We Still Need the Wild

Strategy for Saving the Endangered Ecodefense Movement

Behind the rusty fence lay dense foliage embracing a creek. Our backyard was mostly open grass, so it was just a matter of time before I started exploring the creek. There was no sign that forbade me from crossing the fence; the fence itself should have been enough of an indication, but it never stopped me. Over time, I would break off rusty pieces of it, prying a hole large enough for frequent passage. I had no idea where the creek led, but I would often follow it as far as I could. The brush alongside it was thick and dark and my parents never once came back that way. To me this space was my private wilderness, even though it was in the suburbs of Cincinnati, and it later led to a larger world of ecodefense.

Over the years I gravitated to such spaces. A path behind a behemoth mall led to a forest filled with beech trees and a 30 foot bluff over a creek. I was in high school by now and probably too old to play in the woods, but I was captivated. I had different reasons for going: I could smoke cigarettes and escape the social pressures of high school. I was unaware of the names of the trees or the birds that would inhabit their branches at different times of the year, but this was irrelevant. To me the woods was a just a private place away from humans.

When I am frustrated by the lack of participation in Earth First! or other forms of ecodefense, I try to think about what brought me to this place. If I can find the path that brought me here, I can help guide others. Was it the time when I watched a video about rainforest destruction or blood spilling from cattle in slaughterhouse? Was it the time that someone made me feel guilty about eating meat or using polyethylene cups? My connection to the rest of life on the planet started much earlier than that. I had a bug collection in middle school and could identify bugs as early as kindergarten. My grandfather had a small farm where he grew a chunk of his own food and I spent some summers there. Every city my family ever traveled to, it was a given that we would visit the zoo.

The connection grew over the years. It was not one hike. It was a constant stream of multi-sensory exposures of all kinds. Eating berries my grandfather grew. Getting lost in my grandmother’s garden or seeing her chickens. Learning how to gut fish. A two-week adventure with my father to Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain national parks after graduating high school. It was not always about wilderness. When we lived in downtown Cincinnati, my brother and I created tunnels throughout the hedges behind our apartment building where we would take our toys to play. These were the only plants we could find amidst parking lots and apartments buildings.

None of my desire to save the wild came from the internet or getting goaded into it by activists with a picture of clearcuts or strip mines. If neither my path, nor the paths of others I have swapped stories with, to Earth First! was through reading an email, how can I expect that to bring others into the movement.

One of the things we need to change is our target audience. While children are less likely to monkeywrench a bulldozer or lock themselves to the doors of an office building, we must look far enough in the future to spend some of our time taking them outside. This is by no means an encouragement for people to bear their own children. There are plenty of children that could be snatched from their technodromes and allowed to play in the mud and decorate palmetto huts.

Wild spaces are the perfect classroom for children. They give them a place to be away from parents and learn about rules and consequences. If they try jumping across a creek that is too wide, they get wet. If they touch poison ivy, they itch for a week. These are not the arbitrary rules imposed on them in the civilized world, and here they have the freedom to make mistakes and learn their consequences.

In nature there are fewer boundaries and they are usually marked by water, thorns or steep slopes; otherwise children can go as far as they want. Children or adults can also test the boundaries of their fear by climbing trees or going further and further out past the lights of civilization. Wild spaces foster kids that will be more independent, more brave and have a better sense of morality, all characteristics that are necessary to be an ecodefender.

Many of us do not have children and might not think we have easy access to them. I have spent time with kids through camps of all sorts, after-school programs, and even from my neighborhood. You can find programs that cater to rich or poor kids. If there is nothing around, set something up. Single parents with multiple children, for example, would be thrilled if you spent an afternoon with their kids. All of this is, of course, more fruitful if you can build relationships with the parents and the kids. The parents will trust you to take their kids on more adventurous outings if you stick around longer. The kids do not need you to know everything, they just need someone to play with or watch them while they pick flowers.

The kids who have these experiences with the wild will cherish them. These experiences stand counter to the majority of their experiences. Mainstream culture and its believers are moving from the organic to the digital. It has incorporated green sentiments, but these are very carefully cut off from any real connection the natural world. We no longer need to deal with the natural world to “go green”.

We see this disconnection in the environmental movement. Discussion about whales and wild rivers is sidelined to discussion about climate change and the techno-fixes related to it. The discussion goes from whooping cranes to windmills, from heirloom tomatoes to hybrid cars. We give up the organic for the digital.

The types of people coming into the ecodefense movement are very different than those of the previous generation. They relate to each other and nature through the internet. The disconnection from farm life and hunting has led them to think that any interaction between people and animals is inherently violent. The post-modern sarcastic attitude makes them wary of ritual or tradition. They are more focused on social issues than on wilderness. Within ecodefense groups such as Rising Tide and Earth First! these trends have meant a greater focus on infrastructure projects, less movement songs or celebration, and more focus on internal anti-oppression.

Earth First! was formed as a break from environmental groups that were already starting to leave forests and deserts for clean smokestacks and lined landfills. The mainstream groups believe in the death culture, the digital future. Our belief is in biocentrism and the practice of that belief is ecodefense. We cannot carry on our work unless people are first instilled with that belief. Some other movements, such as the Slow Food movement, realize the importance of this connection and offer hope for a way out of this digital paradigm.

I am skeptical of the impact that outings into the wild has on folks who grew up without it. Will they just reject it or fear it? For many of us, our path to ecodefense started at a very early age. It seems like the best we can hope for with adults is that we can unlock a hidden love of the wild that they may be repressing. With that in mind, any outreach we do should be more about connecting with closeted ecodefenders and not trying to convert those lost to the machines. This still leaves us with huge untapped populations. Some people estimate that as much as 10% of the population might be ecodefenders, and a third of college students admit to trying it once.

Our first effort at reaching out to children was a huge success. We were asked by a teacher, who was a West Virginia native, to put on a presentation to her third grade class about mountaintop removal coal mining. We built an interactive model of an MTR site and sang songs. Afterwards the teacher instructed all of the students to write papers about how they feel about MTR. She had balanced our presentation with information from Massey. Out of 15 kids, only one was in favor of MTR. During a discussion at the end, we spotted one child who would be ready to join us in the coal fields now. The racially and economically mixed class went home humming John Prine’s “Paradise”.

This was just one time and we did it inside a classroom. Rarely have I seen an outing into the wild not go well, be it with small children or young adults. It inspires people almost as much as a successful direct action, which are much harder to come by and not really possible for small children. I have seen similar successes when I have taken people swimming in rivers or challenged kids to eat grubs.

If we want to grow as a movement, or even just be effective, we need to think about what motivated us to get involved. We can do trainings or show all the movies we want, but the natural world is a much better teacher. What worked for us will probably work to get others involved. There are trees to climb, bird calls to learn, plants to eat, crayfish to catch, dead carcasses to pick through, swimming holes to discover, stars to sleep under and lightning storms to watch. We need to make sure that the Earth and a culture that sustains it and celebrates it are always a part of our groups.

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