Redefining the System: Activism as Cultural Production

By the time we said our goodbyes to Guardian, Comfrey, Happy, Fangorn, Kalima, Yggdrasil, and Grandma, we were tired and soaked. The trees, so named by the sitters in what had become known thereafter as “The Village,” seemed to thank us for coming as darkness fell on the snow in Fall Creek. While not all of the named trees had survived the onslaught from the loggers and forest service years before, each one that had now stood tall, a reminder of the potential power direct action plays to protect sacred land.

Hours before, we had met at Otter’s house, a seasoned climber, to learn the different knots and equipment it would take to scoot our way hundreds of feet up a tree if we ever had the need to do so (we each only got up about fifteen or twenty feet, which was fine for someone like me who was not all that keen on heights to begin with). Talking with Otter, we discussed the effectiveness of tree-sitting and its role within the greater scope of resistance, not only regarding the necessity of positive media campaigns and the need for a wider support base, but the very fact that in the broader arena where capitalist industries continue to identify resources to control and liquidate, tree sitting was at best a symbolic action, done in the hopes that people far removed from the event might begin to wonder why on earth someone would risk their life to save a tree.

After, on our way out to the action camp Pan had organized for us, we began to map out the key elements and causes of the war. What gave people the right to cut down and destroy the wild outdoors for money? If John Muir had cut down trees to build a log cabin for himself, what was wrong with companies cutting down trees for those who did not have time nor the skill to build their own houses? We discussed the evolution of humanity from its hunter-gatherer days to its social specialization, debated whether eliminating the convenience of processed foods made sense in a world where people were dependent on their faucets for water and grocery stores for food, contextualized the seemingly insignificant act of Jeffery Luers’ bombing 3 SUVs in light of the greater 7 (actually 9) Weeks Revolt, and considered whether the act might have served as a catalyst or call to action against the destruction of nature for others. We drove for an hour or so, around winding roads, past deer, dodging fallen trees and cutting fresh tracks into the several inches of fallen snow.

Hiking on a trail I would never have found unless following someone who knew the landscape already, we came to Venus, the natural shrine adorned with necklaces, beads, and a rubber snake. We clambered across an icy tree trunk tens of feet above a little stream to where we found the remnants of Joy, a big tree that had been cut down after her sitter, feeling a bit too removed from the rest of The Village, had gotten spooked and climbed down, leaving the tree open to attack. The story demonstrated the need to know one’s limits before embarking upon resistance action, to ensure a tight knit community that would persevere even after the enemy had given up. Someone passed a pot pipe around the circle and we began to strategize about how we might effectively continue the war against business-as-usual and its unquenchable thirst for upending nature, with its blatant disregard of the forest’s spiritual effect for a community uninterested in its monetary value. On the other hand, might loggers and the forest service ever be justified in the pursuit of profits due in part to the authority they received, and the fact that they had the means to do so? If this were indeed the case, radical environmentalists would need to appeal to some higher authority, more representative of the local populace, and might even be forgiven for dismantling the means by which these “atrocities” were carried out. Indeed, looking around, it seemed that we had found ourselves at the site of a battleground, where living beings all over had been massacred (not even used) for a specific ideology—the profit motive. We talked about how loggers had not only cut down trees they had no intention of using for lumber, but that they even made a point of cutting down trees in such a way that they would fall on the activists, killing at least one. In such an atmosphere, could radical environmentalists be acquitted in a court of law for retaliating in self- defense?

Who is the enemy in this situation? While America’s government certainly protects business interests, it is still the mechanism by which freedom of thought is protected, and the driving force behind the alternative consciousnesses that rivals even itself at times. It is then not hard to imagine the unraveling of its power structures due in part to its own directives. Perhaps a coordinated activist campaign, whereby intentional communities everywhere were oriented to starve and dismantle the oppressive machine that consumes resources and increases its share of territory could achieve such a result, as groups collaborate to attack specific enterprises in non-violent, but efficient ways. Maybe an inventory of all instances of destruction could be taken, so that through international cooperation, effective strategies can be employed to evolve protests into resistance, and even revolution. In the end, while an activist community may have to align the local micro-level with the national, or global macro-level so as to ensure direct action campaigns will not be stamped out by oppressive forces looking to exterminate “eco-terrorists” and make way for “progress” and “prosperity,” I do believe that ultimately, we must each look at ourselves, our own bodies, as the physical vanguard for change. And while I have no idea what it would take for me to climb into a tree and protect it from harm at the potential cost of my own life, I assume that a real connection to a place would have to be forged for anyone, myself included, to confront death to protect any particular ideal.

