DEATH OF THE TREE SPIKE
A tree spike is a monkey wrench. A monkey wrench is sabotage.
A rusty nail, surgically implanted, does little harm to a growing tree. It may tarnish the market value of processed lumber due to discoloration. Primarily and tactically, when a logger in the field or sawyer in the mill makes one of his many cuts, the spike ruins the saw blade. This is a primitive device that captures the core of western American idealism and its paradoxes: it is a sabotage at odds with the colonial mindset to conquer all lands and exploit all resources; yet it is in-tune with Roosevelt’s progressive conservationism. The thousands of unnatural thorns lodged in timber across the west are sylvan depth charges, lingering remnants of America’s other, concealed civil war—a war fought over whether to steward the wild or monetize it.
Out in the field it is not so much a war of attrition as detrition — gravel pits churning, saw mills spinning, aquifers glomming, frackers fracking.
At the height of the eco-defense movement in the 1970s and ‘80s, jamming a global industry responsible for clearcutting millions of acres of forest (an industry continuing to do so right now in California, in the Pacific Northwest, across the U.S., and up in Alaska) with a few 80mm nails at five cents apiece gave extreme conservationists a biblical air, a David-and-Goliath condensation. These woodland Davids run afoul of justification, though, when a tree spike works too well. Should the monkey wrench succeed in destroying the mode of destruction altogether and a monstrous saw explodes in the confines of a mill, it may also shred the sawyer operating the machine. This happened to a worker in Mendocino County in the late-80s, significantly curtailing the use of tree spikes and dividing the ranks of the eco-tage movement along ethical lines. Whatever warlike features environmentalism may have had up to that point, collateral damage was to have no logical part (lest it put the life of a celebrity eco-warrior like Julia Butterfly Hill alight in a redwood above the anonymous laborer swimming in the bowels of a mill).
In fact, this sad accident was a culmination long coming. We might blame the green philosophy popularized by Edward Abbey. He converted Thoreauvian love of nature into anarchic sabotage. His work epitomizes the surly, sulky activism of the 1970s that followed the 1960s, in particular his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. The book has since become a counterculture paragon. In the UK, the Guardian newspaper recently revisited the book and declared it “a magnificent snarl of genres: spaghetti westerns tangled up with the Keystone Cops, the Cervantean romance tradition and Acme cartoon capers.” Its substance and style captured a generation of young Americans. It made activism entertaining.
For his part, Abbey embodied the western spirit with a burly look and a silver tongue. Telegenic and soft-spoken, he had a drawl defying the bite of his prose. His nonfiction was poetry written for the workingman aware of (and sometimes haunted by) his own intelligence. He could summarize our country’s plight in terms of resource management. His charisma swerved towards the libertarian and like every libertarian, his politics required a matching bet of imperiousness and self-assuredness that quite often seemed indistinguishable from self-promotion. He treated nature as more than context, turning it instead into a vivid protagonist. As a member of the human race, this meant he was a self-conscious bad guy.
As for self-indulgence, in today’s parlance Abbey and his tree-spiking devotees suffered from white privilege— hell, Abbey looked like Uncle Sam’s grandchild. He wouldn’t likely deny it. Macho affect as soft and tough as budsage was the western sensibility he transmitted on the page, in the wilderness, and in the now-lost hinterland of standard-definition television. And maquette versions of him run straight through Hollywood Westerns, from John Ford’s Fort Apache to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Still, he was more real than cliché. In a famous float down Glen Canyon before it was dammed and destroyed, he brought the ravine carved by the Colorado River alive just as Jack Kerouac had two decades earlier made the road a living thing, as American as fat patriots eating pie, and a life-support for the counter-culture.
This is all to say Abbey, this General Grant of the eco-war, his solitary desert dreams and federal forestry nightmares, remain salvageable, abiding, and refreshing today because they made art and pulp fiction out of our real and specifically American predicament, namely, what to do with our inheritance, its principles, its prosperity.
His activist followers were for their part from a different generation. They were well-intentioned but hopeless in their upper-middle-class rationale, specifically in their willingness to put the forest fairy before the poor wretch working a bandsaw. This is how the industrialist puts money before welfare, everywhere possible.
Still, the monkey wrench gang that made pulp fiction lived reality and environmentalism dangerous are an otherworldly amazement by our current American standards. Imagine a band of educated white kids reading a book today and wrapping their narcissism in a quasi-revolutionary movement to free our public lands from the EPA (an organization which, in comparison to the ‘70s and ‘80s, is run today by a militant multinational resource-extraction conglomerate). Such a youthful self-transformation is almost unimaginable.
Though clearly some people still do put arboreality before the wired, the eco-revolution died with the tree spike. With its failure Earth First! was colonized by the Sierra Club, for better or worse.
America is meanwhile suffering from a lack of truly radical causes and so it is being clearcut by a rightwing doxa completely divorced from morality that cannot think outside the think tanks. Radicalism as policy starts from this dichotomy — from the nihilistic split of becoming a public servant out of a distain for the government (similar but different from Ed Abbey as a disgruntled federal forest ranger). Abbey had his qualms, but he too knew decrying “big government” was usually political camouflage for soulless wealth worshipers to make their pledge to the shrine of Neo-corporatism.
