In November of 2015, I spent three weeks working at a medical Cannabis operation in Humboldt County. My time there was filled with realization and sadness. Though the land in that part of the country is sparsely inhabited and appears wild or even untouched, it has in fact been abused for well over a century and a half, and the mark of malice lies undeniably upon it. Waves of genocide and environmental destruction have swept through it and, unfortunately, the “Green Rush” of recent years is bringing more hurt.
This was not my first time in the “Emerald Triangle” – the pot-growing area of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties – and my awareness of its history and current conditions took time to develop during repeated visits over the last ten years.
In 2005, as a videographer for Indymedia, I visited the Redwoods in the company of direct-action forest-defense activists. I was quite taken aback. Yes, the trees are tall – almost unfathomably so – and yes, they are wide – almost unbelievably so – but it was the quality of the air in their midst that most inspired me. Each breath I took was an enlivening revelation, as if I had never inhaled before – so vibrant and full. How could something invisible be so substantial?
The year after, I went to a pot farm in Humboldt County to trim buds. On that occasion, I was entranced by the undulating waves of steep-sided, round-topped hills rolling away to the West, where the horizon was marked by a blur that spoke of the sea. But I was most impressed by the quietness of the area, especially compared to the city I had just come from. One morning, sitting out with a cup of coffee, I was startled by a loud sound over my head. When I looked up, I saw that it was only a raven flying over me. Sonically, the flapping of a bird’s wings was a major event in the otherwise hushed environment.
On another trip, I explored the Lost Coast with a friend, from the tiny coastal town of Shelter Cove, through the rugged slopes of the King Range National Conservation Area, along the short but lonely beach highway south of Cape Mendocino, finally emerging at the Victorian set-piece of Ferndale. (We also passed through Petrolia where I wished aloud that I knew the address of Counterpunch editor Alexander Cockburn, who was then still among the living; I wanted to drop by to see him, whether that was appropriate or not!)
There were other jaunts and trimming jobs over the years, enough that the 101’s pattern of widenings and bottle-necks as it switches between freeway and two-lane highway became familiar to me and I could tell you at any point between Eureka and Ukiah how far it was until the next town with a natural food store. My fuller acquaintanceship with the Emerald Triangle brought sharper discernment; my initial wide-eyed wonderment was joined by keener-sighted observations and their accompanying emotions and questions.
The magic of the Redwoods, for example, was made more poignant for me when I learned that over 95% of the original groves have been chopped down. The remaining 5% were saved only by a few individuals who protected them by purchasing multiple tracts of land, and later by the government which declared protected parks. Left to their own devices, the loggers would have taken every last tree. That’s incredibly sad. What does it say about our culture that this is how we operate?
The Coast Redwood is the tallest species of tree in the world. It is known scientifically as Sequoia sempervirens. The genus might be named for “Sequoyah,” a famous Cherokee man. “Sempervirens” is Latin for “always green” or “evergreen.” Until about 5,000,000 years ago, the distribution of the species was “cosmopolitan,” meaning it was found around the world, including Asia and Europe. Climate-related factors such as ice ages eventually reduced the Redwood’s habitat to a narrow strip along the California coast (with a few groves in southern Oregon). At the time of the European invasion of northern California, in 1850, this forest covered about 2,000,000 acres. Now, only a few island-like fragments remain (see map). One of the largest surviving stands of old growth is in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
A Redwood tree can live to be over 2000 years old. Is it not obscene that our culture has no issue with killing a creature that ancient? Of course, this is a culture that also has no issue with committing genocide, which was perpetuated in the Emerald Triangle.
Before the European invasion, a substantial number of Native American peoples inhabited the area, among them the Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Karok, Chilula, Whilkut, and the southern Athabascans, including the Mattole and Nongatl. Their diet was comprised of acorns and other seeds, roots and greens, and fish and game. They rarely cut down Redwood trees, but made use of the fallen wood for constructing houses and making canoes. Other parts of the tree were also valuable to them. Medicinally, the bark was employed as a blood purifier, for jaundice and to treat syphilis; the leaves were applied as a heated poultice for earaches; and the gummy sap was mixed with water and drunk as a tonic for “rundown conditions.” The smaller roots and burl sprouts were handy in basketry and girls played with dolls they fashioned from pieces of bark. (Source: Dan Moerman‘s database of Native American Ethnobotany)
Like other non-agricultural Native Americans elsewhere on the continent, the tribes of northern California worked with their landscape to improve its food production. They accomplished this primarily through fires, which they set in localized areas. Clearing spaces this way encouraged berry bushes, rejuvenated grasses that bore seeds and plant that were useful for basketry, and left behind scorched grasshoppers to gather. In Oak savannas, setting low-intensity fires on a regular basis burned off excess fuels, which was intended to prevent high intensity fires that could kill the older trees. Fire also kept acorn-eating insects such as weevils in check. Finally, fires helped with hunting by increasing the supply of post-fire plants that were eaten by deer and other game, and by improving visibility for hunters.
