FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Tim Ream

All of the past humans have been able to live on the bounty of an earth that included this amazing diversity. And this diversity itself is what makes the earth so livable. It's what makes it so interesting, and beautiful, and fecund, and fertile, and healthy, and vibrant, and hospitable. It's the diversity. And an asphalt lot with a big tree growing in the middle of it is not a hospitable place to live, despite that there's a 200-year-old tree with branches spread. It's better than an asphalt lot without a tree! But it's still not diversity! It's still just one big, old being.

And these big old beings, these old-growth trees, they're incredibly important. They're incredibly important for themselves, as beings that have lived here since before our ancestors even came to this continent. They're important for all the fungus, and the lichens, the squirrels, the voles, the owls, the other birds that lives up and down; all the soil, fungi, and all of the nimotodes, and all of the amazing creatures that live under the ground in that interwoven roots system that symbiotically holds the whole forest up.

But, basically, these trees are like the structure, like the scaffolding that holds up the whole house of a healthy ecosystem. I can say it in words, you can watch it on TV -- if you walk through a tree plantation, and you step out of that tree plantation, where almost all of the trees are of the same age, almost all of the trees are of the same species, they were planted there by humans, they were developed genetically to be what human beings wanted to have -- you walk out of that, and you see what grows there, you see what lives there, you see what it feels like...

...And you walk into an old-growth forest, that is exactly what used to be where that tree plantation was. It's a line that runs, sometimes. A line they drew and they said, cut here, not there -- yet. You walk across that line, and you're back on Earth. You're in a place that has been like it has been, living on its own terms, for 10,000 years? More? You could argue, forever. The tree plantation is a product of industrial civilization. An industrial civilization that has no proven track record of lasting 10,000 years? 1,000 years? I don't think it's going to last 100 years.

What they're creating has no heart. It has no sustainability. It is like the mentality of the machine. It only has value in that, machines come back after a certain number of years, cut it all down, do it again, and pretend like they can do that over and over, just like the early farmers in America pretending that they could grow crops without fertilizing, until the dust bowl came. So, we deplete the soil, we grow the tree farm, and all the species, all the predators, all the species that live in the canopy, all the species that live on the ground, all the species that haven't even been documented that live in the soil, are gone.

Sometimes they're gone in that they just shifted to another place in the forest. But sometimes they're gone forever. And that's extinction. And extinction is not death -- it's the end of birth. It doesn't come back, ever. And what that means is that, all future humans, and all future life of all kinds on the planet will never again experience that thing that's not there.

It's not just like we only do this in America, it's not just that this has only been happening since Bush got elected, this is something human beings have been doing every since human beings have become more powerful than the other critters in the forest. But what's happening is, it's happening at a rate that is accelerating. We're hitting that point in the curve where it starts to go up so fast. And so the amount of extinction that's happening now is happening at a much, much faster rate than it ever happened in the past.

So, how much we're losing, it's like a blink of an eye. It's like one generation doesn't even know to the next what used to be there. And one generation to the next doesn't understand how what used to be there, used to be important. And we think that our machines, and our science, and our advertisers, and our computers are going to be able to replace that, and give us a high quality of life. But I don't think there's any reason to believe that in the long term, that's really what's going to matter.

I don't think that we should save the forest solely on human terms. But I think that we would be fools to think that we can live without this.

If all we did was go back to the places that have already been cut, and cut the trees there again and again and again, I still would worry for the earth. But even in 2005, people are still going through, and looking for the places that have never been cut before! And what's left on the planet? I don't know, it's less than half by far. What left in the lower 48 of the United States of America? It's 5%, 4%, 3%, some people say. The government won't give you a number that's any higher.

And so, who is extreme here? Who are the ones that are stating the extreme position? The ones that are saying, we've taken 97%, and we want 98, and maybe 99? Or the people that are saying, can we just leave this 3% alone, and can maybe we start to heal some of the 97%?

I mean, Americans, people around the world, they want wood products. I was burning wood in my fireplace today, you know? And I am going to continue to write on pieces of paper. I'm going to continue to engage in using some trees from the forest. But I hope that the way I'm going to do it is using recycled content whenever I can; never cutting trees from forests that've never been cut before; always trying to engage in a way that's using the minimum amount possible, looking for serious alternatives. To do other than that is just to basically be the one that's handing over the money to somebody else to do the dirty work.

