The Continental Divide is the ultimate wall. On a map, it looks like a long, bent seismograph, a trembling line tracing the peaks of mountains stretching from the Canadian arctic to the tip of South America. It marks how water flows across the land. On one side of the Divide, water descends and flows out to the west; on the other, it goes east.
The Continental Divide is an illusion. East and West, continents, these are human projections onto the land. It’s all one system according to Ben Weaver.
“It’s very real in that the water is going to different oceans on different sides, but the line itself is something that we just made up,” according to Ben Weaver, the bike-riding, banjo-playing bard of the North woods. He rode his bike from Canada to Mexico on the divide, playing shows in small towns. “The plants that live at the very top of the line, their roots extend down to either side, and the animals go back and forth all day long. The divide is just sort of arbitrary.”
Weaver, a wandering poet and musician, gave up a burgeoning career as an indie rocker, and has instead made it his mission in life and art to move people past these arbitrary divides. He wants to reconnect us to what he calls the “primary system,” the original layout of the world before politics and greed took hold, the perfect flow and reciprocity of nature. He believes the only way to save us from the climate crisis we created is to learn from the nature we’re on our way to destroying.
“Climate change is just a word,” he says. “The root of all of this is culture and stories and habits and patterns and systems.”
To change the culture, you need to work inside the culture, against the culture. To expand the conversation, Weaver works at the margins. He takes his heavy-duty mountain bike to the furthest reaches he can—a ride around Lake Superior, a trip down the length of the Mississippi, a trek down 3,000 miles of the Continental Divide—to spread his message, and he’s reached people in unlikely places all across the country, and the continent. He hopes that by showing up in towns no has ever heard of, offering his music and poetry, surrounded by nature, it’ll get us back to nature, reciprocity, humility. For him, the alternative, the status quo, isn’t acceptable. It’s what got us here.
Growing up in St. Paul, Weaver says he was born to share art and music, that ignoring music in his head “was not an option.” The other prevailing current was that he couldn’t stand mainstream culture: its waste, its materialism. He preferred the older system, the trees and the lakes. These two sides of him eventually came to a head when he decided to try and make a life in the music industry.
On one hand there was the wildness in him, which he believes is in everyone if they’re willing to look. When he was 17, he did a 50-day backpacking trip in the Brooks Range, in the far north of Alaska. The day after he got back, his mother woke up and found him missing.
“She went to the kitchen window and I was sleeping in the backyard with my sleeping bag, which I did for like a week I think. I just couldn’t really assimilate,” he says. “It’s not a romantic connection. It’s not this connection to a vista. It’s that there’s this whole other way of being, and this whole other system that has always made more sense to my body and my heart.”
Still, he had music inside him he needed to get out. The best way to reach the most people seemed like being a famous musician. He spent years touring across the world, slowly grinding out a following with thoughtful, poetic folk songs in his weary voice, a river-deep rumble halfway between talking and singing. In 2002, Mojo Magazine named him one of the top Americana artists, and it seemed like he was on his way to crossing over, but the whole enterprise imploded in an instant.
Around 2009, he was in New York City on tour. He walked out of a venue in Manhattan and saw a $180 parking ticket on his van. Driving back to his manager’s house in Brooklyn, he and his band hit every red light.
“I suffered for a long time, like many people do, who don’t fit but keep trying to fit, and keep trying to make it work,” he says. “I just had this moment of like, ‘I am just done. I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
He was sick of the beer, of living nocturnally, of spending his life in vans and venues instead of being outside in the sunlight. He all but ceased playing shows for two years.
But he couldn’t leave the art behind. The problem wasn’t the music; the problem was the industry, the touring, the lust for fame. So he went looking for a new path, one that avoided big cities, streetlights, billboards, and something that would take him to the wild places, where he could reconnect with the land, and help others do it, too. He got on his bike and hit the road.
A bike is a human invention, of course, but what Weaver discovered was its radical potential to get him, and his audience, back to something bigger than people. We build systems around us—cities, suburbs, social classes—and they reflect our shortcomings, our love of wealth and disdain for coexistence, but a bike is unbound by these human creations. Most anyone can ride a bike most anywhere. No roads, no gas necessary.
