Monday, January 4, 2010

He's a Real Nowhere Man

I took a year off of college almost ten years ago, and one of the places I visited during that year was Mendocino, a magical town in Northern California. It is right next to the ocean and surrounded by old-growth forest.

My traveling buddy and I happened upon a tree-sit, and I say "happened upon" because that's literally what happened--one of the hippies in town asked us if we'd like to visit. We ended up living there, sitting in a tree 150 feet off the ground, for a month or so. It was not as difficult as is rumored, because we were able to come down every couple of days and even go into town once in awhile to get some sundries for the tree. In reality, it was a pretty nice existence.

I met a few of the passionate activists who were involved in trying to save this and other trees from being cut down. There was Osha, who lived in a trailer a mile away, who was trying to figure out how to put up sits in some of the other trees that were supposed to come down first. There was Currynt, the leader of the sit, who reused every little thing and walked everywhere. There was a man who delayed the loggers by a month or so because he wouldn't allow them to cross his land. There was even a woman who did topless demonstrations in front of loggers because they couldn't arrest her--physically grab her--because of her nudity. All these people weaved in and out of my existence during that month.

But I remember one day Osha introduced me to two men, maybe in their late twenties, wearing scruffy clothes but not homeless-looking, unlike so many of the hippies who lived outdoors in Mendocino. They were the type of guys you'd expect to have trail-building jobs and not be able to function in an office environment. "These are the guys who built the sit," said Osha, and I looked at them, impressed, but they didn't have much to say. In fact, they were socially awkward and disappeared after a half hour or so.

Building a tree-sit is an incredibly difficult thing. The people in Mendocino did it without the foot spikes that go into the tree (as Lisa Simpson uses in the tree-sitting episode of the Simpsons). They did it by wrapping a rope around the trunk and inching their way up little by little. I watched Osha try and do this in a smaller tree and saw her face wrenched with pain after just ten or so feet. So these men got through 150 feet of this climbing. I'm sure they rested on branches in between, but still, they had the perseverance to go all that way up the tree, plus rig some giant boards to the tree, all with rope--no nails, so that people could live up there.

The most famous name in tree-sitting is Julia Butterfly, a woman who sat in a Redwood tree for two years without coming down. Her refusal to come down led to that tree and thousands around it to be saved, and to more mainstream awareness of deforestation. But before Julia, there had to be a couple of guys (or women) who trudged through the forest with boards, ropes and buckets to build the platform that would become her home.

The history of activism and positive world change is littered with these anonymous folks--people who aren't charming or good on camera--but who build things, cook things, mail things, and generally do unglamorous work.

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