And that's what going on right now -- 2000 square foot houses! With people who have rooms of stuff they don't even want. They don't even go into those rooms, they only use them to put the stuff that they don't want, that for some reason they got as presents, or they bought and they thought they wanted it, it's a whole section of the house. That's ridiculous. People are buying these big houses because they're good investments. Because they can get mortgage deductions on their income taxes. Not because it provided them with a healthy, vibrant place to live.

I don't understand it at the heart level. I understand it at the economic level. But I don't see people who have big, empty houses, having big, full lives. So, that's why for me, give me the space that I need. It's not a lot. Make that space efficient, make that space healthy. Make it in a way that, when it's over, I feel good about what's gone because of what I did. And make it in a way that when I'm gone, it itself is just going to melt back into the earth, and it's not going to be a big eyesore, it's not going to be a gash out of the forest.

My house is not going to be a gash out of the forest. Because my gash is just one. 280 million Americans all gashing, gashing, gashing. There's not much left. And I don't know what people believe, but, they're still cutting old growth forests. They're still trying to destroy these last few places. And I've got a map behind me that's filled with just my neighbourhood, where there's a mark everywhere where they want to destroy the forest. And people are fighting them. We win sometimes, we lose sometimes. Every time we win, it's just a matter of time before they try to take that place again. Every time we lose -- it's gone forever.

I'm not saying a forest never grows back, but they don't plant forests, you can't plant a forest. They plant tree plantations. That's what they want to do. They change the logic of symbiotic life working cooperatively to create diversity and stability and health; and they change that logic to the logic of the market, that says, How do we produce what the market wants as fast as possible? It's a logic of money, but it's not a logic of life. The logic of life has a proven track record of billions of years. The logic of money doesn't have that track record, and I don't think there's any reason to trust it.

You know, in a lot of ways, what's important is what happens in the heart. And frankly, for myself, I have heart buoyed up by those moments where I could look out over a piece of land and see it wasn't going to be destroyed. And it was because of the work that my friends, and to some extent myself, had done. And there's nothing to give you the energy to want to work further.

But I went through a period where a lot of places were being destroyed, despite everything that I and the people around me had done. It felt like there was nothing that we could do. And, really, my heart became very heavy with the feeling of watching place after place after place... You know, when you're involved in on-the-ground forest defence, and you have become intimately involved with that hillside, and those trees, and that place, and then -- you pour yourself out to try to stop it, and it doesn't work, and they cut it anyway. To get up the next day, and to try to do it again, it's not easy.

Recently, I walked through a forest, and I had this experience that I haven't had in a long time, which was this sense like: I think we can save this place. Like, I'm willing to fall in love now, because I think I can make a difference this time, you know? And it was a feeling that I had censored myself from, for years, because I didn't have the confidence. I started working on the global level, and I was afraid to walk in to a forest. Because to walk into a forest and look it over, for me it's like: walking away from that is like a defeat right there. But to say you're going to stay and fight, is to pour your heart out for these beings that are there.

I had that experience, and some of the places that I walked in and made that vow, they're still here because of that, and then, some other places, they're not. And it's a tough balance to keep on moving through that.

I've been doing forest activism for about 10 years, and actually, during those 10 years, what I've done has changed, but I think what works has changed. When I started working 10 years ago, the stuff I was doing was very direct. We would go out into the forest, and we would use our bodies to stand between the chainsaws and the trees. And that, in some cases, would be something like a blockade, or at Warner Creek, it was a blockage that lasted for almost a year. What we did was, we needed to physically stop the act of destruction right there at the point of destruction.

But we've learned over the years is that we needed to evolve tactically. And what I mean by that is to say that the system is very good at responding to anything that is a threat to the system. And so, a lot of people standing up and locking arms and blocking the bulldozers, blocking the chainsaws, became a threat to the system. And so the system figured out a way around that, through, unfortunately, brutality, intimidation, fairly strong control over the media.

The system was able through, basically, these kind of scare tactics to diminish people's desire to engage in that kind of activity. People don't want their lungs filled with tear gas, or their eyes rubbed with pepper spray. People don't want to be beaten with a truncheon, or subjected to, literally, torture techniques to get them to unlock from a cement-filled barrel. And so, over the years, the system, the powers that be, they figured out how to keep people from being very effective on the ground blockading.

