Life & limb
Imagine climbing up into a giant redwood and calling it home. Tree-sitting protesters would rather spend months perched in a redwood than let one fall.
On a pleasant January afternoon near Freshwater Corners, the hills were alive with the sound of chainsaws. Staccato two-stroke exhaust notes echoed from the woods on either side of the turnout on Greenwood Heights Drive, a narrow ribbon of asphalt winding through the foothills east of Arcata, home to some of the last unprotected old-growth redwoods in California.
One of those magnificent trees towered over me as I talked to Northcoast Earth First! activists George Hayduke and Lodgepole in a stand of old-growth redwoods near the area known as the Lower Village. Above us, a protesting tree-sitter perched on a platform high in the big redwood’s branches—a large banner reading “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” draped around its trunk. In the distance, the trees weren’t getting any respect. One of the chainsaws cut out, and there was a pause, followed by a loud crash.
“What do you want to do first?” bushy-bearded George asked me. “Learn how to climb trees or watch the loggers cut down the forest?”
I stared up at the tiny figure on the platform above us. He looked like a cosmonaut sitting atop a redwood booster rocket. Could climbing way up there, clinging to a rope, really be as safe and easy as I’d been told? What about that tree-sitter who fell to his death in Santa Cruz last October? Or the girl the following month who’d been yanked naked from her platform in the Demonstration Forest? She’d been forcibly removed by Pacific Lumber, the timber company Northcoast Earth First! has been fighting in Humboldt County for two decades—and the company on whose property we were trespassing.
The chainsaws sounded perilously close. The platform seemed ridiculously high.
“Let’s go watch the loggers,” I said.
Here, on steep slopes that drain into Freshwater Creek, Northcoast Earth First! has established more than a dozen tree-sits in a last-ditch attempt to save some of the last big trees in the watershed. To activists, each and every one of these ancient redwoods is a sacred, living symbol of a pristine world unsullied by man, the only things left standing between nature and progress. Seeking to fulfill a purpose larger than themselves, the young, idealistic zealots of the “forest-defense movement” are willing to put their lives on the line for the redwoods. The activists are the only thing standing between the few big trees left in Freshwater and progress’s ax.
When loggers first came to Freshwater in the 1880s, they mowed down the entire forest save for the few big trees that were too difficult to extract. The trees being felled today are second-growth redwoods, seedlings planted by those early loggers 120 years ago that now have reached 150 feet in height. They will be replaced by row upon row of the closely planted saplings known as “pecker poles,” which will be harvested and processed into fiber wood products before the trees are 40 years old.
The pecker poles look like toothpicks compared with the old-growth trees of the Lower Village, where a half-dozen redwood giants have been roped together, or, in tree-sitting lingo, “traversed,” in order to prevent the loggers from cutting them down. Each of the trees has its own platform; tree-sitters use a pulley device and traverse lines to move from tree to tree. To cut the trees down, loggers must remove the sitters and then untie all of the traverses first. That’s not easy or safe to do with a hive of tree-hugging activists buzzing around you, which is why the big redwoods of the Lower Village remain intact so far.
I followed George and Lodgepole through the underbrush, scrambling over slippery redwood roots, through thatches of pecker poles and sharp-edged leaves of pampas grass, and then plunging down a steep trail leading deeper into the woods. George and Lodgepole weren’t their real names, but forest names, aliases taken to preserve anonymity within the forest-defense movement. Lodgepole, clutching an ever-present digital video camera, wore black sweats that hung off his lanky frame. He took point, running through the jungle like he was on recon patrol in Vietnam. It was difficult keeping up with him.
After 10 minutes of thrashing, we came to the ragged edge of a vast clear-cut. Second-growth trees lay toppled over in a crosshatched pattern stretching hundreds of yards across the hillside. It looked like someone had grabbed the loose string on a sweater and pulled it, unraveling the forest.
A nearby chainsaw howled in my ear, but, from our hiding spot, I couldn’t see the lumberjack wielding it. The noise stopped, and one of the trees that marked the leading edge of the clear-cut leaned over and disappeared, replaced by a slice of blue sky, a hole in the canopy where the tree had just been. The earth shuddered as the redwood hit the ground not 50 feet from us.