Revisiting this loss of a cogent, if flawed activism, its progressive culture resounding nationally from the west coast, and imagining leftism in some future tense entails reframing Abbey, his monkey wrench gang, his boozy literary avant-garde. Sharing marshmallows with this beatnik in the forest before the Boy Scouts of America went rogue accounts for how his writing became subculture at the time. His existentialism was the trees, was his art, was persona. But this persona has become corporate lifestyle propaganda in our western states. (If you’re not sure communing with the wilderness is a consumer cult, ask why California’s nature parks, campgrounds, monuments, ski resorts, public lands and outdoor stores remain so ethnically homogenous.) Old Abbey asks us to consider what replaces the tree spike after the sawmills are hunted and vanished by their own kind.
GROWING POTATOES IN THE SHAPE OF MACHINE GUNS
A growing number of artists have begun to feel the need to respond to the deepening political crisis in America. Among these artists, however, there are serious differences concerning their relations to direct political actions. Many feel that the political implications of their work constitute the most profound political action they can take. Others, not denying this, continue to feel the need for an immediate, direct political commitment. Still others feel that their work is devoid of political meaning and that their political lives are unrelated to their art. What is your position regarding the kinds of political action that should be taken by artists?
Given: Art as a branch of agriculture. Hence:
1 We must farm to sustain life.
2 We must fight to protect life.
3 Farming is one aspect of the social-political-economic struggle.
4 Fighting is one aspect of the social-political-economic struggle.
5 We must be fighting farmers and farming fighters.
6 There is no merit in growing potatoes in the shape of machine guns.
7 There is no merit in making edible machine guns.
8 Life is the link between politics and art.
9 Settle for nothing less than concrete analysis of concrete situations leading to concrete actions.
10 Silence is assent.
- Carl Andre
Carl Andre made this response for Artforum’s questionnaire as the Vietnam War dragged on and in the wake of the Kent State Massacre in Ohio (The Artist and Politics: A Symposium New York, September 1970). It is an appeal to support the peasant farmers fighting for their (farm)lands at Kham Duc, Khe Sanh, Long Khanh, and Dien Binh Phu…
I read this manifesto and paused, momentarily imagining Andre’s work in more expansive terms—a flat metal grid of tiles on a museum floor as a series of paddy fields reflecting murky clouds, singed by chemical fire. But, they are not. They are sculptures; sculptures seen in every major collection; ubiquitous sculptures that tell of the art-collecting class’ singleminded approach to visual art after 1960. They are a familiar monotony. Neither good nor bad.
His words from 1970 are therefore that much more profound. Do we identify with the peasant today? The oppressed on the other side of the world? Doubtful, but perhaps. The desire is there if not the means. There are farmers with whom the art world is sympathetically aligned. But to consider their place in the shared domain of public gifting and fine art provides a sober view of art’s actual politics.
Peasants don’t build museums. But farmers of a sort do. Let us consider the case of the Resnicks. Stewart Resnick is the richest farmer in the country. He’s made his fortune monetizing water in the form of pistachios, almonds, pomegranate and various foods. The American market for pistachios boomed after an embargo on Iran (in retaliation for the Hostage Crisis of 1979-80) resulted in a new domestic crop. Since then the Resnicks have sucked whole swaths of central California dry, putting billions in the bank and millions into charities, like LA’s world-class art museums.
I’m complicit in all this, of course. I eat a lot of trail mix, and have at times found pistachios an irresistible midnight snack. Inadvertently my hunger feeds the machine a nut at a time. What I don’t do with intention is what Andre called for long ago: I don’t identify with the common farmer. We need art to do this here in California especially—in all those red states and counties where the food grows and our national politics wilt.
Poor Jack. You drank yourself to death with sullen violence. Still, they canonized you saint of a counterculture you never embraced. Without On the Road there may have never been the likes of Dylan: “I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan. It certainly changed mine as a teenager.
Here in the Eastern Sierra, sixty years later, Jack, they’ve finally crucified your name and perverted your legacy, just as you thought they had in the past. In your time you knew “to be great is to be misunderstood”, as Emerson rightly said. He summed up Americanism succinctly, our individualism is a form of Transcendentalism. It is always a misunderstood and internal politics of religious ambition. This time, though, Jack, they really did it. And it happened in California, your spiritual homeland. At an undisclosed DMV somewhere, a wayward somebody presented a clerk a form containing the letters of your hallowed frank name, a name befitting a desolate High Sierra peak.
A vanity plate emblazoned with KEROUAC is roaming ski resort parking lots and dirt roads along Highway 395. Your name, Jack, is the final detail of a self-styled mobile home with every appurtenance a twenty-first century adventurer could desire: big shocks, big wheels, and toothy all-terrain kevlar reinforced Yokohamas requiring running boards; savvy extreme sport racks for kayak, bicycle, ski, snowboard, and motocross; a custom Murphy bed fit for a harem with bedclothes made of the latest synthetic downs; moderne kitchenette; flat screen TV, entertainment console and earth shaking subwoofers; a navigational system suited for a navy frigate; ingenious storage solutions; climate control and LED lighting details capable of altering the circadian rhythms of the most maudlin college freshman ever to attend an Ivy League.
