued then, this was probably about 15 years ago that I started riding regularly. To this day, I’m just astonished at what your movement is all about. The sense of propriety that drivers have to the point where they’ll stop and, like, pick a fight with a cyclist for having the temerity to want to share the road.
Doug: It’s funny how drivers are always in a rush until the moment that they want to prove something to a cyclist. Like, “You’re in my way, you’re slowing me down.” And then they’d stop their car, get out and want to pick a fight with you. It’s like, oh suddenly you’re not in a rush anymore.
Nick Offerman: Yeah. I guess Taco Bell will still be open when you get there.
Nick Offerman: I mean, I live in Los Angeles, and it happens with great regularity. My wife and I talk about it all the time that Los Angeles traffic is famous for being oppressive and horrible, but like all things, you learn to accommodate it. So it takes 45 minutes to get three miles, and so you just learn to give yourself 50 minutes so that at least you’re mellow while sitting amongst the Range Rovers and Bentleys. But even when you do that, whether you’re in a car or on a bicycle, it seems like people have been deployed across the city to try and kill you with their vehicles, or that it’s some sort of video game where between here and my woodshop, there will be eight murderers that have been sent to kill you with impossible, unbelievable driving maneuvers. Yes, they are going to try to make a left turn across four lanes and you’re just like, “Wow, this is incredible!”
Nick Offerman: And so you add that to the vulnerability of being on a bicycle. And you’re just amazed because far too often when somebody behaves like a butthole and cuts you off, or just does something asserting their need to get where they’re going over everybody else, invariably three minutes later, you pull up next to them at a red light, and you just look at them and shrug and say, “You have two children in the backseat of your Mercedes Schwarzenegger tank. Was it really worth risking their lives?” And he rolls down his window and blows out a huge cloud of cigar smoke and says. “Yes, Nick, it was.”
Aaron: Why do you continue to do it? Why do you continue to ride? I mean, you acknowledge in your book, which we all read, that you are one of the people who owns a big, large American vehicle as well. What keeps you on the bike?
Nick Offerman: As we speak, I just got back to town from some months away on an acting job, and I’m swapping my Ford Expedition, which we purchased to pull our Airstream, I’ve decided to only rent a vehicle whenever we take the Airstream out, and so I’m shopping for an electric pickup truck. I’m liking the Rivian, but we’ll see what happens.
Nick Offerman: But a good friend of mine with whom I made a film in 1998 called Treasure Island, his name is Scott King. He’s a really brilliant and funny man, and he wrote a little pamphlet that he never could quite get it published, but I was quite moved by it. And it was addressing ills in our society that he perceived. And one of the things he suggested 25 years ago was if we give a shit about our natural resources and about the longevity of our civilization, we should all be riding bicycles whenever possible. And he became an early adherent. He lived in Silver Lake at the time. Now he’s in the south of France. But he would ride his bicycle everywhere.
Nick Offerman: He had an early bike with e-assist, and he lived in a lot of ways that really inspired me as a sort of rural dolt from Illinois, as someone who’s a fan of agrarian literature, and has a sensibility of how we use our natural resources and where our food comes from, and what we do as a civilization to make a mess versus what we do to leave things better than we left them. So I don’t know. For one of them, it serves two purposes for me: I obstinately just want to commute by bicycle whenever and wherever I can because it doesn’t burn any gas, it is a wonderful way to exercise. I really enjoyed playing Ron Swanson, and it was from age 38 to 45. And my boss, Mike Schur, asked me to stay beefy, which is a wonderful thing, especially in Hollywood, to hear from your employer.
Nick Offerman: “Keep a few extra pounds on, if you don’t mind.” “Okay, if you insist.” And so I loved being a two cheeseburger guy, but then as soon as it was over, reality kicked in and was like, you might want to talk to your cardiologist and knock off a few pounds. And so I did, and one of the ways that I love maintaining that is by cycling. I mean, to this day I’m now 52, and whenever I get out on my bicycle, I feel like a kid playing hooky from school. Like, no matter where I’m going, if it’s for work or pleasure, I just feel great. It’s a dopamine hit that is exponentially greater than any other form of exercise. I’m sure there are other nerdy ways to get around that also are favorable to Mother Nature, but none of them are as convenient or available to me as bicycling.
