The grounds for hope are in the shadows,
in the people who are inventing the world
while no one looks, who themselves don’t
know yet whether they will have any effect…
Early summer, 1998: a dozen people are working by torchlight and gas lanterns, miniature figures under giant trees. Bent in exertion, they’re tearing into the bush track with spades and star pickets, taking turns to shovel the damp earth aside, bearing closer to the concrete culvert a few feet below. A short way back down the track, the warmth of a small fire lights the faces of another half-dozen people, and a pot of coffee is coming to the boil. A tarp has been slung across the roadway, sheltering a scatter of cushions and mattresses, a couple of sleeping kids. It’s sketchy but homely.
Quiet conversation, laughter, and the subsonic rush of the forest behind the hectic racket of a twelve-foot trench being cut across the access road.
This forest. The traditional ground of the Pibelmun Noongar; walled cathedrals of silver trunks, a vaulted canopy framing a drift of stars. Some of these great old ones seeded three hundred years before the founding of my city. Tiers of understorey home to an intricate community of birds, insects, frogs and marsupials that live nowhere but here. You can’t see them, with all the noise we’re making. But you can feel the watchfulness: that sense of multitudes of eyes-on.
There’s a minor celebration when we hit the buried culvert, and now the conversation turns to the best recipe for quick-set cement. I’m too new to this work to really understand what they have in mind: several lengths of chain are passed under the culvert, and a mess of wet concrete is being batched up on a big sheet of plastic. A couple of friends are admiring a two-foot section of steel pipe with an odd reverence; encrusted with welded spikes of rebar and scrap metal, it clearly has an important part to play in whatever is being done here.
I’m covered in mud, stepping back to the little campfire for another mug of coffee, as happy as I can recall being in a while.
Suddenly, a car is moving silently down the hill towards us. Headlights dipped; I can’t tell who’s steering, but there is quiet gravity in the sight of this battered station wagon rolling towards us, tyres crunching on the gravel. The earthmoving team pauses, leaning on their shovels. Now comes the hard part.
At the bottom of the trench, the concrete is already beginning to set, entombing the chains they’ve looped around the culvert and encasing all but the very end of that medieval-looking length of pipe. We line up and heave at the car, slewing it sideways across the track. Without really knowing how, we have shoved it into the trench and now here it lies, sunk up to its axles in the roadway. We begin to backfill, crude ramparts of an improvised roadblock.
It’s ready sometime after midnight. A young woman crawls across the front seats onto a cramped bed of pillows and cushions, and I finally realise what it is we’ve done. A hole cut through the floor of the car lines up precisely with the lock-on pipe buried in the setting concrete. Into this, she extends her arm and clips a carabiner chained to her wrist onto a slender bar welded within the pipe. Ragged hair, focused eyes, a smile; thumbs up with her free hand.
Come the morning, if it’s your job to police the passage of logging and earthmoving equipment through here, you have three options now. One: let them roll over the top and kill the woman in the car. Two: persuade her through legal threats or exhaustion to unclip and come off voluntarily. Three: dig out around the car and jackhammer through the concrete until you can put an angle grinder to the pipe, bearing in mind that it now encloses a fragile human arm.
In this particular place and time, option one is unthinkable. Options two and three will take many hours. Until the police and contractors show up and decide how they want to play it, the road into this small corner of the wild southwest is closed.
People are returning to the fire, dispersing, fatigue washing in. I’m too wired on caffeine to turn in quite yet, so let’s sit a while as the firelight sets shadows dancing.
These memories are more than twenty years old now, but I’ll never forget the sight of the sacrificial station wagon appearing out of the darkness; a battered piece of surplus technology repurposed and turned against a much larger and more complex machine.
To be clear, what we’re doing here is unlawful. Chopping up access roads and implanting cars in them is against the law. Occupying such a vehicle and refusing an order to leave; that’s unlawful too.
In contrast, it is entirely lawful to bring scrub-rolling dozers into this forest to pulverise the understorey and kill everything that doesn’t flee; the state has granted an explicit licence for the contractors to do just that. It is also lawful to turn machines with tank-tracks and tungsten saws against these silvered giants, sending them thundering to the ground and turning this valley into a moonscape over the course of a fortnight.
