by Chris Lee
sanctity of the forest
Walking into one of these forests is a bit like walking into a cathedral.
At its very best there is almost no understorey, just the towering giant
Karri trees interspersed with Marri trees which are as gnarly and curly
and cranky as the Karri trees are straight and tall. The Karri forest
is the spectacular one, the one that takes everyones breath away
with its huge, gigantic, smooth-bark trees. These trees are being decimated
through woodchipping. They started woodchipping in 1975 and the fight
to stop it has been going on since then.
Standing within the trees themselves, standing on a platform high up in
the trees and looking out at the forest is so beautiful. The area where
we had most of our tree platforms, and particularly the early ones in
Giblet Forest, were in an area which had been scrub-rolled. This means
the workers go through the forest with a bulldozer and flatten everything
between the big trees, leaving only the big trees standing. In one way
looking down, it looked such a mess with all the squashed understorey.
But looking across the trees, looking out parallel and horizontally, I
felt like I was standing there with soldiers or other silent sentient
beings, all facing in the same direction, all with the same focus and
A Fear of Heights
It was imperative getting up into the trees as quickly as possible as
they had started work in that particular part of the forest. I was frightened.
I am not a climber and as I was the first to go up I found the prospect
rather daunting to say the least.
I designed and built a steel platform and erected it about two thirds
the way up a very tall Karri tree. This was about eighty five feet up
in their air, right in the treetops. I went up and sat with my back against
the tree breathing hard for several hours. I would not even look over
the edge. I was petrified. But I stayed up the tree for five weeks and
I suppose I got used to being up there.
At night it can be scary especially in bad weather and when it is windy.
In winter, which is the time we are usually in the Karri forest, because
thats when they log it, there is a succession of wild storms that
come through and I found it a bit like being at sea. The tree wobbles
and you sway around a bit as the tree sways. The tarp that covers the
platform is cracking and buckling and crashing round in the wind so its
also very noisy. You hear these great rolling gusts from miles away before
they hit, and sometimes they hit the platform directly and they shake
everything around. You are really out there among the elements hoping
that you have got everything right with the platform and everything is
tied up properly and nothing is going to blow off.
Living up in the tree felt very much like being a beacon. Because we had
a telephone there for the first time, the media were very interested in
the protest so the telephone would ring constantly and the first month
was hectic with one interview after the other. It felt like a mast or
an antenna beaming out into the wider world. It did not feel at all isolated,
it felt almost like the centre of the universe. I felt completely and
utterly rooted to the ground and cradled in that tree, I felt joined with
the tree. After a while I began to relate to the other trees around me
and I felt as though they knew what we were doing. There is a definite
feeling of approval from the trees that I was close to. And that felt
You really see the power of the forest when activists leave the forest
and go and do actions in the city. Young people who have been in the bush
for a month or maybe six months have a glow about them which makes people
turn their heads, it is really very noticeable. I think that glow comes
from taking some of the power from the forest with us back into the city.
In being part the group that established the blockade, I felt that non-violence
was an ethic that we had to establish in the camp from Day One. The other
important thing was that we had to be completely independent, financially
and decision-wise from the bigger environmental groups in the city. As
I was up the tree, the only thing that I got involved with that was happening
on the ground was the adherence to those principles. I spent a bit of
time bellowing from the tree about non-violence and independence and it
really paid off.
I think it was over fairly strict adherence to being independent and to
non-violence that galvanized much of the public support for the campaign.
We were able to show clearly that non-violent tactics work when you are
dealing with angry people or with carloads of drunken yahoos who would
come into the camping area at night. Weve had camps wrecked and
burnt, weve had groups of twenty or thirty guys clad in balaclavas
and wielding baseball bats and axes in the camps. It could have got out
of hand easily.
Of all the people I worked with, the young women were the most amazing.
At night, if a carload of yahoos would come in, they would race to get
there first, to practice. They are good at it. It was obvious to everyone
that these people had something that was working that they had not seen
before. At first the women would listen to the abuse that was being shouted
to them and they would just smile. I think being non-violent in the face
of violence has got a lot to do with thinking very clearly and being smart.
You could see that the women were thinking on their feet and saying exactly
the right things, allowing the abuse to wash over them and not taking
it on board. Without fail they would invariably get these guys into camp
having a cup of tea or with their can of beer and laughing, joking and
sitting around the fire with us.
We were always training. The training sessions are pretty standard non-violence
training. We look at conflict and violence and at peoples personal
reactions to violence and how violence feels in their bodies. We usually
roleplay a few situations so that people can experience the difference
between being aggressive and being non-violent. We also practice some
decision-making skills. Everything in the camp was based around consensus
decision making. This helped built up a sense of openness, honesty and
trust within the camp.
We were lucky in that we started out on that footing and we never wavered
from it. We never made one of those mistakes. For example, there is always
a chance that a protest can get out of hand, that it can become aggressive.
