Experience: I lived in a tree for two years

by Nate Madsen as told to Chris Broughton Guardian edited by O Society June 29, 2019

Guests climbed up and abseiled down. I finished my degree on a laptop and watched ravens raise their young

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Nate Madsen with Mariah, the giant redwood he named when he lived 130ft up in the branches to save it from the loggers. Photograph: Boris Zharkov/The Guardian

I’ve always felt a deep connection with trees and have often turned to them in challenging times. In October 1998, I was 25 and living in Humboldt County, California, doing side jobs while studying at the state university. My safe haven was an 80-acre grove of giant redwoods in Freshwater Creek Forest, a place I’d go for peaceful contemplation.

One evening, I noticed some trees had been marked with orange paint. The Pacific Lumber Company had stepped up its operations in the area, devastating old growth forest. Whenever I’d seen trees marked in this way, they disappeared within weeks. Many trees were already occupied by activists – Julia “Butterfly” Hill was part-way through a tree sit that ended up lasting more than two years.

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I was on a construction job when my friend Roger said: “Hey, Nate – I don’t want to bum you out, but they’re going to cut that grove today.” I wanted to drive over straight away, but decided to wait until after work, in the hope that the loggers would have left for the day.

I’d already chosen three trees I particularly wanted to protect. When we arrived that evening, only one was still standing. I later called her Mariah, after the song They Call The Wind Mariah from the musical Paint Your Wagon. She was 12ft in diameter and 200ft high – even her lowest branches were 80ft from the ground. Luckily, smaller trees had sprouted off her main trunk at the base and I was able to work my way up using those. I used a 10ft length of twine to haul my supplies up after me and kept climbing until I found a growth of branches 130ft up where I was able to make a rudimentary nest – and that’s where I spent the first night. It was drizzly and my feet were cold, but I was able to rest, at least.

Before dawn, Roger returned with more food, a 50ft rope, a sleeping bag and a tarpaulin. The loggers had already arrived. At first, their hostility was aimed at one of their own: “Ah, Joe! You got hippies in your tree again – why is it always you?” But soon an argument started over whether they should carry on cutting regardless. They felled a nearby tree, which came close enough for some of its branches to whip through Mariah’s. When I felt chainsaw vibrations, I thought my time was up, but it was all for show – they were only cutting through the sprout trees at Mariah’s base.

Things remained pretty heated during the first couple of months. Sometimes the abuse came from less identifiable sources. Once, someone drove by and fired shots, seemingly in my direction; another time, a visiting friend found her car rolled over a cliff. By then I’d established more permanent living quarters about 160ft up, and was able to take in regular provisions, brought in by local residents.

Nature also provided some intimidating episodes. I experienced heavy rain and winds that whipped Mariah back and forth, 20ft in either direction. Eventually, I built a platform 40ft lower down, where things were calmer. As the months passed, I watched ravens raise their young in a tree opposite and a family of bears collecting acorns in an oak.

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Vincent

Guests would climb up using my ropes and abseil back down again. I accepted a cellphone for calling in help and a laptop that I used to finish my degree. Occasionally someone would even look after Mariah while I went for a bath. But the company sometimes sent hired climbers to perform “forcible extractions” and during one of these, a colleague fell and was lucky to escape with her life. Wary of putting anyone else at risk, I vowed to go it alone. That led to my longest stretch in the tree without touching the ground – more than six months.

Finally, I learned Pacific Lumber was to stop its harvesting plan. I descended in mid-October, just over two years after my first ascent. The transition was difficult at times – I’ve never felt more alive than I did during my time looking after Mariah.

For the next few years, I planted trees and later acquired a 45-acre virgin forest, saving it from destruction. I sit on a steering committee for The Lost Coast League which works to stop logging in nearby Rainbow Ridge. I drive past Mariah from time to time and occasionally visit. The new landowners have a policy not to cut trees of her stature, so in theory she is safe. It has been 20 years and she’s still standing, touch wood.

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Up a Tree

I first came across the name of Nate Madsen two years ago, when reading about Julia “Butterfly” Hill in an ecological magazine. In the fall of 1998, following Hill’s lead, Madsen ascended Mariah, a thousand-year old Sequoia in California’s Humboldt County, with the intention of blocking the tree’s imminent felling by timber crews clearing old-growth forests under the auspices of a Pacific Gas & Electric utility development. Having long been a proponent of direct action environmentalism (as opposed to political lobbying), I began researching the topic for a feature in the LAS Green Series.

Detailed and informative (yet laced with the inevitable “hippie propaganda” that industrialists are quick to point out in an effort to discredit preservationists), the background trail of information on tree-sitting led me to numerous websites and print articles, but none of the high-profile tree sitters such as Julia Hill were approachable for an interview due to their rather un-wired living situations. Not far from abandoning all hope of a first-person perspective on such an increasingly rare act of civil disobedience, I stumbled upon UPATREE.NET, Madsen’s website.

