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A Good Forest for Dying

The Tragic Death of a Young Man on the Front Lines of the Environmental Wars

A Good Forest for Dying by Patrick Beach
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Early on a September morning in 1998, David “Gypsy” Chain and eight fellow Earth First! activists went into the redwood forests of Scotia, California. Their loosely organized plan to protest the destruction caused by the logging industry almost immediately turned farcically tragic. A. E. Ammons, a logger for Pacific Lumber, confronted the group, threatening them in an obscenity-ridden diatribe: if they didn't leave "I'll make sure I got a tree comin' this way!" The group retreated, moving deeper into the wilderness. A short time later, just as they were attempting to confront the logger yet again, Gypsy was dead, crushed to death by a tree Ammons felled.

A GOOD FOREST FOR DYING traces the long history of bitter clashes between environmental concerns and economic interests in the American West and shows why these tensions came to a head in northern California in the 1990s. It tells the story of how Pacific Lumber, once an environmentally friendly, family-owned business, became part of a conglomerate whose business practices made it a ripe target for environmental activists. But A GOOD FOREST FOR DYING is also the story of Gypsy Chain, a troubled young man raised in a loving family. A social misfit in his small Texas hometown, he died in a faraway forest before he had a chance to come to terms with himself and his family. His mother never lost faith in her sometimes wayward, idealistic son. After his death, and helped by a team of shrewd, leftist lawyers, she mounted a fight for justice in the name of her son and the cause of saving the redwoods.

A balanced, highly readable examination of complex, emotionally charged issues, A GOOD FOREST FOR DYING will appeal to a wide audience. Its insights into the inner workings of the radical environmental movement and its dissection of corporate greed and misdeeds are reminiscent of such provocative exposés as A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich. The story of Gypsy’s strange odyssey and the disturbing circumstances of his death–seen primarily through the eyes of his mother–is as powerful and as moving as Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild.

From the Hardcover edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; April 2004
304 pages; ISBN 9780385506182
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: A Good Forest for Dying
Author: Patrick Beach

A Good Place to Die

Once, the trees were numberless. In the Jurassic Era, the sheer surreal scale of the forest might have been appropriate--redwoods rocketing well over 350 feet; ferns more than half again as tall as a grown man today; the morning fog a force of nature in its own right, obliterating the canopy overhead, draping down practically to the huckleberry. And in the archipelago of ancient forests that remain today, when the fog yields to the sun, the trees appear not to be reaching for the sky so much as holding it up.

The coastal redwoods, or their forebears, have been there for some 160 million years. As recently as a million years ago, they grew in Europe, Asia, and North America. Now they're found only in a narrow band hugging the coast of the Pacific Northwest. They are the tallest living things on Earth, and through the ages humans have attached a spiritual resonance to this forest, this basilica of redwoods. In thick stands, when there is sun, the light refracts through tentatively, and the forest floor is dim and damp. It can make visitors unexpectedly solemn, strike them suddenly silent and contemplative. As John Steinbeck wrote: "The most irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect."

As any surviving species must be, they are resilient and adaptable. Growing in one of the most geologically unstable regions in the country--though not one prone to frequent catastrophic earthquakes such as those that afflict the Bay Area and southern California--redwoods developed shallow but multitiered root systems. For strength, the roots of neighboring trees intertwine like fingers. Each tree circulates thousands of gallons of water daily, and even today--when only between 3 and 4 percent of what was there just a century ago remains--stands of redwood can be thick enough to make their own weather. The area in which they grow in Humboldt County, along the coast in extreme northern California, is a temperate rain forest, with annual precipitation of about forty-five inches. Strongly resistant to fire, flood, and insects, the trees also endured all manner of prehistoric chaos--shifting tectonic plates that heaved mountain ranges into existence, ice ages. If lightning detonated the trunk, it wasn't uncommon for saplings to rise out of the truncated monster or for a bird to begin work on a nest there. And when trees blew down or simply rotted and died, they became habitat and food. The only things the primordial skyscrapers never developed an effective resistance to were saws and the demands of a ravenous nation gorging itself on its natural bounty, pushing westward and thumping its chest along the way.

Until the 1980s, the tallest living tree on record was a tree named, with a spectacular lack of imagination, Tall Tree, in what is now Redwood National Park in northern Humboldt County. Tall Tree grew to 367.8 feet. Logging in the Redwood Creek basin subjected the grove in which Tall Tree lives to more wind and hotter and drier conditions, and the tree's crown snapped off. (A tree named General Sherman, a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada, is the world's largest tree by volume but, at 272 feet, not close to the height of some coastal old-growth redwoods.) Around the fourth century a.d., along a river that would come to be named the Eel in Humboldt County, a sapling grew to more than 350 feet--almost 50 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty from the ground to the tip of its torch--and a yard shy of 20 feet in diameter. The Dyerville Giant, as it came to be known, fell in 1991.

