Deep in the heart of Oregon's Willamette National Forest, surrounded by clearcuts, lie several scattered patches of ancient hemlocks and majestic Douglas firs. Because these areas contain some of the Willamette's (and by extension, the nation's) last stands of 200-foot old-growth trees, news that the U.S. Forest Service had auctioned them off to the Zip-O-Log Company last March incensed many environmentalists ù among them a group of Earth First! activists who convened in a Eugene coffeehouse shortly after the deal was announced to form an ad hoc brigade called Red Cloud Thunder, in honor of the last war chief of the Teton Sioux. At its inaugural meeting, the 150-member group resolved to take turns occupying a number of trees slated for the saw in the hopes of forestalling Zip-O's plan to convert these forest giants into patio furniture.
This, of course, is merely the latest expression of a decade-long tree-sitting trend whose most recent form is perhaps best articulated by Julia "Butterfly" Hill. For the past 14 months, the 24-year-old former barmaid and model has conducted a running media-fest from the upper branches of a tree she's named Luna to protest the destruction of one of northern California's last remaining redwood stands. When Butterfly isn't chatting up reporters on her cell phone, she's updating her Web page, schmoozing with her PR agent, or mourning the death of David "Gypsy" Chain, a fellow protester whose demise beneath a logger-felled redwood last September cast the national spotlight on an even larger stand of endangered redwoods six miles to the south.
Curious about how Red Cloud Thunder's spec ops were proceeding amid these larger developments, we decided it was time to pay a visit to their compound, a kind of dendriform paradise-without-plumbing that seems to have taken its blueprint from the Ewoks, the arboreal rodents of Return of the Jedi fame. For living quarters, they have rigged up five aeries inspired by architectural styles that range from Backwoods Henhouse to Mississippi River Raft. Each is connected to the others by a cat's cradle of climbing ropes, winches, and pulleys.
We swiftly discover that the RCTers have anointed each of their trees with a name. Yggdrasl, the "party tree," is inhabited by a protester with the admirably unpretentious nom de guerre Dirt, who describes himself as a "freelance forest defender." Fangorn contains the group's library, which includes works by Einstein, Thoreau, and Emerson, plus a variety of field guides. (The books are circulated via pulleys from one tree to the next.) There's also Comfrey, Guardian, Friendly, Grandma, and a tree called Happy, which we ascended by means of a rope to speak with Nettle, a 22-year-old anarchist hailing from Augusta, Georgia.
Nettle currently resides on a round plywood platform with a sleeping bag, a two-burner camp stove, and a car battery that powers her string of Christmas lights and a tape deck on which she listens to the cutting-edge punk-folk chanteuse Ani DiFranco while contemplating Happy's bark. "There's a natural mark the shape of a goddess in it," she says. "See?"
We did see, though not as clearly as Nettle. But then, she's been up here for eight months, sipping herbal tea, keeping house, and paying visits to the abodes of her comrades. ("Comfrey's like a hammock," she says. "I go over there and I have the most amazing dreams!") Nettle also enjoys trading bits of woodsy banter with her neighbor in nearby Fangorn, a 35-year-old activist who calls himself Pacific, wears camouflage pants, paints his face green, and used to play the stock market. "The trees," Pacific volunteers, "they talk to us. They warn us, you know. Happy will say, 'The Freddies [the Forest Service rangers] are coming on Tuesday.' I've gotten used to accurate tree reports."
Nettle smiles. "I love Pacific," she croons with all the warmth of her home state. "Idn't he great?"
Alas, the Freddies don't think so ù an opinion that stems, among other things, from the RCTers' habit of dropping gallon jugs filled with urine onto the heads of Forest Service personnel. "These people are downright obnoxious," says agency spokesperson Patti Rodgers, expressing a sentiment that is echoed, none too surprisingly, by a growing number of mainstream environmentalists.
Though their more moderate colleagues find the RCTers' dedication admirable and their loopiness mildly endearing, they clearly worry that Nettle and her friends are helping to sustain the impression that environmental activists are all a bunch of ... well, nitwits. "You don't build support," grumbles Mitch Friedman, director of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, "by constructing a counterculture up in the trees."
On that point, Nettle and her colleagues beg to differ, vehemently offering up a rebuttal that must, in fairness, be given some credence ù if only because Zip-O has yet to fire up its chainsaws in this section of the Willamette. "Hey, our sit is the highest tree village ever!" exclaims Dirt. "And as long as we're in the trees, they can't cut 'em down."