Although he had scaled the tree some 21 months earlier, at a time when cell phones and laptops had not yet infiltrated every corner of society, Madsen was still perched high in Mariah’s canopy in July. The longevity of his sit wasn’t the only thing that piqued my interest in Madsen’s situation – he was now also online. After exchanging a few initial emails over the course of several weeks, Madsen responded to a list of questions I had sent over. By the time our conversation was concluded, Madsen had spent more than two years of his life living aloft in the elements, only his resolve and the object of his affection to keep him company.

INTERVIEW

Eric Herboth: Tell us a little bit about yourself, name and age and that sort of thing.

Nate Madsen: I started this action at age 25 and soon will turn 28. I spent just over 2 years dedicating myself to one of Mother Nature’s most impressive works of life, and I intend to continue my work relating people, planet, and responsibility. One tree stands, but that leaves a lot of work left to do.

Tell me about Mariah.

Mariah is a thousand-year-old Coastal Redwood and stands to the credit of the local community that kept me supplied and able to keep Mariah vertical. She stands near a county roadside and was part of a grove that [served as] a safe haven in my daily routine. I traveled this road regularly and would stop from time to time and imagine what it was like when trees of this stature and larger [covered] the landscape. Mariah stands just over 200 feet tall and is 12 feet in diameter at the base. She is an awe-inspiring pillar of life. The grove she was part of only 150 years ago (remember this is a 1000 year old tree) was over 2,000,000 acres. Redwoods as far as the eye could see, and then some. Now we struggle to protect the one or two that remain here and there. Just two and a half years ago Mariah was part of an intact grove that stretched along the roadside for over one-half mile. Now only six ancient trees remain – [three] due to tree sitters and three others that, by luck, were not included in the [Timber Harvest 1-97-514] plan. The future is untold…

Initially, one would think that a tree-sit of such length would put one’s life on hold, but that is not necessarily the case. I read that you recently received your diploma. Where did you graduate from, and with what degree?

As for putting life on hold to protect Mariah, I have to say this is a Yes and No situation. Some things were put on hold, but most of those things proved trivial when placed in the grand scheme as seen from 200 feet up, in the arms of a gentle giant. Life is not comprised of what we are doing from moment to moment, but rather what we feel, how we relate to other beings, what we share with one another, who and how we love. These are the “real” things in life. These are the things that will fulfill us. These things never get put on hold and in fact are easier to embrace when we put the distractions we call daily life on hold. So in essence putting things on hold has allowed me to see what truly matters to me and what it means to be a human “being.” We don’t call ourselves human “doings” but, [speaking] for myself, I certainly act like that often. As for my degree – that is an irony in this context. I had put my formal education on hold previous to my ascent, but with plenty of time I figured I might as well graduate.

What are the things you miss most from your earthbound life?

What I miss most is simple – my friend and companion “T” – my dog – and the ocean.

What has your sit taught you about yourself?

Taking the time to sit still has taught me much about where I stand in this puzzle of creation, what is important to me, and what will lead to a sense of fulfillment in life. I hesitate to get too specific because this is very subjective and can mean different things to each of us. What brings me peace may be different from what brings others peace and that is the beauty of life …

What has your sit taught you about life?

I don’t want the meter stick by which I judge the merits of life to influence others’ measuring technique. All are valid if the merits prove as such and hence I’ll skip specifics except to say – time is valuable, love given is worth its weight in gold to the tenth power, and gentleness can be the strongest force at times.

What are a few of the most memorable moments of your sit?

As for a memorable moment they are too many to count and far to lengthy to describe so I’ll limit my self to one that came near the end and was very profound on a personal level. Allow me set the stage… It was shortly after I received word from the California Department of Forestry that the harvest plan Mariah stands in was in the process of closing and I knew my time in Mariah’s arms was finite. Suddenly every moment was precious.

In the two-year duration I spent in the tree there were often times when I’d put things off. I would consider climbing to the top to watch a spectacular sunrise, but than I’d say to myself, “I could climb up, but my sleeping bag is so warm. It’s cold up there and I can always catch tomorrow’s or the next days…” Or next years for that matter. For a long time things were open-ended. I was dedicated for the long haul, what ever that may be. These “put offs” ended the very moment I received the news of eminent closure. I began climbing up for the sunrise every day no matter what.

Without Mariah’s intervention I’d have never taken the time to evaluate were I was in life, how I got there, and where I want to go from here. We are the masters of our own destiny when we take the responsibility to be such a master. It is sad to miss out in life, to let things pass, but that is not what we must live by. Rather what defines us and our relation to creation is what we embrace, how it affects us, and how we affect those around us. That realization was worth all those precious moments I let pass and will hopefully keep me focused in the future to be here, now.