Sarah: I am also struck by how bicycling is—it’s a self-sufficient way, right? And a lot of what we associate with kind of the stereotypes of masculinity is like, you know, masculine men are self-sufficient. And we talk a lot on this show about masculinity, and how it’s kind of funny that a lot of the way that macho identity is projected through cars is actually sort of the opposite of self-sufficient, right? It’s like you’re dependent on all these things. And you as an actor have been called upon to portray and project masculinity in a lot of ways, but what’s really appealing is that there’s a sort of softer, more self-aware masculinity. And maybe you could talk a little bit about how masculinity is portrayed in the media, and how you’ve become kind of an icon of masculinity and self-sufficiency, and how all of those things have kind of gotten confused in our modern world.
Nick Offerman: It’s interesting. Anything you do on television, like if you split firewood on TV or you change a tire or you’re a woodworker, like, I can make a dining table and I’ve been on TV, so people then introduce me as a master woodworker. Somehow, the visibility of things just explodes exponentially. And so it has taken me by surprise to be considered particularly masculine. [laughs] I mean, I get it. I own a mirror, and I understand what I look like and what I sound like. But I also am a fruity, squirrely goofball like most people are inside. And we’re taught by, you know, the parts of our lives that are brutal to sort of hide that and to kill that if possible if you want to be a proper capitalist.
Nick Offerman: So when it comes to vehicles, when it comes to modern life, I mean, the sense of modern masculinity I find really funny and kind of sad. I feel like it’s an old-fashioned sensibility that’s completely fear based, whether you’re hiding in a big loud truck or you’re brandishing your tough firearms or other weaponry, all of these are sort of shells. They’re carapaces behind which we’re able to cower because we’re afraid of something, of, you know, people of color or having feelings that my dad will see, and he’ll will take me out by the woodshed or whatever the vulnerabilities are we hide them behind the sense of masculinity, of like, “I’m tough. I will run you over with my vehicle. I’m protected by my fence.”
Nick Offerman: And what true courage requires, I think, is being open to the possibilities of change and learning and growth, which should be required of all of us. If we’re human beings, it means we come as a faulty package. Like, we’re born with fallibility, and it never goes away. Like, nobody is ever done perfecting themselves, you know? I think that if we have an awareness of our—of our foibles and we work towards improving those, that to me requires much more courage and character than if you just build armor around yourself which allows you to be an asshole.
Nick Offerman: And I don’t even like to attribute masculinity to it. Even that genderization is something I would like to help erode in our modern society because, for example, when my woodworking book Good Clean Fun came out, people would say, “Oh, this is for like dads in the garage.” And I would say, “No, it’s a 1950s, like, Donna Reed sensibility.” So by that token, if I want to write a book for women, it has to be about cooking and sewing and pleasing my man, you know? Bringing him his slippers and his pipe? And then I would go home and bring my wife, Megan Mullally, her slippers and her pipe and keep her dinner warm, you know?
Nick Offerman: And so, I mean, I don’t consider these things masculine or feminine, I consider them —this is how you have character. This is how I can stand up for people that have less than me. This is how I can try and pursue an equitable life. And that involves self-sufficiency. So a cyclist has all of the gear on them, by and large, to take care of their vehicular travel. And if you have a very bad week, all it’s gonna cost you is a couple of inner tubes or maybe a little bit of grease versus the obvious insane fallacy of the amount of money we spend on our vehicles and our roads. And even my family who are farmers and, like, self-sufficient Han Solo types, we all talk about it all the time, how modern vehicles have been designed so that you can’t be self-sufficient, so that you have to rely on the teat of Mother Corporation. If anything happens, a light comes on and says, “Please take this to the dealer and spend a bunch of money.” Whereas in decades past, you know, we prided ourselves on being able to fix most car problems with a tool set. So I mean, it taps into that, and that is, I think, a big part of why I love cycling and the sensibility of cyclists.