“Hey, Big Willy!” Lodgepole hollered.
Five years ago, 45 miles southeast from where we were, David “Gypsy” Chain had been observing Pacific Lumber logging operations near Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park when a logger felled a tree that landed on the activist and killed him. Minutes earlier, Gypsy and a colleague had videotaped the logger angrily screaming epithets at them, including several death threats. No criminal charges have been filed against the lumberjack, and now a cautious truce exists between most of the workers and activists in the woods.
“Hey, Big Willy! Is that you?”
Dressed in blue jeans held up by red suspenders; a dirty, sweaty T-shirt; and spike-soled boots called corks, Big Willy emerged from the edge of the clear-cut where the tree had just fallen, toting a chainsaw and a gas can. They met on opposite ends of the tree he had just cut down, the lumberjack looking sheepish under an aluminum hard hat, Lodgepole looking slightly disingenuous beneath the“30-year Pacific Lumber Employee” ball cap he’d picked up at a local thrift store. Big Willy said it was OK to videotape him but that we had better move behind him, where it was safer.
We gathered at the base of the next tree up the slope, a second-growth redwood that looked like an enormous curved stalk of asparagus. He sized up the tree, which had to land just right, lest its curved trunk shatter on impact.
“Oh yeah,” the lumberjack said as he cranked up the chainsaw. “I’m supposed to tell you guys you’re trespassing on private property.”
He buried the whining chainsaw to the hilt
in the redwood’s trunk, cutting deep, slanted notches on both sides. Setting the saw aside, he tapped a small, metal wedge into one of the cuts. There was a loud crack as the tree tore through the last fibers holding it upright, and then it whooshed over, sucking air as it crashed to the forest floor with the force of a minor earthquake— kaboom!—landing just the way Big Willy planned it.
It took maybe five minutes, and even though it was a second-growth tree and not an ancient redwood, George and especially Lodgepole were depressed. Upon our return to the Lower Village, Lodgepole rushed about frenetically, first downloading the fresh video into a laptop computer stashed in a backpack and then asking the sitters high up on the platforms if they needed anything from town. He was just preparing to leave when Steve Wills, owner of a local logging-truck company, pulled into the nearby turnout.
Wills is one of many independent contractors dependent on timber for income, and his logging trucks are a frequent sight on the roads that encircle Pacific Lumber’s 220,000 acres of property. Wills, his
college-aged daughter in tow, got out of his pickup and snidely asked Lodgepole and George if they wouldn’t mind cleaning up the litter scattered around the turnout, since they didn’t have anything better to do.
It was true that local residents had dumped trash near the turnout for years, everything from beer cans to rusty swamp coolers, but Lodgepole didn’t see how that was his problem. Saving the forest from people like Wills was task enough. The contractor took three steps back, and his daughter’s cheeks turned bright pink as the black-clad activist exploded in a shower of expletives. “Stop raping the land, you SLUT!” Lodgepole railed before stalking off into the forest, leaving a bewildered Wills to wonder just what he’d said or done to set the young activist off.
Emotions have run strong in this neck of the woods since at least 1986, when Houston-based financier Charles Hurwitz, head of Maxxam Inc., a corporate holding company, acquired Pacific Lumber in a hostile takeover brokered by some of the most infamous white-collar criminals of the era, including Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. Until that point, the locally owned company was renowned for selective logging practices
that had preserved the largest stands of old-growth redwoods left on private lands in the state of California, including the few big trees left in Freshwater. But Hurwitz had leveraged the $750 million deal using risky junk bonds, and in order to make the interest payments, Pacific Lumber began harvesting timber at double and even triple its previous rate.