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What prompted your decision to start the tree-sit?

What prompted my decision to rise up is a novel in itself, so let me simply hit some highlights. It all starts with disgust for the horrific scars our Mother Earth wears at the hand of industrial (de)forestry. The loss of topsoil, fish, and habitat are all profound, but the bottom line is that 1000-year old trees deserve respect, not contempt, and clear cuts are downright ugly. Julia Butterfly was a major inspiration. What pushed me over the edge and into action was the murder of David “Gipsy” Chain. A tree was cut intentionally in the direction of activists who were trying to stop an illegal logging plan and, with one cut, two lives were taken.

Like I said at the beginning, this was a sacred space for me were I would pause in my daily routine to imagine what it was like when these great trees graced the land for as far as the eye could see. It pained me to see them go. Finally I could take no more and climbed up on my way home from work one evening.

I have always been a supporter of direct-action movements, finding the high-visibility, high-consequence actions of groups such as EarthFirst! immensely more productive than the high-dollar campaigns of organizations such as the Sierra Club. What is your take on the efficiency and merits of grass-roots guerilla movements and eco-terrorism versus the lobbying and big spending of special interest groups in the government?

Sierra Club vs. Earth First… Hmmm, that is a tough one for me. I don’t have any direct links to either of those groups, although I have dear loving friends in both. I agree with parts of each of their philosophies and disagree with parts of each of their philosophies as well. I could say the same about the logging community. There is good and bad in most everything and I’m not one to judge, so I’ll simply say that if a valuable goal is achieved, I’m all for it. If the means is righteous and honorable, I’m all for it.

The only part of the question I’m clear as a bell on is that I’m NOT an eco-terrorist. What I do has nothing to do with terror what so ever. If you want to talk to an eco-terrorist, talk to MAXXAM CEO Charles Hurwitz. Talk to Red Emmerson of Sierra Pacific Industries. These are the workers of terror. I’m an eco-compassionist at heart and strive to live up to my ideals daily, but I also fail daily, so judge not.

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Some might say that, at the heart of all ecological protection is essentially an effort to slow an environmental collapse that is imminent. Indeed, all models and research point to a world not so unlike that depicted in “A Friend of the Earth,” the recent novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, where the earth is strapped with the exploded human population and depleted resources.

While individual efforts such as saving old-growth are part of the puzzle, I think we all agree that the human race as a whole – our population growth, urban sprawl and dependency on non-renewable resources – is a freight train that needs to be derailed. Do you feel that, although it may be hundreds or even thousands of years away, the Earth’s inability to sustain life at the hands of humans is certain? How realistic do feel an actual turn-around in the overall direction of our planet is?

That is a huge question! Can we address the central elements of the earth’s biosphere and the potential outcomes of impacts on it in the scope of a [magazine] article? [That would be] impossible and, with all frankness, I believe most of this to be speculation, and myself unqualified to hazard a guess. It is clear the earth is carrying a very heavy burden to maintain the human species. Most other species suffer on our behalf (with a few exceptions), and I personally regret my role in this impact.

At the same time, I marvel at life in all it’s splendor and can hardly believe it occurred in the first place. I believe in a universe designed for birth, but recoil when considering the arrogant attitude with which we make our mark on our region of this marvelous creation, Earth. Mother Earth will never be the same now that she has birthed humans, but that is true when thinking about any species. For me it is a question of responsibility. What do we want to be responsible for as a collective body of humans …

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How long are you prepared to remain in Mariah?

As for remaining, as long as Mariah needs me. I sure need her.

What would it take for you to come down?

What would it take to come down? I was not quite sure until it happened. What was achieved was far from ideal. I had clearly defined higher hopes, but this is how things are and it seems right to me.

When you do come down, what is next? Politics? Family? Disney World?

What’s next? Clearly there is more work to do and I intend to continue with my dedication to people-n-trees, but what specifically that will mean is still not crystal clear and I’m simply trying to remain open so when the voice calls again I will hear…

With the presidential elections less than a month away, I have to ask for your views on the presidential race and, if you don’t mind, American politics in general.

As for the president… who cares? Gush and Bore are both corporate puppets and, double-talk aside, policy will vary very little. As for me, I am voting for Nader and am sad that the disenfranchised 50% that dodn’t vote won’t come out and seize the opportunity to make change a reality. As for American politics in general I’m with Jefferson, an agrarian nation would be far more viable than an industrial one, and it’s time for one of those periodic revolutions he said was necessary to keep our Democracy (Republic) healthy. The only problem with that is the unavoidable violence that occurs when those in power are called upon to relinquish that power. We saw the reality of this violence in Seattle for the WTO meetings, in Washington DC, in Philly, at Prague in the Czech Republic…

What is happening to the earth is violent and what we receive for standing up with conviction is violent. There is plenty of violence so we stand courageously in peace-loving kindness and will continue to do so until change is a reality both personally and socially because you can’t have one with out the other.

