In the summer of 2000, I decided to join a tree-sitting campaign in the Willamette National Forest. I recently dug up an article for the college paper which I wrote about it.
There’s something about climbing one hundred and fifty feet that makes you question everything you ever believed in. Why am I in the forest, I found myself wondering. And why am I in Oregon, for that matter? And why the hell am I making my way up this tree?
It’s hard to explain how tall 150 feet is, except to say that when you’re climbing up, you never know how far ‘up’ you have to go, or whether you’re halfway…and when you are looking down and see someone climbing or descending, you don’t know how far up or down they are, either.
I was in Fall Creek, located in the Willamette National Forest, about 45 miles outside of Eugene. 96 acres of ancient (500 to 700 year old) trees were scheduled to be cut by the Clark Timber Sale. Treesitters and supporters on the ground, collectively known as Red Cloud Thunder, have occupied the canopy of this beautiful stand of trees since April of 1998. They have, literally, put their bodies between the machines of destruction and the remainder of the wild.
The tree I was climbing, Grandma, was connected to another Douglas Fir named Yggdrassil. After running through numerous safety checks–checking the rope, knots, anchor, belt buckled back, caribiners, as well as the number and quality of devices (Ed Note: We called this the ABCs: Anchor, Belt, Caribeners, Devices. EFG was Ewoks Fucking Go!) climbing consists of holding the ascent line and standing while sliding the upper prusick up, sitting down and allowing the prusick to take all your weight, raising the lower prusick a comfortable step-up distance, and repeating those motions. I tried to get in a rhythmn while I climbed…stand, sit, loosen, stand, sit, loosen. My friends cheered me on as I made my way up, with the harness pressing against my leg and the rope cutting away at my fingers. After what seemed like forever (probably 45 minutes to an hour) I could see the wooden platform, the blue tarp, and some of the kids I had met on the forest floor weeks before. They promised me food and herbs to play with as soon as I got up, and I finally did. (ED Note: By herbs, I mean herbal medicines–like echinachea and calendula. As far as I know, there were no illegal drugs in the tree village.)
IN THE TREE
Grandma’s platform squeaked when I walked on it, and consisted of a variety of ropes, a cargo bag, a k-line (cargo line) we used to get supplies up to the tree and send down our compost, and not much else. Next to it was another creeky wooden platform whichhad a tiny stove in the ‘kitchen,’ some mats on it that served as beds, some radios and a little book shelf. The other wooden platform included some storage buckets for food, and what served as a bathroom (some jugs and buckets).
It took me a while to get used to walking around in such a confined space, and I was surprised by everyone’s nonchalance. Nobody had their safeties on. In fact, there weren’t even enough safeties to go around. The safeties were these lobster claws that you could attach to your harness and to the rope that held up the treesit. Nobody even had their harnesses on.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be up in a tree. I was in kind of a daze the whole time. I wasn’t sure whether it was the atmosphere, or the lack of movement, but I was pretty out of it. There were people on the ground, but I had to yell to be heard by them. It got to the point where I had nothing to say to them quite quickly.
I shared the platform with several other people; George, Thorn and sometimes Bird. Because of our close quarters, I had nothing to say to them, either. George would draw in her sketchbook and light a candle every night. Thorn would rinse out his numerous piercings in cold saltwater every day, something I didn’t quite want to watch but had to. Whenever he noticed that the wooden platform felt unsafe to me, he would say something about how the whole structure could crumble at any moment. Later I was informed that the tree had termites. The climbing ropes, too, did not seem quite safe to me. People would pick up caribiners and 8s in the “damaged” section and stick them with the good gear. Since not everybody even bothered to use their safeties every time, this made me rather nervous.
The various tree-sits were connected by traverse lines, or small ropes you could pulley or walk across. Although I trusted the traversing equipment, I knew I would freak out if I slipped and hung off of the rope, 150 feet in the air. When I accidentally dropped the climbing line instead of sending it down, I apologized profusely. (ED NOTE: According to my climbing instructors from the Ruckus Society, this could create micro-tears in the rope and create wear and tear, which could become a safety hazard over time.) Other tree-sitters told me not to worry, they’d all dropped the line, too. Oh great! We’d all dropped it! I remembered the song I had been taught by Pan… “Up, up, up in a tree called Happy/Down, down, down where the roots are sappy/Hung, hung, hung with rope that is CRAPPY!/in a tree called Happy.” I didn’t traverse.