The damage, for anyone bothering to look beyond the Avenue of the Giants, the well-known redwood curtain that extends along the Highway 101 corridor from Garberville to Scotia, was and still is readily apparent. On Pacific Lumber lands on either side of the freeway, hillsides have been denuded, in some cases sprayed with herbicide to kill off vegetation, thus coloring the slopes rusty brown. In addition to the old growth, much of the second-growth forest has been cut down and replaced by the skinny pecker poles, which will not be allowed to reach maturity. Landslides and flooding, always a threat because of the loose, rich soil lining the steep hills and valleys of the Northern California Coastal Range, have become more frequent as over-logged hillsides erode—filling streams with silt until they overflow their banks, disturbing valuable salmon spawning grounds, destroying habitat for endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and sending torrents of mud and debris streaming into houses.
Against this onslaught, a coalition of environmental activist groups and concerned local residents has taken shape. Lilliputian local organizations such as the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), the Humboldt Watershed Council, Salmon Forever and Friends of the Eel River have joined forces, seeking a legal means of tying the lumbering giant down. They investigate. They videotape. They litigate. EPIC, for instance, has filed dozens of lawsuits, many of which have restrained the giant temporarily. But Pacific Lumber, which has been cited for poor land-management practices countless times and even had its logging license removed in 1998 by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, lumbers on, sometimes by finding loopholes in existing regulations and sometimes by willfully disobeying the law.
Case in point: The logging operations I observed in Freshwater were technically illegal. All logging causes an increase in sediment production in the affected watershed, and the company hadn’t been issued a wastewater-discharge waiver from the North Coast Regional Water Control Board that would have permitted it to produce such sediment. Despite all the investigating, videotaping and litigating, Pacific Lumber just keeps on cutting, with seeming impunity.
That’s where Northcoast Earth First! comes in. Renouncing the tactic of tree spiking used by other radical environmental groups as too violent, the loosely knit organization, composed largely of kids in their late teens and early 20s, has staged various forms of nonviolent protest continually since the takeover by Maxxam. Activists blockade logging roads and the entrances to Pacific Lumber’s offices; hold teach-ins and protest rallies locally and at the state Capitol in Sacramento; and, as the last line of defense between the forests and the chainsaws, sit in trees.
In turn, they have met with violence. Two Earth First! founders, Judi Bari and Daryl Cherney, were severely injured when a pipe bomb shredded their car in Oakland in 1990, a crime that has never been solved. Activists in the forest and at protests have been punched out by angry loggers. Several years ago, shortly before Gypsy was killed, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department resorted to swabbing pepper spray in the eyes of protesters who chained themselves to heavy equipment and blockaded logging-road entrances, a practice the activists are currently challenging in court. When Pacific Lumber began new logging operations in the Demonstration Forest 30 miles south of Arcata last November, activists took to the trees once more. Pacific Lumber sent in professional tree climbers, who forced a naked girl known as Abstract to the ground, where she was arrested by the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department. Bail was set at $200,000.
What possesses these tree children to endure such torments and brave such heights? To discover firsthand, I followed George up the winding road about a half-mile to the Upper Village, where, for the past 10 months, an activist named Remedy has been sitting in a 250-foot-tall redwood named Jerry.
They give all the big trees names—sometimes beautiful ones, like Luna, Aradia or Poseidon. Jerry was named after Jerry Garcia because of the moss hanging off his branches like a gray beard, and he was not exactly what I’d call beautiful. More like ominous. Twelve feet thick at the base, the redwood’s gnarled trunk thrust up out of the top of an earthen cliff like some ancient great whale breaching. Unbelievably, I was supposed to climb Jerry and interview Remedy on her 130-foot-high platform the next day.
We continued up the road a couple of miles to a smaller tree on which I was supposed to learn how to climb. But the lesson was interrupted by the arrival of two Pacific Lumber SUVs at the foot of one of the nearby big trees in which three activists were sitting. Ten men circled the tree, including Climber Eric and Climber Jerry, the Pacific Lumber hired-hands who’d yanked Abstract from the tree in the Demonstration Forest. For half an hour, they stood at the bottom, threatening the tree-sitters and attracting a small crowd of people who lived nearby. Then, inexplicably, they drove off.
