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Strawberry Gifts

Humboldt County, October, 1996 – Now that the Owl Creek Tree Village had been disbanded, that particular grove of old-growth redwoods cut and hauled away, the tree-sitters locked up in the Humboldt Hilton, the organizers at Earth First! Base Camp had to regroup and organize the next action.)

Enjoying a moment of respite from battle fatigue, I wandered down to the creek stones and watched the water flow by, soon joined by a fellow with short hair, John Lennon glasses, wearing blue jeans, leather boots, a T-shirt, and flannel. "Hey, buddy," he said. "I was about to fire one up. Care to join me?"

As we watched the water flow over creek stones, I inquired what his forest name was.

"Everyone asks my forest name. I don't know what to say. First I told them 'Fly,' like 'fly on the wall,' because I don't want to be in the spotlight. But 'Fly' sounded too ostentatious, like I thought I was the mack-daddy of base camp, so I decided maybe a more Hindu forest name would better suit me. What do you think of, 'Mohatma Dogma?'"

"Mo-hotma Dogma. I like it. It's like a combination of Hindu, Catholic, and straight outta Compton. Where you from? You ain't in camo like all us hippies."

"I've been hanging out with Dave's Not Here. You checked out his little scene?"

"Nope. I've been in the woods carrying supplies."

"Okay, well get this. So these hippies are playing war games with the cops and Climber Dan. They have no way to know when or where the loggers are going to start cutting next--except Dave's Not Here has a radio rigged up in his tent. We listen to their communications! They're onto us. They keep switching channels and using code, but we write it all down, go over maps, descrambling the lingo! Everyone thinks me and A.J. and Dave's Not Here just sit around smoking weed all day, which is true, but they'd be lost without us!"

"Yeah, I heard about you guys. That's what they said, too. This lady was complaining about you at the consensus meeting. They said you sit around smoking weed and messing with short wave radio or something, coming up with weird ideas, and don't contribute to the cause."

"Yeah, well who do they go to when they want the inside info? Anyway, the next old-growth trees the loggers are gonna hit is this grove called 'Strawberry Gift.' You wait. Dave's Not Here and Climber Dan are the real players in this story. They're like strategic generals playing chess."

Later that night a lunar eclipse graced the clear skies, and my pregnant girlfriend, Mirage, and I were invited to a make-shift sweat lodge ceremony along the creek banks. A few people had cut willow saplings, bent them into something the shape of an igloo, and covered the frame with sleeping bags. They heated stones in a small campfire, used implements to transport the hot rocks to the sweat lodge where water was poured over them and steamed. Inside, a group of six or so chanted mother earth prayers while clustering naked in the dark, almost like infants in a womb. At the end of each round, the participants emerged into the moonlight, jumped in the cool creek waters, and howled like coyotes before joining a growing drum circle around the campfire.

Nobody bothered to slip back into camo garb, instead electing to form a nude massage train on sleeping bags near enough to the flickering heat, while several people including a guy who called himself "Giant Bear" and fit the description of his forest acronym kept a steady beat on drums. Gradually, most of the activists returned to the main camp, but when the morning sunlight filtered through the redwoods on the ridges to the east, about a dozen kids between the ages of 18 and 25 remained on the rocks near the creek, none of us in the mood to get dressed and show up for the Main Circle morning meeting. We consensed on that.

All day we lounged like lizards on the boulders along the creek or dipped in its cool, October waters. To stave off hunger, we feasted on peanut butter, honey, bread, and soymilk.

"I need a break from those Nazis in the main camp," said a girl who went by "Avery" and had a yin/yang tattoo on her smooth, sensuous lower back. She kept rhythm on the skins with Giant Bear and an energetic kid who went by his real initials, A.J. In spite of a rotting incisor that showed when she smiled, Avery commanded the attention of most guys with her sinuous, limber movements. "They need to lighten up."

"Yeah, this whole deal is show business," I agreed. "We should be kicking it like rock stars."

The constant drum beat was audible from Base Camp, though, and as the boulders heated and our skin soaked in the afternoon sun, a contingent of organizers arrived, armed with a USGS, topographical map.

An ex-military guy with blonde dreads who went by "Seven" said he knew how to read coordinates. Supposedly, according to intelligence gathered by Earth First! insiders, the next redwood grove in danger of clear-cutting was called, "Strawberry Gift."

"I can read topographical maps, too," I offered.

"Okay, Mulberry. We're sending you and Seven out to scout Strawberry Gift. We want a detailed report on the grove, the number of old-growth trees, the incline and logistics regarding access."

"No problem." I glanced solemnly at Seven, Avery, and A.J. All of us were stark naked in the afternoon sun, along with the rest of the gang. "Only, if we're gonna do this, we want to take an entire crew, set up a ground village. We'll evade them through deception."

"Of course that's up to your affinity group."

"This is more or less the affinity group," I said. "I mean, we'll put it to a consensus vote, but I think most of us are ready for a serious action."

"Maybe you can at least set the groundwork for a tree sit."

That night we barely rested, all of us in sleeping bags round a dwindling fire, gazing at the stars soon curtained by fog, brainstorming on the action we were about to embark upon. Gradually we concluded the thing to do was set up guerilla huts in the forests surrounding Strawberry Gift, to paint each other with mud and huckleberry juice by day so we could dart around the grove like ungarmented natives, apparitions popping out in front of cops and loggers, whooping and hooting in random, melodic syllables the authorities would never discern. By dawn, we had the whole endeavor planned out, and at Base Camp we stocked our backpacks with essentials like granola bars, peanut butter, and dried fruit, and set out on foot along the creek, singing together, "You'd better stop, hey, what's that sound--everybody look what's going down. . ."

The first night we made camp along the creek banks, and as we turned in under the stars, weary from the hike and our heavy packs of provisions, of course we passed a fat joint around. You could tell which guys had been in the army for the simple reason that they tended to attempt to dominate the conversation, probably a result of being housed with mostly young men in dormitory-like conditions and being forced to raise their voices in competition. Seven kept using the word, "but," in this argument with another ex-military guy who had a pregnant girlfriend. Their droning put us to sleep, finally.

Dawn emerged slowly over those redwood-lined ridges. Seven, A.J., and I checked the map again. After some study regarding direction, we realized that we'd hiked all day the wrong way. It took a minute for the picture to sink in. Our morning consensus meeting went chaotic as the truth of the situation gradually became clear. With much less pomp and circumstance, the whole group of forest defenders strapped the suddenly more cumbersome backpacks on our shoulders and retraced our steps down the creek, ankles bending over the shifting stones, returning to Base Camp somewhat chagrined.

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