When Teacher Turns Radical Environmentalist
The road from schoolmarm to Earth First! activist
Thursday, November 21, 2002
Photo Credit: Charlie Star Photo Caption: Meighan To Earth: O''Brien''s life entered a new phase at an Earth First! direct action camp this past September.
Itwas bad enough to have gotten lost in the Sierra Nevadas on a solo backpacking trip, but when Meighan O''Brien finally found her way back to the trail after two frantic days of "thrashing around," she learned her trials weren''t over. She hadn''t seen people for three days, she was cold and she had just stared down what certainly felt like a life-threatening situation. Then, in the midst of a torrential storm, water started pouring in through the leaky seams of her tent.
"I felt really exposed and vulnerable," says O''Brien. "And I basically gave my life over: if I die here, okay. If not, it''ll be okay, I''m sure."
When she woke up the next morning to a gorgeous sunny day, O''Brien had the sort of epiphany many people have after an intense nature experience, or even after a good vacation, but few act on.
"I said, ''That''s it. I can''t work full-time anymore,''" she recalls. "I couldn''t justify putting aside all the beauty and wonder and the freely given mystery of this world just to get a pension. It suddenly didn''t make any sense anymore."
O''Brien, then 45, obeyed the bolt from the blue. In the fall of 2000 she left her six-year job as a bilingual teacher in Salinas and Seaside and enrolled in Monterey Peninsula College to study music. She sang in a chorus. She sang in a band. She got a divorce. She met Charlie Star, who talked her into joining him on a two-month backpacking trip through France this past summer. On her return, O''Brien had another realization.
"Working part time, I started really feeling the crunch of the inaffordablility on the Peninsula," she says. "I wanted to live somewhere where I didn''t have to kill myself just to put a roof over my head." So she followed another calling--this time to northern California.
On a scouting expedition in July to see how she liked the northland, O''Brien picked up a hitchhiker who was doing spotted owl research. He told her about the Mattole Valley, a coastal ecosystem some 25 miles southwest of Headwaters that''s being clearcut by logging behemoth Maxxam Pacific Lumber. The story made a deep impression. In Arcata, O''Brien went to an activists'' center, where she spent some time talking to a member of the radical environmental group Earth First! about how she could help in the Mattole.
In September she signed up for an Earth First! direct action camp. For two weeks O''Brien and 40 other people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, learned how to talk with angry authorities, how to conduct lockdowns (in which activists chain themselves to gates in order to stop logging trucks from entering forests) and how to climb trees in order to do tree sits a la Julia Butterfly. O''Brien is afraid of heights, so the training was difficult. But much harder than that was facing the fact that she was going out on a limb in a very different sense.
"I felt completely like my world had been turned upside down," she says. "I was choosing a completely different way to live my life and it was really scary."
It wasn''t just life without security--the strong sense of community within Earth First! helped allay that--it was life as an activist instead of a pacifist.
"I tend to be a bridge-builder, and confrontation is difficult for me," she says. "In civil disobedience we''re stopping people from their work, so the level of anger and frustration that I witnessed--I had a lot of compassion for them."
O''Brien''s compassion got a workout on her first action, a lockdown on the gate leading into the Mattole. She "chose not to get arrested," thinking she would need to have a clean record in order to get substitute teaching work upon her relocation, so she wasn''t actually chained to the gate.
When the loggers arrived at 4:30am and saw the activists, they immediately called the sheriff.
"When the sheriffs arrived my eyes were opened about how our system works," she says. "It really shook me up. We were completely peaceful and nonviolent but we were interrupting business. The sheriffs were extremely angry, yelling in my face and others'' faces."
O''Brien managed to engage several loggers in conversation, and true to her nature, found herself sympathizing with their plight. In fact, one of the things she wants to do is find ways to put loggers to work on reforestation projects.
While she prepares for her move up north, O''Brien has been collecting blankets, clothing and food for the tree sitters in the Mattole. All were gathered from friends and via a KPIG Hog Call. As she does this, her new lifestyle becomes easier to embrace.
"Now I''m willing to get arrested," she says. "I really feel like I''m being led. I have doubts about that, of course--what kind of goofy thing is that? I''m supposed to be in control--but I found that since I got lost, when I can open up to the moment and other people, the love and support in this community is very securing. And if I need further instructions, I''ll get them."
To donate goods to Mattole tree sitters, contact Meighan O''Brien at 402-1020.