Doug: So Nick, talking about self-sufficiency and the fallacy of it when it comes to automobiles, I was thinking of it in terms of the context of your character on The Last of Us on episode three of the first season, Bill, and how he has this own fallacy of sorts of self-sufficiency, that he can kind of ride out the apocalypse by himself with enough guns, enough canned food, a stockpile of good wine. And I was thinking a little bit in the context of The War on Cars, where we talk a lot about NIMBYs who oppose things like more neighbors and affordable housing, or bike lanes that keep people alive, keep them from getting crushed by cars.
Doug: And in a way, Bill is kind of the ultimate NIMBY at the start of this episode. You know, he literally preserves the town that he lives in, builds a fence around it, preserves the buildings that people could live in, even though he’s not going to let anybody in. And it’s only when Frank comes into his life that he starts to gradually, you know, “Okay, I’ll give you a shower and a meal.” But over the course of, what, 15 years of that relationship, we just see this deep, deep emotional connection to the point where—and spoilers for folks who haven’t seen it, you know, that when it comes to pass that Frank is dying, they have this realization that a life without another person, without taking care of other people isn’t much of a life.
Doug: So this is a long winded way of saying I really was thinking about that in terms of what we talk about, whether, you know, climate change, like, what are we doing with this movement as we’re moving forward trying to preserve a habitable world in the face of overwhelming odds, where it looks like we’re not even preserving anything, like, we’re just plugging our fingers in the dike as best we can. I don’t know. I don’t have much of a question, more it’s just an observation of the ways in which that episode and your career subverts notions of care and masculinity and toughness and plays with these things. I mean, I guess that’s acting, right? But I wonder if you could talk about that episode, and how you see that as playing out against the backdrop of everything we’re talking about. How we share space with other people, that’s really at the heart of what I think The War on Cars is about.
Nick Offerman: Well, that’s a great question, and it goes right to the heart of whatever my soapbox issue is, speaks to that. And I think that that’s what’s so beautiful about Craig Mazin’s writing of The Last of Us. It’s amazing that I haven’t mentioned Wendell Berry yet.
Nick Offerman: Wendell Berry says it all turns on affection. And whenever he’s discussing any of these issues, he’s able to easily trace the root causes to how we treat our farmers, and how we therefore treat the soil from which we produce our living every day. And, you know, these are things that we as a society have gleefully forgotten about. We live in absolute blithe denial of who’s producing our food, where does it come from. How are we paying attention? How are we being responsible to THE CREATION in all caps, you know? We are learning more and more as the years go by, the resources of what we have available to us are perfectly finite, and we are creating a lot of problems for ourselves. And Wendell Berry has just such a clear vision about how our habit, when a problem arises, whether it’s some aspect of climate change or a food shortage, or the vast swathes of topsoil that we’ve lost in the Midwest and the prairie, our foolish tendency is to say, “Well, the problems of technology, the results of the Industrial Revolution have caused this problem X, Y, and Z.”
Nick Offerman: And so instead of taking a sort of Indigenous sensibility or Aboriginal mindset and saying, “Where did we go wrong?” we never look back and ask that question. Instead we say, “Well, Elon, we’ve caused all these problems with our technology. Can you make a better techno—you know, can we solve it with more technology?” [laughs] Ultimately, we’re filling the ocean with plastic, and then when we’re done with that we’ll fill the atmosphere with exploded Elon rockets, as it were. And so, I mean, whenever and wherever I can with my acting roles or my books or when I tour as a humorist, through no fault of my own, I mean, through the genius of Mike Schur and the writers of Parks and Recreation, the comedy and the love in that show are the initial bait or the candy, they are the milkshake that draw all the boys to my yard, I believe is the idiom.
Nick Offerman: And like I’ve just finished doing a run of shows as a humorist around the States, and there’s still always a handful of people who somehow come to my shows thinking I’m going to be a Second Amendment jackass and some sort of right wing fool. And they let me know on social media how disappointed they are and how not funny I am. And I always feel bad because I—what I try to do with all of my content, I liken it to pizza. I try to make the pizza delicious and irresistible while sneaking a bunch of broccoli beneath the cheese. And so as I work in these many different mediums, I try to sort of promote the Wendell Berry sensibility as much as I can because I can’t stop thinking about it.
