“Everybody loves redwoods trees. Trouble is half the people love ‘em vertical and the other half love ‘em horizontal”–Anonymous County Supervisor.
The redwood tree is the tallest living organism on the planet. Their massive trunks can grow over 20 feet in diameter, and seemingly individual trees are more like communes, growing in patterns to shield each other from strong winds and interweaving their roots beneath the soil in a network that sucks up water and communicates it to the thirstiest individuals in times of need. This capillary action pushes thousands of gallons of water every day to the topmost needles. As the trees mature and lose their tops, the crowns shoot off new trunks, called reiterations, which accumulate organic material from the canopy that breaks down into soil. Huckleberry bushes, bay laurel trees, tan oaks, sword ferns, lichens, and smaller redwoods have all been reported to grow in the massive branches of old-growth redwood, making a mature tree more like an aerial grove connected to the ground by a main trunk than like an individual organism. Salamanders are born, reproduce and die all in the canopy, without ever touching the ground. The trees’ preference for misty, cool climate will likely mean global temperature rise is going to affect them drastically, making them a unique barometer of the effects of climate change. Formal scientific research of the redwoods’ canopy system is still in its infancy, knowledge that will be lost forever if the practice of commercial logging extinguishes the remaining stands of old-growth trees.
Before 1850, the coast of Southern Oregon and Northern California was populated with over 2 million acres of redwood forest. Of that original acreage less than three percent remains today. The ancient ones were milled and chipped into high-end lumber, shingles, artwork, and other construction products valued for their beauty and workability. Most of the Bay Area’s redwoods were cut to build San Francisco, much of which burned up in the earthquake fires of 1906.
Humboldt County’s wild forests have been its main form of economic output for a century. The settlers from California’s gold rush were awed by the enormity of the trees and immediately set about building bigger and better saw mills to cut them down to size. The settler’s drive to conquer the wilderness was put to the test in Humboldt and Mendocino’s seemingly inexhaustible forest. In those times, words like “carrying capacity,” and “global climate change” did not factor into their plans for harvesting timber. Photographs show lumberjacks caressing the fallen redwood carcasses with toothy smiles as proud as new fathers.
The faces of Humboldt County’s tree sitters are lined with the memories of tree friends gobbled up in the maw of commercialism. Their hands are calloused from hauling fistfuls of rope in the sun and rain. Their steps are careful, calculated with the knowledge that gravity is a force of nature, which must be respected in order to be defied. The soft, shifting mist and ethereal shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy fill the crevices of their souls with deep joy. They have suffered tragedy and triumph, watched their human comrades tortured, arrested and even killed defending the forests they love. At night the trees echo ancient melodies in oceanic dreams, swaying sitters to sleep gently like a mother. Canopy wildlife flits, climbs and crawls, ever vigilant for an unexposed nut to secret away. On good days the tree-people who spend their lives suspended in the canopies of Humboldt’s ancient and residual redwoods forests shoot the shit with the timber workers, arguing the tension between the need for local jobs and living ecosystems with good humor. Other days it’s a frantic struggle to survive, trees falling on either side of them as professional climbers ascend the tree to hogtie them with ropes.
Tree sitting was first used as a defense tactic in New Zealand but it became popular during the mass movement civil disobedience days of direct action group Earth First! in the early ’90s. At first people climbed threatened trees just as one-off publicity stunts, but eventually they began to construct tree villages and conduct their lives aloft in the canopy with the help of rope, platforms and buckets. The political tactic of blockading began to merge with the deep spiritual fulfillment activists found in returning to the wild. Many people came into forest defense with the idea that they were going to save the trees, only to later understand that it was the trees who saved them. Most of the time, a tree-sitter is like a hospice worker caring for a loved one whose prognosis is unhopeful. They form a relationship with trees on the chopping block in order to remember their legacy and help the spirits of the forest transition into the next life with dignity. The love and attention does not always revive, but through the simple act of fighting against what we are told is inevitable, the cycle of hopelessness is broken. In this way, tree-sitters must aim for the best and prepare for the worst–it is the connection to the Earth that creates something alchemical, magical moments and events that have the power to change history.
