Tree sits make for high drama

In market-driven societies, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse once said, protest is often treated like any other commodity that’s consumed and disposed of. His advice? Make sure your action can’t readily be devoured, digested and discredited. Instead, be sure that those you’re trying to reach have to deal with what you’re driving at.

Gandhi did this by taking a long, suspenseful walk to the sea. The civil rights movement made sure this happened with waves of sit-ins and freedom rides. The Occupy movement got this done by planting its flag in public space and not budging. And now, those resisting the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline are doing it by clambering into trees throughout a construction site in Texas.

These activists and Texas landowners are part of an ongoing movement to stop a pipeline that poses enormous immediate and long-term environmental risks — including ecological damage in Canada, potential spills in the U.S. agricultural heartland and the acceleration of climate change. Leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen describes the Keystone XL pipeline as “a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet.”

A campaign called Tar Sands Action put this message on the national radar last year when it organized two weeks of daily sit-ins outside the White House in which 1,253 people were arrested. Several months later, they organized 12,000 people to surround it. While all this helped slow the pipeline’s momentum, it didn’t stop construction entirely, which is why Texans have mounted what they’re calling the Tar Sands Blockade.

Even as Superstorm Sandy was mainstreaming the reality of climate change last week, the blockaders were carrying on a 40-day tree-sit to dramatize and resist policies contributing to the potential multiplication of such a disaster in the future. A series of blog posts on the Tar Sands Blockade’s website illuminate the resolve of not only the tree-sitters to stay put, but also the TransCanada pipeline officials and local law enforcement to remove them. For example, a police operation was conducted last week to remove tree-sitters Lauren and Pika (their last names don’t appear on the blog) via a cherry picker from their 70-foot perch. Eventually they were removed and now face a battery of charges, including fourth degree (state) felony mischief.

This action has won strong support from a wide range of environmental groups, as well as Green Party presidential hopeful Jill Stein, who herself was arrested while resupplying the activists with food and Halloween treats last week. In a statement released by her campaign, Stein said, “I’m here to connect the dots between super storm Sandy and the record heat, drought, and fire we’ve seen this year and this Tar Sands pipeline, which will make all of these problems much worse.”

This is far from the first such tree-sit campaign. A tree-sit was organized to challenge strip mining in 2011 and in 2012. This year the tactic was used to resist fracking and to protest a new biolab in Florida. Other “climbers” have included members of the Ruckus Society, students at the University of California Santa Cruz and the University of California Berkeley. But the most enduring example was Julia Butterfly Hill’s two-year tree-sit in the late 1990s.

Fifteen years ago next month, Hill ascended a thousand-year-old redwood tree dubbed Luna in the Headwaters Forest of Northern California. From December 10, 1997, until December 23, 1999, Hill stayed put to prevent it and other trees in the area from being logged by Maxaam Corporation’s Pacific Lumber Company. Hill’s tree-sit, rooted in her acute vision of a wounded world longing for nonviolent healing, was reinforced by a vow: “When I climbed Luna, I gave my word to her, the forests, and all people that I would not allow my feet to touch the ground until I felt I had done everything I possibly could to protect her and the forests.”

Having no clue what would come of her decision to live among Luna’s branches, Hill integrated her maturing perception of and commitment to a holistic spirituality with an ongoing nonviolent action that directly interfered with logging but did so in a way that respected the sacredness of all.

“From where I sit, I can see everything that we are fighting for and everything we are fighting against, in one view,” Hill discovered while aloft among Luna’s limbs. “By not allowing my feet to touch the ground once during all this time, I’ve separated myself from the world down there.”

These reflections came not from sitting in the safety and stability of her living room at home, but by living voluntarily adrift in the canopy of a redwood forest, willingly vulnerable and relentlessly persistent. “In the winter storms of 1997,” she recalled, “there were some winds close to 90 mph. Major branches were ripped off Luna in the wind. Part of my fort collapsed, and I was thrown several feet. Sleet and hail were flying through the tarps, which had ripped. I know that Luna had to be holding onto me very hard that night.”

In her book, The Legacy of Luna, Hill charts how this nonviolent spirit led her to reach out to John Campbell, the president of Pacific Lumber, and how they crafted a resolution. After many phone calls — Hill had a cell phone — Campbell traveled out to meet her. This led to eight months of negotiation. Hill charts how hostility gave way, in the face of her persistence, to openness, dialogue, and a settlement that spared Luna and established a buffer around her. Just before Christmas in 1999, Hill slowly rappelled down the side of the tree that had been her home for 738 days. (Here is a video account of this tree-sit and the larger struggle it was part of.)

Tree-sitters fuse the tactics of environmental nonviolent direct action (pioneered by Greenpeace and other organizations) with the methods of groups like Peace Brigades International and Witness for Peace, which offer “protective accompaniment” in war zones. They stand in the way, often slowing down the process of destruction and sometimes stopping it. Most of all, they can create the possibility that the rest of us might grapple with — and respond to — the problem and potential at hand.

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