By then, Humboldt County had become a battleground. Everybody there loved trees, the saying went, just some folks preferred them horizontal. The joke attempted to take the edge off an intractable truth: the timber industry believed that its forest land was to be maintained, harvested, and capitalized upon. Those stands might be pretty, but they were also private property and, when the trees were marked for harvest, that property became an industrial workplace. Radical environmental activists said the loggers were ripping out the lungs of the planet, that the eco-apocalypse was nigh. The lines were well drawn, the opponents hardened by years of skirmishes and acrimony. Felling timber had been the lifeblood of Humboldt County's economy since before the Civil War, when the redwood belt filled half a million acres in the county alone, and now that way of life--hard, proud, and the very marrow of the area's history--was under attack by a bunch of self-appointed forest defenders. If you weren't against them, you were with them. Stenciled signs appeared on half of the houses in the county, bearing a message of pride, defiance, and pragmatism: this family supported by timber dollars. The protesters kept at it. Warning of an imminent and wholly man-made environmental collapse, they put their bodies between the chain saws and the trees they held sacred. To logging families, these were people whose organizing principle in life was opposition--opposition to the way ordinary guys made their wages. Thousands of protesters had been drawn to the conflict over the years. Some of them had been threatened, beaten, cut out of trees they were occupying to save from the saws, doused with pepper spray, or thrown in jail.

One of the lucky ones was David Chain, who'd come from a soulless, working-class suburb of Houston to save the forest. True, the previous year, 1997, he'd gotten arrested at a protest in San Francisco. And once he'd had to run to stay ahead of the Pacific Lumber thugs in the woods. As his second protest season began, however, he hadn't been on the receiving end of any serious heaviness. Although he'd shaved off his brown dreadlocks from the year before, many of the veterans at the Earth First! action camp recognized his crescent eyes alight with mischief and purpose. The one they knew as Gypsy was back. Gypsy, who had helped out at the Bell Creek tree sit the year before, who had taken his nonviolence training and later learned to climb trees. Gypsy was always ready to pitch in--haul supplies or somebody's crummy rain gear, fix vegetarian meals, whatever the moment called for. He was twenty-four years old and had long searched for something to give his life definition and a tangible sense of purpose. With Earth First! and its brand of full-contact environmental protest he had found it, and the discovery was a gift and a transformation. He'd gone back to Texas the previous winter, when the rains came to the North Coast and the protesters' ranks typically thinned, and he'd worked two jobs in Austin to save for the return trip. This time he was here for good. This was where he was going to stay. This was where he was going to make his stand.

His mother and stepfather, Cindy and Ron Allsbrooks, could hardly have missed the pronounced change in him when he went home to the East Texas town of Pasadena the previous Thanksgiving. At his aunt Pam's house, he'd showed up in ratty clothes, smelling a little funky--but fairly glowing. He sat on a swing in the backyard with his sisters, Bridgett and Sarah, rolling a cigarette as he rolled out his story.

"My forest name is Gypsy," he began.

He'd told them he had been working to save the forest from wanton, wholesale destruction. That there was a logging company running roughshod over the environment in the name of almighty profit. That the last of the paternalistic capitalist timber companies had been swallowed whole by a rapacious, junk-bond-wielding robber baron from Houston. He showed them pictures of himself in trees he had occupied to save from the saws. Even his appearance had changed. He looked a good bit like Keanu Reeves gone native. His body had filled out from climbing. Most striking, the black moods that sometimes had beset him seemed to have fled. He practically vibrated with a sense of mission. The young man they knew as Nathan--his middle name, used to distinguish him from his father, David Allen Chain--had been transformed. Cindy had understandable maternal worries about her boy climbing 200-foot trees, and she knew nothing of the fight to save the redwoods, but Nathan was now focused on saving the world, one tall tree at a time. He was an adult, and she saw that, for him, not standing up to the enemy was tantamount to hastening the extinction of life on Earth.

His uncle Mike thought the young man was sinewy, as if taking a leave after finishing basic training. He told him he was proud of him. He never saw his nephew again.

The buzzing of the saw shredded the morning. Gypsy and the rest of the Earth First!ers could hear it up on the mountain from where they were gathered at Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, a de facto DMZ bordering a piece of Pacific Lumber's timber empire. To the people stirring in their sleeping bags, the noise meant that another day of planet-raping had commenced. It meant the loggers were back on the scene, felling trees, wreaking havoc, destroying habitat for endangered species, cutting away so that soon the holy redwood forest would be as lifeless as a moonscape.

