Sunday, February 12, 2023

Confessions of a Keyboard Forest Defender

"Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, I lived in a small house surrounded by a great big forest. I won't lie to you and tell you that my childhood was idyllic because in many respects it was anything but. I was a child trapped between genders beneath the weight of the Catholic Church during a time when the world didn't even have a word to explain my existence. There are entire chapters of my childhood that are quite frankly too traumatic for me to even remember and there are other chapters that I dearly wish I could forget. But I felt safe beneath the branches of the tall oak trees that were every bit as much a part of my home as the four walls and black tar roof gently caressed by their swaying shadows.

I would lose myself for what felt like years in the hollows of those groves, dancing between the massive, knotted tree trunks, turning over great boulders clothed in moss to commune with the strange tiny creatures that somehow thrived beneath their mass, chasing after frogs and snakes amongst the ruins of rusty pick-up trucks and abandoned refrigerator carcasses. No one cared about my Queer ways in that sacred space. The trees never tried to hang a gender around my neck like a noose. In the great big forest that surround my small house I was afforded the criminally rare right to simply exist unmolested by the preconceived notions of the outside world. It was a place that seemed pregnant with the magic of spirits too rare to label and I was one of them. A world not unlike those captured in dreamy films like My Neighbor Totoro and Uncle Boonmee. Naturally, it couldn't last.

As I grew and my body betrayed my spirit, the violence of the outside world slowly creeped in like smoke to strangle my sanctuary. The forest where I spent some of the few happy moments of a childhood haunted by gender dysphoria and clerical abuse slowly mutated into some beast called a neighborhood. I still remember how the rampage began. Skipping merrily through the trees one day, I came upon my favorite frogging hole to watch the tadpoles grow only to discover an empty can of gasoline floating like a corpse in the water. It felt like someone had plunged a dagger deep into my tiny chest. No amphibians would ever leap from that pool again.

Then came the bulldozers, terrifying armored beasts belching black soot and pulverizing everything that dared to breath clean air in their wake. Then came the houses that seemed to grow taller and taller with zero regard for their wild-eyed neighbors at the edge of the trees. Then came suburbia with its toxic manicured lawns and its ear blistering rider mowers and its petty greedy citizens with their authoritarian neighborhood governments and their unblinking judgmental eyes. The Vatican may have grievously wounded my childhood, but it died a lonesome death with that great big forest that once surrounded my small house and I have never forgiven civilization for shattering that strange little girl between the gears of its cruel progress. The wind begs me for revenge daily between the branches that still stand tall enough for the breeze to cry between their dying leaves.

People tell me that I take politics too personally. Friends tell me that I shouldn't let it get me down and editors tell me to remove my uncomfortably intimate prose from the stories I tell. They all just sound like the machines that murdered the trees to me. Their logic feels cold and meaningless. I take politics personally because politics wounds my soul with its madness and my writing is the only thing that I have to make sense of that madness without hurting anyone, including myself. A few weeks ago, the politics of madness slaughtered one of my people for trying to protect a forest not unlike the one I grew up in and since this heinous crime was committed the cry of the oak trees has grown into a mighty scream.

Manuel Teran, better known to their comrades as Tortuguita or Little Turtle was a proud member of my tribe of traumatized children, a non-binary Queer environmentalist who like many others over the last year traveled to Atlanta to serve as a forest defender with a local collective known as Defend the Atlanta Forest. The forest they gathered to defend is 265 acres of public land known to the state as the South River Forest, 85 acres of which has been arbitrarily slotted by the city of Atlanta to be bulldozed to make room for a massive police training complex. This monstrosity has been dubbed Cop City by an infuriated local community tired of existing beneath the tyranny of a blue apartheid state that has colonized their very existence with an endless list of pointless laws and an endless procession of sadistic thugs with badges sent to mercilessly enforce them.

The South River Forest was once known as Weelaunee Forest by the Muscogee Indians who coexisted peacefully beneath its branches for centuries before being fed by progress to the Trail of Tears. The stolen land then spent another 70 years as a prison farm where homeless men were worked to death before being buried unceremoniously in unmarked graves. The trees of Weelaunee forest now stand defiantly over this haunted soil as one of Atlanta's largest remaining green spaces in a predominantly Black, lower-income area and after a date was announced for their execution in 2021, dozens of brave souls like Tortuguita offered themselves up as human shields by occupying these embattled commons with little more than their bodies and an archipelago of makeshift encampments.

