The past 160 years have involved the utter destruction of the vast majority of perhaps the most ecologically important natural communities there are here in California: its wetlands. Most of this destruction has involved the pursuit of various myths, whether it be a mythic vision be agricultural empire in a land where summer rains are absent, or the development of one of the world's most monolithic concrete settlements, smack-dab in the middle of a vast desert ecosystem, where 18 million people now live and drink and water their lawns (Los Angeles and its suburbs).
Initially, California's wetlands ecosystems were drained and diverted by channelizing the waters that fed them. Enormous dams then further tamed the state's rivers, preventing them from overflowing their banks and recharding the wetlands. California now has more than 1,400 state and federal dams, which collectively capture 60 percent of average annual runoff in the entire state. No other state can boast of anything resembling California's system of dams, reservoirs, powerplants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, siphons, tunnels, gates, and other water control structures that convey the Blue Gold from its natural strongholds to civilized humanity's urban and agricultural centers.
For a time, California's wetlands were headed toward the same fate as Grizzly bears, wolves, and jaguars; countless birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates; the Xerxes butterly; and innumerable plant species in this state: they were on the verge of being extirpated altogether. Think of the wetlands as an endagered species.
Of course, California is not the only area of the United States where wetlands have been utterly destroyed. For the first hundred years of California's existence, US government policy was to promote the destruction of the land's kidneys. Illinois, for example, went from being the Wetlands State, with billing as the “Goose Hunting Capital of the World,” to the “Prairie State.” According to Thomas E. Dahl of the US Geological Survey, six states lost 85 percent or more of their original wetlands (including California, which has lost more than 90 percent). Twenty-two states lost 50 percent or more.
Even now, scientific understandings of the complexities of wetland ecosystems is still developing, and it seems the more we learn, the more valuable wetlands become. What scientists do know is that wetlands function in a manner akin to kidneys: absorbing the valley’s waters and slowly releasing them back into the system. As water flows through them minerals, sediments, and contaminants are absorbed and transformed by the plants, animals, and bacteria that occupy the many ecological niches therein.
Another function of wetlands is to maintain the atmosphere. Wetlands store carbon within live and accumulated plant biomass, instead of releasing it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Thus, while wetlands worldwide help to moderate global climatic conditions, filling, clearing and draining wetlands releases carbon dioxide.
* * *
Having lived in California for almost my entire life, I understand the workings of a Mediterranean climate somewhere deep within me; I can feel the change of seasons in my body, and I especially know the climatological feeling of summer, because it's the time when I was outside the most as a child. It's marked by dry sinking air, arid heat. This phenomenon of air sinking pushes the marine layer away from the latitude band of the earth where most of California resides, making rain nearly impossible.
When I occupied one of the two HB Wick Drains wick drain “stitchers” that were puncturing the Little Lake wetlands this past spring and summer, into the early-fall, my worries about potential physical duress centered on dryness. I worried I would become parched in the summer heat. I even envisioned writing about the experience afterward, describing my sense of communion with the parched wetlands I was attempting to protect, which were drying out under the combined pressure of CalTrans' absurd freeway construction and the dryness of the long, Mediterranean summer days.
I did bring a small (about 5'x10'), weathered tarp that wore a skein of small holes across one side, which was partly in case I needed it in the event of unseasonal showers, but mainly so I could use it as my bathroom curtain.
In case you missed my previous 22 articles on the subject here in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, or have otherwise haven't tuned in, the California Department of Transportation has been pursuing a project that would cause the greatest destruction of Northern California wetlands in the past fifty years: the Willits Bypass. One critical part of constructing the freeway across the fine sediments of Little Lake has been to install "wick drains" across more than 40 acres of the wetlands, including where the Bypass' northern interchange would be built. The wick drains are 80-foot-long, polypropylene tubes that wick moisture out the wetlands, thereby compacting and stabilizing the soil and preparing it for the impact of 18-wheelers careening and bouncing along at highway speeds all day and night.