Nick Offerman: Once I read Michael Pollan’s books, which were very much inspired by Wendell Berry, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, talking about who produces our food and how, and to what detriments to the ecosystem, to the food itself. Our food is so much less nutritious. The animals and eggs and dairy and seafood, all of these systems are suffering horribly because of capitalism, so that somebody can make a buck in our economy. Our food system hurts everything. [laughs] And once you realize that and you think, “Oh, gosh, you’re right. I have no idea where this carrot, this egg, this scallop, et cetera, where all of this came from.” And when I’m talking on stage about this, I say, “You know, it’s funny. We send our money to these power companies like, ‘Hey, I’m sending you this money and you’re sending me electricity. You’re gonna be cool, right? Like, I’m trusting you. You’re not gonna, like, fucking rip off the top of a mountain and rape the mountains of eastern Kentucky, right?'”
Nick Offerman: And, of course, the answer is a resounding “No, don’t worry about it, buddy. Here’s video games. There’s McDonald’s. Don’t worry about it. You’re an American.” And so, you know, as a self-sufficient citizen who comes from a family of much better citizens than I am, those are the kind of issues that I try to keep an eye on as I travel through this world, instead of just becoming a blithe, fat, lazy sheep suckling on the teat of capitalism like those grown ups in the seminal film Wall-E.
Sarah: Yeah. Speaking of sheep, I just have to say that when I realized in the book that you were gonna go to the farm of James Rebanks, I went nuts because I’m such a huge fan of his. And, like, the idea of rebuilding a stone wall in the cold with my bare hands with him would be my fantasy. So you lived my fantasy there. [laughs] That sounds like an amazing trip. Maybe you could just talk a little bit about what it was like to hang with somebody who kind of lives by these principles.
Nick Offerman: It’s funny. He makes fun of me because that’s my Disneyland is to get to go to a farm and be of use to the farm. And I just arrived at his farm. We had become friends over Twitter of all places, and we hit it off so powerfully that I made it all the way to his farm in the northwest corner of England. And he said, “Do you want to mend a stack stone wall?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And we went bounding across this pasture. We ran to this wall. The sheep, when they have decided that they’ve finished with a certain area of pasture, will pick out the weakest spot in a stone wall and they’ll just start kicking it with their forelegs until they’ve knocked it over and they can jump over into the next pasture.
Nick Offerman: And that’s what we’re fixing. And the stones had sharp edges and they were heavy, and I just immediately took stock of the situation and said, “Okay, this is uncomfortable.” Like, it’s cold and wet and we’re not wearing gloves. Like in America, I do a lot of labor of all sorts. And I’ve learned, you know, in my life to say, “Okay, I’m gonna be swinging a sledgehammer, using a shovel or a post hole digger, that’s a blister job, so I’ll grab some gloves. And what’s the temperature? Do I need sunscreen, et cetera?” And there was just this incredible resilience of, all right, there’s work to do. Let’s go do it. And I said to him eventually, “I’m amazed that we did that without gloves.” And I was—I was uncomfortable. My hands were cold, but only somewhat. Like, it was far from being dangerous. And just that was one of my favorite things about it, and it tapped into the way he and his family run their whole farm. And frankly, to the side of Europe that I generally admire, you can tell that they’ve been dealing with these issues a lot longer than we have, and it’s immediately apparent by how much smaller their refuse cans are, for example. Or where we have two or three types of trash cans, they have five because they have much less real estate and many more people per acre.
Nick Offerman: And so when they’re dealing with the utilities and with natural resources and with public transit—all of these issues that are near and dear to this podcast—I love to see the way Europeans deal with them, partly because they’re made to. I mean, us dipshits here in this country are those same Europeans who just showed up and were like, “The trees are without limit! Let’s consume them all!” you know, for 200 years, and then we said, “Oh shit, our math was incorrect. Now what? Well, let’s try and get to Mars.” Again, Wendell Berry always talks about the disease of thinking, whether it’s your marriage or your farm or your town, we have this idea in America that we can use things up, and if it goes sour or we exhaust the resource, we just move. [laughs] It’s all connected. You know, I have a lot of friends in Los Angeles that didn’t grow up in the country who get a flat tire and think, “Oh shit, I have to throw away my car and get a new car because this one’s broken.”