We kept the focus on non-violence by not responding to violence or provocation,
just refusing to buy into it, because usually these things start with
verbal abuse. Being totally vulnerable is a very powerful thing.
There is something about that vulnerability that makes even the most violent
person think twice before they give them a kick in the ribs. We experienced
this kind of provocation many, many times and each time we worked carefully
to maintain a non-violent approach.
What held us together or the key to our success was the group. If you
can have a group that believes that non-violence is the way to go, then
non-violence will be the way it goes and it doesnt mean that protesters
dont get bashed, it means they dont bash back.
The success of a campaign comes through a deep belief and a philosophy
and having an open structure without any hierarchy despite the chaos that
that might bring. You have to learn to live in the chaos and embrace it.
Rather than no leaders, everyone ideally becomes the leader.
Chaos is a powerful thing. Theres a lot that comes out of it. The
people who come to blockades are young, usually well-educated, middle
class people who are generally disempowered and disillusioned with the
world. So those are the people that you are working with. If you accept
that, then you also have to accept that there is going to be chaos because
nobody in that group wants to be seen as a leader. Nobody wants to take
leadership from somebody who wants to impose it on them, so everyone has
huge leadership issues and its on both sides.
The purpose of those camps is not only to protest for the forests but
to teach activists how to be non-violent. What we are trying to do is
draw out of those people their leadership qualities, their courage, their
love, their ability to communicate, all of these things which they have
but keep hidden away.
Heart circles and community building
The other aspect of the camp is to build community. This takes time, discussions
and many meetings. There were a lot of circles in the camp and a lot of
discussion. Every morning we would have a lightening business circle which
would last about fifteen minutes and covered organizational matters for
the day. Then periodically we would have heart circles which were usually
smaller, more intimate groups where there is an opportunity there to say
in a safe environment what people are feeling and a lot of emotional stuff
comes up in these heart circles.
I think they were enriching experiences for many of the people who came
to the camp. The most amazing meetings that we had came when the pressure
was on and we had to make very difficult decisions in a hurry. We found
that our training and experience in heart circles enabled everyone to
be heard and agreement to be built.
My picture of a true warrior is someone who is a really wise and compassionate
person who sees the big picture, who is not fighting their own personal
battle but is involved in the whole war. It is really good when the fiery
young guys who just want to dig holes every night and blow things up,
gradually start to take in the big picture, and they gradually see that
what we are trying to do is get public opinion on our side. Stopping a
particular bulldozer that day, does not matter a damn. I watched so many
of them change over a period of months, from being thoughtless, fairly
violent young men who wanted to save the environment to people who actually
want to change the world into a non-violent place. This is a very big
There is no guarantee that violence will not be done to a non-violent
protester. In fact it is quite likely that violence will happen. But the
courage is to do with being able to stand there in the face of that sort
of violence or abuse and to be prepared to experience pain: to suffer
rather than to impose suffering. I think it was Gandhi who said that non-violence
is suffering. But at the same time empowerment comes out of the
suffering and the courage.
My belief in non-violence comes from a range of sources, from Buddhist
philosophy and from people like the deep ecologist Joanna Macy and Gandhi
and Martin Luther King. They all realize that compassion is the other
side of the courage coin, and that you cant be one without the other.
It is very hard to be courageous without being compassionate. Its
a lot easier to be courageous if you are compassionate for the other.
What weve learnt is that no matter how revolting a persons behaviour
is, by treating everybody with compassion, we get much further. People
dont have an answer to compassion, they dont know what to
do. When that combines with disobedience to authority figures, they are
completely bamboozled, they dont know which way to turn. To say
no to a policeman who is asking you to do something and to
say it and to look at him in a way that validates him as a human being,
he is completely thrown off guard, he doesnt know what to do next.
Its the same with an angry logger. He might turn round and swing
his chainsaw at you but he can only maintain that rage for a minute or
My drive to keep going and my love for doing what I do comes from the
earth, from Gaia and there is an endless supply of love, there is so much
of it there. The fact that I can draw from Gaia means I am more able to
touch more people.
I suppose there is a spiritual element to this love. I am a deep ecologist
and also an ecofeminist. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly
which bits of both worldviews complement each other and where they merge.
I believe that the only way that anything is going to change in the world,
the only way we are really going to save any forests is when everybody
starts to respect the earth and respect each other and all the other creatures
on earth. The tools to bring that about are compassion and love and non-violence.
There seems to be little point, and certainly no historical justification
for a violent revolution if what follows is also going to be violent.
We have experienced that over and over. The change that needs to happen
now is a non-violent change and it is happening all round the world.
At some point it all becomes your life. I cant think of anything
else Id rather be doing.
on non-violent forest activism is avaliable at the West Australia Forest
Alliance (WAFA) website: http://www.wafa.org.au/