“The bike, it acts as this kind of fugitive,” he says, “The bike is so versatile and can go so many places.”
Winter snow humbles airports, cars, entire cities, but doesn’t stop a bike. Weaver doesn’t take snow days.
“I think the reason people don’t like the cold is because they don’t relate to it,” he says. “They have no relationship to it besides being told their whole life that it sucks, that it’s inconvenient."
Weaver’s whole project is anti-convenience. It’s about showing that taking the long way, the hard way, isn’t bad just because it’s different from the one-click world we live in. In fact, by slowing down, by taking the scenic route, he’s found new ways to cross divides and start political conversations.
As he started journeying further afield, he realized that a bike trek-cum-music-tour wasn’t just a liberating concept for him. He’d emerged from the woods, sweaty and dirty, with little more than his instruments and a story to tell, and people would come together.
“The nature of somebody showing up on their bike with their instruments playing a free concert with the intention of celebrating that community, those people felt so seen,” Weaver says. “Any time a person feels seen, then they are really open.”
This is the essence of Weaver’s message, that we live on common ground, get nourished by common ground, so we should meet each other there, too. As he wrote in one of his poems for a 2019 Climate Generation storytelling event, “we planted trees into the uncertainty and loss / transforming it into new systems of regeneration our wills became feral and regrew tails / as we unbound ourselves from hope / we reorganized the old rutted seams / that had been worn by a residual fear for the unknown.”
Once people got to talking after a show, around a campfire, he was amazed at the connections that were formed, even though more than likely they’d vote differently on election day.
“We basically heard the same thing over and over and over again. People believe that people are inherently good, and that people want to help each other. I went away scratching my head. It doesn’t make sense,” he says, given the common refrain that we’re more divided now than ever.
Still, despite numerous moments like these during his travels, he still worried human goodness might not be enough to save the land from all the accumulated human badness. To break through the fear and the grief, he plunged even deeper into what always guided him: deep human feeling, and deep non-human knowledge.
“Grief has such a bad wrap. That’s our cultural way of viewing grief, but grief and love are reciprocal,” he says. “When we don’t deal with the trauma or deal with the grief, then we’re still operating from a place of fear and harm.”
He began hosting climate grief storytelling workshops, where he’d invite a small group of people from different walks of life to sit outside and share their climate stories. He’d come with a formal lesson plan, but usually throw it out a few minutes later. The feelings that were unleashed just by giving people space to feel them guided the way and sparked new conversations.
“We’ve had pretty formal, agendas or lesson plans,” he says. “As soon as people are welcomed and understand, they can just feel it in the space that it’s safe, it’s almost like the lesson plan goes out the door. People are so hungry to connect with each other in a real way.”
And the land itself helped him work through these feelings.
“There have absolutely been times, not all that long ago, feeling really overwhelmed and negative and hopeless,” he says. “I’ve been able to back myself out and see that that way of feeling and thinking, that’s only possible if you’re assuming that this way of being is the only possible way. That’s why the ecosystem, the primary system is so important to me. A tree or a forest or a prairie, all those relationships among all of those plants and all of those animals, they don’t have any waste. They’re all reciprocal. They all work together. They’re full of so much knowledge and wisdom and information, and the diversity of all those members in that original ecosystem is so much more expansive, and larger in number and count than human, that is actually where I find some kind of joy.”
Now, after a decade or so wandering the outer reaches of the country, his next project is closer to home. It’s still in the early stages, but he’s found a new metaphor. There was once the Continental Divide, the fake line that divides us; now it’s the Edgelands, the places where human creations bump up against nature, the outskirts, the broken dams. He’s still working on exactly how to explore that story, whether it’s on a bike, in the city or in the country, or somewhere else entirely.
No matter where you see Ben Weaver next, just know that whether it’s in the Edgelands, the Divide, or some other place human’s put a box around and gave a name, we’re all on one rock, in one climate together. If we have this in common, maybe that means we can make some music together, then get to talking.