THE TREE-SITTER by Suzanne Matson. W.W. Norton, 2006. Hardcover, $23.95.
Suzanne Matson’s new novel, The Tree-Sitter, is set in Eugene and its surrounding forests. A work of imagination, the story hews closely and uncomfortably to a story we here in Eugene have seen played out in the media.
Events began with the occupation by environmental activists of federal timber lands to be logged. At first tree-sitters and their support networks stealthily but peacefully occupied territory in old-growth forests to protect the ancient trees from commercial harvesting by large timber corporations. But volatile confrontations between activists and people hired by logging companies escalated. Activists barricaded roads to timber sales, destroyed U.S. Forest Service vehicles and performed other acts of vandalism. The corporate interests counted on law enforcement to carry out arrests and forced removal of protestors from the land.
Like Matson’s novel, the final chapter in this relevant, contemporary passion play has not been written. In real life, the action is now set in the prisons and courts rather than the forests.
I greatly admire Matson’s ability to take us into these media-hyped events through a believable first love between Julie, an educated, privileged young college student, and Neil, the promising, exciting graduate student she mpeets at a party in Cambridge. Julie and Neil become lovers, and they travel to the West Coast. Neil’s writing his thesis on the economics of deforestation and wants to be part of the situation on the ground.
But this is yet to be discovered by the reader, for Matson begins the novel in the summer of 1999 some 150 feet in the air, “higher that a ten-story building.” She’s on her way up to “a plywood platform in the branches of an old-growth Douglas fir,” where “you feel the tree alive beneath you,” she writes. “You’re part of a tapestry of forest branches and slanted, always changing light. There is no feeling of towering over, but of being woven into the tree’s purpose and place.”
Matson writes about tree climbing from experience. As part of her research for the novel, she was shown the ropes, literally, by a dedicated Willamette Forest tree-sitter known to her only as Wily Coyote. Matson also gets right both the vision and commitment of the activists and their pragmatic struggle to gain the attention of the world to their plight to save the ancient forests. In the story, feelings run high, and once a decision to undertake certain illegal actions is made, all are implicated. Secrecy, false names and identities as well as independent activities by individuals grow to quickly become an extension of the group’s original idealism. Newcomers are not automatically granted admission to the inner circle but must earn it by actions.
In a less gifted observer than Matson, the story could have been the romantic odyssey of a young couple in love into a tight clique of activist types. But Matson’s no sentimentalist, and neither are her characters. Julie Prince doesn’t delude herself. While she’s willing to go along with her boyfriend’s desire to be part of the movement, she questions herself and her motives at important junctures. Not often enough, perhaps. Or maybe she can’t think clearly about the really hard question: Is this a good idea? To her credit, when things go wrong, Julie accepts her own responsibility and does the right thing.
Thought-provoking, never preachy, Matson’s The Tree-Sitter is an important book for adults of many generations to read. No mass movement is immune to attracting violent people. From the anti-war protests of the 1960s to today’s animal-rights movement, some people are drawn like magnets to the notion of revolution. Ethically questioning, peaceful behaviors are not shared by everyone in the environmental movement. Some want to change the world and will do what they think it takes, including tactics ordinarily attributed to terrorists.
While the majority of environmental activists are willing to work toward peaceful, legal methods to restrain corporate greed and preserve the environment, others, like Julie in this novel, may find themselves caught up in actions inimical to their own beliefs. Matson’s story asks the reader to find a place along the continuum of Julie and Neil’s activism and ask these questions of yourself: How far am I willing to go? Would I recognize an action that goes too far? What would I do?