The postcard and the portaledge

Life moves so fast sometimes that keeping perspective beyond the needs of decision-making in the immediate present becomes difficult or requires more energy than I have available. I find it a useful exercise from time to time to stop and reflect on the current moment from an imagined future. What will I think of this moment, looking back on it from that future then? What will be important? Will it even matter at all?

Let me tell a story about a postcard that changed my life. In 1984 I was in Boulder for a land surveying job that never materialized. I met another rock climber and we did a climbing tour around the Southwest in October, traveling in his VW bus named “E.m.m.a.” While I’ve long since forgotten the origin of the acronym, “Emma” was also named in honor of anarchist Emma Goldman. The sides were covered with anarchist and anti-militarist political graffiti, getting frequent and mostly-positive comments from passers-by. We were probably just a bit too out-there for rednecks to even know what to say.

Eric, my traveling companion, had grown up in a very political, activist family. This trip was the beginning of my radical political education and is a story (complete with all kinds of cool photos) that I’ll write another time. For now, one of the places we went climbing was Indian Creek in Canyonlands National Park. We drove in at night and camped in the van on a dirt side road. The view by morning’s first light of the sheer, clean redrock walls was a love at first sight and forever more.

Though I’d never actually been to the desert Southwest before, I had been familiar with it in my mind’s eye through the writings of Edward Abbey. A fellow ski instructor had turned me on to him the previous spring and, after starting with Desert Solitaire, I’d devoured every book the library could get for me. After Eric and I returned to Boulder in November, I bought my first car: Eric’s VW Squareback, named “W.i.l.m.a.” (that acronym likewise long forgotten) and headed home to Washington State the long way, via a slow tour of the redrock canyon country of SE Utah and NE Arizona.

I visited Arches, Canyon de Chelley, Fisher Towers and numerous places in between. I went back to the Needles District of Canyonlands and later, to the Maze District. It was near Christmas of 1984, a half-foot of fresh snow was on the ground and I was the only person in the entire Maze District, save for the small staff at the Hans Flat Ranger Station. At that time, the “visitor center” was a trailer staffed by a young woman about my age (21) whom I believe was some sort of volunteer or intern.

Our conversation was immediate and animated, kindred spirits lonely for company in the remoteness and beauty. Our talk turned, as anyone’s must do in that place that was so special to him, to Ed Abbey. She lit up, said “Oh, let me show you something!” and ran to the back, coming out with a postcard she held like a beach-comber’s bottle-message from some long-lost friend. It was from Abbey. He’d been there ten days prior and found a small arch in a side canyon that wasn’t on the USGS topo map. He wrote to the station, wondering if the arch had a name.

I spent several days alone in The Maze, exploring up the two main canyons and down Horse Canyon, as well as random explorations up the uncountable side canyons. I searched out the famous Harvest Scene, slept in the frosty nights without a tent, cooked on a tiny twig fire and got water each morning by breaking ice on the creek. When I hiked out, there was one new set of tire tracks in the snow at the rim. Happily, Wilma-the-squareback started without any trouble.

Later that winter, in early ’85, back at home in Wenatchee, thumbing through a copy of the Audubon Society magazine at the public library, I found a short article about some new environmental protest group called “Earth First!”. They had hung a long, plastic “crack” down the face of Abbey’s nemesis, the hated Glen Canyon Dam.

Having already started my journey to becoming a radical a couple months prior, I was immediately smitten by that action. I would’ve died to have been part of it! I felt like I had found my people and calling. Somehow, I had to contact them.

I didn’t recognize any of the names in the article except Ed Abbey’s. Remembering that the return address on the intern’s treasured postcard had been some Post Office Box in Oracle, AZ, I wrote Abbey a letter, asked how to get in touch with Earth First! and sent it to him at Ed Abbey, Oracle AZ 85623. A couple weeks later, I got a generic USPS postcard in return that said:

Dear Mike
Thanks for the letter. To contact Earth First, send $15 etc. to
[the Tucson EF! Journal address].
Good luck,

A couple months later, I was arrested on my first Earth First!-related action after sitting on a platform in a tree* to keep it from being cut down in the Central Oregon Cascades. The next five years or so were totally devoted to activism, for better or worse.