We ended the action camp with a game of cat and mouse, where 2 “freddies” searched for 2 activists whose mission objective was to resupply pretend tree-sitters so they could sustain themselves for another week or so. As I pushed through branches and tried to keep silent, I began to realize that I was very much alone. Still stoned, I began to have auditory and visual hallucinations, focusing on any small crack of a branch or movement that would betray the activists. It became darker and darker, and I realized that between the imagined threats of tree-sitters dumping their excrement on me from above, or the sharp sticks and slippery rocks that occasionally threw me off balance, only those individuals who truly understood the layout of the territory would ever have a chance of winning this game. Even so, with the sounds of the stream running by and the smell of the outdoors, it was not hard to see how both sides could get something out of the experience, namely a sense of utter insignificance in such a huge, majestic landscape that dwarfed all sense of ego.

It soon became clear that we were each independently lost, and after many shouts and hollers, we four found one another and together intuited where we had gone astray. Using only a small flashlight and a pretty shoddy sense of direction, we somehow made it back to the car, imagining what we would have done in the absence of such luck. While each of our strategies had failed, the game itself had become a motor to produce new culture, where our own direct action produced a social system of its own. We had together forged a community, infiltrated the consciousness of the oppressors, engaged in illicit activities, and constructed a relationship with the surrounding land. In that instance, our participation in protecting the area, while perhaps superficial (as it was not actually under real attack), remained symbolic and representative of a time when we might in fact be called on to defend a place we loved, escalating our tactics and playing a sort of philosophical chicken, where whoever was less committed would be driven home to the jeers and hollers of those who could sustain themselves for longer.
Heading home, a couple of interesting events took place. We stopped at the road that the Fall Creek campaign had destroyed and tunneled under, and Pan described the blockade tactics the forest service had spent hours trying to circumvent to get at the timber protected by activists. At that point I realized that these were not just games being played, but a life-and-death battle where people sacrificed their very bodies to stop the encroaching corporate system from doing any more harm to a place they loved. And what was even more astonishing was that they had won! Here, a relatively small group of climbers, radicals, anarchists, environmentalists, and eco-activists had stood toe-to-toe with the industrial, money-making hierarchy of state-enforced oppression carried out by government agents—and hadn’t backed down. Indeed, their sense of moral determination had overcome the desire for profit, a symbolic blow against the pervasive global corporate empire that was everywhere alive and well today. If these men and women could do it, couldn’t anyone, anywhere?

Besides this epiphany, a cause for concern arose when we realized that both oversized chains on our 4X4 truck had wrapped around the axles, incapacitating the vehicle and leaving us stranded in the darkness of the woods. We were each immediately brought back to the feelings of futility we had felt earlier, scrambling around in the darkness as we struggled to find the familiar Village only minutes before; and now, here we were, miles away from any town with no one to rescue us if worse came to worse. It became apparent that unless we rectified this situation quickly, we might be spending the night out here, and if for some reason a snowstorm blew in—well, so much for a relaxing day in the forest. Eventually, we did manage to unwrap the chains, and from there, listening to the screams and rants of some eco-radical punk rock band that assured a perpetual spiking campaign, we made our way home to civilization, defined by the large lit-up Albertsons that shone brightly. But even as I made my way along Interstate-5, back to my own 2 bedroom home fully stocked with fresh food in the refrigerator and the potential warmth of an electric wall heater, I was disturbed, wondering if I would even be able to survive if it was all suddenly taken away from me: no running water from the tap, no heat, no way to cover a hundred or more miles without walking, no food besides that which was hunted or gathered…could I—could we—learn to live again if civilization was overthrown, not necessarily by dissident anarcho-primitivists who blew up dams or incapacitated trade routes, but by the coalescing problems of our time—peak oil, climate change, species extinction, population overshoot—essentially our own short-sightedness and belief we could subdue the planet to provide infinitely for our communities?

Confronting my own social conditioning, I can now assuredly state that I feel trapped in my own position in civilization. Facing reality is frightening, and entering a paradigm shift is not only worrisome, but dangerous if not adequately prepared for each possible outcome that may become manifest. Yet while there is certainly a dichotomy between what IS and what SHOULD BE, I realize that if one’s personal understanding has not yet been codified in reality, it is one’s own personal responsibility, one’s duty to ensure that this reality becomes evident. Once a new consciousness is solidified in reality to become physically apparent, a new system can be born. While I am not yet sure what it would take for me to climb and defend a tree, or if I can even adequately learn to live again, I do believe that I can take the small step in participating in the birth of a new culture that seems necessary to make manifold. In this respect, perhaps the above writing might serve as a mere contribution in that direction, so language itself can exemplify the consciousness, beliefs, and perspectives of those who would otherwise not even be acknowledged. Perhaps if this understanding is recognized to have value, we might one day witness the forest service finally revert to the side of the activists, protecting those in the trees while running off the land anyone with a chainsaw instead. A dream perhaps, but one that is certainly better than the nightmare we have begun to wake up to.


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