In the old days you couldn't keep them away.
Subversion on the Uncompahgre
Subversion on the Uncompahgre
With Edward Abbey I had met the priest of the environmentalists back in Tucson; a related ceremony itself took place two months later, on the Uncompahgre Plateau, dry, remote country in southwest Colorado. Uncompahgre is Ute for "red water springs" and refers to the higher, snowy ranges in the same national forest. Tourists are still something of an occasion along the plateau's western edge. Those I saw on the eve of Independence Day wore shorts and headbands and drove motorcycles or beat-up Saabs and other foreign machines piled high with camping gear and water jugs. They took a dirt road looping up onto the Uncompahgre, strung out for miles in a kind of migratory homing. I followed them, bound for the annual convention of something called Earth First!, ecotagists of record.
Our destination was a high meadow strewn with blue lupine. Cars and vans filed in and parked in the shade of aspens; dust rose from the groups gathering for what had been advertised in the EF newspaper as "personal interaction and communication" in the interests of the ecosystem. Anyone could attend, for free.
The high, cool air was no match for the July sun. The array of head coverings was devoid of those imprimaturs of Western values, Cat hats and cowboy hats, and rich in misshapen straws with feather-stuffed bands, camouflage deerstalkers, boating caps, upside-down canvas buckets, floppy-brimmed bush hats, miners' caps, and weathered tweed anomalies.
SAVE THE EARTH FIRST! read a banner strung between two big aspens, above the working seminars on nonviolent prep and media manipulation. Participants were the friends of many rivers, judging by the messages on their T-shirts. One shirt, worn by a young woman with a knife in a beaded scabbard and lace-up boots with studs the size of silver dollars, said "Eat the Rich."
Brightly colored tents were going up among the aspen. There were stacks of canned food, beer, and backpacks, scattered chairs and tables, children playing in the mottled sunlight, eating Doritos and live-culture yogurt and drinking pop, all the makings of a grand July Fourth picnic. License plates from every Western state, as well as Ohio, North Carolina, Maine and Australia, passed in the haze of drifting dust.
I made supper. The lushly darkening sky of the high mountain West was reflected in the lupine out in the meadow. Later, a bonfire drew everyone into its bright radius; the night bloomed with serapes and suede jerkins, embroidered coats, great hoods, turbans, and slouch hats. The moon rose. Two guitars spoke to each other across the fire pit, through the skunky haze of sinsemilla. I moved around, trying to find out who made up the ranks of EF, and found to my surprise a physics teacher from Houston, a biologist from Hawaii, an instructor in wilderness values from Yosemite, and an astronomer from southern California. "You basically get the professionals," this last explained, "and then you get the hippies."
The Fourth broke hot and clear. The steady beat of a tom-tom announced the beginning of orientation in the meadow. Dave Foreman, a hulking New Mexican in a red beard, told the assembly, "Five years ago when we founded Earth First! in a bar in Sonora, we never dreamed it would come this far. We've become a national and an international force. Deep ecology, and biocentrism, is more than loving aspens and butterflies. It requires effort, and courage. If it isn't a driving force in your life, it doesn't count."
Foreman introduced a teacher of ecology from southern California who was wearing a red baseball cap and hiking shorts. The teacher told us, "I see two circles working here. They are interconnected, and they fluctuate. The first is everyone around this fire pit. It feels good. But there's another circle.... Take yourselves analogously out of the big environmental group networking, and put yourself here. That calls for a different response — a deep responsibility, not the same thing as attending a workshop." He leaned over and picked a spiderwort. "The responsibility for picking a flower — I haven't killed it because it's a perennial — is important.
"The second circle is the things that grow here — the flowers and aspens. It would be irresponsible not to respond to this circle, a response you can't have in San Francisco, or lobbying in Washington, D.C. Let the circles interact. Deep ecology is more than direct action."
I asked the ecology teacher later about deep ecology, and a message I thought ran counter to EF's ethic of direct action. In fact, he said, there was a sharp division of views in the meadow. The "redneck" wilderness advocates preached ecotage, but the college professors favored a more orderly approach. "Some of us see ecology as the whole earth and its interrelationships. We have to think deeply about the state of the human race and other critters."
Earth First! was the first organization of its kind to look at all the questions, he added, and to try to rise above the needs of man alone. "We're dealing with the here and now. Thoreau started off as a transcendentalist but went beyond it and saw himself as part of the whole. He saw that man had to get away from manipulating the earth for his own ends, and tried to impress that upon his fellow Concordians. They took him for a kook, just as some would look at the people here."
