Weed Comes to the Woods: the Environmental Wars Begin

February, 2016


Dr. Loon returns after a five-year break. This is the second of several excerpts from The Price of a Life: Shells, Gold, Carbon Notes and Weed in the Humboldt Bay / 
Six Rivers Region.

The shutting down of the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant in 1976 was a historic event, especially for downwind residents and the children of South Bay School. But it had another long-term significance. It announced the arrival of another spirit of valuation in the Pacific Northwest, a different way of accounting. It had taken years to find its voice, but now the message was unmistakable: the weed economy was here. 

By weed I mean a lot more than marijuana. Any logger will tell you that environmental politics is the effect of smoking too much dope—but they are related in a more essential way. Like the plant, weed economics is nothing new. It’s been the practice of human beings for millennia. It arrived in Humboldt County years before anybody thought to grow pot for money and donate it to environmental causes. The drug laws are only one way to keep a thumb on this segment of the economy. 

Some environmental activists will resist this association with the ganja-smoking underclass, and swear they never touch the stuff. It’s probably true. But it’s crucial to remember this: the thing that got called “environmentalism” is itself a weed—that is, a thing not belonging to those in power, growing without permission, always where it’s not wanted. After all, a weed is just a plant whose use has not yet been discovered. 

The weed economy also has a common root, and a kindred spirit, in the shell exchange that regulated human affairs in this region for centuries. It strives to achieve balance, pay back what is taken, and acknowledges the principle of the gift. The weed economy also allies itself with the economy of the natural world, another connection it hasn’t always gotten right. But up to the mid 1970s it had stayed faithful to the idea that economics is not exempt from the laws of ecology. We should have protested loudly the first time this spirit of valuation was called “environmentalism.”

But it’s hard to argue nomenclature when you’re surrounded by angry guys in hard hats and red suspenders.

It was 1977. The Democrats were briefly back in power. Jimmy Carter had named Cecil Andrus to be Secretary of the Interior. Congressman Phillip Burton proposed to add 74,000 acres to Redwood National Park, and Andrus was considering it. In April, Burton announced that he would hold hearings in Eureka, where his legislation was portrayed by the timber industry—which included most of the county’s business establishment and its government representatives—as an economic apocalypse. 

While the government was deliberately and slowly acting to protect the public interest, Arcata Redwood was chopping down old growth as fast as it could, telling workers that the hippie environmentalists and the government were killing their jobs, their babies, and American Values. For years a quiet war had simmered between the loggers and the longhairs, mostly confined to barroom scuffles, but now the timber industry and its allies were actively stirring this antagonism into violence.

On the day of the hearing every logger, truck driver, and mill worker was given the day off. Eureka businesses closed their doors. In a mile-long parade through downtown, trucks  rolled at the head of a throng that marched as one. Afterward, log rigs lined the streets around the municipal auditorium and the crowd out front had the air of Paul Bunyan Days or a public execution. There were said to be axes in the crowd.

Against them was this new alliance, the hip and straight communities coming together out of the culture wars of the 60s. The weed economy. I was part of a small contingent of eco-freaks who had come over from Arcata, where environmental activism had sprung up in the years following the first Earth Day. We must have seemed a wild and strange-looking crew. But at the center of our group was a very conservatively dressed woman, diminutive and fierce, pushing forward through the hooting and hollering loggers. Lucille Vinyard had come to speak on behalf of the Sierra Club, in favor of park expansion. There was a large contingent of cops and deputy sheriffs, but they weren’t there to protect Lucille. We were their new enemy.

The carbon-extracting economy tells its workers and customers that the conversion of our common heritage to private profit is good business practice. Common ownership, the very idea of the commons, is its constant adversary. In this light, we see that stealing Indian land was just an early stage of America’s war against communism and then environmentalism: “They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common,” proclaimed Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts in 1877. “There is no selfishness,” he said, “which is at the bottom of civilization.” Turning public wealth into private commodity is our state religion, sold to us and repeated in relentless advertisement till it’s an article of human existence. No other way of thinking is possible. We carry these assumptions in places deeper than pockets. The weed economy resists this sales pitch, but in the present breakdown between growers and environmentalists we can see the consequences of forgetting their common beginnings. 

The Price of a Life is being printed locally, funded by fifty-dollar pledges which will get you a signed copy and make several more copies available at cost through local bookstores, clinics, and grow shops. Address questions, comments, pledges to drloon4@gmail.com.