Tortuguita was shot dead by a joint police task force that included federal agents during the latest in a long series of raids on these encampments. Police claim that Tortuguita fired first, injuring one of their co-conspirators in uniform in the process but their story continues to change, and no body-camera footage actually exists of the alleged shootout. I honestly don't know if Tortuguita fired first, but quite frankly, I don't care. He was an American citizen on public property that was being stolen at gunpoint by a runaway police state. 

$30 million of the taxpayer's hard-earned money has been pilfered by the city of Atlanta and awarded to a conglomeration of private corporations to hijack the commons of a community that was never offered a vote on whether or not they wanted the fucking Death Star built in their backyard. This land belongs to that community, to the children who find shelter from a hateful world beneath its branches and as far as I'm concerned, volunteers like Tortuguita have every right to defend that land by any means that community finds necessary.

 Those means were made necessary by an increasingly aggressive campaign to vilify what had been a movement largely committed to nonviolent resistance in order to credibly charge its members as domestic terrorists. 19 of Tortuguita's comrades have been arrested and charged with a local anti-terrorism law that carries a sentence of 5 to 35 years for the absurdly vague crime of "destruction of critical infrastructure." 9 of these "violent extremists" have been charged with nothing more severe than trespassing on stolen property. Property being stolen by the state for the purpose of destroying the critical infrastructure of a community forest. Only in a world governed by madness could Tortuguita's alleged actions be construed as anything other than an act of self-defense.

And the assault on Weelaunee Forest is just the tip of the spear. Cop City isn't just part of a national campaign to militarize America's police forces as the state they protect collapses beneath the collective weight of its own karmic sins. It's part of an international campaign against the world's forests in a sinister conspiracy to urbanize the planet while it burns. Forests are home to at least two-thirds of the world's living species. Their trees also protect the water sources that communities depend on for their very existence and create fertile soil for sustainable agriculture. A threat to the forest is a threat to humanity itself and every year humanity loses another 25 million acres to the rapacious advance of mass urbanization, a landmass larger than the state of Indiana. 

Cities worldwide are growing twice as fast as their own populations with 1.4 million new inhabitants every week building high rise condos next to shuttered box stores and abandoned ghost malls. The area covered by these urban hellscapes is projected to expand by more than 740,000 square miles between 2000 and 2030, causing the loss of 7.4 million acres of agricultural land a year during an age of growing famine and crippling food insecurity. All so human beings can imprison themselves in boiling gulags of searing blacktop beneath towers tall enough to block out the sun, and I believe that the impact of this urban assault goes far beyond traditional environmental politics.

Turn on the news and you can find some braying asshole willing to blame the rise of violent nihilism in first world society on everything from handguns to puberty blockers, but nobody seems willing to consider the fact that human beings are animals and animals tend to become violent when they live in cages. That is precisely what the modern city has become, a sprawling kennel for domesticated beasts and I believe that this is killing us the same way that it killed my childhood, by cutting us off from the natural world and replacing it with something sick and unsustainable. The people shooting up Walmart's and pushing people in front of subway trains aren't evil, they're rabid. It is the society that fosters this desperation for profit that is evil, and it must be smashed before it smashes us all.

This is what the trees are trying to tell me. The same trees that once spoke to my ancestors who worshipped the earth beneath their groves back in Ireland. They called themselves druids, a Celtic word meaning "knower of the oak trees" and these people knew a lot. They knew how to live without police and prisons. They knew how to live without the state in cities based on cooperative associations and built around market squares and the nearby gardens and fields that sustained them. They also knew how to venerate and cherish children born between the genders like me and Tortuguita, and they knew these things because they took the time to listen to the trees.

Now when I listen to the trees, they tell me to fight. Fight this deranged sickness packaged to us in cellophane as progress. Regardless of who fired first, Tortuguita died with honor fighting this sickness and the way things are going in this country, I will probably die in a drone strike with a keyboard in my hands doing the same damn thing, by taking politics too personally with my uncomfortably intimate prose and using them like bullets in a desperate attempt to make sense of this madness, because in a world where forests have become just another expendable commodity, we should all become forest defenders.

Godspeed Tortuguita, the forest will not forget your name.

Soundtrack: Songs that influenced this post

* Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

* Cop Car by Mitski

* All My Life by the Tallest Man on Earth

* Feed the Tree by Belly

* In the Garage by Weezer

* Silent All These Years by Tori Amos

* Roots Bloody Roots by Sepultura

* (Nothing But) Flowers by Talking Heads

* Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix

* Human Behavior by Bjork

1 comment:

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