Tree Sitters Risk Lives On The Front Line
Above photo: Mountain Valley Pipeline protester ‘Nutty’ looks out from her monopod in the Virginia forest on her 49th day 45ft above the ground. Photograph: Garrett MacLean for the Guardian
In the hills on the border of Virginia and West Virginia protesters – mainly women – are defying police and energy companies in non-violent environmental activism.
Way out in the Appalachian hills, on the line between Virginia and West Virginia, after an hour-long backwoods hike up Peters Mountain, an orderly clutch of tents were surrounded by a plastic yellow ribbon that read, “police line do not cross”.
Past that, a woman sat on top of a 50 ft pole.
Opposite the knot of tents where the woman’s supporters kept 24-hour vigil lay an encampment of police, pipeline workers, and private security bearing floodlights, generators and hard, binocular-bespectacled stares.
At the time of our visit, she had been up there for more than 50 days and had vowed to not come down until the police extracted her – at great danger to her life – or until she was starved out. She ate only a tiny amount of food everyday at 6 o’clock. The platform on which she sat was about the size of a bathtub.
On Wednesday 23 May, the protester, nicknamed Nutty, finally came down after a record-breaking 57 days spent in the trees – the longest monopod protest sit in US history – to stop a fracked natural-gas pipeline from being built through the state. Her final three days in the trees were spent without food.
“I was and remain tremendously grateful to have been able to make an impact in the struggle against the Mountain Valley pipeline,” she wrote in a statement to the Guardian upon her descent. “And am committed to continuing to participate in the global struggle against the processes of violent extraction, and against the structures of colonization, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy it feeds.”
It’s about the little guy
There are others, too, who remain in the forest and are still blocking construction by putting their lives on the line and refusing to move. On the far side of the mountain sits a man in a perch dangling from a tree. A bald gash of clearcut, about as wide as a truck is long, runs through the forest, up the mountain, and stops just at the tree from which he hangs. A handful of folks have also taken to the trees in a place called Little Teel Crossing, and just this Monday, a woman named Fern MacDougal made her new home in another aerial blockade on Peters Mountain.
A mother and daughter team, nicknamed Red and Minor respectively, came down from the trees after more than 30 days, on property that has been in their family for more than seven generations.
These activists hold the typical concerns of having a gas pipeline run through the yard: if it leaks it poisons the water, the font of the incredible biodiversity in the area; there’s a two-and-a-half-mile blast radius if it explodes; the pipeline is taking their land through eminent domain against their will for resource extraction that they feel will not benefit them or their neighbors.
But they also say this is about more than just a pipeline, built by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC. It is, they say, also about the erosion of democracy and the natural world by money and the hunger for it. They see this pipeline as one more physical manifestation of the loss of personal agency in the face of an impersonal and uncaring government. They say it’s about the little guy – in this case almost all women – being pushed too damn far and being unable to take it any more.
From the top of her pole, across the police-mandated 150ft barrier, Nutty had explained herself, shouting to be heard: “We’re dealing with an ecology of oppression and violent structures that are tied together and interwoven, structures that are opposed to human survival, freedom, autonomy and the land.”
‘We just had enough’
They say a squirrel used to be able to run clear from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi river, branch to branch over the treetops, without ever touching ground. The Appalachian plateau makes you believe it. It’s beautiful and wild and alive.
“Eyes, in this region,” wrote Pulitzer prize winner James Allen McPherson, “are trained to look either up or down: From the hollows up toward the sky or from the encircling hills down into the hollows … it is an environment crafted by nature for the dreamer and for the resigned.
Burbling streams switchback through the mountains, and it’s on the banks of one of these fairytale waterways that Red and Minor Terry sit in camp chairs, shoeless in the grass. They’re enjoying the afterglow of the “Mountain Mama” festival thrown to help with the court costs and fines incurred when they spent a month in the air.
“I just did what I thought I had to do,” said Minor.
Red works as a forklift driver and Minor is a bookkeeper for a small business. Both of their employers bent the rules so they could take to the trees and keep their jobs. Neither of them considered themselves “activists” before the pipeline and were unfamiliar with the concept of a “tree sit” until inspired in part by the folks over on Peters Mountain.
“Holy crap, that’s working, it can be done,” Minor reasoned.
Red spent 33 consecutive days suspended on a 4×8 sheet of plywood between an oak and a maple, and Minor 34 hanging from a single oak. But the activists’ resistance started almost four years before that. You don’t begin fighting a pipeline by sitting in a tree. Both list the steps they and others have taken to fight it: the comment periods unheeded, the independent environmental and archeological studies snubbed, the court challenges lost, the demonstrations ignored, the politicians petitioned and rebuffed.
None of these actions worked. And so they say they have to resort to non-violent civil disobedience to overcome what they see as a rigged system.
Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, took $50,000 from MVP’s largest shareholder, EQT Corp, and another $199,251 from Dominion Energy, major shareholder of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline being built nearby. The two Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioners who voted to approve the pipeline were appointed by Donald Trump, who has taken millions from energy companies, including NextEra donating a quarter-million dollars to his inauguration.
(Governor Northam’s office did not respond to a query asking if the near quarter-million dollars he has taken from energy companies building pipelines in his state have influenced any of his decision making.)
Activists also note the dozens of spills already happening each year; what they see as the arrogance of clearcutting trees before all permits along the route are secured. And while pipeline construction is said to bring economic benefit to the state, a common refrain among residents remains that license plates of pipeline trucks read Utah and Texas and Oklahoma. They add that this is all happening on land stolen from Native Americans during the European-American genocide of the race in the first place.
