(Chapter One of my memoir, RattleSnake Fire)
(My intention is to post my entire book in serial form, a couple of chapters each week. This chapter is the longest and also the most political.)
Oakland, California, May 2002. I slept on a futon on the floor beside a baby grand piano in the living room of a couple I didn’t completely trust. Trust was a difficult thing in those years and still is to some degree.
I’d been asked to do media work for an historic federal trial. The FBI and Oakland Police, after twelve years of legal ploys to keep it out of the courts, were finally being tried on charges related to, but not including, the car-bomb assassination attempt on the life of an environmental activist colleague.
One night, during the first week of the trial, having just fallen asleep, I woke and lifted myself off the futon in confusion – my entire body seemed encased in a cocoon of vibration. I imagined a government van with electronic equipment across the street, aiming a powerful beam of some sort toward me.
This idea did not come to me out of the blue. Years earlier, I’d read in the daily paper – and laughed along with everyone else – that Evan Mecham, then governor of Arizona, had accused the FBI of using a beam “to mess with my mind.”
I’d seen the movies, along with the rest in our culture, of government-employed electronics geeks in vans keeping surveillance. I’d read about higher-tech dirty tricks. I’d had my home bugged for holding Earth First! potluck meetings open to the public, and I’d experienced this non-violent activist colleague subject to an assassination attempt by someone the FBI refused – in twelve years – to investigate. For a moment I was terrified.
Then I relaxed with the idea that this was not strange, but familiar, and even comforting. Oh, this… I said to myself, in happy anticipation, and lay back down to slip into oblivion.
On awakening the next morning, I wondered why I’d thought it familiar or comforting, and concluded, with no small amount of dread, it was probably government psy ops. “Psychological operations” was a major part of COINTELPRO, code for the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Project, begun in the 1910s to crush the early labor movement with spies, lies, disruption, disinformation and even contract murders. It had been called to the attention of Congress in the 1970s and, for being contrary to our public right to protest, was supposed to have been shut down, but most historians of activism believe it was only moved to the underground. Psychological games, most activists felt, continued to play a role in driving away supporters, and I assumed higher-tech dirty work was still being done, and I’d been a target of some new wizardry.
Years later, I’d wonder if it was something else entirely, but then I simply knew I was engaged in a dangerous event in American political history.
In 1986, when I first got involved with Earth First!, the radical environmental activist organization (“disorganization” we preferred to call ourselves), I was aware that illegal property destruction, commonly done to protect ancient forests after all legal avenues had been exhausted, had likely piqued the interest of the FBI and would make us a target for infiltration.
I’d never done anything illegal in my life, other than drive too fast, so I did occasionally wonder why I’d gotten involved. I’d been a Southern Baptist minister’s wife for a year, something I’d keep secret from most of this crowd for at least a decade, and normally shaved my legs, unlike most EF! women, and never helped plan or do anything illegal – at least for the first few years. But I loved the ballsy-ness of the group, the sense of humor, the enthusiasm for song and dance and street theater, and the righteous anger sublimated to a noble cause. Back in high school, I’d wished I could make the world aware of our environmental issues, and here I found EF! had given me that voice. Eventually, I’d come to realize something even more significant: sublimation of rage was also a motivation for me, though my rage was hidden so deep within my subconscious, I’d have no awareness of it for about a decade.
After hanging with EF!ers for a couple years, providing organizing and media skills, I finally engaged in two illegal activities. One was a spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience – I locked my neck to the front axle of a road grader, delaying construction on a sacred mountain for a day. I am not normally so brave. The opportunity arose and I was given no more than a couple minutes to decide whether to lock on or not. I’d long admired the activists who put their bodies “on the line” for something they believed in, and since I was a mother with young kids who’d probably not plan such a thing, at least until they were on their own, this felt like a serendipitous opportunity that might never present itself again, and I went with it.
The other illegal act I actually contemplated a little longer (maybe five minutes) before I put a bumper sticker – the easy-to-remove plastic kind – where it didn’t belong – on a glossy painted surface (so it would be especially easy to remove) on the inside of a bathroom stall – and about had a heart attack. No, my destiny was not to do much more than write media releases and organize, though I would later get arrested for not quickly enough leaving the scene of another group’s civil disobedience.
