From tree-spiking old-growth forests to "cracking" desert dams, Earth First! redefined environmentalism in America. Susan Zakin's fast-paced tale of these scruffy radicals and their suit-and-tie counterparts in Washington, D.C., has been described as an unholy marriage of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. The hipster cowboys who founded Earth First! were the first people to sound the alarm on globalization, extinction, and other major environmental issues that face us today. Zakin's gonzo yet impeccably researched account of the rocky trail leading to the morning when FBI agents rousted Earth First! founder Dave Foreman from his bed at gunpoint is essential reading for anyone who cares about mountains, deserts, and freedom.
Susan Zakin really got to know the key players in the early EF! movment, and tells us about their lives in great detail--sometimes too much, as it can be hard to remember all the names involved through the decades that this book covers. It inspires me to get more active in the movement and gives some good monkeywrenching ideas. There's a long chapter on Ed Abbey, in which I learned about his sexist tendencies, but through it all he's still an utterly likeable person. Hoping for an EF! resurgence...
Pull up some survey stakes, drink a beer, and read this book.
Zakin spins an entertaining story of the rise and ultimate fall from grace of one of the most influential environmental organizations of our time. The book emphasis is clearly on Foreman and his cronies and their hard-drinking, take-no-prisoner stand on protecting wilderness. If you're interested in a detailed look inside the personalities that created and shaped Earth First!, then this is your book.
Susan Zakin should be commended for tackling this project. For most organizations, writing a corporate history is fairly straightforward. But Earth First! wasnâ€™t just any organization, it was a movement with roots in anarchism, creating a nearly impossible task for the historian. The challenge is to capture on paper the events of a loose group of people who defied stereotypes, despised structure, and were spread over half of the continental United States. Zakin achieves this by producing a collection of loosely related stories that provide insight into the group, but just as importantly, enjoyable reading.
1980 was a troubling year for environmentalists with the election of Ronald Reagan followed by his appointment of James Watt to lead the Interior Department. It seemed as if the remaining American wilderness areas were wide-open to exploitation and many began to question the effectiveness of more traditional organizations like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society to protect such areas. Out of this challenge rose Earth First!, a loose-knit group committed to saving wilderness areas by whatever means available. This included sabotaging equipment, spiking timber sites with spikes designed to damage saws, removing survey stakes and even blowing up power lines and ski lifts. Such actions were called â€œMonkey Wrenching,â€ a term from a 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.
From the beginning, Earth First! was made up by an eccentric group of people. Many of the members, like Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey, seemed to be walking contradictions. They enjoyed their beer and partying around the campfire. Many were at best male chauvinists, but probably a better description of them would be â€œsexistâ€ in their views of women. The group definitely wasnâ€™t politically correct (but this was a time before the label became so popular or such a death nail). They held extreme views on immigration (give the Mexicans guns and send them back home). Such extreme views often kept others who supported their positions on the wilderness and the environment from joining their ranks.
Zakin tells the story of Earth First! mostly through the eyes of its â€œpreacher,â€ Dave Foreman. Foreman had grown up in the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist yet independent sect. Although he would later eschew religion, the independent views of his familyâ€™s church remained with him. In a way, like Abbey, he was an environmental libertarian. Foreman had worked for a period of time in Washington as a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society. But big cities and uncomfortable suits wasnâ€™t Foremanâ€™s forte, so he headed back west and help organize Earth First! The group quickly got into action pulling pranks such as creating a â€œcrackâ€ in the Glen Canyon Dam and mocking James Watt as he toured the National Parks around the West that were under his control.
At one point midway through the book, I began to question where Zakin was going with the story as she introduced a number of new characters and their love life with Ilse Asplund. The book took on almost a â€œPeyton Placeâ€ genre as she told about a drifter named Ron Fraizer meeting Ilse, followed by another lover named Mark Davis. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fraizer (who had helped teach Davis how to use a cutting torch) went to the FBI to squeal on Davis out of jealousy for his involvement with Ilse. Fraiserâ€™s jealousy gave the FBI the break they needed to infiltrate Earth First!. Eventually, this led to the arrest of a number of the members in the late 1980s followed by a highly publicized trial in Prescott Arizona in 1990. The trial that began with a big sensation, ended in a plea bargain and most of the sentences were much lighter than they could have been. Mark Davis, convicted of destroying ski lift towers, received the longest term. Dave Foreman got off with a suspended sentence. Shortly before the crackdown, Edward Abbey had died. Afterwards, there wasnâ€™t much left to the movement and the remaining members battled one another for the control of a newsletter with dwindling circulation.
I enjoyed Zakinâ€™s account of Earth First!. On a personal level, her book brought back many memories for me. Iâ€™d forgotten many of the outlandish things James Watt had said even though I had helped organize a protest in his honor in 1981 when he was speaking at the North Carolina Republican State Convention. It was amazing experiencing the reaction of the delegates as some were supportive of us and agreed that Watt needed to go and others called us names (And my grandmother who lived a 100 miles away called after seeing me on the news). I was also able to get a new insight into a friend of mine and learn more about a couple of other people that Iâ€™d met when living in Utah and Nevada.
I would recommend this book for those interested in Edward Abbey and those who sought to be his disciples. However, there are limitations with the book. First of all, it was written shortly after the trial, so there a lack of distance from the events. Itâ€™s almost a quarter of a century since the trial and the death of Edward Abbey and perhaps time for another reappraisal of the movement. For anyone who might tackle such a project, Zakinâ€™s book would provide a good base to begin such a study. Zakin book depends heavily on Dave Foremanâ€™s memory. A new study might approach the movement through other key members.
Very good history of Earth First! before they got taken over by politically correct left coast weenies. Earth First! was very cool back in the day and they got things done without compromise when mainstream conservation groups couldn't or wouldn't. Lots of interesting stuff on Dave Foreman and other well known Earth Firsters as well as other environmental groups and activists, plus info on the Judi Barr bombing as well as the FBI's methods of infiltration when they targetted Dave Foreman in their failed attempt to put him away.
Out of all the inspiring literature that exists for environmentalists, this is one that I consider the best. Susan Zakin's account of the genesis of the Earthfirst movement is thorough and even handed without being dogmatic. Her writing is engaging, funny, and fits well with the feel of the movement. The focus of the book is 1970s-1980s EarthFirst before it became a totally lame skeleton of what it once was. Definite must read for anyone who cares about preserving wild America.
I am really enjoying this book about Earth First! and the history of legislative action and renegade action in the US in the late 60s, 70s, and 80s. This is very recent history that has huge ramifications for what is even still happening in public lands and just around them...Canyonlands and oil drilling for example today. Highly recommended book, it may be over 400 pages, but the prose and stories jump right along. It's fresh, vigorous writing that mirrors the Buckaroos of the movement.
dropped this one too when i went away from the summer. it's a very good history of how the American environmental movement formed in the last half of the 20th century. it addresses the role of enviornmentalists in affecting environmental policy. I hope to finish it sometime but my room mate just moved and took it with him.