"A Good Forest for Dying" by Patrick Beach

Since Earth First activist David Chain was crushed by a falling tree in the Headwaters standoff of 1998, he has been memorialized in song by Bonnie Raitt and been made the subject of a book and a play. But the corporate lumber giants he opposed are still standing tall.

Published July 14, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Dying under a falling redwood has a certain operatic romance to it. You're crushed by one of the very trees you're trying to save from the loggers' axes. Failing to defend this 130-foot giant, you go down with it.

But by a cruder calculus, your life has just been cut short for $7,000; a 130-foot redwood tree commands about that much on the open market, producing around 3,000 board feet of wood.

So if you give up your life trying to save the redwoods from loggers, timber company executives and those voracious consumers at the other end of the supply chain, are you a heroic eco-martyr or a measly $7,000 worth of capitalist collateral damage?

What the life and death of Earth First activist David Nathan "Gypsy" Chain -- who was crushed under a felled redwood on Sept. 17, 1998 -- meant is the central conundrum of "A Good Forest for Dying: The Tragic Death of a Young Man on the Front Lines of the Environmental Wars," a lively nonfiction account by Patrick Beach, a feature writer for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. Beach, who pegs himself as a "raging moderate," casts the decade-plus conflict between activists like Chain and the Pacific Lumber Company in the redwood forests of Northern California as nothing less than a battle between "the American way of life versus life itself."

In Humboldt County, where the great redwoods grow to more than 350 feet tall, the forest is a land of ancient sacred groves to the likes of Julia Butterfly Hill and the Earth Firsters. But it's an industrial workplace for the loggers who make their living cutting it down, performing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. "Everybody there loved trees, the saying went, just some folks preferred them horizontal," Beach writes.

Some Earth Firsters, who claim that the trees talk to them, seem to have "meandered into the movement because it was the best way they could most deeply annoy their parents," Beach quips. But he's careful not to skewer their whole cause by the goofy excesses or suspect motivations of a few of the flakier ardent converts. In Chain, and others like him, Beach finds an environmental idealism that runs much deeper than a mere rebel-against-the-suburbs lifestyle choice.

Superficially, 24-year-old Chain would seem to have had more in common with the Humboldt faction who hang signs in their front yards reading "This family supported by timber dollars" than with the crunchy Earth Firsters who were given to vocalizing what they claimed were the death wails of falling trees. Chain grew up in the working-class Texas town of Pasadena, a suburb known even in the smoggy greater Houston area for its particularly fetid air. During his childhood, his father was laid off from his factory job at Armco when the Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on the big-time corporate polluter for dumping half a ton of cyanide and other toxic chemicals into the Houston Ship Channel. If Chain had been born in Humboldt County, it seems likely his dad would have been a logger.

After high school, Chain struggled to find his own way, which quickly put him "on the freeway to loserdom." He halfheartedly enrolled in a few community college courses and almost joined the Navy, while toying with the idea of going to chiropractic school. In the meantime, he worked a series of dead-end jobs, which included making salsa in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in the Texas heat.

A vegetarian girlfriend, who'd been to Northern California and longed to live the back-to-the-land dream in a cabin in the woods, led Chain to the North Coast. He soon split with her, but found what can rightfully be deemed his calling: standing up for the trees. But one nonviolent confrontation with loggers in the woods ended with his skull split open on the forest floor, and the whole grisly conflict caught on videotape.

Beach is sympathetic to the tragic romance of Chain's trajectory from the Texas petrochemical industrial wasteland to the storied Northern California redwood forest, where he dies with a deer antler tied to his belt. But he also makes us feel for the foul-mouthed loggers who violently threaten and curse the activists on the tape before the fatal tree falls. One 21-year-old logger, a spotter named Rhett Reback, reported that after Chain's death, he didn't sleep for weeks and "didn't take a solid shit" for months. In his view, these Earth Firsters were running around an industrial work site without boots, gloves or a hard hat, and now they're screaming murder on the evening news.

The logger who actually cut the tree that killed Chain, A.E. Ammons, aka "Big A," was caught on tape minutes before the tree went down screaming, "Get outta here! Otherwise I'll fuckin', I'll make sure I got a tree comin' this way." But in his view these Earth First kids were on a death mission, where someone was bound to get killed. Chain was nothing short of suicidal, and Ammons resents being blamed for it. (And yes, his digestion has suffered too.)

Beach traces the legal tangle that ensued, in which, incredibly, the other Earth Firsters were threatened with prosecution for involuntary manslaughter for leading Chain into harm's way. In this sorry tale, there's really only one person Beach doesn't even try to humanize: Texas junk bond czar Charles Hurwitz, whose Maxxam Corp. took over Pacific Lumber and seemed to be logging it literally into the ground. Beach characterizes Hurwitz as cold-blooded to the point of being reptilian, even when confronted by David Chain's aggrieved mother at a heated shareholders' meeting.

To the Earth Firsters, the loggers they confronted in the forest during their actions and blockades were merely handmaidens of much more insidious and powerful corporate forces, which not only destroyed the trees the activists love, but also the very company employing the loggers themselves. Pacific Lumber came to be seen as a symbol of the overwhelming influence of global corporate power, which sold out the livelihoods of working people like the loggers in the name of short-term profit, while feeding the hyperconsumption of the United States, where 6 percent of the world population consumes 40 percent of its resources.

If there is a final, gruesome irony in "A Good Forest for Dying," it is the chilling argument made by the lawyer who brought a civil suit against Pacific Lumber on behalf of Chain's mother: Despite their best intentions, the activists succeeded in lining the pockets of the very company they railed against. Because if all the protests against redwood logging in Humboldt County -- including Julia Butterfly Hill's famous tree-sit -- achieved anything, it was to raise the value of the land that Pacific Lumber owned the right to log, by increasing public awareness about the forest's ecological and aesthetic value.

In the end, the federal government paid $480 million to buy fewer than 10,000 acres in the Headwaters forest from Pacific Lumber, many of them full of old and rotten trees. "The government hadn't a clue what it was getting for all that money," Beach writes. "It was a hoodwink of cosmic proportions."

Chain's brief life was arguably more meaningful than one he might have found if he'd stayed back in Pasadena for another 50 or 60 years. Finding an activist's passion near the end, he's been hailed as a martyr by his green brethren and memorialized in song by Bonnie Raitt. He has been the subject of a play and an elegiac tattoo. But in a sickening example of the law of unintended consequences, Beach, whose book pays Chain's life its most through and substantive tribute, suggests that Chain and his fellow activists enriched the capitalists they loathed, even as they made their stand to keep a good forest from dying.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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