I've written two previous installments about my occupation of the wick drain stitcher. In the last one, I left off after my third day, when I'd just run out of food and was running low on water. Roughly 40 people had made an effort to resupply me, toting bundles of nutrition bars, dried fruit, and one-gallon water jugs into the so-called wick drain fields, located north of Willits near Highway 101, only to be repelled by California Highway Patrol officers. Many of these people are farmers, who feel the impact of this particular watershed destruction in a direct way. In response to my stitcher occupation, the CHP had set up a 24-hour guard at the base of the stitcher. The CHP officers on hand, and several more who were called in for back-up, arrested six people during the resupply bid.
At the time, the officers refused to say whether they were under orders to starve me until I descended. But the incident perfectly dramatized that CHP had a starvation policy in effect. One of the officers even cut the supply rope I had lowered so that bundles of food and water could be attached to it, leaving me stranded without any food at all.
That same night, a few sprinkles came. Prior to being expelled from an adjacent area of pastureland, some of my most ardent supporters — who had been camping out overnight to keep a watch on me — had shouted up to me that rain was in the forecast. By late-morning, the sun was shining once again. I figured the wet weather had passed, and that I could go back to using my tarp to shield from the gaze of the cops my means of transmitting the contents of my bowel.
“Glad that's out of the way,” I said to myself. Having been alone on a tower for several days, albeit with my every move being intently watched by the CHP guards (who even resorted to shining flood lights directly at me throughout the night), I'd developed the habit of talking to myself out loud. The lonelier I got, the more regular the self-focused chatter became.
“Guess I can focus on coping with hunger and thirst, instead of being cold and wet,” I said to myself next. I'd managed to collect some rainwater from my tarp during the rain shower, but I can tell you now, having experienced it myself, that wick drain “stitcher” water's defining characteristic is greasiness. I dumped out this murky liquid soon after I'd collected it, not wanting what little water I was consuming to be akin to my body what an oil slick would be to the Little Lake wetlands.
The knowledge that human beings can survive for around three days without water was a consistent presence in the most active area of neuronal activity in my cerebral cortex. I had less than a gallon of water left, and I figured the weather was about to turn hot and dry again. Pretty soon, I was back to formulating those sentences drawing poetic parallels between my parched state and those of the wetlands. I'm a journalist, after all, and part of my motivation was to bring awareness about what was happening to the wetlands to the AVA readership.
But on the evening of the 24th, a cold front blew in from the direction of that great continental air condtioner, the Pacific Ocean. Rain clouds were approaching. Not having had access to a weather forecast, nor having had a conversation at an audible decibel level with any living human being (save for some heated exchanges with CHP officers) for a few days, I was caught totally off guard. Being that I had been schooling myself against expending any extra energy until I could eat again, I had lied down most of the day. Standing up, I felt the blood rush to my head. A Rage Against the Machine song from my childhood played throughout my head in my semi-delirious state — “The truth is heavy / awwww, shit, I got a head rush!”
I faint and feel woosy. As quickly and deliberately as I could, without fainting or otherwise collapsing, I spread my tarp across the framework of the wick drain driver above me.
Small droplets were landing on me, and on my 2' x 7' plywood platform. The plaftform was positioned at roughly a 30 degree angle vis-a-vis the rectangular framework of the stitcher. I was unable to position the tarp so as to cover the platform edges. The tarp was simply too small. I was already cramped. Being that the last thing I needed was to expose myself to rain, I had now lost access to each edge of the platform. So, for much of the rest of the night, I sat in the center, wrapped up in my sleeping bag, my legs dangling over the side. I rested my head awkwardly against one of the bars of the tower.
As I stayed up and tried to wait out the storm, I took comfort in my certainty that this rain would be short-lived. I also took comfort in the beauty of the ways that each gail of wind deposited the rain artfully on the ground below me, illuminated as it was with flood lights, and in knowing that the rain probably meant CalTrans' contractors would be rained out.
Eventually, I folded up my 6'5" frame into a fetile position in the center of the seven-foot-long platform, in an area I took to calling, as part of my inner-personal (as opposed to interpersonal) banter, "The Fetile Station." It was the only place the rain wasn't hitting.
I caught perhaps an hour of sleep, maybe two. When I awoke, I was completely soaked from the waste down. The rain had fallen in windy bursts throughout the night. The water often came in at an angle and landing on my sleeping bag. The water had wicked its way across my entire platform, and my body was beginning to shake in uncontrollable spasms. I had a bad case of the chills. The sky was completely cloudy, with many black rain clouds saturating it. As my chills set in deeper, I considered that I might be on the verge of hypothermia if the rain didn't relent.
