Keeping the West wild

Former hustler Jarid Manos healed himself---and then the earth.

RISING FROM RUBBLE Manos writes of his personal and activist journey in a new memoir.

RISING FROM RUBBLE Manos writes of his personal and activist journey in a new memoir.

As a quiet kid of North African--Arab descent growing up in rural Ohio, Jarid Manos felt like an outcast—around his hunter father, who made him feel "not man enough"; among the kids who harassed him for being a "pretty boy"; and within himself, after his realization that he was gay made him suicidal by the age of 13.

What followed were years of tumult: living out of his car while drifting across the country before hustling and dealing drugs in New York City in the early '90s. But eventually he was drawn back out West, where he discovered such environmental devastation in the Great Plains that it distracted him from his own problems, turning him into a vegan and an activist. Ten years ago, Manos founded the Great Plains Restoration Council, which helps youth in crisis by inviting them to work to restore land that's been degraded by sport hunters and the cattle industry. He's written about his long journey in a new memoir, Ghetto Plainsman (Temba House), and will read from it when he hits town this week. We spoke to him from his home in Houston about the connection between healing the earth and healing ourselves.

What made you write this very revealing book?
I felt the need to share with people some of things I had seen that so many people are not aware of, like what was going on out West. But then as I started talking to people about it they would ask, "What is your context within the larger story? How did you, someone who was once very angry and destructive, come to care and get involved, and how did you change through that process?" I realized I, for better or worse, had been part of the American story. I think I write a very deep-exposure and experienced flesh-and-blood account of that. I'm really intrigued by the story of people on the land.

You were harassed as a kid. What advice would you give to youths in a similar position?
If there are ways that people can find a greater perspective, find a deeper, stronger core—because we're all stronger than we think we are—and find a pathway out of the situation that's choking you, that there are ways that you can connect to a life that's above that. The world has greater dimension than that tight little world that you might feel is everything. Just even making a first few steps of action—thinking of a tangible plan and taking practical steps of getting out of it—really is empowering. I do recovery, trauma and crisis work, and once people see that their own hands and mind can actually produce something, then that opens that doorway to possibility.

Looking back, how do you view the 12 on-and-off years you spent in New York?
At first it seemed chaotic, and I sought refuge in nature. But I went out to the fabled American West, and that's when I was really forced to confront a deeper American violence and desperation, which flipped the script, because then I would be retreating for refuge into the city.

What were some of the violent situations you found out there?
Basically the livestock industry attacking any of the remaining wildlife. Almost all of the landscape has been just shattered. There are prairie-dog-killing contests where they have these men who get their groups together to blow prairie dogs up for sport. The [livestock] industry uses cyanide guns, aerial gunning with high-powered rifles to kill off [animals].

How does the Great Plains Restoration Council even begin to tackle such big problems?
In the face of hatred and outright destruction, and the hopelessness and violence that continues punching us in the face, I'm going to be as healthy and vital and I can be, showing people that by our own hands and our own hearts we can move stuff forward. I start inward and work outward. We take care of body and earth as one, and by taking care of others, we take care of ourselves. So if somebody had an anger problem or was traumatized or burned as a child or something like that, we can go ahead and then look at a devastated landscape and its needs. Then you can translate each thing that [the person does for the land] into a social-work recovery process at the exact same time. And it has really worked. So many people are still at the point where they don't even have the slightest idea that they could create anything in their lives. And so allowing people to discover that opportunity of creating something gives them something tangible, and that's the first step toward a powerful recovery.
How did you come to settle down with a lesbian and be the father of a 12-year-old son?
We're friends who live together for her child. We had planned on having a child together, but it didn't happen that way. She had a child, and we are raising him together.

Are you in a relationship?
No, I've never really been in a relationship. But I'm blessed. I would love the opportunity for it, but I don't want to just go through the motions. It would be cool. It would be cool.

Jarid Manos reads from Ghetto Plainsman at Barnes and Noble at Broadway and 82nd St on Thu 18.