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Fall 2006

Memoirs of a Monkey Wrencher

Randy Cunningham

In October of 1998 a series of arson fires destroyed a new restaurant and ski lift of Vail Resorts in Vail, Colorado. The damage was estimated at twelve million dollars. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed credit to protest Vail Resorts' expansion into wilderness areas critical to reintroducing the Lynx to the Southern Rockies. The arson took place in the wake of a groundswell of local opposition to the expansion - an opposition that was ignored by the county commission, which approved the project. The company was so roundly hated that it could have been anyone. Vail Resorts announced that the arson would not stop the planned development.

A Woods of My Own

As a youngster I had the now rare privilege of having woods and fields to play in.

We lived just outside of town on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River in eastern Missouri. Not fifteen paces from my back door were the hardwood forests that blanketed the hills and limestone bluffs bordering the river. Gray and red foxes were common as were eagles and ospreys. No matter how hot or cold, rain or shine, the minute I came home from school I changed into jeans and hiking boots and would be off into the woods.

The woods around my house were old second growth. The forest had matured to a park like appearance, with little under growth and a thick layer of humus covering the ground. The bluffs were covered with red cedar.

In winter the woods were silent, except for the creak and groan of the wind blowing through the naked limbs. In the spring the return of life was announced with may apples, jack in the pulpits, the white flowers of the dogwood, the pink flowers of the red bud, and the soft green buds of the awakening forest. In the oppressively hot summers of the lower Mississippi valley, you could well imagine that you were in the Amazon or some other tropical forest. Fall brought relief from the heat and the chiggers and mosquitoes. The forest floor crunched with thousands of acorns and hickory nuts. My favorite moment was to find a good stand of maples, hickories, and ashes in full fall color. I would lie down on the forest floor and be bathed in the red, yellow and gold light filtering down through the canopy.

All this was mine. It would soon be gone.


God Builds a Road

The construction company that built the interstate coring my county was second only to the Mississippi River in shaping the geography and history of eastern Missouri. It was not a company. It was a primal force of the universe. It was progress. When its helicopter would fly over my house, my friends and I would point up and say "There goes God!"

God for all his power had a problem. That problem was how to get to the Mississippi River so barges of sand and the other raw materials of an interstate system could be unloaded. The town council turned him down flat for permission to route his trucks down what we called River Road.

God was a good and very rich catholic. The property on which my paradise sat was owned by an order of nuns. Our neighbors came to god's rescue. They sold him a strip of land that would provide access to the river. A strip of land going right through my woods.

The woods that had stood for decades did not last a week. Each day after school I would still put on my boots and jeans - but it was to visit a deathbed. The smell of death was made up of crushed limestone, freshly mauled topsoil and the pungent odor of the shattered oaks. Day after day wheeled and tracked monsters chewed away at the new roadbed. The house shook and the china rattled from the blasting.

I had been assaulted. Living things I loved were being killed. No country would stand for such. No community would tolerate these outrages. No person would let such an injury go unanswered. There was no other choice.

War

At night the monsters slept. Scattered about the construction site were the bulldozers and earthmovers of the enemy, along with portable generators, drilling equipment and stakes marking the path of future rampages.

I could reconnoiter the enemy at my leisure. I would patiently wait for the next opportunity, when adults were no longer around and the night fell.

Distributor caps were thrown into the woods.

Stakes were pulled up or moved.

Drill bits were stolen.

Sand and cement were poured into fuel and oil lines.

Drilling shafts were dropped down dynamite holes.

Over dinner my parents would talk about how they heard someone was wrecking equipment over at the site.

"You know anything about that, Ran?"

"No, I don't Mom. Please pass the hominy."

"Whoever is doing it, they're going to get their butts in a jam."

In the shadow war, who knows who is a combatant? They might be sitting right at your table, eating fried chicken and hominy.

The Other Side of Rage

The war was lost. There was never any doubt about the outcome. I have never made peace with those gods who destroyed my woods. It sealed a deep, visceral enmity I have against developers.

The governor of Colorado called the Vail arson an act of terrorism. The respectable environmental community rushed to condemn it. Their strategy to resist the development was not only defeated by Vail Resorts. It was denied a decent burial by the Earth Liberation Front. Only the furthest fringes of the environmental movement defended the action.

Disregarded in these debates was any sense of history. Environmentally inspired vandalism is not an aberration in the US. It is a tradition. The Tucson Eco-Raiders in the early 1970s trashed new developments, sabotaged bulldozers and poured lead into the locks of developers' offices. One vandal called the Fox wreaked havoc in the upper Midwest, plugging up waste pipes of polluting factories, and dumping toxic sludge on the carpets of CEOs. Another vandal called the Arizona Phantom was the bane of the Peabody Coal Company's Black Mesa project. Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang , is an American literary classic.

It is important to know when to quit. The Tucson Eco-Raiders did not and were busted. The Fox and the Phantom retired with honor, were never exposed or arrested, and have become mythic figures. Those who wish to combat this tradition can only do so by winning victories. Defeat guarantees its resurrection.

I have moved on from my days of youthful rage. I am still angry. I am angry at those who vandalize the land, not those who vandalize the vandals. The rise of gas prices did more damage to the primacy of the SUV, than all the fire bombings the ELF ever did. The ELF cannot point to one development it has stopped, or one road it has blocked. We face foes who have been destroying whole continents and their occupants for over five hundred years. It takes an almost delusional egotism to think that a few toasted SUVs or McMansions will stop this momentum.

There is a strange dialogue that takes place within oneself, when you understand the actions of people, but do not support them. It gets even stranger when you remember that once upon a time, you did the same thing. As futile and foolish as my war on the god of highways was, it marked a turning point in my life. A turning point I am glad I made. I was lucky. I was forged, and not turned into ashes by my rage. I learned the difference between actions that change things, and actions that merely allow you to strike a pose before the mirror of your own anger. And as much as I may disagree with people like the ELF, a part of me hopes that they don't get caught, hopes that they don't screw up and hurt someone, and hopes that they will make it through the fire of their rage and come out on the other side. We need every hand and mind we can muster to save the day. We do not need people wasting their lives away in prison. That we cannot afford.