Occupy Hendy Woods
by Bruce McEwen, November 16, 2011
The Occupy Hendy Woods project was organized by a group of local 20-somethings — Cyd Bernstein, Leah Collins, Charlie Paget-Seekins, Polly Bates, Keevan Labowitz, and Laili Valitoonzidai plus non-20-something Diane Paget — the Magnificent Seven, as they’re called by some locals. The event had been well-publicized with ads and notices in the AVA and on-line, suggesting that people who couldn’t join in the weekend-long campout donate money or useful gear like rain-flies and water containers or edibles fresh vegetables and fruit, for communal meals, and come on out and learn what was going on.
On Saturday I went out to show support with a carton of fresh eggs from The Major’s free-ranging hens, some acorn squash and a bunch of fresh bananas. Having delivered my contributions to a communal table, I attended a “teach-in” presented by the knowledgeable and articulate Linda MacElwee, the Navarro Watershed Coordinator for the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District.
It appeared to me that many people were doing as much themselves. Coming out for a few hours, bringing donations, signing the petition, and attending events such as the teach-ins. Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg arrived just as I did and signed the petition just below my own signature. He did not stay to hear Ms. MacElwee’s informative presentation, but I saw him posing for some pictures a short distance off with some young women before he vanished.
An average of about 30 to 40 people were there at any given time — only about 20 or so at the teach-in, however. Mostly people came, looked, listened, and left. A core group consisting of about two dozen campers stayed the entire weekend; and half as many again came regularly to help out at the booth and with other duties. One of these was a woman named Barbara, the only person there with an unleashed dog — an adorable little scamp we’ll hear more about later.
Ms. MacElwee’s lecture was scholarly but pleasantly informal, and she handled the many interruptions — mostly from a fellow in a wheelchair who presumed to be an authority on the subject: “The Importance of Hendy Woods State Park to the Navarro River Watershed” — in her pleasant, genial and obliging way.
“This is a brilliant idea,” MacElwee said, referring to the Occupation of Hendy Woods. “I hope it catches fire and spreads.”
The audience warmly approved the exuberant sentiment.
“These woods are at the heart of the Navarro watershed,” she said, “and I’d like to give you some context here so you can better grasp their importance.”
MacElwee had placed a map on an easel and began tracing the “sub-basins” of Rancheria Creek, Anderson Creek, and Indian Creek from their headwaters to their convergence at Hendy Woods.
An easy way to remember the tributaries of the watershed, she suggested, was with the acronym R.A.I.N. (Rancheria, Anderson, Indian, Navarro). She was making a point about erosion, the loss of the water’s ability to meander through the advent of steep banks, and she described each sub-basin in rich and personal detail, recognizing faces in the audience of folks who live in the respective vicinities, “such as Johnson Ranch, off Highway 128, say, up there in the hills, highly erodible soil up there — that’s where it breaks off into incredible ‘bank country,’ the Big Bend it’s called, and that’s some of the wildest country in the watershed … Then we’ve got Anderson Creek, off the Yorkville Ranch, off Highway 253 — highly erodible soil up there, are you with me?”
Trying to keep erosion sediment out of the river was the main issue for any hopes of recovering the once fabulous steelhead trout fishery this area was once famous for.
“Anyone here a fisherman?”
This was all the encouragement Mr. Wheel Chair needed. He could tell some pretty impressive fish tales to any interested parties, he more than implied. He sort of reminded me of Earnest Hemingway if “Papa” had survived his late middle age. Deftly, Ms. MacElwee regained the floor.
“I’d never really seen a fish,” she said modestly, “until I came here.”
She steered the topic on to the fact that Mendocino Redwood Company owns most of the land in the watershed and how logging has affected the ability of the coho salmon to spawn, and this inspired Wheel Chair to insert some of his adventures as a lumberjack. Another lecture auditor pointed out that the logging escalated after World War II with the invention of the chainsaw, the choo-choo train, the Coke machine.
The upshot of MacElwee’s talk was that the watershed was still salvageable but only as long as areas like Hendy Woods remained.
“This is a defensible space,” she said, amending it to: “Space is not the right word, but everything’s related — YOU are connected! Just like the resources in the upland slopes, and that includes the forests, soil, animals, water, industry, farming, everything; it’s all in relationship, one thing to another…”
“What’s that got to do with keeping the park open?” a fellow who had missed the point demanded. “It takes $3 million a year to keep this park open!”
“No, it’s more like $250,000,” a second voice shouted in contradiction.”
“Well, that’s what I read in the Press Democrat,” insisted the first.
An argument about the general fund was heating up. People were talking over each other. Some dropping names, others quoting figures. Wheel Chair wanted the exact amount and the people irresponsible.
“We don’t have the complexity,” MacElwee said, patiently steering the topic back to the importance of Hendy Woods to the watershed and salmon fishery. “The fingerlings need the shade; the water temperature and degree of sediment are very important. Now, the Fish & Game wants the logs and slash back that they earlier cleared out…”
It may be apropos to note here that the vaunted Fish & Game biologists utterly and permanently destroyed the coho salmon habitat in Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi back in the 1980s. They felt they could compete for sport-fishing tourist dollars with Lake Golden in British Columbia, where the fish were bigger. So they introduced a freshwater shrimp from Lake Golden into Flathead Lake. The new shrimp ate the same food the native fingerlings had been nursing on, and within two years that particular species was extinct in a drainage that goes from Glacier Park to the Clark Fork of the Columbia. The F&G did the right thing, though: They blamed it on the loggers — for the slash logs and sediment in the tributaries — which local F&G biologists now say is beneficial.