But I drank up the intellectual stimulation of hanging out with forest philosophers, academics, authors, angry anarchists, singer/songwriters and performers of every sort – from outrageous to spiritually sublime. At my first Round River Rendezvous, I sat with Dolores LaChapelle, author of Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, Rapture of the Deep, and Bill Devall, author of Deep Ecology, and watched Jeri McAndrews dance and punk rocker Jonathan Richmond sing, all high in the mountains of Idaho. I’d never in my life been around so many successful people who also seemed so happy and in touch with their emotions and able to express them. I need this, I thought.
My husband and I had just driven two-thousand miles to get the Rendezvous. The first evening, when we heard people speaking fearfully of FBI infiltrators, we were concerned and disappointed. I had what, at the time, I thought was a totally unfounded, neurotic fear that people would think I was a spy – the woman who wrote media releases as her profession and whose leg hair was just a stubble – obviously not a real radical, maybe a poser.
Even though this crowd of about three-hundred was camped at 10,000-foot elevation, some men had hiked back out and in again with a generator, television and VCR (the only time I know that such a thing was done), so everyone could watch the national news EF! had made that year.
On that cold July night, we stood huddled in the meadow, incongruously around a television with the generator chugging, while others bitched about the noise and consumer gadgets offending their sense of the wild (rightly), and watched news clips for about an hour. As a media relations professional, I was impressed that this rowdy disorganization had commanded the attention of the major national media – which, I’m sure, also helped the FBI decide they had to do something about it.
The two clips I recall included one about the burning of a helicopter used for clear-cut logging on steep slopes – an environmental nightmare that causes mudslides and the death of creeks and streams and all the fish and wildlife that depend on them. It was a little disorienting to stand amongst the type of people who would cheer about a felony that made the news, but also impressive to witness the passion and audacity someone had had, to take action to stop something that was clearly worse: After all, what’s more valuable, an ecosystem or a helicopter?
Obviously, I’d never be able to do anything like that, but I knew I could write the media release for someone, explaining why it had been done. They were like the American colonists, I thought, who’d dumped England’s tea into Boston Harbor. Now applauded by historians, it was a similar sort of civil disobedience, the destruction of something small to protect something invaluable – after all legal channels had first been exhausted. I’d be sure to always include this Earth First! ethic.
The other clip was of Dave Foreman, a cheerful, avuncular man with a drawl, who’d been a preacher’s son! I took comfort in his history, that he was not only accepted by this crowd, but nearly beloved. I hoped one day my devoted work to the cause would put my past religiosity in context. Dave and his wife Nancy lived in Tucson, not far from us, we were soon to learn. On the video, we saw him in his tweed jacket and trimmed beard – “dapper” someone in the circle called him, eliciting hoots and laughter – being interviewed by Jane Pauley on “Good Morning America.” I’d go home and tell my children that we’d hung out with people that I fully believed their children would read about in history books, who changed the world for the good.
Back in Tucson, we became regulars at the mailing parties for the Earth First! Journal and soon would host the biweekly potluck meetings at our home. We understood this meant we’d probably host infiltrators too, but we wouldn’t fear, at first, as we knew we weren’t doing anything illegal.
My involvement with Earth First! entailed writing media releases, creating post cards for hundreds of people to send to Congress, participating in protests, singing outrageous songs, and performing in skits on the sidewalk. Some activists went so far as to disrupt Forest Service offices, sometimes chaining themselves to railings. At the age of thirty-four, after a decade of motherhood duties and nine-to-five professional work, this was fun – and for a cause I absolutely believed in.
Actually is was so much more than “fun.” I had rarely seen so many people demonstrate – to me, up close – the passion and practicality that Earth First!ers demonstrated. They educated themselves on ecology, politics, law, communications, organizing, and more. At our first Rendezvous, we participated in an amazingly-successful “consensus decision-making circle” with 150 people involved. The women who led the group had been trained to present issues, focus the discussion, assure that all points of view were fairly heard, deal with emotions, and shepherd the group to a final decision. Later that day, we joined in “non-violence training,” which included lessons and exercises in how to avoid even the most subtle, non-verbal acts that might trigger violence in another and to help others recognize and temper what could escalate emotions in tense situations. I was highly impressed by all this planning and professional presentation – as powerful as any I’d received in my professional work – in the middle of a forest! My views were expanding in self- and world-evolving ways, and I believed I was on a righteous road with people who cared about the most important things in life – and they had fun.