News of the feigned Freshwater extraction was buzzing about the kiosk at the Arcata Co-op in late afternoon. I was supposed to meet a guy named Lizard who ran the supply hike to several tree-sits on Gypsy Mountain, the forested knoll where Gypsy was killed five years ago that activists have renamed in his honor.
The parking lot teemed with long-haired men and women, fresh-looking college students from Humboldt State; graying New Agers stocking up on tofu; and the counterculture flotsam and jetsam that regularly washes ashore in this bayside town from ports as distant as Seattle, San Diego and New York. They were all mixed together in a sort of neo-progressive stew.
Lizard was easy to spot because of the carabiner hooked through the belt loop of his wool climbing pants, a get-up I’d come to recognize as the unofficial winter uniform of the forest-defense movement. Lizard, a former Humboldt State engineering student, was in his 20s and was hawkish-looking, with long, ash blond hair tied in a ponytail. We were joined by a pair of dark-haired, effervescent pixies, Nature and Sea; a stout, curly-headed lad named Shunka; and quiet Cougar, whose run-down 1983 Buick Regal was tonight’s transportation. They agreed to pick me up at my motel at 5 p.m. to take me on the supply run.
They showed up at 7:30. “We’re on tree time,” Lizard explained, as we lurched south on 101. Then, we headed east on Highway 36, Nature and Sea chanting and singing little ditties all the way to Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park. In the campground parking lot, they all slipped on heavy backpacks and marched silently through the empty park, the full moon illuminating the gray ghost trunks of redwood giants telescoping 300 feet into the night. Under cover of darkness, they dashed across Highway 36 into Pacific Lumber territory, up a near-vertical, rutted logging road crisscrossed with slippery broken limbs and forest debris glowing softly in the phosphorescent light. After a half-hour of us climbing steadily, sometimes on all fours, the trail leveled off, and Shunka pointed down a draw to the right. “That’s where Gypsy was killed.”
A wrongful-death suit filed by Gypsy’s family and friends against Pacific Lumber was settled out of court; as part of the settlement, the tree that killed the activist remains in the place where it fell. A makeshift altar has been constructed beside it: statuettes of Gaia and the Buddha, a pucca shell necklace, a toy plastic trout, a rusty kazoo.
Shunka had arrived in Humboldt the month before the activist’s death; Gypsy had taught him how to climb. They all bowed their heads while Shunka spoke of his lost friend. It was five years ago, but it could have been last week, so solemn was this little forest band as it slogged up the trail.
Raven and Moonflower, sitting high on a platform in a tree named Aradia, heard us before we heard them, howling like coyotes as we approached. Sea and Nature howled right back. Someone in the tree blew a flatulent note on a trumpet. Lizard pulled out a harmonica and played a blues riff.
Near the foot of the tree, the protesters unloaded their packs and took turns sending up supplies to the 100-foot-high platform via a canvas bag tied to the end of a rope: granola, mung beans, peanut butter, trail mix, liters of soda, jugs of water and, most importantly, chocolate. Raven and Moonflower hauled the supplies up as I imagined my own ascent on Jerry the next morning.
“We love you!” Moonflower and Raven cried as we left.
“We love you, too!” Nature and Sea replied.
We hit the highway just after midnight and crossed over into the state park. One way or another, the forest gets into you, and I found myself leaning up next to one of the gray ghosts, placing my hands on its ancient trunk and staring up through spidery foliage silhouetted against the full moon. A stiff breeze in the treetops rocked the old giant, rocking me with it, and I wondered what it must be like to be 1,000 years old. Something touched my hand. Lizard, Shunka, Cougar, Nature and
Sea had joined me. Yes, we all hugged the tree, rocking with it in the breeze, and I finally understood what the activists meant when they talked about being part of something bigger than themselves.
The next morning, I met Trouble, my climbing instructor, at Jerry’s base. I gazed up the 130-foot length of rope leading to Remedy’s platform. Remedy waved, her head from this distance a flesh-colored micro-dot. It was a long way up. I peered over the edge of the 30-foot cliff on which the tree sat. I’d be swinging out over it to begin the climb. My butt puckered. It looked impossible, but Trouble assured me that one basic lesson was all I needed.
