In an April 22 Style article on the Earth First! protests against logging in Northern California, the name of one of the trees occupied by protesters should have been identified as Aradia, not Iridia. The article also incorrectly described the person who gave protester Jason Wilson his forest name of Shunka. It was an elder Lakota woman. Also, a restaurant was misidentified. It is the Cutten Inn Restaurant, not the Cotton Cafe. (Published 4/26/03)
It's not like you just telephone the Earth First! offices and say: Take me to your leader. Doesn't work like that. Messages are left for activists who insist they be known only by their "forest names." For Remedy or Wren. For Lodgepole or Shunka. Radical environmentalists and their affinity groups don't work in cubicles. They couch-surf. When they're not living in trees.
It is Shunka who leaves his pager number. The meet is set: parking lot at the organic food co-op in Arcata, the trippy little college town in the far north California woods a six-hour drive from San Francisco.
And here comes a junker compact now, filled with tie-dye and fleece. A rear side window rolls down and a bearded face appears. Shunka looks like an extra from the set of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Frodo's hairier cousin, and he shouts out: "You the dude from The Washington Post?" and we are. "Right on. Get in your car and follow us, man, because it's going down."
And away we go. The sheriff's deputies are raiding the tree-sits.
Up in the hills, the skinny kids are rolling video-cams and speaking into walkie-talkies and swinging around the trees like squirrel monkeys, and the beefy cops are leading their handcuffed charges away. The woods are filled with war whoops, chain saws buzzing and shrieks ("Agggg, they're torturing me!") and taunts ("What happens when we all have to live in a giant plastic bubble?").
This is the front line behind the Redwood Curtain: Humboldt County, famous for Green Party-majority city councils and third-generation lumberjacks, chewy buds of homegrown marijuana and big hoary redwoods. Trees so fat that one trunk can fill the bed of a logging truck, enough timber to build a thousand hot tubs, a single tree worth $30,000 or $40,000 or more.
In its broadest strokes, what's happening here is straightforward. Pacific Lumber Co., now a wholly owned subsidiary of Charles Hurwitz's Houston-based Maxxam Corp., is harvesting redwoods, including some ancient trees. Its public relations officers point out that Palco is certified as a "sustainable" timber company, vital for the regional economy, removing a renewable resource of high-quality wood products desired by the home-building industries from Palco's own private 200,000 acres. The company says it has set aside or sold to the state and federal governments most of its oldest groves of trees.
The Earth First! take is less charitable: that Maxxam and junk-bond timber baron Hurwitz took a local and respected company and turned it into a cash cow, accelerating the logging, clear-cutting hills too steep, fouling streams, choking salmon and massacring ancient redwoods. They want the clear-cuts stopped, the oldest trees saved in new reserves or on company lands.
The protesters are not alone. In February, Humbolt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos filed civil suit against Palco, charging unfair and fraudulent business practices in obtaining government approval to cut down 100,000 trees on unstable slopes. The DA is seeking injunctive relief and millions in penalties. The company is denying the charges.
In the past few months, as Palco began harvesting in new sections, the woods here have been filling with more protesters willing to live in trees. It is now perhaps the nation's largest direct-action environmental confrontation between polar opposites -- and the unrest is only likely to get bigger when summer comes and college students are free to bolster the ranks.
The protests possess all the angry intensity of standoffs at World Trade Organization or International Monetary Fund meetings in Seattle and Washington, with the added drama that these Earth Firsters are not lying down in an intersection, pretending to be dead, but chaining their arms together in metal sleeves called lockboxes to branches hundreds of feet in the air. One slip, one shove, means somebody could be dead.
At last count, about 30 trees were occupied by sitters trespassing on the Palco lands in Humboldt County. In the late 1990s, when the first sits began, there were one or two, the most famous of which was the two-year occupation of the tree called Luna by Julia "Butterfly" Hill, named by Good Housekeeping magazine as one of the most admired women of 1998.