In 1989, less than three years later, our idyllic activist community was rocked by the arrest of Dave, Peg Millet and three others (not Earth First!ers), who soon were all facing prison. Dave had been framed on the flimsiest of charges, having been hundreds of miles away from the FBI-planned event, with a federal wiretap proving he hadn’t had an inkling of what the FBI infiltrator had schemed. After a year and a half of intense preparation and the free services of the world-famous attorney, Gerry Spence (author of Justice for Some, who defended Imelda Marcos), Dave barely eluded prison.
Many activists pitched in to do jail and lawsuit support work, but I never felt able. The arrests and realization that two of the infiltrators who’d sought to put our friends in prison had both been in our home and pretended to be our friends was too much of a shock – though I’d thought I was aware of the reality.
To lessen my stress, I quit my activist responsibilities temporarily – but that turned into almost a year.
Within the year, I became re-inspired by a California Earth First! activist, Judi Bari, who was doing PR like I’d never done PR. The high point of her work, or that which attracted my attention, was her plan for Redwood Summer, a nationwide action modeled on Mississippi Summer, which had catalyzed the Civil Rights movement by bringing people from around the world to see and experience the racism of the South.
Judi was planning to bring people from around the world to see the giant Redwood forest being cut down. She was brilliant, and I wanted to watch her, learn from her, and one day become as powerful an activist as she was.
Acknowledging that I was burned out and still had two teenagers at home (though Judi had a four- and nine-year old, and she kept going), I decided to continue giving myself a break, but to keep an eye on her work, and in a few years, when my kids were on their own, I’d reenter activism with renewed enthusiasm and vision. I repeated to myself: Neither Judi nor I do anything illegal; we only educate, so no one can ever frame us. Somehow I ignored the fact that that’s all Dave had done too, and he’d been busted. What would happen to Judi, though, was far, far worse.
At that very time, the FBI was holding “bomb school” in Judi’s county, teaching local law enforcement officers how to investigate a bomb scene. Two of their three example vehicles, which were bombed, were Subaru station wagons – exactly what Judi drove.
Just before the first Redwood Summer gathering began, on May 24, 1990, a pipe bomb exploded beneath Judi’s car seat and should have killed her, except the cap blew off, sending most of the force out sideways, ballooning out the steel of the driver’s door. She was gruesomely wounded, her pelvis shattered in uncountable pieces, her body impaled on a seat spring from beneath her.
The FBI immediately took over the case. Judi’s lawyers said they were on the scene so fast it was as if they’d been standing around the corner with their fingers in their ears. While agents arrested Judi, unconscious in intensive care, other agents removed her driver’s side door to send to Washington DC “for evidence.” Then they told the media that Judi and her fellow activist, Darryl Cherney, also injured in the car when the bomb exploded, were their main suspects. The evidence would make this impossible to believe, especially when it came to court – twelve years later.
In the “court” of the media, though, with the evidence conveniently removed, the lie served its purpose. Judi and Darryl were characterized as “mad bombers” in headlines across the nation. And a citizen initiative called “Forests Forever” which she’d been helping – to make California’s timber industry sustainable, which polls showed would likely win – was now associated with violence. So, after years of statewide grassroots political effort, involving scores of groups and organizations promoting sustainable economies and sustainable ecology throughout the timber region, it barely lost.
The timber companies, which had been logging seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day under stadium lights, to liquidate as much of their assets as possible in the event the referendum would win, continued taking down the old growth Redwoods, while activists sat in trees and filed lawsuits that would never be heard. The national media, at least outside California, refused to tell the political story and covered the activists’ heroic actions as “color pieces,” media lingo for something interesting, maybe funny, but essentially insignificant.
The people planning Redwood Summer now had to split their time between the national campaign with thousands arriving from around the country, Judi and Darryl’s legal support, and Judi’s and her children’s care. Obviously, the bomber dealt a blow to forest protection, besides nearly murdering two brilliant activists.
