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Tree sit looking up showing the structure and anchoring techniques.
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Tree sit looking up showing the structure and anchoring techniques.
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Peta Pasch took this photograph looking down from the tree sit showing the ropes feeding to the machinery, which makes it difficult for the loggers to take away for fear of bringing the sit crashing down.  This particular photograph was unusual in that one of the other tree sitters, a Frenchman, thought the logged landscape the so awful that he created a tree laid out from the debris so that petal would have something beautiful to look at from above!  “Petal” told me this with a chuckle when he was hanging the work for the Tree sitters exhibition in Church Studio Franklin

Throughout negotiations over the future of the timber industry in Tasmania, old-growth trees continued to be felled in the state’s ancient southern forests. Day and night, trucks lumbered north along the Huon Highway, the big-rig diesel engines growling their way through old apple-growing towns, including Franklin, where my wife Pat and I were then living.

It would have been nice to think that at least their loads were on their way to a bespoke furniture industry where designers would bring out the best in those ancient timbers. Sadly, the fate of most was as piles of woodchips.

Design, value-adding, sustainability, sustainment are terms that do not resonate in the state’s timber industry, despite worthy efforts by design graduates of the Tasmanian School of Art.

In recent years, the seemingly desperate pace of felling was maintained despite the fact that the industry could only lose money in the marketplace. Logging contractors remained heavily dependent on subsidies from state and federal coffers, and, under existing agreements and contracts, their cargoes were mainly destined for wood-chipping. More and more timber was added to the huge piles already on the wharves — all still awaiting buyers. All through the protracted forestry talks, millions of public dollars continued to be poured into this unsustainable industry.

Against this backdrop, Gunns continued, in its characteristically belligerent way, to boast that a pulp mill would be built in the Tamar Valley. Then the inevitable happened: in September 2012, Gunns admitted it was broke. Concomitantly, the forestry talks broke down, but trucks still carried their loads from the Florentine Valley and other coupes.

Entrenched conservatism meant that logging was — and still is for many — the claimed birthright of Tasmanians. Consequently, action to resist the logging of the state’s ancient forests, though still difficult, is even more necessary.

This article is about the Huon Valley Environment Centre (HVEC), an organisation in the front line of resistance to clear-felling timber practices. Specifically, it is about the ways in which protesters design their habitats-on-high. 

The HVEC has its headquarters in Huonville, the administrative centre of the region a few kilometres north of Franklin. Significantly, the core of activists in the HVEC is mutable and more of a collective than any other organisation that we came into contact with in Tasmania. While they have as their mandate the protection of the old-growth forests of southern Tasmania, Pat and I took on the task of protecting an old church in Franklin whose Heritage listing describes it as a “Victorian romanesque ecclesiastical stone structure”. The common thread between us was the need to conserve the heritage of Tasmania. It appeared to me that the nature-culture (trees-church) binary linked us through complementary interests, so the idea of partnerships and projects with the tree-sitters and activists became our informal, unwritten policy over the next few years.

Church Studio Franklin, as we called ourselves, engaged in adapting the church for use as a studio and gallery, and, when we needed help in restoration projects, we turned to the HVEC for help. We offered work to anyone coming in from the camps and tree-sits. Occasionally they stayed in the vestry. Mostly they came for a day or two, hitchhiking in from Huonville and the hills beyond. They helped us repair the roof, clear the garden and paint the walls, and they performed myriad other tasks, thus becoming part of the conservation process for the church as well the forests. By working alongside the activists, we got to know them as individuals and as part of the collectivity of the HVEC.

Most media in Tasmania tend to ignore the activists as individuals — whereas, for example, they never stop delving into the lives of sports personalities. They settled for calling them “ferals” or, at best, “activists”. It is not a new tactic to describe your enemy in ways that dehumanise and disparage, but to continually do so is to dismiss their lives and relegate them to a sub-species. That way, they become less than human and, so, not worthy of respect.

