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Living In A Wick Drain Stitcher, Part 1

Life In A Wick Drain Stitcher

“You are from somewhere if you know the names and stories of the hills, the springs, and the mountains. If you can name the plants and the animals on it. 

You are from somewhere if you dream of it in the night, and think about it during the day. When your sweat and tears have mixed with the rains to bring life from the dry earth. 

You are from somewhere, when you defend it with every ounce of your energy.” 

— Indiana Nez, Western Navajo defenders against Black Mesa coal mining

The mist hovers dense and low over Little Lake Valley, especially on clear nights with light winds. The condensed vapor forms due to the interaction of the damp wetlands air with stored heat radiating up from the ground. It is a version of what in the Central Valley is called "tule fog," thus named for the tule grass wetlands that covered roughly four million acres of the valley, until roughly 90 percent were sacrificed to the Progress of Man — in the form of ranches and roads — beginning in the 18th century.

Ironically, the low visibility created by such murk is the leading cause of traffic accidents in California. It's safe to say Mama Earth never intended for a massive network of asphalt transportation veins to span out into nearly every dry surface of the globe; more than that, into the wet surfaces.

Having grown up where misty inversion layers roll up from the Monterey Bay into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the sense of enigma that a misty landscape engenders has always been one of my greatest inspirations. On some Santa Cruz mornings, I would ramble through fog so thick I imagined I had only to reach out and I'd be able to grasp it in my hands, concocting elaborate good-vs.-evil fantasy stories revolving around battles between elves (the defenders of the forest) and goblins (greedy, money-loving knaves who often serve a great demon master) that were invariably set in the misty forest.

When I first came to Mendocino County more than five years ago, I felt right at home in Willits' misty environs. Staying for weeks at a time at my now-ex-wife's childhood home off of East Hill Rd., on land immediately adjacent to the Willits Bypass route, I felt embraced by this place and decided then to adopt it as my home.

* * *

The first time I saw one of the Big Blue Towers, I was perched about seventy feet above it, albeit more than a half-mile to its north. It was this past Friday, May 17th, and I was sitting in a four-by-eight platform suspended from the crotch of a several-hundred-year-old valley oak tree, which stands like a sentinel on the edge of an Oregon ash grove north of Willits, adjacent to Highway 101. (This tree sit, which is blocking the path of the enormously destructive CalTrans Willits Bypass' proposed northern interchange area, has recently entered its fourth month, with nine different people having now sat in this tree.)

As the wetlands mist burned off that morning, the body of the wick drain "stitcher" crystallized across the horizon from where I sat like a bad dream. The machine had entered the field just after dark and was now lying on the ground, with its arms attached to those of a giant Caterpillar hydraulic excavator, which sat on massive treads ideal for rolling across the muddy terrain. A fleet of excavators gridded and graded the land surrounding it, converting a once-lush landscape teeming with wetlands grasses into a lifeless brown moonscape.

When I first availed myself of detailed information about the CalTrans bypass this past December, I came to regard it as the most destructive project on the North Coast since the Maxxam and Louisiana Pacific clear-cutting orgy of the 1980s and '90s. The project would cause the largest destruction of wetlands in northern California, by acreage, in the last half-century. I also realized that wick draining was like the crossing of the Rubicon in CalTrans' destruction of these wetlands.

For nearly six months, then, I had known that once wick draining started, it would become necessary for me to defend this endangered ecosystem with every ounce of my energy — though I knew not yet what form these sacrifices would take.

To build a freeway across the boggy Little Lake terrain, CalTrans' contractors need to compact its fine sediments, which are the very feature that allows this soil to hold so much water, and which allows that water to release slowly into the aquifer and surrounding streams. To carry out this destruction, CalTrans intends to install roughly 55,000 of these drains, which are an average of 80 feet long and spaced in a grid about five feet apart (of which CalTrans' contractor, FlatIron, has now installed more than half).

The wick drains are designed (as their name suggests) to wick groundwater to the surface so that it evaporates, or else runs off into adjacent waterways. The process compacts the surrounding soils so as to preclude water from even seeping back into it, essentially creating a massive underground dam. This dam, which would span forty acres or more of Little Lake, would surely have terrible consequneces for the surrounding watershed. Once the fibrous wick tubes are in the ground, CalTrans' spokespeople claim there is no way of pulling them out.

With the coming of the rains, meanwhile, a large amount of the groundwater thus dislocated to the surface would surely silt up and run directly into Outlet Creek, which is the longest remaining Coho salmon run in California. It would do the same vis-a-vis Upp Creek, one of Outlet Creek's tributaries. The spawing grounds of these ancient fish, which have existed since the Jurassic era, would be filled in, dealing perhaps a final blow to this stretch of their historic run.

The wick draining was set to begin the following Monday, May 20th, so I awoke early and fixed a hard stare across the horizon. By 8 a.m., I could make out the outline of the Big Blue Tower. I expected to see it standing erect, driving and vibrating wick drains into the ground just as I had seen in YouTube videos. Instead, it remained as it had been in the previous days: horizontal and motionless.

A few minutes later, the sun had burned off enough condensed vapor that I could make out the figures of two brave Little Lake Valley defenders who had locked themselves to the tower in metal pipes. They were using their bodies to block the stitcher from operating. The police were completely unprepared for the action. Soon, the FlatIron Construction workers went home. Because of the struggle and sacrifice of only two people, no wick drains were installed that day.