It took years, but Judi was eventually able, with her wheelchair and walker, to go back on stage and play her fiddle with Darryl, a powerfully talented singer-songwriter. Judi defined the word indomitable, but she lived in pain the rest of her life, until she died in 1997 of breast cancer.
I was not as strong as Judi and could not shake my depression. It was as if a psychic bomb had exploded in my mind. Within a couple years, I folded my business and took a job.
A couple years after that, in 1994, when other family stressors (cancer, divorce, a move, and health insurance bankruptcy) compounded my depression, I left my children (barely old enough to be on their own), and moved to the country. With credit cards, and a total limit of twenty-thousand dollars, I built a 600-square foot straw-bale home with a fireplace, passive solar design, and steel roof to harvest rain water for drinking. I wanted to live rent- and utility-free for the rest of my life and go into the city only occasionally for groceries.
Twelve years after the bombing, the trial was finally scheduled to be heard. I’d spent four of the past years in hermitage, when Darryl called to ask me to help with media work. I came out of seclusion, thinking it well past time to confront my fears.
After the first vibration experience in the living room, I wondered how to tell Darryl about my possible psy ops event. Every morning on the way to court, he talked non-stop, usually assigning me a dozen tasks he needed me to take care of that day. I didn’t want to give him one more thing to worry about, but I thought maybe he’d experienced the same while sleeping upstairs and we could compare notes. But I never brought it up.
I worried about the family who gave Darryl and me spare rooms, serving us gourmet vegetarian meals every evening – always with too much wine and too many provocative questions that kept Darryl up too late, talking when he really needed to sleep.
The vibration experience was repeated a second time, again when I had just begun to sleep, but this time I found myself in another realm, fleeing from pursuers like nothing I’d ever experienced in any dream or shamanic journey.
I’d had quite a few anomalous or spiritual experiences while living in the country without clocks or calendars, spending every sunset sitting and staring at the colorful sky. After a year of wondering, what in the world could explain these strange events, a girlfriend, who was experiencing similar things, suggested “we’re having shamanic initiations.”
My first reaction was rejection – Not me! – I wasn’t the type. I wasn’t comfortable with those woo-woo people with spirals in their eyes, and certainly didn’t want to consider myself like them, or worse be mocked as I saw them mocked.
On the other hand, I’d had to let go of my prejudices when I’d had an amazing healing a few years back, after hugging a tree, which had suggested I do that. And then, when my son had gotten cancer and seemed ready and determined to die, I’d seriously prayed and he’d suddenly recovered. And when I was going down the tubes in a nervous breakdown that year, the Tarot cards I’d bought (for some reason I never could explain) had shown an incredible series of serendipities. Still…. Anyone can read Tarot cards and pray. What was this about shamanism?
All this crossed my mind in no more than one second of adamant refusal, then I softened and realized everything made sense through that lens – though, whatever that lens was, I wasn’t quite sure. I’d have to read about it. Suddenly, all those anomalies, bugging me all year, felt part of a calling. I embraced it and found myself moved to do the things called “shamanic practice.” But, unlike those “woo-woo types,” I couldn’t bring myself to talk to others about it.
I began to see our world was not a universe, but a multiverse, peopled by spirits, all of them teachers. In coming years, I would flash on seeming past lives, or other people’s lives, received signs prior to two friends’ deaths, and experience the surprise spirit visits of people who lived on my land in ancient times. I talked to animals, made friends with them, talked with animal spirits frequently, and somehow felt I was moving toward an understanding of this multi-dimensional world.
I was still in the early learning phases, when one day, within a couple weeks prior to Darryl’s call (the first we’d had in nine years), Judi, in spirit, had suddenly come to me (“crashed into me” was how it felt – Judi was a powerful woman) and given me a couple of messages. I never told Darryl this – it seemed too big and private a thing to share if the time wasn’t right, and a right time never did present itself – but it was part of the reason I believed I was supposed to go to Oakland and help.