The skills of modern rock-climbing have been grafted to these protests to hoist aloft -- to heights equal to 13-story buildings -- plywood sleeping platforms suspended by ropes and carabiners. To cut down the tree, the company must send its own climbers up to remove the protesters. But this is not easy. And as soon as the platforms and sitters are removed from a tree, other activists scurry back up at night.
Some sitters perch for weeks, others go months. Jen Card, a 28-year-old bookseller from Oregon who went by the forest name Remedy, just did 361 days before her arrest. She was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. Card is free on bond (she wants to write a book about her experience); none of the activists has served any substantial jail time.
"Their presence is effective in slowing down the process," said Palco spokesman Jim Branham. "We're a convenient target. It's clear their objective is to shut our company and the timber industry down." Branham said the fight is not about the environment. "It's a political and social battle," he says.
"We put the rad in radical," one activist tells a reporter. And indeed, this is far removed from the 2003 Sierra Club calendar. The Earth Firsters say they maintain a strict code of nonviolence. But to an onlooker, it all appears to be incredibly dangerous. For everybody. Which is the point.
Out on a Limb
Just outside the little town of Freshwater, a 15-minute drive from Arcata, the "Men Working" signs appear along the roadside in the ferny forest. Then you see the clear-cut, a hillside of raw red earth and splintered stumps, then the Palco subcontractors' white-and-green pickup trucks, then Humboldt County sheriff deputies' four-wheelers, and finally the activists' "lower village," where the first eight tree-sits are set up.
They are way up there.
A photograph or video does not do it justice. The sitters are more than a hundred feet in the air, some standing on the very top of the redwood crowns. They're 20 miles from the ocean, but on a clear day they say they can see the wave sets breaking. You need binoculars to watch them.
You can see blue plastic tarps and hanging milk jugs filled with water and wet sleeping bags, and between the trees the sitters have strung rope traverses that allow them to move from platform to platform, like modern-day Tarzan and Jane.
And they can see you, too. One sitter, whose forest name is Synapse and who's in the tree they call Aurora, shouts down that the "mainstream media" has arrived and "don't talk to him, he's just out to make a buck."
Still, the couple dozen or so "ground crew" mostly welcome "the corporate media tool," as one barefoot activist puts it, to their communal gorp and berries. At least nobody makes the media tool for a "feddy-dready," Earth Firster slang for an undercover agent.
A sitter named Tree occupies a redwood called Poseidon. Tree has slung a rope with a weight around the limb of a neighboring redwood, then looped his end around his neck so that if lumberjacks cut the other redwood down, the young man will strangle -- or worse.
"His head would pop off," says a moon-faced woman with starter dreads.
Eric Schatz, a Palco contractor the Earth Firsters call Climber Eric, puts spikes on his boots and begins to scale the redwood with confidence and speed. All around -- so close you have to wait to continue a conversation -- are the sounds of chain saws working through the clear-cut below.
The lumberjacks and the protesters seem sometimes like long-lost siblings. Like Palestinians and Israelis. They both seemingly love these lands, and are in touch with the feel of duff and moss beneath their feet, the smell and taste of rain, the pure physicality required to hump up and down these trailless hills. The lumberjacks crack open a tin of Copenhagen and have a spit. The activists roll their own cigarettes and have a smoke. The lumberjacks wear old sweat shirts and wool pants and worn boots. So do the Earth Firsters.
They know each other's forest names and faces. And they share a bond of common danger. When Climber Eric heads up a tree to pull down a protester, the Earth Firsters say he often coos to them; that up there in the treetops, they're in this together: "One bad move. Somebody falls. Let's work together." The two sides, timber harvesters and activists, even sat down together to formulate loose rules of nonviolent engagement under the rubric of the Forest Peace Alliance -- rules both sides say are routinely crossed.
As Climber Eric ascends, the protesters are close enough to talk to him.
"You're doing the Devil's work, Eric."