After two years of sun and rain and wind, and only days after sending his final email in response to my questions, Madsen finally descended from his perch more than one hundred feet above the ground. His tenacity had paid off and Mariah was saved; the hotly contested Timber Harvest Plan 1-97-514 had officially been closed, and with that closure Madsen’s sit went from ongoing conservation action to environmental precedent.


BACKGROUND + STATISTICS
DEFORESTATION BY NUMBERS
.:1,000 acres of old-growth trees are cut daily in the United States. Logging has destroyed nearly 40 million acres of the national forests in the United States.

.: More than 2,000 species of birds have become extinct in the past 2,000 years due to human action and the destruction of habitat caused by the timber industry.

.: According to a September 1990 article in National Geographic magazine, 95% of America’s native forests have already been cut, putting immense strain on the remaining 5% of our forests to support wildlife, stop erosion, purify the air and aid in the production of medicines and pharmacuticals.

.: Humans have caused nearly all of the recorded extinction of 484 species of animals and 654 species of plants. In most cases these extinctions are directly related to loss of habitat.

.: The U.S. Forest Service study determined that by the year 2000, recreation in our national forests will account for more than 30 times more revenue and nearly 40 times more jobs than the logging industry.

.: Logging on national forests can actually increase the risk of forest fires, since the slash left behind is highly flammable and logged lands allow for the growth of dense brush that is much less fire-resistant than trees and in many cases serves as fuel for a spreading blaze.

.: The annual timber yield from national forests makes up less than 4% of the nation’s total annual consumption of wood. When we halt commercial logging on national forests, we can easily “replace” this supply by increasing recycling efforts, using alternative materials and halting the export of raw logs and wood chips from the United States, although less than 40% of mixed paper and cardboard is recycled in America.

.: According to a recent Sierra Club report which sited 1996 numbers, the United States Forest Service’s sales of timber from public forests resulted in a loss to U.S. taxpayers of more than $791 million.

.: 1/3 of United States forests were cleared between 1630 and 1920.

.: The United States is the largest producer of timber and forest products in the world.

.: The United States is the largest consumer of timber and forest products.

.: The United States uses nearly 20% of the world’s timber resources while accounting for only 5% of the world’s population.

NATE’S FINAL “TREEMAIL”
Well here it is dear friends, my final message. The big news is the “I’s” have been dotted, the “T’s” crossed and Timber Harvest Plan 1-97-514 is officially closed! Hazza! Most of my things are packed and the remainder will be down this evening. I’ll be spending the next few days with Mariah the same way we began our relationship. I’ll rest in her gentle embrace at night and take in the intricacies of this incredible view and detailed nooks and crannies of Mariah as best I can until the time to descend comes clear.

The last 2 years have been a tough wonder of an adventure, and now I grapple with how to hold that experience deep in my core. Not that I don’t want further change, I do. The point I’m working on is how to hold the good things, let the others pass, and flow forward.

What does this plan closing mean in real terms? It means limited, temporary protection at best, but the immediate threat on Mariah’s life seems to have ebbed. This is a VERY good reason to do more hard work to develop a reciprocating relationship between people and trees. We need each other.

This type of resolution has great attributes as well as dramatic down sides. This is not a final solution! Far from it. This doesn’t even mean a lasting solution to this piece to the puzzle. This, as I see it, is a great attribute. This solution should be used as inspiration to move forward with diligence and perseverance. There is much that remains to do. Much work in Freshwater, the Mattole, Elk, all over the North Coast, and the Sierras. The world and the people have to remember to get along.. That is our task.

The down side is the potential result that could befall Mariah. It would take very little effort to bring her down. Much less effort than it has taken to keep her up. That is the way in life. The good things take hard work and are worth every bit. The easy things are worth exactly what is put into them.

Mariah means more to me right now than I can describe, but the real work that must be accomplished for her work to be fulfilled is in our hearts and minds. (Starting with mine if Mariah has been successful in her endeavor.)

I give my eternal gratitude to all who have made this effort possible. Mariah stands today to the credit of a list of people too long to realistically list. Some have given more than others, but every contribution, especially the small ones, are what have made this possible. This coming together I have been blessed to watch has given me hope. I have seen a deep caring fill people. I have hollered down what seem to be a million THANK YOUs. But that does not scratch the surface of the gratitude I feel and wish I could convey. Mariah stands to your credit. Come see her. Maybe she has a way to express a gratitude to you that these words lack. Be well, be ever present, and most of all go…

Trees Foundation

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Julia Butterfly

 

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