Aaron: I was really happy to see Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, referenced in your book because it’s something that I read in high school, and I think at the time that I read it, I didn’t really—I didn’t really get it. But there’s a scene in your book where you’re—you know, you become friends with Wendell Berry and his family. And if I’m remembering it correctly, Wendell refers you to Aldo Leopold. He’s like, “You gotta read Leopold.” And A Sand County Almanac and Leopold’s work fundamentally talks about the idea of a land ethic. A land ethic is simply about caring about people, about land, about strengthening the relationships between people and land. And it’s a kind of appeal for a moral responsibility to the natural world. What I was wondering as I was reading this is like, you know, our audience here at The War on Cars and Doug and Sarah myself we’re—like, we’re very urban people. You know, we are not living the agrarian dream here in Brooklyn, New York. What does this agrarian ideal mean for those of us who are living in cities? And how can we bring this ideal into our urban lives, or even, like, update the ideal so that it resonates with us here in cities?
Nick Offerman: Well, it’s a huge question, and everything is connected. It all comes back to these same root questions, because my family—again, who are incredible citizens: my dad’s the mayor of our small town, my sister’s the head librarian. But the whole family just lead these lives of service. My dad is a prolific gardener. And so they have a frugality about them, and first and foremost, to me, that’s the answer to the question is my mom’s side of the family is still farming. They farm corn and soybeans. They’re farming for Cargill Seeds, basically. And so they’re creating raw materials as part of our industrial food system. But the thing is, even in our little town, the agrarian sensibility, even on most farms, is gone.
Nick Offerman: We’re all complicit. You can be in Brooklyn, or you can be living 20 miles outside of New Paltz, and you’re still tapped into all the same systems. You still have to go to the Target to get the retail items that you need. You’re still dependent on the same utilities. And so it’s incumbent on all of us in the cities and out of the cities first and foremost, to understand where your food is coming from. And to my way of thinking, the most important thing to do is to legislate against this, to create localized food systems so that cities are supported by their local agriculture. I’m not super optimistic about our ability to take these sort of backward steps because it would entail, like, if you live in New York and it’s February, you shouldn’t have fresh blueberries. Mother Nature doesn’t work that way. You can have them because they’re grown in Peru and they’re flown in. But that’s—immediately the problems are apparent, and that can just be extrapolated across pretty much everything we consume.
Nick Offerman: And so by all means, like, be very familiar with your farmer’s market, but go beyond that, because that’s a tiny Band-Aid to our country’s agricultural problem. What we need to do is have a healthy metabolism between our local agriculture and our urban areas that doesn’t require a booth to be set up once a week. All of our food, or the majority of our food should be coming as locally as possible.
Aaron: What I was trying to get out with that question about Aldo Leopold was just like, is there a way to bring this idea of self-sufficiency into the urban environment while also acknowledging that to enable us to be self-sufficient in the big city, we also somehow need to have these gigantic collective systems, these big public systems that function really well.
Nick Offerman: I mean, yes, exactly. And it’s—you know, I’m very grateful to be a cheerleader for this subject matter, and I have a passionate interest in it. But I mean, you know, that question is—makes my mind explode. It’s like …
Aaron: Okay. Forget it, forget it then. That’s our problem, Nick.
Nick Offerman: It’s asking—well I mean, it’s all of our problem, but—but you’re right. I mean, we collectively have to decide to enact these solutions as a people. I mean, the disease that we have in America is that we have been afforded so many freedoms and that has fomented so much progress, but at the same time, we’ve become inured then to the understanding that we need to also give a shit about our neighbors. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that we all deserve to build a fence and live inside a Mercedes—what is with those military-looking SUVs? I don’t get those. But that’s what we’re sold. Like, you should have—and you can have all your guns in there, and you can kiss your guns. And this complete weird fallacy that saddens me because the fallacy is winning.
