Last night God turned on the air conditioning, and a strong northwest wind blew our humidity away. Today is one of those lovely, comfortable days that makes Minnesota summers a wonderful payoff for suffering through a Minnesota winter. I’ve worked in a lot of different cities during my travels, and while I don’t have any scientific data to back me up, I’d have to say that the Twin Cities has some of the cleanest air of any metropolitan area. In fact, despite the dire predictions of looming environmental disaster, I would have to say that our air, water, and land seems less polluted today than it did 30 years ago.
Of course, there’s more to environmental assessment than visual appearances, and while I can’t say for certain that our environment is in better shape now than it was 30 years ago, I think it is safe to say that we are much more aware of the environment than we were then. Personally, I think our environmental awareness began with the crying Indian commercial. Say what you want about Iron Eyes Cody (aka Espera Oscar de Corti) but the man had a big effect on me, and countless others. Next to Louis Prima, he’s probably one of the best known Sicilian American’s from Louisiana.
By the time I went to college in the mid 80’s, environmentalism was mainstream. In fact, Clarkson even offered a major in Civil & Environmental Engineering. When I enrolled at Clarkson my major was “Undecided Engineering”, which really didn’t mean much as all first year engineering students took the same core courses regardless of their specialty (Mechanical, Civil, Chemical, Electrical). For a while I flirted with the idea of majoring in Civil and Environmental, but for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what type of job that would actually entail, other than working construction. In the end, I chose the mechanical route as it offered the most variety of different industries and fields (Automotive, Aerospace, Power Generation, etc…) I was always the pragmatist, even at 19. I guess I get that from my Father.
While I didn’t choose environmentalism as a vocation, I did flirt with it as an ideology for a few years. (all the cool kids were doing it). One of my roommates at the time was a Civil & Environmental Engineering major, and given the fact that he was also prone to looking for a fight, activism seemed like a natural outlet for his anti-authoritarian streak. During the fall of 1989, our senior year, Chris came home one Friday afternoon and announced that he was heading to an Earth First! Rendezvous in the Adirondacks. Clarkson being Clarkson, there never was much entertainment to be had on a weekend, so Scott and I jumped at the chance to go camping and tagged along. And so late one Friday afternoon in October of 1989, we headed south down Route 56 in Chris’ VW GTI, with a tent, some sleeping bags, 2 cases of Genny Cream, and a pound of bacon. (If that ain’t the definition of a guys weekend, I don’t know what is)
I had never heard much about Earth First! other than their penchant for “Monkey Wrenching”. If you aren’t familiar with the term “Monkey Wrench”, it originates with the book “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey. In the novel, Abbey’s hero’s and heroine’s fight against the forces of corporatism, and big industry. They resort to destroying bulldozers, and equipment in order to save the red rock canyons of Utah. As novels go it’s nothing special, but Abbey is a patron saint of environmentalists, cranks, and “don’t tread on me” localists everywhere, so the monkey wrenching idea kind of caught on, and life began to imitate art.
Now Scott and I were no radicals, and the extent of our environmental involvement amounted to recycling, but a weekend in the mountains is nothing to say no to. So we went along for the ride. Arriving at the rendezvous site, south of Tupper Lake, we found tents, Subaru wagons, and VW microbus’ scattered about and knew that we were either in the right place, or the Grateful Dead were playing somewhere nearby.
As movement’s go, Earth First! is a little to the left of Trotsky politically. There was no real “membership” list, and the organization is about as close to a true anarchist organization as you will probably find. The folks scattered about in the woods around the place typically fell into one of two archetypes. Scary looking, bearded rednecks, and patchouli smelling dreadlocked hippies. To say that we three college boys stood out a little is an understatement.
We found a spot a little off into the woods from the main group, and I have to say that even Chris seemed to have some reservations. We needn’t have been worried though, when darkness came the campfire was lit, and people began wandering in out of the woods to sit around it, and talk and sing. One of the great things about hippies is that they usually carry musical instruments with them, and one of the great things about rednecks, is liquor is usually not too far away. It made for an entertaining evening. I’m sure most of the folks sitting around the fire figured us to be undercover FBI agents, or narcs, but they didn’t seem to have any problem sharing their beer. Over the course of the night, the discussion turned to the Earth First! agenda for the north east region. While the details are a little fuzzy, the jist of their plan was to advocate for the depopulation of large swaths of the United States, to be converted into wilderness areas where nature would be left to flourish without the impediment of evil humanity. The biggest discussion point seemed to be which parts of which states would be included in these green zones. No one seemed to get too hung up on the logistics of convincing millions of people to pack up and move somewhere else.
The next morning, the Earth Firsters convened for “roll call”. This amounted to the Northeast regional leader calling out the names of the different “clans”, each one named for a different animal, and the clans responding by making the noise of said animal. Watching grown men wiggling about on their hands and knees barking like seals was a little too surreal for us. When the groups split up for “class” sessions on such finer points of monkey wrenching as tree spiking, and bulldozer disabling, we decided it was time for a nice little hike. So Chris, Scott and I grabbed our backpacks with our homework (we were still students after all) and found a nice clearing in the woods where we could sit, and read. It was a glorious fall afternoon in the Adirondacks. The leaves were ablaze with color, and the sky was deep cerulean blue. We passed the afternoon hanging out, doing homework and talking, and when evening came we joined the group around the campfire for another night of singing and drinking. Freaks or not, cold beer and a roaring campfire is hard to turn down.
The next morning, as most of the Earth Firsters were heading on to Lake Placid to take part in a protest, we packed up our tent and made the drive back up to Potsdam. Our beer gone, and our bacon devoured, it was back to reality. I have to say it was quite the cultural experience. It taught me that no matter how much “Mother Earth” might suffer, deep down, I could never be an environmentalist. I liked personal hygiene too much, and I could never stop pining over girls long enough to get that worked up about saving the Earth. Always the pragmatist I knew that my future lay elsewhere. In less than 12 months I was traveling the country working at coal plants, serving “the man” as just another cog in the military-industrial-complex. I’m sure that somewhere in a file in Washington is a grainy spy photo of me standing around the fire that night, with my name, social security number, and personal information written on the back. Someday I might have to send off a letter and request a framed copy of it.