The vibration events at the trial, when I reflected on them afterward, were nothing like my shamanic experiences, but the chase sequence in the second one was similar and comforted me because I had shape-shifted confidently and had become whatever I had needed. My pursuers, though, could also shape-shift and had come after me with equal ease. From realm to realm I fled, and they pursued. I amazed myself with all my changes, and my calm confidence, even leaping on top of the flames my pursuers sent to engulf me. Finally, beginning to worry it would never end, I said, Enough! and found myself awake in bed.
Maybe both were dreams, I told myself, brought on by the stress of watching our government agents lie in court daily about an assassination attempt, and my writing it up and sending it out around the world, with my name on top. But I didn’t think so. I’d had plenty of experiences bridging the worlds of what we call reality and what shamanic practitioners call the other realms. This was no imagination or dream. It was clear to me that I’d slipped, or been dragged, into another realm and had no memory for most of the experience.
Activists poured into San Francisco for the trial. The legendary attorney Tony Serra, on whom the Hollywood movie True Believer was based, came on board the legal team the last week and guaranteed that some media, who might otherwise have tried to ignore the trial, would have to be there. Julia Butterfly spoke at one of the many rallies, as did Starhawk, Wavy Gravy, and Utah Phillips. Bonnie Raitt’s agent called to discuss a fundraiser to support our cause. And other Hollywood stars were anonymous funders.
But the trial remained a place where darkness tried to stay in hiding. The FBI agents and Oakland Police were caught in scores of inconsistencies between their testimony and their previous depositions, or other people’s testimony or depositions, or the physical evidence, or just plain common sense.
Another contention of the federal government, to justify their investigative focus solely on the activists and over one-hundred and thirty of their friends and family members, was that Judi “had to have known” the bomb was on the back seat, because she had supposedly laid her guitar case on top of it, which they explained had caused the case to be damaged “beyond recognition.” However, government photographs show the guitar case on the sidewalk, quite recognizable.
The most striking was their contention that the bomb was “obviously” placed in the car by Judi because it was “on the back seat”; but the back seat, brought into the courtroom, and the back door – described in court by the emergency medical technician, who said he opened it easily to attend to Judi – were in virtually unspoiled condition, whereas the hole was blown beneath her seat, indicating a bomb was not “logically” put there by her. And of course, her driver’s door was now shaped like a balloon.
The trial lasted six weeks, from early May through mid-June, during which time I either sat in court, taking notes, or worked with two other media volunteers in the office, writing releases and trying to speak by phone with reporters around the nation. Every journalist outside of California refused to pick up the phone after our first calls. Or maybe their phones never rang – we wondered if the FBI could misdirect our phone calls, or if the reporters, some who’d already covered FBI misdeeds, were afraid.
Spiritually-minded activists brought us gifts of protection, like rosemary, Earth goddess statuettes and other emblems, which we kept on our desks or hung around our necks or on our walls. Occasionally, they’d lead rituals or prayers for protection.
Two weeks into the trial, I moved to a different house, and twice when I woke there, I couldn’t remember who I was (not where, but who I was) – and most strangely, I had no fear. I felt confident that my identity would return shortly. It was as if my infinite Self, all-knowing, unable to fear, had just returned and was simply waiting for my personality to come back before her peaceful understanding was withdrawn.
I stared at the room around me and into the hallway through the half-open door, content to be in a body for which I had no memory. Studying the unfamiliar door frames and wall paint, I slowly recalled the personality of the man who owned the house, followed by a remembrance of his profession, then his appearance, and the way we joked together, then my reason for being there – the trial! – and finally: me. I had no understanding of what would have caused that strange event, but also had no time to wonder about it.
It happened a second time at that house, then that was the end of anomalous experiences during the trial. Or at least those I remember.
Despite our stresses and the media black-out, everyone performed brilliantly, and the FBI and Oakland Police were found guilty on most charges, and paid a historic judgment to Judi’s children and Darryl: $4.4 million. (Eleven of the twelve jurors wanted to punish the feds with a $44 million judgement, but a single juror threatened a hung jury until they reduced it to one-tenth the amount.
Home in the desert again, alone, my days were drenched with paranoia that grew overwhelming before it would subside – but it wasn’t just the FBI that worried me.
Then, almost two years later, I would again experience vibrations drawing me – willingly – into oblivion.