There are essentially two methods used to climb ancient redwoods. Loggers such as Climber Eric prefer to girth the tree’s trunk with a rope or a chain and then dig into the bark with their spiked corks. Earth First! activists prefer “prusik” climbing, named for the special knot used to scale a rope that’s anchored securely to one of the tree’s upper limbs. After donning a special harness, a prusik climber ties two loops of nylon cord to the climbing rope with prusiks, one knot above the other, and passes the loops through locking carabiners attached to the belt of the harness. The rope is then ready to take the climber’s weight.
When weighted by the climber, the prusik cinches down on the rope, holding its position. When it’s not weighted, the prusik slides freely. The climber moves by transferring weight between the two prusiks, sliding the upper knot up the rope with the right hand while the lower knot holds position, and then sliding the lower knot up with the left hand as the upper knot holds position. You don’t actually climb the tree; you climb straight up the rope with an accordion-like motion.
According to Trouble, who decided to change his forest name to Now midway through my lesson, there was nothing to it. To me, it made about as much sense as a French movie. I thought I got it, but who knows? Could I trust this name-changing stranger who had tied all the knots on which my life now depended? I leaned back in the harness and let the rope take my weight.
Immediately, I swung out over the edge of the cliff, where I dangled 30 feet in the air like a piece of bait. I’ll admit it: I freaked, and I promptly forgot everything I’d just learned. I tried to slide the top prusik up. It wouldn’t budge. I tried to slide the bottom knot. It wouldn’t budge either. “What the hell?” I sputtered.
Now looked concerned. “From what I can see, you’re not moving your legs enough,” he advised.
I brought both my knees up higher and succeeded in moving the bottom knot up three inches. That allowed me to slide the top knot up three inches. With a herky-jerky rhythm, I began moving up the rope like a spastic inchworm.
After 30 minutes, I was lathered in sweat and had barely made it halfway to Remedy’s platform. Looking down, which was difficult because my eyes couldn’t seem to find the bottom (vertigo?!), I saw Now leaning back against the tree, wide-brimmed hat tilted as if he was napping.
“How am I doing?” I squealed.
“You’re doing fine,” said the voice from under the hat.
I didn’t feel fine. My right forearm cramped up, and my right hand went numb. My heart was pounding in my chest and ears from fear and exhaustion. The prusik cords were cutting deep notches across the knuckles of my hands, and sweat was pouring into the cuts, stinging like hell. There were 1,001 excuses why I couldn’t go on. So, I just hung there, 100 feet in the air, twirling like a piece of meat on a spit, cooked.
I don’t know exactly how long I hung there. In tree time, a second could be an eternity. How long could a person stay that frightened? I’d forgotten how to switch to the rappelling ring on the harness, so I braved a look down for further instruction. The hat was gone. Apparently, he’d changed his forest name again. Now was later.
We all have different ways of coping with fear; I’d like to say that on that day, my heart swelled to three times its normal size, just like the Grinch’s. The truth is that my courage was lacking, but I had no shortage of resentment. There was no way I was going to let a girl, Remedy, do something I couldn’t do. So, I did the only thing I could do: I continued clawing my way up to the platform.
An hour-and-a-half after beginning the ascent, I hauled my aching body over the lip of Remedy’s platform. She immediately fastened a safety cord to my harness, and I collapsed. “The first time I climbed, I couldn’t believe people had to do this to save trees,” she said sympathetically.
Some tree platforms are quite large and can hold a dozen people, but Remedy’s was no bigger than a pup tent. A plastic tarp draped over a branch protected her from the elements; there was barely enough room for one person inside. Remedy sat on a branch outside while I flattened my back against the flimsy plywood, wishing I had fingernails to dig into it.
A transplanted East Coaster by way of Washington state, the 28-year-old tree-sitter had been scheduled to return to her job from a two-week vacation on September 11, 2001. Convinced that World War III was about to start, she never returned to work. Instead, this pleasant-faced woman with a square, determined jaw headed south to take part in the forest-defense movement.