So here’s the problem: this localised extinction disaster is institutionalised. It has the full weight of global supply chains auspiced by modern industrial states behind it. Putting yourself in front of a bulldozer only slows it temporarily; the larger system learns, it adapts, and on some mornings it sends police in to lawfully beat the shit out of the people camped here.
I don’t know what brought you here – I’m not even sure if we’ve met. But me, I’m one of the fortunate few – I’m here by choice. I hitched down here because it felt right, because I know and trust these people, and because the campaign has hit a tipping point and it’s wild to be part of it. My family supports me being here. I work as a freelancer, so this has cost me literally nothing. I’m a temporary visitor from the comfortable bulge in the middle of the privilege bell curve, the university-educated part, where you are taught about bell curves but not about privilege. I haven’t been forced into this campaign because my life depends on it, or through ancestral obligations to Country. Until quite recently, ‘the environment’ was just something I read about in books.
That changed the first time I stood at the edge of a working clearfell. Watching a living place being violently dismantled breaks something inside. Felling is dangerous work, and the teams are methodical, professional and terribly effective. Trees that had anchored these hillsides for more than five hundred years were being loaded onto trucks, soon to be shredded into low-value woodchips for the international pulp market. We’d get some of it back in a few months’ time, as plastic-wrapped toilet rolls and blocks of perfectly white copy paper. What was left on the ground in that ruined place was then pushed into piles and torched – and all of this, not to labour the point, was lawful.
That’s why we’re here, around this little crackling fire: to prevent that from happening right where we’re sitting. Some of the most brilliant people I will ever meet have managed, over the course of more than thirty years, to turn the tide on this terrible destruction. Camped in the mud, organising demonstrations in the city, training two generations of newcomers, carefully working the politics. They don’t know it yet, but they’re about to succeed, swinging an election on the strength of this mobilisation and the presence of the place itself. Direct action gets the goods, so they say. They will silence the chainsaws, not just here but across a huge extent of this ancient ground. The law will change,1 and this powerful win will pass into activist folklore, even as new national parks are being drawn up, along with retraining packages for affected logging communities.
The larger system learns, and it adapts. In its current configuration it demands a certain tonnage of woodchips, no matter what. International buyers will now hit Sarawak a few million tonnes harder, and Vietnam, and places where putting your arm into a lock-on pipe absolutely could get you killed. None of this is the fault, or the intention, of the people who put themselves on the line here. But we can’t pretend that this isn’t happening everywhere, or that we aren’t now descending the rapids into a full-blown planetary extinction crisis. Turn the prism, and it looks like a climate crisis. And a crisis of democracy, of militarism, of poverty.
Years ago, I came across this old story about a village by a river. A group of villagers are washing clothes on the riverbank, and one of them looks up to see a young child floating past, clearly in distress. She wades in and rescues her, a little shaken. A shout – one of her friends has spotted another kid in the water, and then another. They drop their washing and set about rescuing these stricken children as they float past.
More kids are drifting helplessly down the river, and then more. Finally, in a fury, the original rescuer abandons the riverbank and strides away. ‘Wait!’ her comrades shout. ‘We need you here. Where are you going?’ Over her shoulder, she calls back, ‘I’m going to find the monster who’s throwing them in.’
Here, under these immense trees, we are organising a rescue. People in villages far from here – from Mathare to Mongolia to Minas Gerais – are organising other rescues. Soon we’ll set sail and meet with some of them, to learn a little of the rivers they stand in and the monsters they contend with. This traverse will take us from the floor of the Senate to a Hadean beach, from the winter of the Great Depression to a rebellion against extinction. While we travel, social movements working across every time zone will invoke one of those rare moments in history when they begin to converge and discover each other.
There are a great many children in the water, so it’s time to be up and moving. The first hints of dawn are touching the sky. With the access road bottled up, the forest protectors will be able to move many more people onto the main road into the logging area, where the confrontation will be easier for television news crews to reach. Later, I’ll catch the smell of woodsmoke on my clothes, and it will bring back how this improvised extinction roadblock looked under the torchlight. It looked rough, and clever, and beautiful, like the rising global movement it is a part of.
Because we were here, there will be no logging in Wattle Forest today.
1 Although, at the time of writing it remains illegal to implant station wagons in logging roads.
Full Circle: A search for the world that comes next is out now.