Compared to “Old World” cultures, the touch applied to the land by Native Americans was light: cooperative rather than extractive. They were participants in a dynamic equilibrium.
This lifestyle was brought to an abrupt halt by the European invasion, which was led by gold-seekers in 1849.
“The initial contact with native peoples was gruesome. The newcomers pushed the American Indians off their land, hunted them down, scorned, raped, and enslaved them. Resistance – and many of the American Indians did resist – was often met with massacres. Militia units composed of unemployed miners and homesteaders set forth to rid the countryside of ‘hostile’ Indians, attacking villages and, in many documented cases, slaughtering men, women, and even infants. Upon their return, these killers were treated as heroes, and paid by the state government for their work.” (National Park Service)
These events were not secret. The Wiyot massacre, on Tuluwat (now called “Indian Island”) in Humboldt Bay, on February 26th, 1860, was reported in the Northern Californian, the local Arcata newspaper, at the time:
“Blood stood in pools on all sides; the walls of the huts were stained and the grass colored red. Lying around were dead bodies of both sexes and all ages from the old man to the infant at the breast. Some had their heads split in twain by axes, others beaten into jelly with clubs, others pierced or cut to pieces with bowie knives. Some struck down as they mired; others had almost reached the water when overtaken and butchered.”
Between 80 and 250 Wiyots were murdered. This massacre was executed in coordination with attacks on other Native American settlements in the nearby countryside that killed an additional 58, 40 and 35 Wiyots, respectively. It was settlers, not soldiers – who organized themselves under the name, “Humboldt Volunteers, Second Brigade” – who were the culprits. Many of the surviving Wiyots were rounded up by soldiers from Fort Humboldt and removed to the Klamath River Reservation. This was a pattern that had already repeated itself endlessly from east to west during the expansion of the U.S.: settlers took the lead in driving out Native Americans with the army sent in to back them up. Criticism by other settlers was discouraged; local European writer, Bret Harte, who condemned the Wiyot massacre at the time it occurred, was soon forced to leave the area due to death-threats.
With these human impediments out of the way, nothing stood in the way of the European settlers from embarking upon resource extraction on a grotesquely massive scale, which they did with enthusiasm. This was partly accomplished with the use of Chinese immigrants, whose labor was essential for building the railroad, among other things. But that relationship eventually soured and, in 1885, over 300 Chinese were forcibly ejected from Eureka and their neighborhood razed. Yet another ugly chapter.
A mythology arose from these dark days that is still celebrated, in which rapaciousness is cast as “hard work” and killing as “bravery.” This false narrative still lives on in every statue of Paul Bunyon.
By the late 1970’s, there weren’t many Redwood trees left to log. Even so, locals complained about federal protection of the ragged remainders, as if 95% was not enough to take.
In the 1980’s, in response to Reagan’s successful throttling of illegal marijuana from Mexico, people in northern California began growing more Cannabis. Many were back-to-the-landers from the 1960’s and 70’s, who had purchased ranch and timberland when it was cheap. With the passage of California’s Proposition 215 in 1996, which legalized medical marijuana, these back-woods efforts ballooned into a multi-billion dollar industry. By the 2000’s, people were referring to this trend as the “Green Rush,” with no apparent comprehension that the Gold Rush had been rooted in genocide and environmental devastation.
Yet, the “Green Rush” is an apropos appellation; same song, different verse, in a history of abuse. Personally, I am in favor of legalizing marijuana in all the states and at the federal level, if only because throwing people in jail for smoking or selling a cultivated plant is utterly ridiculous. However, I am opposed to the agricultural industry as it currently operates. It’s time for marijuana farming to lose its groovy reputation; it doesn’t deserve it.
The Cannabis industry is not kind to the environment, as has been well-documented (see here, here, here and here). Springs are sucked dry during the summer. Streams and rivers are polluted with pesticides and fertilizers, affecting entire riparian ecosystems including endangered salmon. Wildlife is killed by rat poison placed out to protect the plants from predation. Energy-use has soared to heat grow rooms and greenhouses, drying sheds and trim shacks. The forest is littered with pots, hoop-house coverings, irrigation lines, harvest tubs and mesh fencing, all made of plastic. Acres of trees are cut down to make clearings for what are euphemistically called “gardens.”
