Fasting for Old Growth

In 1998, then-Lt. Governor Gray Davis made a promise to the Conservation League Foundation: If he were elected governor, Davis vowed to ensure that “wetlands are preserved, rivers are clean and all old-growth trees are spared the lumberjack’s ax.” Five years later, old-growth redwoods and  Douglas-firs hit the ground every day.
Last October, after six years of fighting for old-growth, Susan Moloney began a hunger strike to remind the world of Davis’ promise. The fast, which received scant attention from the mainstream press, finally ended on day 52, when Moloney was promised a hearing in front of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee. Moloney spoke to Terrain from her cabin in Humboldt County.
Terrain: Politicians make campaign promises all the time. Why did you decide to take this one so seriously? What was your initial reaction to it?
Susan Moloney: At first it was disbelief. But I kept remembering that it was there. I kept remembering that, Wow, Davis said he was going to stop old-growth logging. And [my] optimism is that it’s not just about Maxxam, it’s not just about Humboldt County, it’s not just about Headwaters Forest; it is truly about all old-growth trees. And that was the beauty of that speech: that somebody, some speechwriter that Davis trusted enough to say those words, knew it was important, knew what environmentalists wanted to hear.
I went to see if there were any laws that said if a candidate makes a campaign promise, he can be held accountable. So many people have been saying, “You’re not taking that seriously, are you? He’s just another politician.” That’s what it’s come to in this society. We don’t trust, we don’t put any faith or hope in our politicians. Damn it, we have to hold them accountable! Especially when it’s a clear statement about something that is so critical right now. We don’t have the time to be talking for another six months or a year.
[After I read the speech] I kind of got buried. You get sucked into this issue, and you get so involved, and there are so many intricacies, and there are so many issues of the day, but it was always in the back of my mind. And it wasn’t until June that a friend of mine and I wrote a petition, [which] we’ve been circulating for four years, that says, “We expect our leaders to keep their promises.” So we’ve been having people sign this thing and we’ve been delivering it to Davis’ office for four years. I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep the focus on this. And I feel that with this quote, and with that speech that he made, we’ve been given a gem.
Terrain: After Davis made the pledge, he pulled back from it a bit, right?
SM: Yes, and this is the thing I’ve been hounding him on. His response is, “I’ve saved all the old growth, I was talking about Headwaters.” And “all old growth trees” are not just Headwaters. I hiked in a place out near Scotia last night, which is a virgin grove they’re destroying now. The bottom line is, until there is a law that says a landowner or a corporation cannot cut old-growth, we will, as a state and as a society, be cutting old-growth. There’s no law right now that says you can’t. There’s no law on the books.
Terrain: When did the idea for the hunger strike hit?
SM: I have felt very committed to working on forest issues, specifically old-growth issues, for about six years now. And I considered everything.  I became a nonviolent trainer; I moved down to LA to get an initiative campaign qualified; I’ve done substitute tree-sitting. I’ve supported every aspect, and I was just open to it for a long time. Like: “Universe, what can I do here? What is the best use of my energy?”
And the answer came to me from, as I discovered, outside of my head. It wasn’t something that I had thought of in the past. It never ever occurred to me until one day I was sitting here in my cabin, and I literally saw this … It sounds nuts, I know it, but I looked out over the trees, and this ball of white light came over them, and when it got to me, it had words in it, and it said “HUNGER STRIKE.” And it blew me away. This stuff doesn’t happen to me. I don’t see apparitions, and I don’t see figures, and trees don’t talk to me. I was emotional and upset and thinking to myself: “Is this really what I have to do?” And then everything just fell into place.
Terrain: You fasted for 52 days. How do you feel?
SM: It’s great. I’m eating a lot now.
Terrain: You seemed pretty healthy and clear-headed, even at the end.
SM: I felt really guided and determined. I felt like I was being taken care of on some incredible level, during this entire thing. There were a couple of questionable days around days nine and ten, which were tough. I thought, “Oh gosh, if it’s going to get worse than this…” But it got better. For the most part I had incredible energy. And I feel like coming out of it has been basically the same.
Terrain: Is it disappointing that even after 52 days of a hunger strike, you never got to see Governor Davis?
SM: Yes, it’s frustrating. But the other outcomes of this were just so encouraging. To know that a lot more people now know that we’re still cutting old-growth, that’s crucial. You know if you can’t get exactly what you want, you take the next best thing. And the beauty of it is we’ve got a few senators who are willing to bring this thing to a committee meeting in the [state] Senate, and that’s really key. Who knows how far that will go, but it’s a step in the right direction and it keeps it in the public eye.
Terrain: What happens if they postpone the meeting or they cancel it, or nothing really happens?
SM: We’ll see. Who knows? When I undertook the hunger strike I never knew what the end was going to be like. I just knew I had to do it and I felt really committed and determined in doing it.
Terrain: Hunger striking is such an extreme gesture. Does it have a different meaning from other kinds of protest?
SM: It’s is just another tool in a nonviolent toolbox. We’re more familiar with the usual scenario of tree-sits, and protests, and sitting down in the road, and blocking gate access. There are a lot of things that people do, depending on their level of commitment, their physical makeup, and the timeframe they have to work in.
For me, it was definitely to bring attention to this issue. One of the comments from [Governor Davis’s] office during this hunger strike was, “She should be working within the system.”  I have. I have. We tried an initiative campaign, we’ve met with people in his administration, we’ve gone to the Board of Forestry, and nothing stops the cutting of old-growth trees in California. So what do you do, other than lie down in front of a logging truck? We’ve tried all these different tactics. We’ve tried everything. Direct action is the last resort. People have been trying to do acquisition and legal work for years.
As we sit here, they’re there cutting old-growth trees. Loggers are out there with huge chainsaws at the base of these huge old-growth trees and they’re cutting them down and we’re never going to get them back. It’s more upsetting to me sitting here right now than it was 60 days ago when I decided to do this. The forest is hitting the ground, and it is so sad. We are talking about  virgin areas right now. Redwood and Douglas-fir forests that have no roads, that have no stumps, that are being cut right now. What else can we do?
Terrain: What have you learned about what works and what doesn’t?
SM: I think — and this sounds nuts to some of my wonderful tree-sitting friends and younger people — you have got to dress the part. I know it’s nuts, but I was willing to do that because if they can’t look past what you look like to hear what you’re saying, you’re going to lose them. You have to be able to look “normal,” like the people that they’re used to seeing, that they listen to. That they don’t write off immediately because of the visual image.
Terrain: Do you do that? Do you dress a certain way?
SM: I maintain that that’s an important thing we have to do. I mean, where are our priorities: saying screw the whole system? My priority is saying we’ve got to all get together on this old-growth issue. Dressing up is not a big deal. I don’t want to get in trouble with my young friends whose hearts are so in the right place; they’re doing the right thing. I think maybe that comes with age.
Terrain: With everything wrong in the world, why do this for old-growth trees?
SM: I know that there are so many huge issues out there that need our attention. I encourage people to take on whatever issue is important to them. Some people say to me,“Well, this isn’t going help healthcare,” or “This isn’t going to help the children.” Cutting these trees isn’t going to help them either. So if there’s an issue that you think is important, please take it on. Please go work on it.

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