In Hobart’s Mercury newspaper, as with other News Ltd publications, little or nothing positive is noted about those that defend the ancient forests; and, as a matter of policy, there is rarely positive journalism about green issues of whatever shade.

What Pat and I enjoyed in our friendships with forests activists was the simple human values that they exhibited on a daily basis. In contrast, it was those members of the community that aspired to respectability and responsibility — such as the local councillors — who were the most disingenuous: Be wary of those who wear ties.

Styled as the activists are to exhibit (in)difference to the suits and ties, there is a certain “look” about them, born of hard days in the forests, camping out often in winter frosts. Boots, leggings, dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings, beards, children always around, often dogs . . . They design themselves not in the way of subcultures eager to demonstrate uniformity or allegiance, but to be able to function efficiently in the forests. They wear clothes to keep warm, boots to withstand damp conditions, hair that needs little regular grooming while in the bush . . . Theirs is a style that speaks of alternative, often international, cultures, yet it does not possess a look that identifies them as tree-sitters.

This lack of style and homogeneity is curiously intimidating to many in the wider community, particularly because it is more difficult to decode; the signifiers mutable and transient, subservient to the needs dictated by a cause rather than a genre. Although, at times, the activists have a rough patina — and can indeed be unsettling or confronting in their looks — their ontologies are usually balanced and respectful. Many of their concerns are about family, and they express sentiments that are heard in family settings at all strata of society.
Significantly, at times they express doubts about the effectiveness of their actions; and not all perform with messianic zeal and bravery all the time. But they all share the belief that politics — local, state and federal — is failing environment causes. Lip service is paid to environmentalism, but old, unsympathetic ideologies underpin the politics. There are, the activists think, few politicians that attend to the issues in the broad church of sustainment.

Unlike the rhetoric of mainstream politics, there is an ethical stance that prevents them from using the tactics of deceit that have often been employed by the logging industry and its supporters. Out there, in the forests of the Florentine, wherever possible, they to maintain a relationship with the loggers, police and contractors. It has not been all a binary ‘Us versus Them’ or ‘Good versus Evil’ — but nothing too personal, because it’s “all about the trees”. Distinctions have been made though: some contractors have been OK, as have been some of the police. Nevertheless, some loggers have raged against the tree-sitters while the police have looked on.

In one incident, a logger “lost it” with a sledgehammer, repeatedly laying into the windows of a car, all the while cursing in an extraordinary, guttural rant. Inside the car, two tree-sitters feared for their lives. The attack was recorded from above by another, terrified, tree-sitter. Her clip spread virally around the globe. No chance for this to be ignored when the matter went to court, even if the treatment of the logger by the judge was little more than a scolding. Although such rages are not frequent, law-breaking actions do happen. Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown has documented some of these brutalities, including those that occurred during the actions that led to the saving of the Franklin River in the 1980s.

Tree-sitting is not the only course of action open to environmentalists, but Pat and I still believe it was an imperative to engage politically with issues of sustainment at as many levels as possible. Having already backed the tree-sitters and other members of HVEC, Church Studio Franklin sought other ways to support the centre once the studio was functioning well as a gallery space. We became interested in the methodology of the protests, in particular the way that design contributes to their activities.

A fundamental component of action in the forests is the use of ropes, pulleys and platforms in the formation of tree-sits designed to halt the loggers’ work. This is design in action. The subcultural signs of the punk era were a triumph of semiotics, but the safety pins held little together except for a few signifiers. In the 1980s, their main function was to prick the ideologies of Thatcherism. Now their incorporation is well documented, and the safety pin has been rendered more safety than pin.

But in Tasmania, the accoutrements of the protesters have not been “out there”. Their accessories are designed for life, limb and keeping warm in the Tasmanian winters. This has exterior rather than interior design. Perhaps a new area for study ?