Nick Offerman: People are saying, “I’ll be goddamned if you’re gonna take away my idiot stick, or my oversize giant pickup truck or my 38 pairs of running shoes.” We’ve been sold that we all deserve to be yacht-owning assholes, and that is going in the wrong direction from solving these issues. And I don’t know where to find my optimism because I’m familiar with human nature, and we all generally will make the lazy choice when we can. So Aldo Leopold, I closed my book with a quote from him that says—I’m gonna butcher it, but it’s the idea of doing the right thing even when nobody is looking, even when doing the wrong thing is legal, that’s the solution. And, you know, I am hopeful because there’s work to be done in front of us. There are great agricultural movements, including my friend James Rebanks, whose books I’ll plug: The Shepherd’s Life and Pastoral Song, which in England is called English Pastoral.
Sarah: One of the things that has given me hope recently is the huge response to this Last of Us episode, and to your character and this sort of character arc that he goes through. As much as there is laziness, I think there is also a hunger for a better, more decent way of looking at the world. And I know that you must have gotten just such an overwhelming response to that. I mean, did that give you hope?
Nick Offerman: Yes. I mean, my hope comes in increments, and it signifies, you know, the response to that episode, for example, and just good art, you know, the response to Mike Schur’s shows that are full of heart and ethics, and his book, How to Be Perfect, because it is representative of the inexorable small majority that the good side continues to have. You know, slowly and surely we seem to be succeeding at dragging ourselves kicking and screaming into evolution, into treating all victims of discrimination more equitably. You know what I mean?
Nick Offerman: Like, when I was a kid, gay marriage was a fairy tale to imagine. And now it’s—it’s a yawn. Like, oh, yeah. Duh, of course. The legalization of marijuana, you know, the—just the attention being paid, the vocalization that can be given to things like trans rights or Black Lives Matter or—it’s not gonna happen overnight. I’m not gonna do a comedy show that people are gonna say, “Oh, I didn’t think about that. Let’s—you know, let’s change our legislation.” But nonetheless, I think slowly, slowly but surely, you know, we generally keep winning. But not by a lot. [laughs] You know, there are a lot of people that are screaming and kicking and want to hang onto white supremacy or, you know, the material goods that they have been taught since the New Deal they were like, “By God, this is the American dream. And we—I earned the right to own these vehicles and these tennis shoes and these AR15s.”
Nick Offerman: But, you know, and it’s like, “Yeah, but who are you helping?” And so that’s where I find my hope, and by finding people like the Berry Center. Wendell Berry’s daughter Mary runs the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, and they have a farming program. Just I find places, trying not to spread myself too thin but, like, by lending my support to smarter people doing the actual work. So I mean, I’m never gonna be a brilliant scholar or even a great journalist, but I do have an audience or readership, and so what I can do is try to bring their attention to the broccoli that I’m sneaking into my pizza.
Doug: So Nick, we started this episode with you talking about cycling in the city, both in New York and Los Angeles, but in your book, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, which we’ve been talking about a lot, you talk about the power of a good walk. I mean, the first third of your book is about a trip you took to Glacier National Park with your friends Jeff Tweedy and George Saunders. But then later in the book, you also talk about how as an actor, you’re often dispatched to far-flung cities, and you’ll have a day off or a couple days off, and you just love kind of getting out and taking a good walk.
Doug: You do have a part that I had forwarded to Aaron and Sarah. I think you’re in Glacier National Park, and you talk about some folks in Jeeps showing up and sort of ruining the experience pretty much for everybody else. And you talk a little bit about these folks who tune their cars, trucks or motorcycles to growl, roar or vroom in a way louder than is necessary. And what really got, I think, Aaron’s attention …
Aaron: [laughs] My issue.
Doug: … was the line, “To further pollute the public airspace that we all share in that manner is to be a bad citizen. Please think about what you’re doing. It’s painful and violent.” And I think that line, “It’s painful and violent,” really, like I said, it got our attention because it’s what we talk about on The War on Cars, that your actions have an effect on other people. I wonder if you could talk about your experience of just walking in LA or wherever you happen to be at the moment, and what happens sort of when you interact with cars.