“The world was really having a hard time, and no one was doing anything to stop the destruction,” she explained. “I wasn’t going to live to work and work to live while all this injustice and destruction was going on all around me.”
Remedy began by helping out on the supply runs, but soon it dawned on her that her place was in the trees. The first time she visited a platform, a major storm hit the area. The tree rocked violently back and forth; she could feel every inch of it under her and didn’t sleep for the first 48 hours. Finally, she did drift off, and she had a dream in which she envisioned herself safe and secure on a sunlit platform high in the treetops. The next time she climbed, to the platform in Jerry, she didn’t come back down.
It took her four months to become acclimated to life in the canopy; now this sinewy, barefoot figure clad in brown utility pants, a pajama shirt and a fleece jacket moves un-tethered from branch to branch with the quiet grace of a lemur. Asked how it had been during the 60-mph storms that struck that part of the state in December, she grabbed the tarp and vigorously shook it, rocking the tiny platform and reigniting my still-simmering fear. Her intelligent blue eyes flashed mischievously. She didn’t get out much.
“I always said I’d never leave home if I didn’t have to,” she said. “Now, for the past 10 months, I haven’t.”
She prepares food on a small wooden pallet that’s roped into the branches to the right of her platform. She has a gas-fueled camp stove that’s useless during stormy weather; plastic water bottles; and glass jars filled with fruit, nuts and other non-perishable organic fare. Bulk grains and dry goods are stored in white five-gallon plastic buckets hanging off limbs. A plastic jug serves for the lavatory. Almost like home.
Remedy claims she doesn’t get lonely, and besides, there’s plenty of work to do: calling media outlets across the country on her cell phone and documenting the destruction of the forest in Freshwater. Short of Governor Gray Davis living up to his campaign pledge that no old-growth redwoods would be cut down on his watch, she doesn’t see herself coming down any time soon. That, of course, is subject to change if Pacific Lumber decides to come up after her.
Abstract’s experience in the Demonstration Forest in November was an enlightening reminder to all tree-sitters as to just how dangerous the battle to save old growth can be. The only sure defense sitters have against being extracted is to climb to the top and secure themselves to the tree using a metal lock box. The lock box must be hacked through with a saw, a dangerous, nearly impossible operation to perform while clinging to the narrow tip of a 250-foot-tall tree with a radical environmentalist who doesn’t want to come down. Remedy has a lock box, but if Climber Eric or someone else bent on extracting her comes, she’s not sure if she’ll use it.
“It seems kind of counterintuitive to lock myself down when a bunch of angry men are coming up after me,” she said. “They could do anything they want to me.”
To me, just sitting in the tree seemed counterintuitive. I talked to Remedy for more than an hour, hoping my discomfort would diminish, but the thought that I might fall to my death at any moment never really left me. I was eager to get back down on the ground.
Remedy reattached the rope to my harness with the rappelling ring. With my back
facing out from the platform, I stepped off into the abyss and rappelled smoothly down through the branches, gaining speed and then letting go of the rope, falling the last 10 feet and landing hard on my ass at the bottom.
It had been a humiliating experience. But that night, and I swear I’m not making this up, I had a dream. I was sitting alone on a huge platform high in the treetops. Golden sunlight filtered in through an expansive canopy. I was safe in Aradia, on Gypsy Mountain. It was a brief glimpse of paradise, and when I awoke, I hoped I would find the courage to climb again someday.
I haven’t found that courage yet, but on my last visit to the Lower Village, at the base of Poseidon, I found Gypsy alive and well, both in spirit and name. Gypsy was a girl now, a spunky, blond-haired imp who recently had arrived from London via the anti-war protests in San Francisco. She’d been given the nickname of Gypsy years before, and upon learning of its local significance, she had contemplated changing it. But her newfound friends told her the name was an honor. She hadn’t been in the forest more than a month, but already she was teaching others how to climb.
