JOHN C. “JACK” HOLDEN picks up the phone in the cabin he calls home, a former hippie commune in the remote wilds of a Native American reservation in Okanogan County in north-central Washington. Today’s interview is happening courtesy of his carbon monoxide detector, which went off the night before when a pipe came loose from the wood-burning stove that heats the completely off-the-grid home. If it hadn’t, he and wife Linda might not be around to talk about it.
“Stuff like this happens all the time. I may have to get up on the roof and clean the chimney again,” says Holden, who doesn’t let his 85 years stop him from much of anything.
The conversation is interrupted when the only neighbor within miles stops in. It’s a guy who has spent the past 15 years living in an astronomical observatory Holden built in the wilds behind the cabin. “He’s sort of a recluse like myself,” says Holden. “He’s a nice enough guy, and he doesn’t seem weird.”
Holden surely isn’t the only off-the-gridder attracted to remote parts of Washington. But most don’t have tenants in observatories, or their names on historically important scientific articles, or their art in textbooks.
“JACK WAS SOMEWHAT different from the rest of us. He thought differently,” recalls Bob Adams, today a retired California fire chief, who roamed the canyons of San Diego with Holden during their World War II-era childhood.
Adams’ young friend had a disdain for schoolwork, instead pouring his energies into filling a notebook with satirical cartoons. And when Holden played blackjack or Acey Deucey with a group of other pals, he would bring along a scrap of paper with the winning odds precalculated.
Though he wasn’t able to confirm it until after his mother’s death, Holden sensed he was something of an outsider in his own family. He was born in 1934 in Panama, but not to his “legal father,” Warren Holden, a chief petty officer in the Navy. His biological father turned out to be a guy named Bud, the neighborhood deliverer of dairy products back in San Diego.
“You’ve heard of the proverbial milkman. Well, I’m a living example of it,” says Holden.
In the 1940s, his parents let him wander for days on end, hunting rabbits with a pellet gun and eating cactus apples. “I was just a feral kid,” he recalls. School was a challenge. Deemed problematic, he was sent to schooling in a San Diego State University teacher’s training program, where he recalls lunching with an instructor “who was forever trying to understand what was wrong with us.” Later in life, he would self-diagnose as dyslexic and on the autistic spectrum.
In sixth grade, a breakthrough came when teachers let him do what he always did compulsively: draw art. “I would keep out of their hair, and they would keep out of mine,” he says. The sketches and cartoons would mature into a dense, surrealistic, satirical style he calls “psychodoodles.”
He got a high-school diploma at age 21 and, to his surprise, tested into San Diego State. By 1961, he was wrapping up a master’s degree in geology.
Shaking the world
IN THE EARLY 1960s, geology was in the midst of two scientific revolutions that turned formerly fringe ideas into official new ways of viewing the world. Plate tectonics is the notion that the Earth’s continents move around, banging into and sliding beneath each other, creating earthquakes, volcanoes and mountain ranges like the Cascades. Another violent eye-opener is the idea that the planet is pockmarked with impact craters from meteorites and comets.
Robert Dietz, a government geologist, was a key revolutionary who discovered evidence for both of those paradigm shifts.
Dietz enjoyed popularizing his discoveries through slide-show lectures. In 1961, when he was based at the U.S. Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego, a co-worker suggested he reach out to a local geology student who made cartoons.
“He immediately hired me on the spot,” says Holden. Assigned the task “to keep his listeners from falling asleep,” Holden pepped up the slides with such images as “little demons” driving the heat currents thought to propel continents on their journeys.
“When [Dietz] discovered an artist who was also a geologist, he probably thought he had hit the jackpot,” says Steve Koppes, a science writer who knew Dietz and is working on his biography.
Dietz promoted Holden to the work of illustrating his research papers — and gave him co-author credit, ensuring him a place in the history of plate tectonics. Dietz, in a 1994 memoir, recalled Holden as “a fine scientist with unique graphic and cartooning ability.”
For more than a decade, Holden worked with Dietz at postings in Miami and Washington, D.C., illustrating about a dozen papers, all while finishing his master’s degree and starting doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “I fell into an intellectual atmosphere that I just loved. … He was the mega-thinker, and I was his assistant,” Holden says.
With plate tectonics, Holden found himself participating on the front lines of a scientific battle. “When you’re in the middle of it when it’s happening, you don’t see the big picture,” he says. “All you recognize is the fight between the old school and the new school.”
By the early 1970s, Holden saw another form of artistic success, selling posters of some of his “psychodoodles.” Holden says he completed most of his Ph.D. work — including a dissertation — but couldn’t crack a requirement to read technical German, possibly due to his dyslexia. And in 1973, budget cuts eliminated his job with Dietz.
Maybe there were always limits to Holden working in government. Back in 1965, when he was working in D.C., he suffered panic attacks. “My body was telling me to get out of Washington, D.C.,” he says. “It wasn’t the people. It’s the terrain, the vegetation, the lack of mountains. … You can’t walk out the door and go into a canyon or woods and be by yourself and explore nature.”
The wild West was calling Holden home.
Outsider art, maverick science
“I MORE OR LESS reconciled myself to being a dropout,” says Holden. He didn’t want to teach or work for the government or a mining corporation. “I decided to try to make it on my own.”
In 1973, he bought a house in Kirkland with his brother Bob, who happened to be working on a ship in Puget Sound. It lasted only a couple of years; even the Seattle suburbs of the ’70s were too urban for Holden.
He headed 100 miles over the mountains to the Methow River Valley and tiny Winthrop, whose claim to fame is a main drag built to look like an Old West town. With his aging mother as a companion, he moved onto a wooded parcel and, over the next 15 years, settled into a life of productive weirdness.