No, the trim and industrial reinforcements that complete this militarized cargo van would mean little without the coup de grâce, Jack, that is your surname. It is the frontispiece of a sole edition. It is a Frankenstein monster. A materialist’s final complement to himself. Your name.
KEROUAC was needed to finish a quest for futuristic self-love and retro dude-design. And there is one other element that stands out, a sacred symbol animating the obsession: it is the Mercedes Benz three-pointed star, an old emblem of world domination. This star sits next to yours, poor Jack, sharing primary exhibition space with KEROUAC. This isn’t Dean in a hot Studebaker, an overheating Hudson, a tail-finned Fairlane, a ragged Chevy; this automotive specimen is what the west for anguished males you recreated has become. It is without mystery and without art. It is bleached, it is middle-aged, and it can only be bought.
It is not the archetype of the itinerant western male you created when you reinvented the American novel. That novel, On the Road, cultivated the whole narrative of coming of age in America in the shadow of the Greatest Generation. It’s a trillion watts of radio. It’s a billion miles of blinking eyes. It’s a million Hollywood films. You extricated masculinity from the 1950s and all its postwar hyper-conservative conformity, beyond Emerson’s efforts, by writing one’s own disappearance into the night, into the blacktop that ribboned the prairies and led to the mountaintops—that led to an elsewhere the armies of materialism and prepackaged patriotism hadn’t yet carpet bombed.
You were out there in the night, square face lit by the radio dial of 1948 Ford, next to Dean and Marylou, listening to the AM radio, contemplating all the counties of conformity who fearing nothing more than the wild aftermath of dusk. You owned nothing, never would; that is, nothing but your name. Yet, your singularity was to look out the window. To see a horizon that looked back at you, to find poetry in a wasteland between big cities; there you saw what you loved in Dean, an existential challenge, collective in every sense, perverse and proverbial, a congregation of mad male seekers ready to go. Preparations for traveling the strangeness of this land were futile. There was only a man’s five deranged senses speeding towards death and blindness.
You faced Cold War uncertainty a leaded gallon at a time. Complicity accepted, the beatnik cultivated the right contradictions, intuited the larger forces of being minuscule in this land, cared for America’s higher callings with unpronounceable names—quizzical sandhi and sutras (Mahayana and Sarvastivada) praising Avalokiteśvara and all the bodhisattvas that could fill an ancient book or a San Francisco barroom. Soviets sent men to Siberia; our dissidents went willingly to escape labor camps like your Upper Manhattan alma mater, like Lowell’s Local 429. Going was the only acceptable submission.
The practical aspects of your art were impulsive to the extreme. First thought best thought was the motto. The worst advice a writer or adventurer might live by, but you did it. In this way, you were a terrible influence, Jack. But, when it came to the road and conjuring the magical serendipity that turns the inheritance of American enmity into the endorphin of discovery, in lands colonized for the umpteenth time, you were the savior.
Jack Kerouac you had no bones about being a man. You were Sal Paradise, the dandy who each day tried on a different version of himself. Unafraid of being a pitiful bohemian of unsorted contradictions, you were free in your dandyism. You were the gay heterosexual, the Buddhist Catholic, the ascetic alcoholic, the homebound hobo, the bashful movie star, the undisciplined guru, the Arcadian in Birdland, the honorable turncoat… all this was disappearance to a Beat.
Jack, before you dissolved entirely into drink, you opened a portal, unwittingly perhaps, that decolonized the white soul and absolved its sins in the crucible of self-highjack. It didn’t last, but you did it. Made your life’s work in three drug-fueled weeks, original rocker that you were, Jack.
First thought best thought: the artist that experiences, then recollects to make it mean something—all this was an escape from a prescriptive lifestyle. Jack Kerouac was on the road, but the man never came close to a bumpersticker-hippie whose encapsulated worldview admonished other commuters. He wasn’t the kind of French-Canadian who flew a flag on his backpack.
So here, in Mammoth, was KEROUAC, the Mercedes van—opposite of everything the word beatnik stood for—in the parking lot of a new emporium of imported wine, cheeses and farm-to-table dishes (all small, all sharable, all overpriced). A circumscribed articulation of everything wrong with normative American culture, perfectly reinforced by everything that is right in German engineering. KEROUAC, not you Jack, defines monochromatic American masculinity now.
To call this camp vehicle a culture is itself a contradiction, but not in the reckless beatnik sense of disappearance that ruled six decades ago. It is the unsavory kind that’s ruling the world today. It is the travesty of misunderstanding that honors the very idea it defiles. It is KEROUAC honoring Kerouac. It is a sentimentalism that destroys what it cherishes. The expression of self that erases the prize of manhood. Vanity parroting authenticity. The west that conforms to the crucible of endless recreation.
It is that very American brand of misapprehension that cannot be great, that cannot transcend because it has no memory, no former self. The America that’s never been On the Road.
Matthew Schum is an independent curator and writer based in Los Angeles.
The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other entity, the FI or its affiliates.