* * *
In 2008, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, nee Fish and Game, produced a draft of the Outlet Creek Basin Study, an impressive document pertaining to the history of human impacts on Little Lake and its tributaries. For reasons I am unsure of, the document has never been finalized or publicly released, though copies of the draft have flowed into the hands of a small group of inland Mendocino County's concerned individuals and watershed nerds. I obtained a copy this past spring.
The document notes that Little Lake Valley was akin to an inland delta at the time settlers – or “unsettlers,” as one Willits resident, the herbalist Donna D'Terra, likes to call them – arrived. The wetlands were thriving, diverse, and surrounded by oak woodlands that the valley's indigenous people managed with controlled burning, being that the trees produced a prized perennial grain that was the foundation of these people's sustenance: acorns.
A large population of tule elk foraged on the brush and small trees, helping to maintain open meadows. The plant and animal communities that evolved there depended on such a condition, open and park-like, for their survival. Tule elk, now a threatened species that nearly went extinct in the mid-20th century, re-appeared in Little Lake Valley last summer, 2012, after more than a half-century of absence.
Beaver populations thrived as well, and they were instrumental to the wetlands' maintenance. Because beavers build their stick-and-mud dams in streams flowing through shallow valleys, the flooded area becomes freshwater wetlands. To use a metaphor that Caltrans and anyone else embedded in the car-addicted dominant culture would appreciate, beavers dams are not unlike watershed speed bumps. Having many beaver dams in the headwa8ters of rivers moderates the flow and keeps water on the land longer, which alleviates both droughts and major floods.
The wetlands were a crucial stop-over on one of the greatest bird migration paths in the Western Hemisphere: the Pacific Flyway. Little Lake provided nesting grounds for scores of waterfowl as birds travel north-south from as far as Alaska to Patagonia, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or traveling to overwintering sites. As Alfred LeMotte, who set up a fish hatchery on Little Lake in the late-1880s to supply trout to the Northern Pacific Railroad, noted in a March 1897 letter to the magazine Overland Monthly, “The lower portion [of Little Lake] toward the outlet, forms a lake in the winter, grown up with tule, cat tail, and marsh grasses... then the migratory ducks come in.”
The oaks also served crucial functions, complementing and enhancing the wetlands ecosystem (as those that remain continue to). Among plants, trees are by far the most effective evaporators and transpirers of water (evapotranspirers). Because a typical tree breathes out 250 to 400 or more gallons of water per day through the amazingly large surface area of its leaves (an acre of forest can contain well over 1,000 acres of leaf surface area), the trees help fix moisture in the air. Evapotranspiration by trees accounts for the great majority of inland rain.
An entire lake's worth of water, continuously cycling through the bodies of trees in a healthy forest, cycling through the air, being carried by air columns filled with moisture-loving microorganisms up into the sky, as part of one of Mama Earth's most important cycles of renewal.
The Willits Bypass project has involved cutting roughly 2,000 oak trees, as well as many pines, madrones, and manzanitas, across its six-mile-long destructive swath. Many of these oak trees –including the one I sat in, nick-named Polaris, because of its position on the northern end of Little Lake Valley and the Bypass route – were massive, and at least 300 years old. Polaris was felled on September 18th, the same day I was arrested for allegedly violating a court order to remain 100 yards from the Willits Bypass route. At the time, I had just called in a report to KMUD News regarding and was scrawling notes for a piece in the AVA – a piece I never got to write.
I'd been sitting in Polaris, looking out across the meadows of Little Lake, when the wick drain stitcher I was now sitting in had first rumbled into the field and onto the stage.
* * *
As the morning of June 25th unfolded, I continued to sit with my legs dangling over the side of my platform, bundled up in my sleeping bag. The rain continued to fall in intermittent bursts, blowing in from the side and depositing new layers of moisture. In this arrangement, with my tarp overhead and me in my sleeping bag, I again drew a parallel between myself and the wetlands. My sleeping bag was soaking up water like a sponge, just as the wetlands do, only in this case my hands and legs, arms and feet, and my torso were akin to the hardpan soil beneath that ultimately absorbs and filters this water.
