Hand Me That Monkey Wrench
Tim DeChristopher came to Mountainfilm representing a new generation of environmental monkey wrenchers. At least he hopes there is a growing cadre of young activists behind him.
At a breakfast panel called “Three Generations of Monkey Wrenchers,” DeChristopher, 28 (and awaiting trial for disrupting a BLM oil-and-gas lease sale in Utah), was the one with the close-cropped head and burning dark eyes.
Sitting in the middle was Dave Foreman, at 63, the gray-bearded co-founder of 1980s eco-saboteurs Earth First! And next to Foreman was 90-year-old river rat, protest singer and sometime nudist Katie Lee, who fought with all she had (and still does) the early-60s damming of her beloved Glen Canyon of the Colorado.
The passionate, uninhibited Lee, in fact, stole the show almost everywhere she went, but this morning she was equally matched. They began by talking about environmental movements, East and West, and how the western landscape seemed to breed radicalism. Lee, who grew up in Tucson, claimed she “never went indoors” until she had to start school. Foreman, blunt and surprisingly poetic, said that growing up in Albuquerque he had the Sandia Mountains “burned into” his brain, and that “being able to see 100 miles opens you up.
“The flip side,” he said, “is that [out West] you can see the damage easily. It’s out in the open. In Washington, D.C.”—where he worked as a lobbyist for The Wilderness Society before becoming disillusioned with the system—topography and greenery make it “hard to see the sprawl. Westerners have a need to live up to the landscape,” he added. “We have the challenge of being worthy of the great place we live in.”
DeChristopher was reared in the East and felt the need to defend himself. “I’m a quick learner!” he smiled. But he admitted that on the east coast “everything is close in, closed in. You get this sense that ‘I’m so big in this little place.’” He went on to say that his act of civil disobedience in Moab was “more a matter of self-defense” than it was an attempt to save a certain landscape. It’s our headlong rush to fossil fuels and climate change that drive him. “My generation will suffer the effect of the decisions we make today. I take the threat personally.
“What pushed me into action,” he continued, “was a realization that we are truly fucked. I really did lose hope. I let go of the expectation of career, old age, etc., the things my parents and grandparents had. Hope stands in the way of action.”
Hope doesn’t necessarily follow action, either, as Foreman and Lee continued the thread. “I don’t like the human race,” Katie Lee spat bitterly, “the government whores who drowned the river. Our efforts, with meager numbers, and unschooled politics, were like trying to put out a wildfire with a teacup. The Glen Canyon dam broke my heart.”
Foreman, too, expressed scant confidence in his own species. “What I do is not for me. What I do is for future generations of chickadees and mountain lions. . . Destroying other earthlings is a sin. We should not shy away from talking about values—what is good. The other side is good at that—‘values.’ Although they are hypocrites.”
Lee extended her misanthropic long view. “Mother Nature is going through menopause, hot one day, cold the next. She’s going to take other actions as well. One day she’ll get rid of us. And that’s a good thing, baby!”
What to do in the meantime? “The problem,” DeChristopher volunteered, “is believing that you are a powerful agent of change. Once you act, only then do you see the opportunities. We are beset by emotions. These are the end times! Anger, fear, despair, outrage—they’re there for a reason. . . Sentiment without action,” he added, quoting Ed Abbey, “is the ruin of a soul.”
Katie Lee chimed in: “Anger is my ally. Anger is heavy. The heart comes up; tears come up. Channel it or it will tear you to pieces. Channel it and you do what you are supposed to do!”
Foreman encouraged everyone present to “Be creative. Be outrageous. The Obama administration won’t do jack shit about climate change. . .”
“Unless we force them to,” interrupted DeChristopher, with the energy of his youth. He urged everyone present to see the Stanley Nelson film Freedom Riders, about an intrepid group of white and black protesters who set out in 1961 to test the Jim Crow laws throughout the South, by traveling and eating together. Attacked by mobs, arrested by racist police, they nevertheless kept going.
“The Kennedy administration didn’t want to take up civil rights legislation,” DeChristopher said. “They were forced to by a social crisis created by the Freedom Riders. How can we expect Obama to take on the most powerful corporations in the world if we aren’t willing to fill the jails?”
What about joy? It was a question from the audience, from filmmaker Beth Gage. Surely there is joy in civil disobedience, along with the risk and the fear, in knowing your cause is just.
Foreman allowed that he had never been afraid, not “since I got run over by a truck” early in his activist career.
Katie Lee, just slightly off subject, described the deep sensual and spiritual relationship she has with sandstone: on her bare skin, her fingertips, her tongue.
DeChristopher said, yes, at the auction, while he was (fraudulently) outbidding representatives of the natural gas industry he felt “a really deep calm. When you resist, when you fight back, it’s a way to heal the trauma, the depression, in a world of injustice.”
“Oh, and by the way,” he said in wrapping things up, “you know those solar panels on the gas rigs you see everywhere? Those could probably be easily disconnected. I’m just saying.”