"You're not a quality dude, Eric. This isn't quality."
"This isn't safe, man."
"Think about your karma!"
"We love you, Climber Eric. Don't hurt our friend."
A lanky activist named Four Winds keeps heckling. "Quit your job, Eric! Leave the forest. We'll have the biggest party of your life down on the beach. We'll eat tofu! You'll eat salmon! Kick up your feet and roll up a fatty and ask yourself: Should I quit my job and become a hippie?"
Eric dislodges the rope thrown by Tree and descends. The protesters keep at him. Finally, Eric answers. "It's okay to terrorize my family?" he asks. The hecklers say they didn't terrorize his family. "Part of your community did," Eric says. A few weeks ago, the Earth Firsters and their allies showed up, first at Eric's house to protest, and later at his insurance agent's offices to get his policy revoked. Eric says they terrorized his family. The climber shouts back at the protesters: "That shows me the quality of you people -- you don't care about my wife and kids."
A Palco subcontractor, whom the Earth Firsters call Faller Dave, cranks up his chain saw and rips into the tree. Two, three expert cuts. A crack. A whoosh. Then a ground-rolling ka-thump, a bounce, and it's down.
What about the tree? What about the tree? the protesters are now shouting.
Faller Dave counts the rings. The tree was 101 years old -- not anywhere near the old-growth redwoods towering nearby, trees that might be 500 or 1,000 years old, slated for the saw but occupied by sitters.
"The tree did good," Dave says. It fell right where he aimed it.
Into the Green
"You cool with trespassing?"
Shunka agrees to take a reporter out to a remote tree-sit where Palco is slated to begin another harvest, the place Shunka calls Gypsy Mountain, near Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park.
Along with Shunka are his "brothers" Four Winds and Eddie. The young trio are as bonded as a platoon; they've been doing this together since the late 1990s. They've filled backpacks with supplies bought with donations -- dried bananas, coconut flakes, fresh bread -- and are moving up the steep mountain like billy goats. The hike takes an hour and leaves the group dripping in sweat. There is mountain lion scat on the trail. A pair of vultures circle.
It is a beautiful forest, steep and carpeted by redwoods and Douglas fir. There are a few enormous virgins, but lots of second growth, too. And plenty of old stumps. These forests of Humboldt County have been logged for more than a century; the redwoods built San Francisco.
In the silence, it feels like what people always compare this landscape to: a cathedral of green gemstone light. This is where hot tubs and backyard decks come from. This is watching the sausage get made.
Here and there are strands of yellow plastic and red tape marked "Botany."
"Ologists," Shunka says. You know, he explains, zoologists, ecologists, silviculturists.
"It's just a sham," says Four Winds. "They pretend they're doing something and they just leave a lot of petroleum products hanging in the trees." The activists support the science that supports their cause; anything produced by Palco is perceived to be junk. To talk about "sustainable harvest plans" and "habitat conservation plans" is bunk, Shunka says.
The three are vague about who they are, using only their forest names. Local law enforcement knows them; they've all been arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest. A few details do emerge.
Shunka (Jason Wilson) is 28, a stout fellow with a reddish beard that grows down his neck; his forest name was given to him by a Lakota Indian medicine man. He wears amulets. He was raised in Missouri, educated in philosophy and environmental studies. Out of college, Shunka worked as a landscaper and at a bagel bakery. His co-workers didn't like him because he kept talking about the "bourgeoisie."
They stop to take a break. They point out trees with names. Four Winds finds a salamander and pats its head. It starts to rain.
At a tree called Iridia, a sitter named Terrapin eagerly lowers a rope for his supplies.
He calls down, "You got somebody to sit?" Terrapin has been in the branches for three weeks and asks when will a replacement arrive. He hasn't seen any loggers. Recently, he reports, it snowed, and another day there was hail. "It was so beautiful," Terrapin says. He can watch the Van Duzen River course the valley below.