It meant that Gypsy and the other activists were late for work. But if the Earth survived this incomprehensible assault, some of Gypsy's fellow activists believed, its spirit would thank them for saving it.

Mike Avcollie, Gypsy's best friend among the Earth First!ers, shook the tent in which Gypsy and his friend Jennifer Walts slept. Gypsy crawled over Walts and out of the tent. They'd both been exhausted when they moved from the action camp at Williams Grove to Grizzly the night before. He was going to let Jennifer sleep. But the rest of them should have gotten up earlier, should have hatched a firm plan before they'd crashed out at the campground the night before. As the other Earth First!ers pulled on extra layers, unzipped their tents, yawned, and shook off a mid-September daybreak chill around the fire, they knew they had to stop the killing until the California Department of Forestry crew could get up to the site and properly investigate. CDF had promised as much a day earlier when the First!ers laid siege--again--to the CDF office in Fortuna. CDF had said it would check out the claim that Pacific Lumber was illegally logging up at Grizzly. And yet the company sent the crews out anyway, knowing they could get the jump on the bureaucrats, knowing that once those great old redwoods and Douglas firs were on the ground and loaded onto trucks and sent down to the mill, CDF could tsk-tsk all it wanted, add another citation to the company's growing collection, maybe, but those trees--some stretched 150 feet into the Pacific sky--were not going back up. And the cash from the sale of that timber was headed to the Pacific Lumber Company, in Scotia--one of the last honest-to-God company towns in America.

Carey Jordan wasn't crazy about humping up the hill again, but she told the group around the fire she'd do it. While the bulk of the Earth First! troops had been concentrating on the scene in Fortuna the day before, she and a small group had walked up the mountain toward the sound of the saw, being careful to stay out of sight of the Pacific Lumber workers until they got to where the active logging was. If they were caught before they made it there, they would have accomplished nothing, but if they sat down in front of the yarder--the gurgling, diesel-fired crane that dragged the felled trees up the steep, unstable slope to the flat landing--they knew the workers would cuss them out and shut down the heavy equipment. And then the cutting would stop, at least for as long as it took for the crew to radio base camp that it was time to call the sheriff's department again, tell them that there were protesters in the area, that they couldn't safely log with those goddam hippies running around.

Which is what most of Jordan's companions did that day. She thought she might try a little worker outreach, as it was euphemistically called. Jordan, a dark-haired registered nurse from Maine with more surety and composure than most twenty-six-year-olds, walked toward the sound of an idling Stihl chain saw and met a short, stout timber faller. He had a face cut with smile lines and eyes the color of blue ice. It was getting on toward the middle of the afternoon, hot, close to quitting time, and the faller, a mustachioed man in his middle years named A. E. Ammons, didn't consider it a grave imposition to while away the rest of the waning day casually flirting with a hippie chick. Any chance he had to educate one of these ying-yangs was an opportunity, he figured. Jordan told him that what the loggers were doing was illegal; he told her that was crap, that she didn't know what she was talking about. Then, although he creeped her out, she turned up the charm: "What do you do? What kind of beer do you like?"

Ammons said his nickname was "Big A," now an accidentally ironic handle from his school days when so many people had trouble with his name: "Big A, big E . . ." He told her that his dad--stepdad, actually--had committed suicide: the old man was sticking a shotgun into his mouth when the four-year-old boy happened to pad into the room. Big A told her he'd been in Vietnam, which he hadn't. He told her he liked to drink beer after work, had child support to pay, was convinced the protesters were wrong and he was right. And he told her that if she were sitting in a tree trying to save it, he'd go ahead and fell that tree and kill her.

"Come on, Big A," Jordan said. "If I was up there, you'd kill me?"

"Yes, I would."

The fact that a logger was taking so much time to talk with a protester was not lost on Jordan, but she kept him jawing for an hour or more. Before it was over, she'd given him a hug and posed for a picture, Big A with his saw slung over his shoulder, his arm around Jordan, who all the while couldn't figure out why Big A and his spotter were still visiting with her.

"Don't you know?" Big A asked. "Your friends are all up there blocking the road. The cops are coming any minute. You better run now if you don't want to get arrested."

Just then the sheriff's car came to the bottom of the mountain, and Jordan dutifully went to join her seven comrades sitting on the ground, waiting to get hauled down the logging road. On the way, the driver asked which one was Jordan and then handed her a scrap of paper. Big A had passed along his phone number, just in case she wanted to go to dinner after she got booked for trespassing and processed out of the jail in Eureka.

From the Hardcover edition.
  • News
Activists Under Siege: The Death of David 'Gypsy' Chain - KCET
Sun, 20 Dec 2015 17:49:41 -0800
KCETActivists Under Siege: The Death of David 'Gypsy' ChainKCETAccording to writer Patrick Beach, who profiled Chain in ...