High in the canopies of ancient forests of eucalypts and ghost gums, makeshift platforms are hauled into place, and then secured in ways that are a puzzle. Never one formula, or one set of guys and ropes. Rather, a bricolage of anchors and chains, ropes shackles and pulleys that secure the tree-sitters’ platforms to other sites and trees. Often complex, these arrangements bind the habitats of the lofty dwellers into the trees. Because they are anchored sometimes directly onto logging equipment, death can result if even one rope is removed. Anyone trying to dismantle a tree-sit runs a real risk of killing someone. Machinery becomes impotent in this guerilla warfare, bulldozers are halted, and no logs can be hauled when a tree-sit stands in the way.

This tactical defence of the forest comprises a collection of low-tech equipment, put together with ingenuity and very little money. The sits are held up not by a wing and a prayer, but by love of the forests and an informed, ethical motivation. The methods of protesting are not prescribed in any design magazine. All of this became a motivation for us to bring a new element of design practice to our church gallery. These subversive practices have never been detailed by the News Ltd empire, and no handbook or instruction manual has been published by the protesters, although, of course, they continually learn tricks from one another.

In 2009, at Church Studio Franklin, we staged an exhibition titled Tree Sitters. Photographs taken from the tops of trees revealed the beauty and diversity of the ecosystems; others looked up from the undergrowth at the tree-sits perched precariously in the canopies; yet more showed ropes stretched out across the frame of the photograph, the lines disappearing into the undergrowth or across the tents below to the machinery of the logging contractors.

Significantly, this exhibition was not about selecting the best photographs or photographers. There were no innate hierarchies of design aesthetics mobilised in the selection of work. Rather, it was a celebration of the sitters in the action. Photographs were sold, in some cases much to the surprise and delight of the sitters who had taken them. Sale or no sale, all were pleased to have their images, stories and vision out there for the world to see. For the tree-sitters themselves, this was a chance to come together, not in a forest setting but within a gallery space. Some of them said, during and after the exhibition, that it was good for them to exhibit their work in another community. In this case it was (mostly) the community of exhibition-goers who welcomed the tree-sitters, bought their work, and told them what they were doing was worthy, important, and significant. This was tangible support for them and their collective. Their joy was palpable.

The 2009 exhibition was the precursor to our Artists Behind the Action exhibition last year. At the opening of this exhibition, a fundraiser to celebrate 10 years of HVEC activism, Jenny Weber (one of the centre’s founding members) told us how vital designers and artists are in supporting environmental activism. She said fundraising through arts events and donations of works of art make up the largest proportion of funds raised. This is particularly significant because HVEC always has difficulty finding corporate sponsorship or support from granting bodies. For the key members of the HVEC, it is a truism that the arts are useful and practical in the survival of collectives and environmental organisations such as the HVEC.

Church Studio Franklin, in conjunction with the HVEC, has worked to bring together activists and artists. And, in doing so, it has suggested the role of design is mobilised in a particular, subversive and tactical way. The designing of tree-sits is perhaps like no other design activity. Each sit is unique, but not competitively so. Temporary but meant for futures — for a world that endures. Practically, the design of the sits is a crucial component in delaying the felling operations long enough to enable media to report on the actions. The tree-sitters have a reason to be high: they have designed their habitus not for themselves but for the trees, for the future, for sustainment.

Postscript: Just after I wrote this article, Jenny Weber was awarded the Bob Brown Foundation’s inaugural Environmentalist of the Year Award (http://www.bobbrown.org.au/environmental-prize).

Now, Tasmanians are awaiting the outcome of its parliament’s upper house decision to delay its vote on legislation designed to enable implementation of the forestry agreement (thrashed out over three years by certain environmentalists and the forestry industry players). Even if the upper house — in March — eventually supports the Labor-Greens Government’s parliamentary bill, the Liberal Opposition has vowed to abolish the agreement should it win power at the next state election. The uneasy truce that now reigns in Tasmania’s forests could still lead back to war.

*Dr Charles Zuber, adjunct senior lecturer at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University lived at Franklin 2006-12.

Tree sit photographs; Courtesy of Jenny Weber Huon Valley Environment Centre.

Yesterday on Tasmanian Times, Jenny Webber: The close relationship of TWS, ACF and Ta Ann