My hands were waterlogged and wrinkled – as, I imagined, was much of the rest of my waterlogged body. Any time a comforting thought popped into my head, I grasped for it, held it, tried to strengthen it, imagining it passing all the way through my increasingly enfeebled body and strengthening me. I was becoming desperate for any form of relief, but none was really possible, none save for the one option I refused even to consider: climbing down from the wick drain stitcher.
In the course of sitting, standing, and climbing around 50 feet above the ground, I'd found greater and greater resolve to protect the land beneath me, and the thought that these wetlands – though CalTrans had already turned a vast portion of them into a brown moonscape, punctured by 80-foot-long white tubes – might be filled in with soil and imprisoned with concrete simply wasn't something I could accept.
With the cops watching my every move, I felt like a caged animal in a zoo that has risen up against its handlers, who then keep a 24 hour watch on it so they can wait for just the right time to enter the cage and shoot it with a tranquilizer gun (or something more lethal). Throughout the morning, I sat and bit my lip, tried to focus on breathing, tried to remember images or words that could anchor me. The chills were nearly overwhelming. As my thirst and hunger simultaneously set in deeper, it felt like time itself had become an instrument of punishment, with each second passing slowly and painfully.
I was attached to the framework of the wick drain stitcher by way of a climbing harness, which was outfitted with two "lobster claws": pieces of climb line that wrap around a given anchor point and clip back into themselves with a carabiner tied around the end. Thanks to them, I was never in danger of falling. But they also made it difficult to lie down and be comfortable, even under the best of circumstances.
Throughout the morning, I pleaded with the sky, supplicated the clouds to open up and allow the sun to peer through. I finally resigned myself to the fact that the sun wasn't right on the verge of making a heroic appearance. I undid my tarp, tied it directly into my platform, and wrapped it around me and lied down across my platform, tucking my tarp and sleeping bag in underneath me as snugly as I could, as if in a burrito. The only recourse I had was to trap as much heat as I could until the rain finally relented. The water continued to seep in through the wholes in my tarp.
The winds arrived, as they customarily do, in the late-afternoon. By this point, my mind was on the edge of consciousness. I could feel a rage flowing through me akin to the strength of the wind, itself a form of vitality, and the thought came to me that in spite of my discomfort, I was still very much alive – unlike these wetlands.
I had learned that crooning various deep-throated incantantations and chants was a way of summoning heat from inside of my abdomen. To the cops, who could probably hear my bizarre throaty chants, it must have seemed that I was on the verge of a mental break.
As I felt the gails of wind cascading through the air and flapping open sections of my tarp, I recalled vaguely that John Muir had written of climbing 100 feet up a Douglas fir on the western face of the Sierras when he was approximately my same age, and I thought to contrast my experience with his.
Looking back now, I can read this passage in the essay I had thought of, called “Wind Storm in the Forests”: “The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobo-link on a reed.”
Like Muir, it was as though I had thrown myself into an archetypal self-mentored wilderness coming-of-age ritual. My saga came complete with what was beginning to feel like a life-or-death struggle, the discovery of new resources of strength and self-discipline, and an unexpected resolution – you know, all the classic themes. In contrast, though, I was up in a stiff 100-foot-tall blue construction tower lubed to the hilt with grease, rather than a Doug fir, while under a veritable state of house arrest, and far from certain about what the resolution to my own personal saga would be.
I peaked my head out from under my tarp periodically when the rain let up, only to confirm that the black clouds remained. Occassionally, a supporter came out to shout some words of encouragement, and I peaked my head out if only to signal that I was still capable of poking my head out. How long could this go on? I was profoundly disappointed when day turned into night and the rain picked back up again.
* * *
Valley oaks grow precisely in areas where the dominant society insists on erecting its cities and industrial empires, and its freeways: in valley bottom lands, where these long, flowing, almost vine-like oaks thrive in moist loamy soil ranging between the Inner Coast Ranges and across the Transverse Ranges, in much of Central Valley, and in various other pockets of California.
It is said that valley oaks never grow without a wild water source within 70 feet. Some Indigenous people have called them “Water Oak.”
As with coast redwoods, it is likely that 97-98 percent of old growth valley oaks have been destroyed in the past two hundred years throughout their native range. They have often met this fate in a manner even less dignified than the redwoods. Millions of them have been hacked to the ground like trash, often merely because they stood in the way, not even to be milled or used for any specific purpose.