I finally caught up with Foreman. He was a busy man but took time to sprawl in the shade of an aspen. "The West is under absolute assault," he said, "and nothing's stopping it. The dead flesh of the livestock industry has begun to stink, but a bigger threat is road-building in roadless areas that are the real wilderness today — not those created by Congress, full of backpackers, but the unofficial wilderness."
These wild lands lay in remote sections of the national forests; bulldozing made them ineligible for consideration as official wilderness later. Worse, roads let in people with guns and chain saws. "The roadless areas are all that's left of old-time America. Developing them will destroy the ambience of the West, the lifestyle and the wildlife habitat. We're trying to stop that by the only means left."
He excoriated the Sierra Club for going hat in hand to Congress and requesting a couple of million more acres for wilderness designation in the West, when EF demanded 14 million new acres. "The Wilderness Society and Sierra can't sue on every timber sale and seismic permit, so we take direct action. We try to differentiate between sabotage and vandalism. We try to be thoughtful, deliberate, responsible. If you wipe out a snowmobile, say, for defiling landscape or running down animals, you think about the distance from a road and the age of the man riding it who has to walk out."
Foreman's great-grandparents had homesteaded in eastern New Mexico. He called himself a desert rat, but his voice rang with the conviction of a man who had stood up before many a gathering, in settings far more conventional than this one. Foreman had dropped out of mainstream conservation after working for the Wilderness Society on the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation process, which was still going on. He gained a deep pessimism about the trading of roadless areas for designated wilderness areas, and about the ability of conventional environmental groups to deal with development.
"The Forest Service has become much more sophisticated, with good PR and 'people process.' We're the last line of defense." He seemed resigned to the inevitable demise of the West, but not without a fight.
A conflict of workshops developed between Guerrilla Theater and Toxic Waste; Foreman wisely settled it by allowing both to be conducted. Chanting would be done at sunset, next to the tepee on the hill. Two sweats would be held in the sweat lodge that day, and a spiritual sweat the next. Earth First! T-shirts were available for a price at what Foreman called "the snake-oil table." The T-shirts printed with the message "Fuck Bechtel" had sold out, but more were on the way. There were bumper stickers: "Bio-Centrism," and "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm."
A forty-eight-star American flag hung from a tree over the snake-oil table. It had been flown during EF's first bit of civil disobedience five years before, when Foreman and a few others dangled several hundred feet of black plastic down the face of Glen Canyon Dam, symbolizing a crack.
The list of seminars nailed to an aspen included Citizen Activism, FS Issues, Guerrilla Theater, Rain Forests, and EF! Image. I was intrigued with the latter and joined a dozen people settling uncertainly amidst the lupine. The leader was a teacher of psychology in Santa Cruz — another professor. He said, "This workshop will revolve around the questions: What are your and others' feeling about Earth First!? And what do you want it to be?" He added gravely, "There's a lot of possibility for controversy here.''
"I want to discuss the hard-ass aspects of Earth First!" said a fellow Californian in a carrot-colored goatee. "Hard-assedness could get us out of favor with the public."
"Excuse me," said the girl with. the beaded knife scabbard, "but I thought this was Toxic Waste." She walked off.
"I'm delighted there's a place in Earth First! for monkey-wrenching," said a young Vermonter in a red bandana who had ridden a bus all the way out West. But he was not pleased with what he referred to as "Montana cowboy environmentalists" - the redneck wilderness advocates. Their women did the cooking, he said, while the men talked about fights they had seen in bars between the locals and the developers, and between themselves and the developers, and themselves and the locals. "They started drinking here last night," he added, jerking his head in the direction of the Montana camp up in the woods.
A woman in a serape said, "I've seen Earth First! referred to as eco-terrorist. In my opinion, moving a survey stake is a high act. I like the Montana redneck, shit-kicking, beer-drinking image. They make up myths, and the West is a mythical land. But eventually somebody's gonna get killed on one of these monkey-wrenched machines."
It was Santa Cruz's turn. "What attracted me to the Earth First! image was that it was fun. They did neat things, like rolling plastic down dams, and getting on TV. I'm from Santa Cruz, a liberal town aware of feminist issues. We don't all go along with the Montana image."
That "image" made trouble for him at home, where he couldn't get tables at conventions of nonviolent political groups because people thought Earth First! blew things up. "I decided Earth First! had an image problem. Instead of ecotage, we're going to demonstrate at Burger King against destruction of Central American rain forests."
Throughout the discussion a skinny old man sat propped against a tree, arms folded. When he couldn't stand it any longer, he said, "The reason I'm not in Sierra or Friends of the Earth or any of the others is because all they're concerned about is image. I don't give a fuck. You do something because it's right."