Four Winds mentions that the river was probably named "for some general who killed Indians," but it was actually named for James Van Duzen, a member of the Gregg party that explored these forests in 1850.
Terrapin shouts, "You remember the rolling papers?" Of course. The supplies go up the tree.
Shunka wants to visit the nearby site where his friend David "Gypsy" Chain was killed on Sept. 17, 1998, when a Palco contractor dropped a tree on him. Back then, one of the direct-action strategies was to run around the woods acting as "human shields." No charges were ever filed, though Palco reached an undisclosed settlement with Chain's family. Shunka was there that day. Chain was the one who taught Shunka to climb the redwoods.
Palco agreed to leave the downed tree in the woods as a memorial. There is a makeshift altar: shells, stones, crystals, a necklace, a plastic Buddha, a kazoo, a Bic lighter and half a joint. The men get on their knees.
Four Winds pulls a bag from his pocket and scatters sawdust from the tree felled earlier this day. Shunka places cedar bark, and says, "From the doorway in to the doorway out and back out again."
Four Winds (Alexander Carpenter) hails from San Francisco, and he's 26, with partial dreads, chipped teeth. He divides his time between Earth First! direct actions and his music. He is funny and a hustler. He is also, he confides, a priest, a healer, an adherent to a homegrown animist tradition that combines Native American ritual and worship of nature. Several times this day he has stopped and led a moment of prayer.
Now he produces a rattle and the three men began to chant, in a mix of English and a pidgin of Indian languages. When Shunka leads a song, a refrain in English repeats: "We want to live." Shunka's throat becomes rough. Four Winds begins to cry. Eddie has his eyes shut tight. They mourn their friend.
On the way down the mountain, Eddie confesses to Shunka and Four Winds that he is no longer sure what he is doing here in the woods. Eddie is 24 and seems to live with his mother in San Francisco and likes to play drums.
"How many trees are we really saving?" he asks. His friends hear him out. It is not a bad question. Four Winds says: "What's important is that we all stay together."
Hiking back to the car, they begin to dream of a possible future: that they form a band, called FLAN (for Freedom, Love and Nature), and that Eddie plays drums, Shunka sings and Four Winds plays guitar and didgeridoo. They'll set up a recording studio in a group activist house. They'll get supporters to send them $10 a month to make music and fight for the trees. They'll get a bio-diesel bus. They'll tour. They'll cut . . . a CD.
Huckleberry Finn didn't want to be civilized by Aunt Sally either.
A Long Way Down
Next morning, we go back to Freshwater. Climber Eric is attempting to use a grinder to cut a sitter named Jungle out of his metal lockbox, while another protester named Phoenix is serving as a diversion. They're all up in a tree they call Allah. Phoenix screams that he is being hurt by Palco climbers attempting to pin him down. The protesters by turns are thrilled by the alleged aggression ("the video is unreal") and appalled.
Eddie is gone. He jumped out of the car yesterday and talked about hitchhiking back to San Francisco. Four Winds scurries 50 feet up a redwood, without ropes, and starts heckling Climber Eric.
"How was your breakfast at the Cotton Cafe? How was your sausage? We know where you order at. We work where you eat!" The threat is obvious, that Climber Eric might have his eggs spit in or . . . what? Poisoned?
"Not everyone has a nonviolent code like we do!" Four Winds is yelling.
Another protester is spewing profanities at the top of his lungs.
Where are the sheriff's deputies? The protesters are upset they have not come, and they keep calling 911 on cell phones.
When the deputies do arrive, they are heckled, too. One deputy hears the complaints that Phoenix is being assaulted, but when she asks to see their videotape, the activists say they'll get one to her later.
A couple of deputies stand around a pickup and light cigars. Shunka goes over and calls them goons, fascist thugs and neo-Nazis.
Another protester, a college-age woman, says, "Did I ever tell you I had a dream about being a bird?" It feels like the children's crusade. Another activist offers the officers a hug. They decline.