The first two nights I slept up in Yggdrassil, I remember being awoken by critters. There were a lot of flying squirrels, and we talked Patrick out of throwing them off of the tree. (“But I wanted to see them fly,” he explained.”) Although I really liked the flying squirrels crawling up my back when I ate dinner, I resented being awoken by their chattering in the middle of the night. We had a little brainstorming session to figure out what to do about them. George said she didn’t mind sharing her food with the squirrels and other animals, because they were scraping by just like her. Bird decided the best thing to do would be to leave food out for them. Thorn said we should just turn the dishes over. “Why don’t you just wash the dishes?” I wondered aloud. “You don’t have to go that far,” Thorn replied.
I wish I could write more about actually living in the tree. It was absolutely beautiful, despite all complaints. I could see the moon so brightly… and there’s just a perspective from up that high I couldn’t get elsewhere. It made me appreciative of how big these ancient trees actually were. But other than the beauty, it was actually quite boring. The atmosphere made it difficult to breathe at times; I’d wake up with a runny nose. Other trees asked for food and tobacco. People gook long to cook, to pass away the time. We slept a lot. Sometimes we’d talk to the farther away tree-sitters over our cool CB radios. The main topics of conversation were descending, cookies, cigarettes, dried fruit, juice and chocolate.
Since I was there during the DNC, a lot of sitters had left to protest in L.A. It was hard to find replacement tree-sitters, so we’d hear a lot of people complain about wanting to go on ground, but they wouldn’t be able to because we had to keep the sits covered. I wrote on some sheet of paper with the pen we were sharing, “Aside from the ongoing uneventfulness here, the fact that I’m sick, my newfound self-righteousness about my decision not to traverse here (and nervousness about descending), the fact that many of the kids here seem to be more into partying, fucking around and living in the woods than in a direct action campaign, their obsession with tobacco, their elitism, the pressure to be here instead of town (“Babylon”), constantly watching people spit and smoke and clean their piercing and knowing when everyone’s using the bathroom, having to piss in a jug and shit in a bucket, the lack of hygiene, the negativity and the drama, things are actually going great.”
Ground wasn’t much more eventful than sitting in a tree. Don’t get me wrong, there were many more things to do. Ground support was responsible for distributing food and supplies to the trees, hauling water from the spring (or filtering creek water), fixing up trails, collecting firewood, keeping the camp clean, emptying piss jugs and compost buckets from the trees, and investigating noises (vehicles, etc.) for security reasons, as well as greeting visitors when they arrive. There were also road blockade efforts and numerous trails to explore. But most people on ground just sat around all day and waited for food to come. We’d gather firewood, start a fire and throw in donated vegetables. Then everyone would eat from the same pot, and whoever didn’t feel like getting in quicker often didn’t get to eat. When I was back in what Fall Creek kids referred to as “Babylon” (Eugene), I ran into John Zerzan (author of Elements of Refusal and a prominent anarcho-primitivist theorist with a huge following) and asked him if “primitivism” entailed fighting with others over food. “Of course not,” he said. But I had to wonder.
I had to wonder about a lot of things at Fall Creek. I wondered if I was really an anarchist, since I believed in natural laws. Like, if they cut down the trees, the water and air quality will suffer and the trees will be gone. Isn’t that a law? So maybe I was against man-made laws, or could see the inherent corruption in them. But I certainly believe in consensus-based decision-making, also known as the rules. I’d look around Fall Creek, and I’d see Comfrey, a tree which had burn marks on it because Animal had forgotten to turn his rocket stove off. (He said it was because of sunlight hitting glass, but I was a bit skeptical.) I’d see areas in this beautiful forest where the soil was hard and compacted, where there was no duff (fallen tree matter and dead plants) or firewood, and firerings that had no stones to protect tree roots from root fires. These are examples of places that had been abused by us. I’d see trash all over the place. I’d see improperly dug shitholes and people collecting moss from trees instead of off the ground. I’d see people stripping one area of all its dead wood, which is vital to the ecosystem. And I’d see people sitting around when there was water to be hauled and food to be distributed, waiting for someone else to do it. I had heard that Fall Creek was the “ghetto” treesit campaign, but I hadn’t expected this.
