"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Remarkable Trees of the World, Butterfly, and If a Tree Falls (book and film reviews)

"The most common form of terrorism in the U.S.A. is that carried on by bulldozers and chain saws." 
--Edward Abbey, 1927-1989 

Julia "Butterfly" Hill in her tree, which she named Luna
(image found at http://hugrevolution.tribe.net/photos/4711e272-6362-4fd1-b0c6-e619dd1995ea )
I have a thing about trees. It goes back to my childhood, when I wandered alone in olive groves and orange orchards, among wild oaks and tall redwoods. I've had relationships with trees everywhere I've lived, probably because I got to know them when I was young. I knew trees as generous, harmless, and dependable sources of delicious food, reassuring shelter, and easy companionship. I understood them better than people, and preferred their company most of the time. Sometimes I still do. I came to understand that trees are badly abused by humans--and there was never any question what side I was on. I've been working on a piece about my personal history with trees; for now, here are some reviews of works that resonated strongly for me:

Remarkable Trees of the World by Thomas Pakenham (Norton, 1998) I was fortunate to review this beautiful book when it was first published (these comments are adapted from that review) and I'm happy to learn, now, that it did find the following it deserved, and raised consciousness among friends and potential friends of trees, even generating a small ecotourism industry for people who were inspired to meet the trees in the book.

Pakenham, a historian who had written extensively on the problem of colonialism, then gained a following of tree-lovers with Meetings with Remarkable Trees (Random, 1998), which featured trees in Britain and Ireland. It was in turn made into a radio and television series which I have never seen.  

In Remarkable Trees of the World, Pakenham sets out to discover more such natural wonders elsewhere. In Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, he finds 60 commanding tree presences: giants and dwarfs, Methuselahs, shrines, and what he calls "dream" trees of many diverse kinds. Whether he is meeting baobabs, sequoias, or banyans, the author finds magnificence, beauty, and, sometimes, sadness. He has a genius for communicating his sense of each tree as an individual being, engendering wonder, awe, and respect for it in the reader. 

Pakenham's thoughtful but brisk narratives bring his travels to life, and readers will feel that they are participants in an adventure as he experiences trees, their ecological and historical contexts, and the challenges he faces in creating photographs that can begin to do justice to these difficult and special subjects. The resulting images are truly remarkable, conveying the tactile aspect of bark, the sense of size or majesty, or the rare moment when the light is just right to capture the spirit of the tree.

The book's chapters are further enhanced with historical illustrations (often, views of the same trees in much earlier days) and snippets of poetry ranging from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Ogden Nash. Pakenham ends his journey with a chapter on "Trees in Peril." This beautiful and unique book is sure to be appreciated by nature lovers. And though it is a highly personal work and not a scientific text, it demonstrates keen and accurate observation; it could serve as an excellent supplement to studies in science, history, and geography.

Two fine documentary films show, from the inside, something of the reality of the people who care enough, and are courageous enough, to put their bodies in the path of the machines of destruction -- and these films expose the true nature of the drivers of those machines, too. I'll only say a little about the films here, because they really are to be seen. They deserve that.

photo from excellent website:
First, Butterfly (1980): This is the story of Julia "Butterfly" Hill, the young woman who famously camped out 180 feet up in an ancient redwood tree for over two years to keep loggers from killing it. 

Filmmaker Doug Wolens covered the story, and gives Butterfly's mission context: the wholesale destruction of the magnificent Pacific rain forest and the culture of Earth First, front-line eco-activists whose individuals and movement supported her. Wolens's previous background was as an attorney and this gave him the tools to make clear the issues, both legal and moral. 

This is a stark, scary, and beautiful story. Many people comment that it shows that "one person can make a difference," but don't expect any cliches here. Remarkably, Wolens edited the film on his home PC. The story is so riveting that I was not aware of any technical shortcomings: the story and the movie, like Butterfly herself, were inspired. It is a story that demands to be known.

This remarkable woman named Butterfly continues to write and represent trees to the human world. 

More recently came a selection at Ashland Independent Film Festival in 2011,  If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011). It was nominated for a 2012 Oscar. Its director, Marshall Curry, had won an Emmy and this was his second Oscar nomination. 

The story arc: In December 2005, the FBI arrested several members of a Southern Oregon cell of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) for a number of high-profile actions throughout the West. The case was headline news for months in Oregon, but this film explores what is really a rather complex tale with much more intelligence and subtlety than has been seen before. 

Remarkably, the story came to the filmmaker's attention because one of the accused, Daniel McGowan, happened to be a co-worker in Curry's wife's office at the time of his arrest. Curry set out to understand McGowan's personal transformation and radicalization, and tells of the rise and fall of the ELF cell by focusing on their increasingly dangerous campaigns, the mistakes that unraveled them, and how the FBI finally caught up with them.  

To borrow a phrase or two from the filmmaker's website, this is part coming of age story and part cops-and-robbers thriller. The documentary uses archival footage and exclusive interviews to examine the character of these people and the dynamics of their group, and asks hard questions about environmentalism, activism, American values, and the way the US defines terrorism. 

And finally, speaking of how the US defines terrorism (the key shift: legally it's no longer about hurting people, it's about damaging property - another pernicious wrinkle in the legal shift to corporate personhood), here's a recent interview that refers to this very subject; I just came across it on NPR's website: http://pd.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/totn/2012/02/20120221_totn_04.mp3 I'm glad someone is still taking about it. I think Marshall Curry is a heroic filmmaker.

(Note: this post, with these reviews, has been in draft form for quite a while. I finally realized I couldn't get a handle on it because I really had three stories going on: my own history with trees; the reviews here; and an essay on civil disobedience and modern definitions of terrorism. These two movie reviews indicate where I'm going with that; my review of We Are Legion does, too. I'm now working on the other two parts...)

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