Headwaters Forest was and is an 80,000-acre complex that contained 6 groves of old-growth forest equaling roughly 10,000 acres. The campaign to protect some of the largest known stands of old-growth redwood trees in existence mobilized thousands of unlikely participants, from traveling Deadheads, druids, environmental lawyers and local residents to journalists, labor organizers and timber employees, over the course of a decade-long struggle. In those years there were always fliers to distribute, midnight supply runs to make, logging trucks to blockade. At times there was such a flurry of activity that not even the main organizers were aware of all the actions taking place.
Ten years after the call went out to save Headwaters, the federal government paid Pacific Lumber’s CEO, Charlie Hurwitz, $480,000,000 for 7,500 acres, protecting two of the six old-growth groves in question. (A third grove was saved in a later campaign). The Texas-based logging giant had used public sympathy for the forest to increase its profit margin by a factor of ten. While the solution financially rewarded Hurwitz’s planet-raping ways, the 7,500 acre parcel six miles south of Eureka, CA stands as a testament to the ability of grassroots activists to galvanize the public locally and nationally in order to protect the majesty of the old growth forest for future generations.
Just like the fairy rings of smaller trees that grow around the stumps of the dead Ancient Ones, Earth First! resistance to commercial development of Humboldt’s temperate rainforest continues to pop up with tenacity. A proposed housing development outside of Eureka has sparked the construction of a tree village occupying one of several imperiled second growth groves. Green Diamond (California’s largest single owner of redwood forest, managing over 420,000 acres) owns an area known as the McKay tract which is an important habitat for spotted owls, coho salmon and black bears. Local residents hunt the rich soils for oyster mushrooms. Some say the soil and climate in the area is the worlds best for growing redwood trees. Green Diamond, the owner of the McKay tract, threatens to extinguish the intricate relationships between trees, streams and wild animals built up over the past century by clear cutting and intensive herbicide spraying. Erosion caused by clear cutting has been shown to cause massive mudslides that damage salmon spawning grounds with fallen debris and endanger the homes of those whose property borders the area. Clear cutting devastates the land and wipes out complex ecosystems, whereas selective logging practices could allow human use of these beautiful second-growth forests while preserving the area for future generations.
Earth First!ers are organizing in the area to find a balance between human need for land use and protections for the forests and streams that salmon require in order to continue their millennia-old cycles of spawning and rebirth. In times of severe ecological degradation and global climate change, the protestors call on Green Diamond to live up to their “environmentally friendly” image and end the practice of clear cutting.
Twelve years after the timber industry’s murder of David ‘Gypsy’ Chain, killed when a tree was cut so as to fall on him, tree-sitters continue to face violent harassment and reckless disregard for safety from timber company workers as well as law enforcement. Green Diamond employees recently severed, and then hastily retied, the support lines of a tree-sitter, allowing their platform to slide over 35 feet down the tree. This hostility towards nonviolent protestors endangers lives unnecessarily and will likely continue until the company changes its policies. Visitors with any level of climbing experience are always needed and welcome. To find updates on the McKay Tract Tree Village and other actions visit www.efhumboldt.org.
Earth First! chapters across the country seek to build a movement of self-motivated love warriors to use nonviolent direct action in defense of free and wild spaces. As the endgame of industrial capitalism accelerates the destruction of the natural world, we too must quicken and intensify our resistance to the incessant conversion of the living into the dead. While the band-aid of frontline opposition is essential to preserving what wild spaces we have left, we must also radically alter our relationship with the planet from a reductionistic, objectifying form to one that recognizes the regenerative powers of the Earth as the highest intelligence. At the best of times, our organizing efforts would protect lands outright, or defeat plans to cut before they make it off the drawing board. When our efforts fall short, the experiences our community shares in the struggle inspire new forms of resistance. If your heart is free, the ground you’re standing on is liberated territory–defend it!