So then what people did, in, sort of, the next phase, was they moved up into the trees. They couldn't block the roads anymore, because police could lay their hands on them, so they went up into the trees where people couldn't lay their hands on them. And then tree-sitting became a really effective technique for quite some time. And so people figured out how not to just occupy one tree, but to string lines between many trees, and to sit in a platform that was suspended from numerous trees, or to figure out ways to loop all different kinds of trees together, in a system that if one tree fell, the rope would break, and the whole platform would come down.

And, you know, all these tactics are at the mercy of some sort of humanity on the part of the people that would be cutting the forest. And by removing themselves up into the trees, people were able to hold off a lot of forest destruction. But once again, I think the system figured its way around that. Tree-sitting sort of lost its glamour, and because kind of old hat, and the media stopped covering it. The powers that be figured out that they could log around tree-sits, and if you log 90% of the sale, and the tree-sit stops 5%, well, that's great for that 5%, but that's kind of disheartening for anybody that really loved that forest. So people kind of went through that.

And then, I think what happened is a lot of people in the forest movement started looking more broadly -- and of course, this has been happening for a long time, but the activism that I was involved in started looking at some of these institutions that were really the controlling influence over global forestry. And so we started concentrasting on the North American Wholesale Lumber Association, NAWLA. And we started attending their annual meetings in Dallas, Texas, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in Chicago, Illinois.

Going after the executives, and letting them know that there was going to be a price to pay in terms of their own comfort, in terms of their own sense of pride in what they do. We were breaking in on their board meetings, busting up their cocktail parties, throwing sawdust in their parties, reading them the Riot Act at their board meetings, slipping flyers under the door that were printed up to look like their own newsletters, but that told the truth from our point of view. And so we engaged in that kind of activism for a long time. And so that's the kind of stuff I've been doing over the years.

Frankly, right now, what I see post-September 11th, and just after having done this, in my case, 10 years, but other people for 20-30 years, is that the media is less inclined than ever to tell the truth from our point of view, the powers that be are more inclined than ever to use brutality to stop civil disobedience. And that has driven some people into the realm of full-on sabotage-type tactics, so some people engage in that kind of activity. And for other people, they've backed up, and some people, they're looking at the problem more holistically, but other people are reduced to begging and pleading and letter-writing, and that sort of thing. And sometimes it works.

What I know a lot of activists have done, and what I've done myself, more in the last couple of years, is get more involved in just community organizing, and trying to really get more people involved by just getting down into the grass roots. But that's great for local areas, and, you know, we're doing what we can, but whole huge swaths of the world's forests are falling while we're sitting here trying to figure out what really will work.

A lot of people will ask, What can we do that matters? And what I've always felt in my heart was, Everything that we do matters! Just the way that we behave throughout the day matters. So we can matter in that little way of choosing recycled content, or making sure we recycle the paper, or trying not to be involved in the fossil fuel economy, or trying to build in a way that we feel good about, and we feel is sustainable. We can engage in those kind of activities, and those can make some sort of difference.

And then there's a question of whether or not you want to say, Now, also, can I pour myself into directly trying to affect the situation that's here? Can I make it not just about my life, but about the lives of other people? Can I steer bureaucrats in a different way? Can I stop logging companies in their tracks? Can I arouse these people over here, to get them to stand up and change the way they're doing business? It would be one thing for me to go out and change my practices, and live my life in a way that's sustainable. And I say, thank you so much to anybody who does that, right?

But, you want to make that next step? You want to make that next step, where it's not just about you, but it starts to get bigger? You start to create a movement within your neighbourhood, or a campaign within your community, where now lots of people are saying, Well we all could be changing the way we purchase! We all could be building differently, the houses that we're building! We all could be, actually, standing up to the government that's in our community, trying to destroy these forests that are miles down the road, or 100 miles down the road. And so that kind of energy is like a whole other level for people to go.

And it takes a sustenance that comes, I feel, partly from the success of saving places, partly just from the love that the land gives you, and partly from the connection you get with other people who have given their lives over to that kind of work. So that's kind of what sustains me, that's the heart-space. It's not always easy.

Working with a group of people to pour of hearts, to risk our lives, to save a place -- and then to go into a broader community and tell that story. Sometimes with my words, sometimes in writing, sometimes with video, sometimes other people did it with music. So we would go somewhere that was under threat, we would work our best, sometimes we'd save it, sometimes we wouldn't, and then we would come out and say:

Here's what happened! Here's what happened! Does that inspire you? Does it worry you? Does it make you want to give money? Does it make you want to change the way you're living? Does it make you want to change the way you vote? Does it make you want to engage in the system differently? Does it make you want to disengage from the system that you're currently engaged with?