He used his artistic talent and penchant for nerd jokes to launch Softwear Unlimited, a pioneering science-humor T-shirt company. Sample shirt: Einstein dressed as a traffic cop, saying, “186,000 miles per second is not only a good idea. It’s the law.” When it grew successful, Holden promptly sold it; “It became a job,” he says with disdain.
He contributed satirical research papers to the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a kind of Mad magazine for scientists. One imagined the Loch Ness Monster with “Scotch plaid dorsal markings” and a belly sagging “due to lack of open marine exercise.” As acceptance of plate tectonics progressed in the late 1970s, Holden started his own satirical organization, the International Stop Continental Drift Society. Members included the geology department at Leiden University in the Netherlands, which jokingly installed a bolt in its yard to “stop” the Eurasian plate.
Despite the parodic intent, the society’s journal became a refuge for old-school scientists who really did believe plate tectonics was wrong. Holden dedicated a section to their serious papers on the subject. “To me, it’s sort of humorous, but it’s also sad,” Holden says of the anti-drifters who found themselves on the wrong side of the revolution.
Through the 1970s and into the ’80s, he marketed globes with movable continents, items he originally created for Dietz to illustrate the drift concept. Dietz returned to Holden’s orbit in person in 1987, collaborating on a scathing anti-religion book called “Creation/Evolution Satiricon: Creationism Bashed,” published through a vanity press Holden operated to sell a tourism guide.
Back in Seattle in 1973, Holden had begun his longest artistic collaboration, one that thrived in the Winthrop years and continued more than three decades. William Corliss, a Baltimore physicist, was a fellow dropout from institutional science. Corliss combed old science journals for unusual and unexplained reports, compiling them into a multivolume “Catalog of Anomalies.” The books were well-reviewed in such journals as “Science” and drew fans including Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer of “2001” fame. The illustrations were courtesy of Holden.
“I appreciated him being a maverick like that,” Holden says. He still treasures the favorite anomaly he learned of from Corliss: mima mounds, unexplained patterns of humps that dot the U.S. landscape, including at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve outside Olympia. “No one knows what they are. … I like that,” Holden says. “The more we learn, the more we don’t know.”
In all those years, Holden lived up to his loner philosophy. “I didn’t want to be sucked into a system where you have a demanding wife and a bunch of kids” and ultimately are “forced into a job you don’t like,” he says. But things changed in 1989, when Holden’s mother entered a nursing home. There, he met Linda, the home’s family relations manager. They soon coupled and are now married.
“It was his brain I fell in love with,” says Linda, 73. “I thought that he was a genius. … I think Berkeley ought to give him an honorary Ph.D.”
Not long after they met, Linda got a job in Omak, about 40 miles northwest of the Grand Coulee Dam. Winthrop was getting too busy for Jack, anyway. The highway had been expanded, and now the Valley was growing popular with “yuppies in Seattle. They like to wheel and deal and sell property and have their little institutes.”
Life off the grid
NORMAN SPERLING, the publisher of the Journal of Irreproducible Results, sought out Holden as the “most memorable” of the characters who wrote for him.
“He let me visit. That’s a trip itself,” Sperling recalled of the 2005 meeting. “He lives off the grid. Along the road to his place, you can see where the power poles end. That means, ‘Keep going.’ ”
In 1990, Jack convinced Linda to join him in a lifestyle for which she says reading “Little House on the Prairie” as a kid helped her prepare. They live on a 75-acre tract within the Colville Indian Reservation, roamed by bears and mountain lions and threatened occasionally by wildfires. The octagonal cabin’s wood heat, solar power and well water have been supplemented by a gas generator in recent years as a concession to Linda’s TV-watching; a fully plumbed indoor bathroom was another innovation.
Holden maintains collections of rocks, animal skulls, guns and house cats (seven at last count). Every day for more than 28 years, he has recorded the weather and other events on paper scrolls, trailing more than 82 feet long and counting, lavishly hand-illustrated like medieval manuscripts.
He formed yet another tongue-in-cheek group, called the Friends of the Okanogan Lobe — or FOOLs — that consisted of retirees who explored the area’s glacial geology. He’s got a bigger family — Linda’s children from a previous marriage — and proudly features them on handmade holiday cards.
Holden remains engaged in scientific controversies. A favorite is global warming, where Holden initially was a supporter of human causes but now is a skeptic. His displeasure is rooted in the appeal to academic consensus, which rankles his anti-establishment sensibility of radical doubt. “You don’t do that in science,” he says. “The politicians don’t care about the scientific method. They don’t like skepticism. They want people to believe things. It’s really a messy, dirty, slimy way to live, as far as I’m concerned.”
Linda, who watches MSNBC while Jack wears shooting headphones, says his global-warming opinion might be different from another perspective. “He’s not young. He doesn’t have young children,” she says. “I would like to see him in conversation with someone that would challenge him — ‘What about this? What about that?’ ”
In 2018, academic fans of the International Stop Continental Drift Society in the Netherlands celebrated the 40th anniversary of the plate-securing screw prank. They flew Jack and Linda there and invited him to give a lecture. He chose another pet controversy — his belief that the spin of the planet, rather than the officially accepted heat currents, could be what causes the plates to drift.
“I don’t like the idea of accepting things just because they’re fashionable … This is what you do in science, is question everything,” he says. “I don’t believe, capital-B believe, in anything. You might be a figment of my imagination.”
Behind Holden’s intellectual fencing, the dry humor, the individual operating outside institutions, the love of nature and people, is something simpler that he found out in the wild.
“That’s what life is all about, as far as I’m concerned, is having fun.”