“[Mountain Valley Pipeline] knew they bought the legislature, they knew they bought the governor, they knew they bought the politicians, so they knew they could walk all over us,” said Red Terry.
“We just had enough. We had enough.”
Coles Terry, Red’s husband and Minor’s father, later led me to the edge of the stream. There aren’t a whole lot of places left in the US where you can drink water in its natural state, but it remains an American ideal to drink right from the source.
The water was cool and sweet and clean.
‘I’m not here because I’m a tree hugger’
Tree sits are often most closely associated with the environmental activism of the 1980s and 1990s opposing the clearcutting of old-growth forest in the American west. Activists understand they are using a non-movement protest tactic that has been used in freedom struggles across the world from lunch counter sit-ins and Rosa Parks’s famous “no”, to the anti-colonial struggle in India and Gandhi’s refusal to leave Bihar, or sit-down strikes during labor struggles as in the famous Fisher Body plant in Flint, Michigan.
Tree sits are particularly effective because it’s difficult to remove the person suspended in the air without endangering their lives. Activists often try to make the process of extraction as difficult as possible.
Nutty was not actually in a tree but atop what they call a “monopod” supported by guide wires and locked to a gate blocking a construction access road. If any of the wires had been disturbed, she could have come crashing to the ground and died.
There are two reasons protesters like her often use nicknames and wear a balaclava to hide their faces. The theory is, if the police don’t know who is blocking the road, it’s more difficult to compel tree-sitters from the sit with fines and other punishments.
Red and Minor finally came down after a judge agreed to fine each $1,000 every day they remained in the trees, to be paid not to the state, to the commonwealth of people, but to the pipeline itself.
The second is because she maintained the fight is not about her or any one individual, but about an idea – and you can’t fine or jail or kill an idea.
Crucial to the tree sits are the support camps that surround them. On Peters Mountain there are two, one on each side of the state line, populated by a roving cast of supporters, mostly women, who by now almost live in semi-permanent camps in the Jefferson and Washington national forest. They took shifts watching 24 hours a day so the police and pipeline workers didn’t do anything to endanger Nutty’s life.
On the Virginia side the hike in from the road takes at least an hour each way over gnarly terrain, a path activists blazed parallel to a public road, now closed by the US Forest Service police.
They say the closure is to keep protesters “safe” but activists maintain it is to make resupplying the camps more difficult. Still, local citizens, many of whom didn’t consider themselves “activists” before the pipeline, hike out trash and hike in coffee, and baby wipes, and food, and cigarettes, and batteries, and school groups bearing supportive art made by children, and even hot meals, deer ribs, ramps, spinach, and an entire Thanksgiving-style dinner with a tofu turkey.
(The US Forest Service has told the Guardian it will not comment on pending litigation.)
There was a strange standoff between the support camp and the police across the boundary just a few yards away. The police antagonized the supporters with bright lights and generators and near daily pounds through the camp to count heads and tents and ask questions. The supporters gave it back to them, and attempted to alleviate Nutty’s boredom, with daily music and podcasts broadcast through a Bluetooth speaker they call “hellbender radio”, named for the local term for a particularly large river salamander.
One night, three supporters crossed the line and attempted to resupply Nutty and were all arrested.
Nearing Nutty’s 50th day in the monopod, we talked to three women were encamped, all for some time, and all from the area. “You can’t ask politicians whose livelihood depends on these projects to change it for you,” said Kim Ellis. “People have to be able to use their own power and change it for themselves.”
“Our politicians are bought and sold like any other commodity, and resisting in other ways that remove them from the process is very powerful and also liberating and empowering,” said a man calling himself Deckard on the West Virginia side of Peters Mountain.
He was echoed by a man calling himself Ink atop the trees at Little Teel Crossing, south-east of where Deckard hangs.
“For me, I’m not here because I’m a tree hugger,” he said over the phone. “I’m here because the world as it is structured is unendurable. Climate change, the genocidal war in occupied Palestine, policing in the ’hoods of the US, the carceral system, the massive experience of depression, listlessness, and anxiety, mass shootings, the rise of fascist and white supremacist organizations all are connected and imply the necessity for massive transformation – and that has to start with how you choose to make your life with other people and implies taking risk.”
He had been up in the trees a week, and police have only just set up their blockade. He will not get any more food aside from what he has with him until he touches ground. Along with the others now in the air, he stocked for a long, drawn out fight and has a long way to go.
Yet activists say they have already come so far. At the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, board member Wilma Steele explained the story of the largest armed insurrection in the US since the civil war, an early fight for unionization where scores of workers were killed by private security guards supported by the US government, which ultimately bombed its own citizens. It all happened just under 100 years ago in the very region where people now sit in the trees.
“The magnolia is one of the oldest flowers. It’s real old, and it’s really tough,” she said, gesturing at the white blooms on a tree just outside the entrance. “It’s like Appalachians. You have to be tough to live here, and yet it smells so sweet.”
The miners were largely defeated in their immediate goals, but laid the groundwork for one of the largest unionization movements in the world. Steele is married to a retired coalminer and said her birthplace at Buffalo Creek in Logan county was “wiped out” by a coal sludge dam that broke in 1972 – killing 125 people – but her grandson has been on the mountain and in the camps supporting the sitters.
“They are not out of touch with reality. They are steeped in their history and know something needs to be done. This is their future. This is their world. And they’re going to do whatever it takes to be heard. I’m proud of them.”