But I digress.
I went to get my pack, intending to camp over. The young people were playing with volleyballs and frisbies, the older ones reminiscing around the fire. I wanted some time to myself in the fading light to develop my notes. I spread my ground cloth on the grass under an oak, arranged my lap robes and set to work with a thermos of hot tea and a sandwich. I was quite comfortable, but Barbara’s sweet little doggie found the arrangement intolerable. He started barking right in my face, and Barbara, rather than making him stop, indulged him.
“What is it?” she cooed, solicitously “What do you want?”
So here they came; one barking, the other cooing: The dog the shyster, the woman the shill, myself the rube.
Barbara shined her flashlight in my face and said, “Oh, it’s you.”
While I was thus engaged, the dog nosed my sandwich open and stole the cheese.
“Yes,” I admitted. It was me. I said, “How thoughtful of you to, uh… inquire.”
“Oh,” Barbara said, “He [the dog] just wanted to say hello.”
At this signal, the dog lunged at my face. My arm came up defensively, but the little darling still managed to slather his tongue across my face before bounding away — laughing in his own endearing way, I suppose.
No harm done.
The spilt tea, trapped on the ground sheet, soaked quickly into my (now) un-made sandwich, my notebook, my trousers, my blankets. I sat in the dark considering my options:
1. Shiver all night in a wet bedroll.
2. Pack up and hit the road.
In order not to appear to have peed my pants, I crept off without a word. I hiked out to the entrance where I found a Park Ranger sitting in his idling truck ordering carnitas from Libby’s restaurant in Philo. When he was finished, I asked to borrow his cell phone and called The Major for an emergency extraction from my assignment.
Next day I returned for the General Assembly.
Again the crowd was at approximately 30 souls, coming and going. When I arrived at around 11am it was well underway.
“It seems to me,” a woman with a British accent was intoning, “that the decision to close the park was made by a bunch of bureaucrats.”
“I do see what you’re saying,” another feminine voice chimed in. “It was twelve men in a closed room!”
A third female voice, this one the ever-vigilant voice of PC, interjected: “We mustn’t assume they were all men!”
When the mirth this comment engendered subsided, the second voice — that of Kathy Bailey — resumed, “And then the minutes of the meeting were destroyed.”
“Does this happen often, Kathy?”
“Oh, please,” somebody else groaned, and a chorus of bawdy laughter erupted.
“Well, just because this is the way they operate all the time, it doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it — has anyone looked into lawsuits?”
“Kathy, have any of you investigated the possibility of a lawsuit because of the way this was done?”
A chorus of litigious lust swept round the fire.
“Somebody mentioned litigation and I just wanted to say that legislators simply hate litigation since they’re the ones who are supposed to solve these issues.”
Linda MacElwee, always a vice of calm reason, said it’s an opportunity for us to all get involved — even if we can’t form a coalition, we can get more involved.”
At this juncture, the assembly broke up into smaller discussion groups, each assigned to take on one of the main headings, which were:
1. Applying State Pressure.
2. Community Alliance Groups.
3. Occupy Outreach.
Barbara and her dog took Number Four.
While the work groups brainstormed, I hiked up to the Hermit’s Hut* to consult the oracle. It was a long, hard climb through the towering redwoods and to be frank, I didn’t expect to find anybody home. I un-slung my pack and flopped on the ground for a much needed breather. At this point a wizened old crone emerged from the Hut.
“What do you want,” she screeched like a Harpy.
“I want to know what’s going to become of Hendy Woods,” I replied somewhat defensively.
“What gifts do you bear?”
“Well, I’ve brought my ignorance, my prejudices, and my insecurities…”
The hideous old wretch nodded knowingly, and with evident relish rubbed her wrinkled, filthy hands.
“Just what I was looking for,” she said. “Most of the sojourners who climb up here only do so to dispense received wisdom, insufferable pretenses, and impudent self-assurance. If you’ll leave your offerings, I’ll load you down with more than you can carry of this other refuse,” she coaxed.
“But what will become of you,” I asked — “if the Park closes?”
“Well, in that case, I can stay here year-round. As it is, I only live here when the park’s closed. I am a hermit, after all.”
By the time I got back down to the General Assembly, they were running the credits, thanking everyone who had helped. And here were some surprises. I had thought that an old-fashioned “occupy”-style protest would naturally defy conventional proprieties, but I was sadly mistaken as I learned, for instance, that the Mendocino Environmental Center had paid to insure the event; that a helicopter Landing Zone had been prepared at more expense for CalStar medical evacuations — in short, a great deal of money had been spent to ensure that this thing went off without any unpleasant hitches.
Which makes me wonder: Has the “Occupy” brand been co-opted?
*Note: A popular hiking trail that ends at an incredibly large downed redwood hollowed and blackened by numerous centuries of duty as a lightning rod, until it finally fell, and was converted into a kind of shelter by a man who lived in it known locally as the Hendy Woods Hermit — a Russian refugee who jumped ship in San Francisco and made his way north, at least that's the myth, lived here in Hendy Woods until he died in 1981.