And hopefully, then, something would spread, something was growing. And I think what we felt, what we all felt, was that was spreading. And it spread greatly. And when they decided to take the largest meeting of world leaders and try to impose unelected world government in the form of the WTO, the World Trade Organization, and they decided to come to what amounted to our backyard, the Pacific Northwest, Seattle, in November of 1999, they had no idea what they were doing.

But we had an idea what we were doing. And we took the tactics that we learned from the forest, and we put them on the streets of Seattle, and we literally kept them, the most powerful people in the world, from getting together and talking. And what that did was, it created a sense of power for the powerless. It created a sense of ability to make change from people that had always felt completely disempowered. And so no longer were the powers that be of the world allowed to gather in the 'Green Room,' make the decisions, then come out and feed it to the developing world, and say, Sign here, or else!

Suddenly, the Brazils, and the Chinas, and the Indias of the world said, We have power! Like those people in the streets, we have power! I mean, that's the story that I understand of what happened. And those meetings in Seattle collapsed. And they took themselves off to Qatar two years later, and made a plan. And they went to Cancun two years after that, and got nothing done. And now they're about to meet in Taiwan, and I hope that not much is going to happen there.

And so suddenly, we were like, Wow! We're acting on a world stage now with these tactics of direct action! It's a tremendous sense of empowerment! And, you know, frankly, this has been going on around the world for a long time. In Europe, these sorts of meetings have been opposed vigorously. But I think the Europeans, they gained energy from what we did in the United States. Because suddenly it was like, Wow, even the Yanks are doing this! You know, suddenly it was like, Wow! Even Americans are standing up, locking arms, throwing rocks, I mean, they're stopping it even in America!

And so the energy built. It built into Quebec with the FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] meetings. And it built after that to Genoa in 2001, where the President of the United States of America slept on a ship in the Adriatic Sea, because he was afraid to sleep in the city, because there were millions of people in the streets, saying, We will not bow down to these so-called elected leaders running the world for us!

And then, September 11th, 2001. And suddenly the world was different. Or, the world was more the same than it ever had been before. Because suddenly fear, once again, became the dominant force. And fear is the enemy of empowerment. And a lot of people decided that they needed to be quiet for a while, and sit back, and see what happened. And ti has all been different in the last four years since then. Not that there aren't people continuing to stand up. Not that there haven't been a lot of people that have continued to try to do this. But the momentum, the air, just went phhhhhhhew, right out of something that, until that point, had really been growing.

So, we find ourselves now in a world where the blinders are off. Fascism shows its ugly face in this country, and people vote for four more years of it. Or, maybe they don't vote, maybe they think they vote, and little machines in faraway rooms count a different number? I don't believe we have free and fair elections, and we haven't had for a long time, but certainly something's getting weirder and weirder.

My country's in favour of torture. We pay news media within this country, we pay news media outside this country to tell our stories. We support regimes that engage in torture, and we are proud of it! The president announces that he might veto the only bill he's ever vetoed, a defence authorization bill, if it doesn't include torture! The architect of the torture memo becomes the Attourney General, the highest law enforcement officer in the land.

And so, all this is happening, and Americans, I think, are probably about 50% asleep, probably about 25% say, Eh, it's not so good for most people, but it's good for me! And maybe about 25% are awake. And they say to themselves, What can I do? What can I do? And that's the game that we all -- not the game, it's not a game -- I mean, that 's the puzzle that we all try to solve. What could I possibly do that can meet the magnitude of what's happening in the world with a similar response from my own self that doesn't feel trivial.

War in Iraq. The rollback of civil liberties. Climate change, accelerating before our very eyes. Predictions that were supposed to happen 20 years from now, coming true now. And we look back, and we say, How could anything I do not appear trivial compared to that? And it's going to take some people fundamentally understanding the basis of how illegitimate authority and illegitimate power work, and throwing themselves fully into it, and seeing whether or not a bunch of people are willing to follow.

It's only a matter of time before it gets bad enough that a lot of people will. The crisis is already happening in many parts of the world. People are standing up there, and making a difference. Latin America is no longer solidly in the pocket of the United States of America. Of course the people never were, but the leadership was, for a long time. So America suddenly has a threat on its back door. Sigh. When will the people of this country understand? I don't know.