Returning home to Wenatchee in early summer, significantly changed as a person, I went through a process of clearing out clutter. I’d been living in my parents’ house (in the basement, yes) and still had junk from high school, four years earlier, that I’d never bothered to bother with. Box after box of unneeded stuff, mostly paper fell to my axe, ruthlessly discarded unless I could see an obvious and immediate use for it.

In that trash can full of paper that went to the recycling center was Abbey’s postcard. It is the only thing I’ve ever regretted letting go of. I’ve had occasional qualms about other things, but they passed quickly and any lingering sentiment dissipated into the quiet of the empty space the thing once occupied.

I wish I could pull that card out of a drawer and excitedly show it to you, like the Maze District intern showed me hers, but you’ll have to take my word for it.

My impetuous 22-year-old self didn’t have the foresight to imagine how precious that card might be to me someday. Even sentimentality wasn’t enough to intervene, being as I was in a very unsentimental mood at the time. About five years later, during another move, I tossed a personal journal I had kept of some of my time living the Earth First! protest lifestyle in Corvallis, OR. I remember reading it and noticing then that I’d forgotten so much already. I threw it out anyway. Now, at 49, wanting to write about those days and make some sense of my life and how I got here, I’m wishing I’d kept that bit of paper as well.

* * *

A couple weeks ago, I brought my old Gramicci Products “Portaledge,” a hanging platform used by climbers on big walls, to Eureka Books in Old Town. The co-owner Scott Brown wanted it as part of a collection he’s beginning of forest protest artifacts. This was the platform I’d used in that first tree sit in 1985, a few months after getting Ed Abbey’s postcard and subscribing to the Earth First! Journal. I had bought it used a couple years earlier while in Yosemite and had used it on two Grade V walls in the North Cascades. That platform became the model for subsequent mass-produced plywood platforms that we used in tree sits for many years, until Headwaters Forest activists began devising much larger, multi-person contraptions. I still remember Cathedral Forest Action Group activist Andy Bortz (R.I.P.) bringing his power tools over to the CFAG office in Corvallis and making the plywood platforms we used in the Millennium Grove protests later that summer.

Scott, expanding on his antiquarian bookstore instincts, is looking for anything from the era of forest protest—mostly, I believe, from Northern California, but also including other areas of the Pacific Northwest. He’s looking for posters, diaries, photos, journals, meeting notes, physical objects and so on. Once he’s assembled a collection, he’ll come up with the best way to present it. Given the intense history of this struggle, I think a Timber Wars museum would even be appropriate. Maybe this will be the genesis of it.**

With things like action posters, meeting notes and so on, there seems to be a period where they ripen, transforming from clutter to keepsake. If most of us found a three-year-old box of activist-oriented ephemera and trinkets stashed in the attic, we’d probably toss it. At ten years we’d probably get a bit nostalgic. After 20 years it would be historical.

It may be less that the objects acquire any inherent qualities with age than that we acquire perspective, that ability to look back from an imagined future and see how something might be valuable to us or someone someday. I hope enough material has been saved away in boxes in attics that a good representation of that period can be put together. Even in the minds of those of us who lived it, the details of the Timber Wars are fading

I know I have a lot of interesting old forest-protest material laying around in boxes. Once I finish my office and all the shelves and closet storage, I’ll be going through all my books and papers. It’s good to know there will be a place where it will be appreciated. Several years ago, I advertised the Port-a-ledge on Craigslist, not ever considering that someone might find it of historical interest. To me it was just something taking up space. Luckily, as it turns out, it didn’t sell. Probably way too old school. I forgot to repost the ad, so the Ledge sat there in the corner until a friend mentioned Scott’s idea of creating a collection of artifacts.

I can’t help but wonder if that girl from Hans Flat still has her post card.

* * *

If you have something you want to contribute, contact Scott at info {at} eurekabooksellers {dot} com or call (707) 444-9593.

*Scroll down to the list of tree sits. They have the date wrong. It was May 18th, not 20th, 1985. That entire entry needs serious rewriting. And, for what it’s worth, most of what you’ll find written on the tree sits that summer—the first one in Pyramid Creek and the second one in nearby Millennium Grove (“Squaw Three” timber sale)is terribly inaccurate, so take it with a grain of salt.

**Does anyone have any of our Headwaters Forest-era lock-boxes around? I know there are still “sleeping dragons” up in the access road to the slopes above Redway, if someone wants to dig them out.

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