After years of backpacking through the Bull of the Woods Wilderness in the Cascades, New York- and Portland-based photojournalist Christopher LaMarca felt a personal connection to Oregon’s vast swaths of wilderness. When a substantial chunk of federally protected old-growth forest in Josephine and Curry counties was opened to logging companies in the controversial 2003 Biscuit timber sale, he felt a responsibility to document the efforts of those trying to save it. Dodging arrest and irate loggers, he’s lived among groups of what he calls “forest defenders” (termed “eco-terrorists” by others) for up to a month at a time over the past five years. Armed with only his Hasselblad camera, LaMarca followed the group’s protests as they set up roadblocks on logging roads and bridges and held continual “tree sits,” occupying a piece of plywood—or “pod”—suspended 75 feet or more in the air. By 2007 the activists had managed to raise awareness of the Biscuit old-growth fight, but not before 70 people were arrested and the area was logged. The resulting book, Forest Defenders: The Confrontational American Landscape (Powerhouse Books, 144 pages, $39.95), filled with photos and a few first-person narratives from both activists and career loggers, hit stores in April. LaMarca has chosen his side: His arresting images are a rallying cry to protect what land is left. In July, LaMarca will be at Powell’s with a panel of speakers to discuss his work. In the meantime, he gave WW his own snapshots of the state’s old-growth controversy.
WW: The juxtaposition of the logger at work and the clear-cut forest is a pretty blunt way to convey your message.
Christopher LaMarca: It’s all intentional. The only thing that makes me think I’ve failed is trying to describe what it feels like when a 500-year-old tree hits the ground. How it shakes your organs.... How you go home and you hear chainsaws in your dreams. It was those immediate feelings where I felt the most connected and disconnected to nature. I wanted to capture the dust rising and, when the dust settles, what’s left.
Living out in the woods clearly has its high and low points. What were the difficulties? The activists kinda look like they’re on a camping trip.
That moment was a pivotal one, the day before the major blockade depicted later the book. Nevertheless, this was a rare moment of downtime. Everyone is making light of the fact they have been out there for weeks eating salvaged muffins and moldy bread. The smallest things make you so happy, like if someone comes from town with a chocolate bar. But there is never one second that it feels like a camping trip. There’s always the fear of being woken in the middle of the night with a flashlight in your eyes and your arms being put behind your back. I don’t know if I can take the risks they take and be pile-drived into the fucking cement by some huge robo-cop.
Who is this?
The story of this woman, Joan Norman, is amazing. She pulls up at 4 am in this white Cadillac Seville, gets out of her car and says, “Where do I need to be? When are they coming? Just let me know.” She ended up inspiring the whole camp—she’s a grandmother who had to be forcibly removed from a logging road by the police. That’s when I felt that there are people out there that possess this amount of strength and this much conviction. In these situations they are seen as elders and are listened to very intently. They are amazing.
To me, this logger looks like he’s challenging you. How did your interaction with loggers change once they knew you sided with activists?
These guys feel very connected and passionate about what they do. They have a mentality that’s like, “We’re here and we’re conquering nature.” They all get high off cutting big trees. There’s this attempt to be the frontiersman, but these guys are sleeping in trailers.... This is the way they connect with nature. You have to understand, a lot of these guys have been logging since high school. It seemed like the forests were endless then. [Now] just as the activists are victimized, so are the loggers. They are vilified as these evil people chopping down the forest and want to have their voice heard as well. The one thing every logger will tell you is “I’m out here every day so my kid doesn’t have to be.”
What’s happening here?
This is one of my favorite images. You can sense the discomfort of the Forest Service officer. This is the first day of old-growth forest logging, and the media is focused on Joan Norman, who is blocking a bridge behind me. I tried to get away from the stereotypical pictures of an activist in handcuffs. You see this [officer] as a human being, with everyone’s energy directed on him. That, to me, really shows the confrontation here.
Another confrontation is how the media [sees] nonviolent civil disobedience, something this country was founded on. I remind them this area was set aside by the Clinton administration as wildlife habitat, not for timber production. I think it’s a reflection of [our collective] consciousness. People who use the word “eco-terrorist” don’t know the issues. Plus, those people in tree costumes—you’ve got to love that.
What does it feel like to sit in a pod?
I can tell you, it’s a really surreal feeling. The most intense part is feeling the tree sway in the wind. It is very calm and unnerving at the same time. You see nature from a different perspective, just the way that light looks when you’re up there.
We had to be watchful for black bears in the area, so on the bottom of the trees they put what they call a doorbell—hanging pots and pans and stuff so you would know if a bear was climbing. Sure enough, in the middle of the night I heard this doorbell ringing and all I could do was panic.
For the most part, though, it’s very quiet and you’re by yourself. That’s a situation that most people never put themselves in. To have the time to self-reflect and let the thoughts go over and over in your mind allows you to be in the moment and be present.