Nick Offerman: Again, there’s a Wendell Berry quote for everything, but he talks about as we proceeded with our “wonderful,” in quotes, technological civilization, about how we no longer have an awareness of our neighborhoods. That’s one of the ways in which we’ve lost touch with—you used to be able to travel no faster than by foot or by horse at the fastest, slow enough still that it allowed you to see, among other things, just by looking how your neighbors are doing. Have they painted their barn this year? How are their gardens? You know, are they taking care of themselves? And that makes perfect sense when I think about, like, I grew up out in the country, 12 miles out of this little town, and I think about driving to town. And you go too fast. Like, to what end? We hurry along our days.
Nick Offerman: And so when I walk, especially in a new city, I wouldn’t even want to explore by bicycle. For me, that would be too fast because I need to be able to soak it in. And I love to use a map and, like, say, “Okay, cool. Here’s an art museum, and okay, here’s a way that I can get there where I hit a cool bridge or maybe a park or an ice cream shop or whatever.” And that—to me, that skillset is fundamental to citizenship. It’s easily equated—like, when I talk about people making their cars too loud, I equate that with, like, people I’ve seen in a Chipotle in Austin wearing assault rifles to the salsa bar. It’s the old thing of, like, you know, guys with small penises drive big trucks. It’s all an extrapolation of that sensibility. Like, who hurt you that you need to, like, be a big, tough motorcycle vroom vroom to tell your neighborhood that, like, what? Are you an antihero from a 1970s film? Like, it’s truly painful and violent.
Nick Offerman: This whole notion that I would love for people to have an awareness of, I’m sure—and I’m sure I even still do it in some ways, it can be represented by our sense of tourism, where if I go to Paris or the south of France or some nondescript little town in North Carolina, we’ve been taught again by consumerism to go on the channels and find out what we’re supposed to go look at. And then you ignore everything else and you go see the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye or what have you. And you’re like, okay, that was whatever. And, you know, you wait in line, it’s expensive. But if you just walk to it, you’re going to see 20 things that no one will ever blog about. One of them might be a frog. One of them might be the light coming through a window in a cool—like, the world is miraculous and gorgeous, and we only are able to fully consume that, in my opinion, at the pace of walking, and often walking slowly.
Nick Offerman: Early on in—because the Jeeps were later when I was hiking in Sedona.
Doug: Oh, right.
Nick Offerman: But early in Glacier, there was this guy screaming to his kids about these marmots, which, by the way, it’s a national park. It is not without placards telling you what the goddamn mammals are. And there’s a guy screaming at his kids. “You guys, there’s—there’s a badger!” He’s screaming to his kids, you know, in a pastoral, natural setting where people are enjoying, among other things, the quiet. And it’s just that idea of, like, you can be stopping, admiring some poppies on the roadside and get run over by someone flooring their Hummer to get to go see the next roadside attraction.
Aaron: Nick Offerman, thanks so much for joining us here at The War on Cars. We really appreciate it.
Nick Offerman: It was my pleasure. I’m a big fan, and slowly but surely, let’s get everybody on a bicycle.
Doug: Amen. We’ll put information about all things Nick Offerman in the show notes, including a link to our Bookshop.org page where you can support independent booksellers and purchase a copy of Nick Offerman book Where the Deer and the Antelope Play.
Sarah: Become a patron of The War on Cars. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist on Patreon today for just $3 per month. We’ll send you stickers, plus you’ll join such excellent company as our top Patreon supporters …
Aaron: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund. Thanks also to the sponsor of this episode, Cleverhood.
Doug: This episode was recorded by Felix Levine of Felix Levine Productions. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Doug Gordon.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear. And this is The War on Cars.
Nick Offerman: Here’s a PSA just in case any of you or your brothers gets within hearing distance of this audiobook. If you have tuned your car, truck or motorcycle to growl, roar or vroom in any way louder than is necessary, when you rev your engine and treat everyone within a quarter mile to the aggressive noise you have spent time and money to broadcast, you only sound incredibly sad. It’s indistinguishable from a baby screaming on an airplane or the subway, except the baby is not doing it on purpose. To further pollute the public airspace that we all share in that manner is to be a bad citizen. Please think about what you’re doing. It’s painful and violent. And I would ask you to consider working out your insecurities in some other way, like Dungeons and Dragons. Cedric, I’m obviously still talking to you.