The regional destruction wrought by the rushes for gold, timber and pot are not the end of the story. The system of which they are a part – industrialized Capitalism – has also put into motion Climate Change, which an existential threat to life everywhere on the planet. The other shoe is dropping. Even if we halted everything now, the effects of our collective actions up to this point will continue to degrade the quality of life on the planet for decades or centuries to come. We are riding a train with too much momentum to stop. The only question is: How much further do the tracks go before they run off the edge of the cliff?
Prior to my arrival in Humboldt this year, I had been actively exploring emotional pain. This was not some noble choice, borne of New Age narcissism, but merely a necessity. So sharp had the pangs become, so insistent their cries, and – most of all – so attuned to their reality had my senses become, that I could no longer ignore them, and was forced to give them my full attention. In the context of this essay, it’s not important what particular event precipitated my personal crisis – it just happened to be the thing that tipped the scales, so to speak, and ushered me through a doorway into a deeper relationship with my senses and emotions that I have only begun.
I can say that my heightened awareness of emotional pain has been emerging concurrent with my travels in the Western states over the last few years. It has been highly educational, deeply sobering and sometimes enraging to see first-hand the effects of European colonization in the wild places on this continent: the rapacious resource extraction of mining, logging, farming and ranching have so ravaged some places the original landscape can only be imagined.
Reading about destruction, and even viewing pictures or video, is one thing. Actually seeing it in person is another. And, feeling it is something else again. Once the heart has experienced it, there is no going back, not unless you want to smother that part of yourself that gave you awareness in the first place, and that is a path of self-evisceration. Whether we know it or not, we are creatures in connection with all of life – animal, vegetable and, yes, mineral – and we cannot help but to feel, on some level, the consequences of our collective malevolence and the injuries it has caused. The pain is within us all.
“Malice” leaves a mark. Ecosystems are regularly affected by disturbances like fires and floods, but such events are cyclical and provide essential openings for the opportunistic creatures who rush in to fill the new gaps. Certain beetles have infrared senses that draw them to forest fires where they lay their eggs in the dead trees. The seeds of certain plants will not germinate until their hard coating is scarified by a flash flood. Some pine trees bear cones will not open to release their seeds until exposed to fire. These are but three of hundreds of examples of how “catastrophic” events are essential to the health of particular ecosystems. Some of these relationships have only recently been observed by scientists, even as the habitats that host these webs of connection are disappearing,
But nature has no malice. Only some humans do. Malice is the intentional destruction of life, and to hell with everything and everyone else. On this visit to Humboldt, I could feel the mark of malice on the land. The forests around me were all second growth fir and oak, dense and tangled from lack of fire; it felt like being in a garden that’s gone to weeds. The oak savanna was like an abandoned field, now invaded by trampling cattle, its acorns unharvested. The very hills seemed to groan tortuously, and I could sense it through my skin when I sat on the ground.
I will not say, as some people do, that malice is inherent to human nature. To me, such claims smack of misanthropy, a brand of hatred that is always turned equally on the self as it is on others. I will call this world-view what it is: nihilism, a philosophy that is only believable in a culture that is profoundly disconnected from nature. Because this disconnection is killing us and everything else around us, it is clear that this philosophy is a luxury we cannot afford.
The history of our species, Homo sapiens, dates back at least 200,000 years, and not until the ascendancy of agriculture and its offspring, urbanism, did we take this turn towards ecocide. Imagine this time-line is laid out on a football field and you are standing in one end-zone, looking toward the other: the first 95 yards starting at the far side represent our period as gatherers and hunters. Only the last 5 yards in front of you is farming. Look down to see the Industrial Revolution, starting at the last 4 inches, the post-WWII boom at 1¼ inches, and the World Wide Web at about ½ an inch from the tip of your toe. In other words, the way we live now is the real anomaly, not the other way around. During the vast majority of our history, we lived for the most part cooperatively with our ecosystems. Ecocide is the exception, not the rule.
The way forward must include looking back, it is true. But also, looking around. A few humans, here and there, are still practicing the “old” ways, though they are fewer with each passing year. They carry the last bits of living knowledge (and wisdom) about how to live with the earth sustainably. Will we throw that heritage away because it is not “modern” and we would prefer to put our faith in pie-in-the-sky technofixes? Is the lesson of Icarus still unlearned?
And, we must look inside, too. The crisis we are facing in the world today is primarily a crisis of consciousness. How is each of us carrying the culture’s malice within ourselves and meting it out to in big ways and small? Will we continue to ignore the pain that it causes? Can we find the strength to face that anguish, and listen to its warning? Time might very well be running short…