Throughout the weekend, I had been almost unbearably anxious. Now, I was hooting and hollering words of encouragement at the top of my lungs, though I knew there was no way they could hear me. The following day, I climbed down from the tree, inspired to do everything I could to continue block the wick draining from moving ahead.

* * *

June 20th — exactly one month later — brought yet another morning of dense mist, hanging suspended above the Little Lake wetlands. Enshrouded in the murk, I climbed more than 30 feet up one of two "wick drain" booms, nestled a 2-by-7 foot platform (just long enough for my 6'5" frame) across the tower's central framework, and prepared to live there for as long as I could.

FlatIron Construction (CalTrans' main construction contractor, which is a division of HOTCHIEF of Germany — the world's largest construction firm) had two wick drain stitchers in operation by this time. The machine operators had finished working in their initial zone near Highway 101 and crossed the Northern Pacific railroad tracks to the east. Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster is charging me with 16 misdemeanors, a maximum eight-year prison sentence, and an indeterminate fine ("restitution") in connection with this action, so I am omitting many details of what took place that I might otherwise share (more details on my legal situation coming in Part 2). The process by which I scaled the wick drain machinery is one of those details.

In the days leading up to the action, I informed a few of my closest friends that I expected to be in the wick drain for anywhere from two hours to two weeks. The "wick drain sit," as it became known, was unprecedented. Although I'd had plenty of first-hand experience with the California Highway Patrol's methods of repressing the Bypass protests, there was no precedent for how they would respond to an aerial occupation of construction equipment.

In the initial hours of the action, my sense of uncertainty about how long I would remain aloft only grew. I had planned to set my platform near the top of the 100-foot structure. Instead, I was initially only able to hoist it up to the tower's bottom rung. The arm of even a small bucket-loader, or "cherry picker," with CHP officers in tow, could have reached me there.

Also, I had planned to communicate regularly with supporters via cell phone. Instead, I dropped my phone after only having been up in the rig for about an hour, being that something dramatic happening below me distracted me and my jacket that housed the phone slipped from the platform.

I had planned to bring enough food and water to last two weeks. Due to a glitch in getting my supplies into the tower during the initial set-up of the action, I started out with only three gallons of water and exactly the following food items: one apple, one bannana, a box with six granola bars, and a can of lentil soup.

The California Highway Patrol stationed at least two officers in the vicinity of the tower around-the-clock, ready to intercept anyone who attempted to deliver me fresh supplies. Sometimes as many as six officers were stationed there. I did not know when, or if, I would be receiving more food or water. From the get-go, I rationed my food, making what little I had stretch across nearly three days, while schooling myself against expending any unnecessary energy.

In the first few days I sat in the platform, the second wick drain driver worked with barely any interruption. I bore the scene with grim satisfaction, knowing that the wetlands were being stitched with wick drains at only half-speed because of my presence in the second tower. In the several minutes that it took to collected my strength after initially climbing the tower and hauling my supplies (a process that caused me to vomit from nerves and exhaustion), I looked out to my east through the mist and tallied up the damage already done: more than 3,000 wick drains had already been installed in the immediate area.

On the very first night, the project's equipment operators hauled out a pair of big floodlights mounted on long poles and shined them into my platform. For good measure, the CHP officers shined the high beams from each of their squad cars into my platform as well. Every night, I was at the convergence of bright beams coming from four directions, which I later joked was either a sleep deprivation technique or some sort of sacred ritual the CHP uses to mark the point where a crane sitter resides with the center of a surveillance Medicine Wheel.

Several dedicated supporters were gathered in an adjacent field for nearly 24 hours a day. Because I didn't have a phone, they served as my communication lifeline and also kept an eye on things in case the CHP or contractors tried anything dangerous (which they later did).

On the morning of my second day in the tower, the Willits Environmental Center, et al.'s Clean Water Act lawsuit was heard in a San Francisco federal court. The judge has until September to rule on the suit, which aims to halt the Bypass on the grounds that CalTrans failed to consider any of the viable alternatives to their current destructive course. With the lawsuit in mind, I shouted down — in the slow, deliberate fashion of the following statement to the ground support crew, which they posted online:

“I have put my body inside the wick drain stitcher because direct actions like these are the only thing slowing down the destruction of Little Lake Valley by CalTrans. These wetlands, as well as the other areas we are striving to protect, are defenseless without us. While I commend people who have pursued the lawsuit that was heard in federal court on Friday, June 21st, I put little faith in the legal system to do the right thing. On behalf of past, present, and future generations, we must not allow such unnecessary and wasteful projects as the Willits Bypass to happen anymore. I am putting my body on the line to protect these forests, mountains, and water because I know that the forest, mountains, and water protect all of us! I know we can stop this project through continued resistance.”

By that point, all the food I had left was my can of soup. The next day, one of the last things I was able to shout to the ground supporters before they were evicted from their spot in the field, thereupon retreating to the distant railroad tracks: “I just started a hunger strike – and it's not a voluntary one.”

Part II will appear in next week's AVA.

One Comment

  1. […] Little Lake wetlands, in the approximate area where I conducted a “wick drain stitcher sit” from June 20th to July 1st. The dumping is taking place at the site of the ecologically calamitous northern interchange area […]

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