I was equally surprised by the lack of hygiene at Fall Creek. Dishes were rarely done; for the most part people just waited for the food to dry and peeled the crust off. There were no handwashing stations, and people told me I was “too clean” because I washed my hands and even (gasp!) used rubbing alcohol when necessary. Several people made fun of a man named Dirt for brushing his teeth. They were all about building their immune systems, and would often drink unfiltered creek water to see if they would get sick. It was insane.
It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to me when I got sick in the tree, but I did. “I don’t get sick,” I kept thinking, realizing that the last time I had been to a doctor for something other than stitches or a routine check-up was before I came to Shimer. I played with various herbs I had donated to the campaign, but none of them seemed to work. Finally, I descended 150 feet in the dark.
Descending actually isn’t as scary as you’d think. It’s actually pretty easy. You have a metal figure-8 device that you thread rope through, which slows you down considerably. There is a prusack knot which is a safety, so you let go if necessary and it tightens. While descending, I held the prusack knot loosely with my left hand and had my right hand under my butt. It was my brakes, and I could hold really tightly to stop and more loosely to go faster.
I was dizzy from the moment I descended. I had accidentally let go right when I hit the ground, so my prusack knot had tightened and I was stuck. I tried to tie the rope around my leg to gain enough leverage to loosen the knot, but didn’t have enough rope. “IS THERE ANYONE ELSE ON GROUND??” I screamed in a panic. Finally, somebody came over to help me tie the rope around my foot. I’m not sure exactly what he did, but he attached the end of some rope to one of the caribeners in my harness, and somehow that eventually did the trick. I ran around and fell over and spent the next two hours complaining about the inadequacies of the campaign: namely, safety and cleanliness. Then I slept on the forest floor.
The next day, I still wasn’t feeling better, so I hiked five miles with a heavy pack into the edge of the road and stuck my thumb out. Eventually, I got a ride into town and got to the free clinic to get medicine. I guess you can get strep throat in the summer. (Ed. note: What I failed to include was that my drive back into town with two treesitters included getting picked up by some guy drinking beer out of a McDonald’s cup…but that’s a different story for a different day.)
WHY WE WERE THERE
Maybe I should explain why we were squatting in the forest. We didn’t want Fall Creek to get logged. It is a beautiful, unique low elevation old growth forest which has Douglas Fir trees that reach heights higher than 250 feet and are 500-600 years old. There are also Western Hemlock trees estimated to be 300 to 500 years old.
Zip-O Sawmills wants to cut these trees anyway Zip-O Sawmills is one of Eugene’s few remaining all old growth sawmills. While most sawmills have retooled their mills for efficient use of second growth trees, Zip-O continues to use outdated and wasteful methods of public-lands based old growth lumber production. In the early 1990s, Zip-O Sawmills was shut down due to environmental litigation, which caused a decline in the availability of old-growth logs. In 1995, however, the Salvage Logging rider eliminated court-ordered forest protections and the company resumed activities at the outdated mill.
Tree-sitters have even found red tree vole nests in the trees. Red tree voles are arboreal critters that eat Douglas fir needles and can comprise fifty percent of the threatened spotted owl’s diet. Although Fall Creek was protected spotted owl habitat, Clinton’s Northwest Forest plan threw it out of protection and into the Matrix plan, allowing for the logging of these forests. This precious habitat for red tree voles and spotted owls would likely have been destroyed two years ago, if not for the treesit village and campaign to save these now rare forests. The US Forest Service was negligent in their duties to investigate for red tree voles in these sales (and 32 others). The surveys were supposed to be completed in 1994, but the area was sold anyway. A court case in November 1999 drew attention to the USFS’s misdealings, and the judge ordered these sales to be put on hold until the surveys are completed and the findings are interpreted. Each nest area will be given some acreage of protection. Although the USFS has found some nests, the tree-sitters have found many more. In july, a representative from the treesits took in more samples to USFS biologists, who verified these findings. In a recent meeting with Willamette National Forest supervisor Darrel Kempos and District ranger, Rick Scott, treesit reps expressed concerns over discrepancies in previously completed surveys.
Meanwhile, Red Cloud Thunder is hosting climber’s guild trainings and hikes and active survey climbing camps. Hopes are high that the sale will be cancelled. After two days in Fall Creek, I was willing to sell all my belongings and move to the forest. After four or so more days of being there, I changed my mind. But I do hope justice is served, the sale is canceled and the forest will remain standing.
And I hope those damn tree-sitters get out of there when it does, so the forest can return to its pristine state.