But valley oaks are nothing if not dignified. These regal trees are thought to be the largest and longest-lived oaks in the world.
In Little Lake Valley, we’ve stood with these trees, put our bodies in them, lived in their arms, felt them cradle us, felt alone and desperate with them, whispered to them of our undying commitment, felt the insanity of all we oppose weighing on both us and them, and ultimately watched as each was hacked down like so many before.
We were left in those moments — if only those exact moments — as powerless to defend their lives as they themselves. Often, we were powerless even to watch.
We’ve stood in the way, as they no longer stand in the way. We gave them small parts of our lives; they gave life to our movement. It wasn’t enough.
Pyrrhic victories are in sight. The Bypass might still be stopped. But for these trees, it wasn’t enough.
In the approximate area of my wick drain stitcher sit, numerous valley oaks had once stood. One of these had a roughly nine-foot trunk. It may have been 600 years old. I had visited that many times while walking the Bypass route, leading tours and talking about the destruction the Bypass would wreak prior to the commencement of construction. I'd gone to that tree for strength many times. After it fell, I sat with a group of people and pledged to do everything I could to protect the wetlands that had provided the container for that tree to grow.
We still have our lives with which to carry out our work in the world, whatever that may be. In my case, my dream that night involved visiting that same valley oak.
* * *
In the mid-afternoon of June 26th, I was roused out of my slumber (fortunately, I slept most of the day that day) by the voice of a prominent local law enforcement official. I forebear to recite all the details of this conversation, given that I still have extensive legal proceedings concerning the matter of my stitcher occupation to attend to at the Mendocino County Courthouse. In short, this law enforcement officer attempted to convince me to climb down from the stitcher voluntarily. He said if I came down right then and there, he would take me out for a hot meal, and that I could be cited and released rather than having to spend a few days in jail.
“I really appreciate your offer,” I called down to him. “But this is the most effective thing I can be doing right now to oppose this horrible project, so I'm going to stay.”
The law enforcement officer had a fall-back plan in case I proved hard to negotiate with (which he had to know I would be). And it was a doozy. In fact, he really couldn't have pulled out anything more gut-wrenching.
“Your mom called me and says she is very worried about you,” he called up to me. “I'm going to come back in five minutes, and I'll have your mom on speaker phone. In the meantime, I really want you to think about what you're doing.”
By that point, I hadn't eaten in five days. I'd barely had anything to drink. I'd been soaking wet for more than two days, feeling at nearly every conscious moment as though I was staving off hypothermia. With as little strength as I had left, the last thing I needed was to have to explain to my mom – who would surely detect any strain of doubt or weakness in my voice — about the righteousness of what I was doing whereby I was starving up in a construction tower, out in the rain, all by lonesome.
Within moments after Mr. Law Enforcement Officer turned and left, I felt the unmistakable feeling of the sun's rays beating down on my neck. Slowly turning toward it, I half expected Gandalf to burst forth with his white staff on his great white horse, Shadowfax, with Erkenbrand of the Westfold and his warriors, just as they did when they shattered Saruman's attack on Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (which I've obviously watched way too many times). I knew at that moment that I had held out against difficult odds, and though I still didn't know where my next meal would come from, or when, that I had prevailed in remaining on the stitcher.
Next came the surreal experience of having a conversation with my mom, who I couldn't quite hear on the police officer's speaker phone (and she couldn't quite hear me), while up on a wick drain stitcher, with the conversation mediated and translated by said police officer (who, needless to say, had a particular style of summarizing what I said to my mom, and vice versa). My mom expressed that she was worried about me; I asked her not to worry because I knew I would be okay. And I meant it. The police officer left visibly frustrated, though he shouted up to me before he departed: “Good luck, Will. I really mean that.”
My mom insists that she never called any police officers. Prior to my mediated conversation with her while up on the wick drain stitcher, though, she had talked to CHP Capt. Jim Epperson and Sheriff Tom Allman. Somehow, they had both gotten ahold of her number and called her.
In any event, Gandalf never showed up. Even better is that a few hours later, a different type of superhero, a real-life ninja, came to my rescue.