“Wanna see a freshie squirm?” she asked, indicating the boy who was halfway up the rope to Poseidon’s platform. She grabbed the rope and shook it, and the boy squirmed.
Downslope from Poseidon, the sound of a portable drill came from the thicket. Lodgepole, working on some new contraption for one of the platforms, emerged from the bushes. He was the only Earth First! member I ever saw get mad or say an unkind word, and I, for one, appreciated him for that. He asked one of the other kids, who had come to learn how to climb, for a ride into town to get supplies. The kid refused, and Lodgepole stomped off toward Arcata, muttering obscenities under his breath.
The squirming boy made it up, and Gypsy clamored for a climbing harness. “Shuddup already,” came the reply from above. “Somebody’s coming down first.”
Her name was Freedom, and she descended as smoothly as a spider down a strand of silk, her curly brown hair balled up inside a purple knit hat, her legs covered in the same wool pants the guys wore. A 19-year-old from Wisconsin, she’d grown up watching the fences and walls close in. Soon, no public land was left; you couldn’t even have a fire on the beach. So, she hitchhiked through Colorado and New Mexico looking for open spaces before arriving in Humboldt County last August. Her ankles were covered with scabbed-over scratches from wading barefoot through the forest.
She told me how one morning in November, she had been sitting in a tree in the Demonstration Forest when the sound of chainsaws woke her up. Climber Eric and Climber Jerry shouted for her to come down peacefully. They had taken all her food and supplies the previous day, and now they were coming for her. Maybe if she took her clothes off, she reasoned, they would be less inclined to physically remove her from the tree.
“Hey, you’re not Freedom. You’re Abstract!” I said.
She looked around like I shouldn’t be saying that name out loud before shyly admitting that yes, she was Abstract.
The climbers made their way up the tree, she said, their vibrations rattling through the trunk and into her body like she herself was made of wood, but she wasn’t frightened. Instead, the idea that they might do her or the tree harm empowered her with righteousness. She ripped off her clothes and climbed all the way to the “tippy-whippy.” They had taken her lock box, so she just clung there, stark naked, singing and chanting and even belting out “Amazing Grace” at Climber Eric’s request.
The treetop was swaying a foot in each direction by the time they reached her. She fought to keep them from grabbing her limbs, but they were too strong. Each man grabbed a leg and together they spread the naked girl’s legs apart so they could strap a climbing harness on her. Then, they bound her wrists and ankles with zip-ties and lowered her to the ground. She was carted off to jail, and the tree was cut down.
Timely intervention by famed attorney Tony Serra resulted in reduction of her bail and her subsequent release. She’s still waiting to get her gear back. Neither the extraction nor the jail time nor the lack of climbing equipment has deterred her in the slightest. She changed her name to climb again.
Pacific Lumber officials refused to comment directly on the activities of the tree-sitters and insisted that the company’s logging operations in the Freshwater area fall within the bounds of existing regulations. It’s a war that’s likely to go down to the last big tree, if Abstract has any say in the matter.
“I’m just happy to be out here,” she said, with wild brown eyes. “It’s my home.”
Freedom is Abstract.
It has a nice ring to it, but it doesn’t really fit
the story. In the woods of Humboldt County, freedom isn’t abstract. To these kids in the forest-defense movement, it’s a very real thing. It’s about overcoming the fear that smothers most of us like a landslide, the fear that says, “Don’t stand for what you believe in, or we will hurt you—we will kill you, just like we killed Gypsy.” It’s the kind of fear most of us never get over, but these kids, they don’t seem to feel it much at all.
I left Freedom to pay another visit to Remedy and Jerry in the Upper Village. The day before, Pacific Lumber employees had made their way up the winding road, numbering the tree-sits with Day-Glo orange spray paint, No. 1 through No. 13. “Jerry & Remedy” were No. 11. The consensus was that Pacific Lumber would show up Monday morning to begin extracting the tree-sitters in Freshwater. “They’ve been saying that for 10 months!” Remedy yelled down with cheerful bravado.
They didn’t come that Monday. But rest assured, Remedy, they’re coming soon, in tree time.