"Trees I fell in love with": grief and biophilia in the rituals of radical environmentalists
Sarah Pike (California State University, Chico)
Paper short abstract:
The love and grief that motivate environmental activists develop through powerful experiences during childhood and adolescence that blur the boundaries between human and tree bodies. Radical environmental rituals such as tree-sits both construct and reinforce these emotional and physical identifications.
Paper long abstract:
Radical environmentalists like Julia Butterfly, who spent two years in a tree called "Luna" and Jeff "Free" Luers, who spent eleven years in prison for environmental sabotage, describe their love for trees and grief over planetary destruction as the most significant motivating factors in their activism. Drawing on interviews and correspondence with activists, as well as participant-observation at radical environmental gatherings and tree-sits in Northern California and Southern Oregon, I argue that the love and grief that motivate radical environmental activists develop through powerful, embodied experiences with non-human beings during childhood and adolescence. These experiences involve the blurring of boundaries between human and tree bodies and the identification of human feelings with the feelings of forests. Various factors shape radical activist rituals, such as embodied memories of childhood, including speaking with and climbing in trees and contemporary Pagan beliefs in nature as sacred. Ritual activities such as creating sacred space at forest action camps, sitting in trees with nooses around their necks, and chaining themselves to blockades to prevent logging both construct and reinforce these earlier emotional and physical identifications with trees. Activists' rituals of protest are intended to heal relationships between humans and forests as well as to stop logging. I explore the extent to which forest activists express notions of biophilia described in the work of E. O. Wilson, Peter Kahn and Donna Haraway in order to understand the ways in which bodily and emotional experiences of childhood shape and inform adult ritual performances.