Ep. 13. The Last Stand with David Harris

Mill Valley Public Library interviews author David Harris.

I can’t remember if I expressed this to David Harris before or after the interview but I did let him know it felt kind of silly to have the opportunity to speak with him and limit our conversation to trees. It felt improper to not acknowledge his history, honorable actions, accomplishments and the other ten books he has written but then immediately ask him to share a piece of history from the late 20th century that most people seemed to ignore at the time and few remember today. Thankfully for us, David Harris cares a lot about redwood trees and was happy to vocalize stories and insights on topics he has already put to paper. 

And I now get to express my humility by paying respect to his past: Following his first year in college, in 1964 Harris traveled to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer voter registration campaign. I was able to indirectly ask him a question about this in relation to Redwood Summer. In 1966, when Harris was elected student body president at Stanford, pro-war fraternity members forcibly shaved his head. I made no attempt to force a question with a clear cutting analogy to ask about this or his dormitory neighbor Mitt Romney. It didn’t even cross my mind but it is part of his fascinating story. I was able to reference his arrest and prison sentence for draft evasion in the context of activism but out of respect I dared not ask a question about his first wife, Joan Baez, even though she did visit tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill and attended rallies to protest logging old growth redwoods. Because Harris happens to live in the same town where my library is located, if we are fortunate, we might get a second chance to ask about his life experiences and other books that don’t always relate to redwoods. 

As Harris wrote in My Redwood Confession, an essay featured in the Save the Redwoods League centennial celebration publication of The Once and Future Forest, trees (one tree named Tree in particular) have in many ways related to and with his life. In our interview, I ask Harris to comment on the seven virtues of redwoods, which I found to be the most beautiful takeaway from the piece. In addition to these virtues, the essay elaborates on his personal relationship with Tree, describes the deforestation history as a massacre and offers an postscript to his book, The Last Stand, in a section that shares the same title as the book. Whereas the book reads as a nonfiction suspense thriller, in My Redwood Confession Harris reflects on this chapter of history as a personal observer to the final clearing of old growth redwoods on timber industry owned property. 

In The Last Stand (the book), Harris tells the tale of the hostile takeover of the Pacific Lumber Co. (PL) in Humboldt County by Texan billionaire Charles Hurwitz. PL had been family owned and operated for over a hundred years and selectively cut redwoods to ensure there would be more redwoods to cut for years to come. Hurwitz secretly purchased most of the stock holdings with a colleague who later went to prison for securities fraud and became the new owner of PL. With Hurwitz as the boss, clearcutting became the practice as PL tripled their cuts each year – until there was nothing left to cut when PL filed for bankruptcy in 2007. But before bankruptcy and pocketing three billion bucks, Hurwitz hit hiccups harvesting his holdings. 

Hurwitz is who Woody Harrelson called out by name when he helped hang a banner over the Golden Gate Bridge in 1996. Six years before Woody climbed the bridge, Greg King attempted a similar escapade and it was he and fellow rabble-rouser Darryl Cherney of Earth First! that emerged as the largest thorns in the side of PL following the takeover in 1985. King trespassed on PL property, identified and named the Headwaters Forest area and then spent the next dozen years fighting to help prevent the old growth from being felled. Along the Pacific Coast, less than 5% of the native redwood forest remains today, much of it in scattered pockets that were in terrain too challenging to cut that are now protected by state and national parks. Headwaters Forest Reserve is the only national forest reserve in the USA and the reserve today is only a fraction of the acreage conservationists hoped to protect. King & Cherney applied legal and illegal tactics to save the trees. Lawsuits were filed to protect wildlife and trees were occupied by activists. The rallies, blockades and other guerilla forms of protest by Earth First! brought public attention to the cause as legal efforts to save Headwaters Forest plodded along. 

PL once had the timber rights to over 200,000 acres of forest in Northern California. Save the Redwoods League purchased land that is now Humboldt Redwoods State Park from PL 99 years ago. The Headwaters Forest Reserve is just under 7500 acres. Most of the trees on PL’s 200,000 acres were cut. Julia Butterfly Hill occupied a tree named Luna on PL property for two years to save it. Many people, including Harris’ first wife, aided Julia Butterfly Hill but it was her sacrifice that saved the tree. David Chain was killed on PL property when a logger felled a tree in his direction. After David Chain was killed, PL agreed not to cut trees within a 100 feet of where he died. When one thinks of all the personal efforts and sacrifices, legal proceedings and a $380 million dollar check to Pacfic Lumber Co. to save under 7500 acres, it’s easy to understand how most of the trees were lost. 

I have my own redwood confessions and story to share. The first confession is that my first memories of redwoods are from Return of the Jedi. My other confession is that just like David Chain and Charles Hurwitz, I too was born Texan. But California has always felt like home and when I saw old growth redwoods in-person for the first time, I was in other-wordly awe. I moved back to Texas eight years ago and spent my final days in California camping in the redwoods in Humboldt County. In my first few days in Texas I visited a state park and while looking at a 500 year old bald cypress tree named Old Baldy that stands 103 feet tall, the only other person on the trail approached me and asked, ‘Have you ever seen a tree this tall?’ I politely and matter of factly responded, ‘Yes, I was camping in the redwoods last week’ and unintentionally insulted her everything is bigger in Texas pride. The moment was one of many in Texas that reminded me that home is where the heart is. From Texas I moved to Alaska, where my favorite trail was in a forest of tall Sitka Spruce and bushy undergrowth. What I loved about it most was that it reminded me of walking among the ferns under tall redwoods. 

I’ve sometimes wondered if each tree had a name – like Luna or Tree – if people might think of trees with more affection and appreciation. As Harris said in our interview, after he made his confession, others told him they have had similar relationships with trees. Trees that have names marked with signs, like Old Baldy, are always the ones people stop and appreciate in the parks. Perhaps if each being had a name, we will finally start to see the forest for the trees.