Take back your rivers — before it’s too late. And while you’re at it, take back your planet. Some say it’s never too late; others say the time is past and we are going over the falls, past the tipping point. Global warming, climate change, call it what you want, but it’s here. The environment is falling apart at the seams, going to the dogs — but the dogs don’t want any part of man’s folly. Micro environments, macro environments, they feed into each other, streams to oceans, the Arctic to Antarctica, the Gulf Stream wilting, ice melting, sea levels rising, the fire intensifying.
50 Million Years Ago
We’re in for it. Have to do something, have to act. Else all fails and we’re left with nothing, this earth, this Eden, destroyed. Inhabitable. The day of reckoning marches toward us faster than you think. Go ahead and make more money than you need, save it up, until you have so much you drown in it. Go ahead, believe those in power at your peril. Burn more oil, put your head in the sand, maybe God (ha, ha) will intervene. It’s just the planet. Natural causes, not manmade, you say? You tell us, “The planet has done this before.” But never, ever this quickly. Not even close. We’re warming our world far faster in the 300 years since the Industrial Revolution than it took the climate to change the last time around. 50 million years ago in the Eocene. 50 million!
Back not so long ago, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a few of my friends and myself were intent on cutting down billboards, which we believed defaced the environment. Hucksterism run amuck. But dams, too, were fair game. In my mind, they were worse than billboards. A billboard was an affront to your vision. A dam actually did great harm to the streams and rivers they impeded. But we couldn’t very well blow one of them up, although I thought long and hard about that. Explosives weren’t my kind of thing. But we could leave messages on their sheer faces. Paint cracks on their stoic faces. An underground national environmental movement was brewing, and I found myself squarely in the middle of it all.
The Big One
Three of us — Sven, his girlfriend Autumn and I — started out from Boulder at sunset and drove west into the Rocky Mountains. The back of my ‘55 Ford pickup was loaded with climbing rope and equipment, paint and masks. I won’t name the dam we were headed to. But it was a big one that had stopped the natural flow of a river that was once a beautiful sight to behold. In times since the dam was built, the lake behind it had sometimes dried up and revealed what it was like when the river flowed naturally through its natural environment. A town was even found underneath the water line. This would be our first dam.
The day before we had stopped off at Ace Hardware and bought 10 gallons of bright yellow paint, high gloss and good for concrete. A couple of large four-inch brushes were added to our shopping cart, along with painting suits that we would dye black the night before we left. With enough large flashlights to last us a year we exited the store, proud and nervous. We were about to take a chance and do something good. If we got caught …
At midnight we turned down a dirt road that we had previous scoped out. The road led to a trailhead, empty at this time at night. We got out, grabbed our gear (we were already dressed in our black painter’s suits). We followed a heavily forested path and came to a chain-link fence, which we promptly cut through. After a scramble over a scree slope we came out of the trees. There in front of us was the top of the dam. Just where we wanted to be. In those days there were no night watchmen walking around, no occupied guard house. We knew the park service patrolled the area, but it was hit or miss. Some nights they didn’t bother. Other times, they checked and left or fell asleep in their patrol cars. There wasn’t enough manpower to patrol regularly. And in those early days, we were heady with the flush of our successes. We were in the vanguard. Thanks to Ed Abbey, our spiritual environmental leader, who said he wasn’t a leader. Just loved the outdoors and didn’t want it spoiled by billboards or dams and all the other crap man heaps on the planet.
We had attached the flashlights to our helmets with duct tape so we could see what we were doing and thus free our hands. Carrying all our gear, Sven and I made our way out onto the top of the dam. We left Autumn at the edge of the woods to be the lookout in case the Park Service showed up. I got my climbing gear on while Sven pried open the jugs of paint and poured the paint into smaller, gallon-sized cans. He lit a joint, found a downed limb nearby, stuck it in one of the buckets and began to stir, muttering to himself that he needed a beer. But we had left the beer in the truck. We had plenty of pot, though. In the moonlight, the paint looked even more yellow than it was. Magical, I thought. My heart was thumping. I expected the authorities would arrive and arrest us at any minute. But all I could hear was the wind soughing through the trees, beckoning us forth.
Over the Edge
Sven handed me a joint and I smoked it down to my fingertips. I attached one end of the rope around the chain link fence that bordered the wall. I climbed over and Sven handed me a can and a brush, which I stuck in my belt. I leaned back over the edge into space and began my rappel down the sheer face, holding the can with one hand while I controlled my descent with the other on the rope. I was careful not to make any unusual movements — didn’t want to spill the paint. I resisted the urge to kick myself outward, because that was part of the fun of rappelling. I stopped about 10 or 20 feet down. I figured I was about 400 feet up from the churn of water at the bottom. I carefully took off the lid of the paint, grabbed the brush and dipped it into the swirling yellow moonlit paint. I placed the brush against the wall and started painting a line downward, a jagged line, as I lowered myself. Every five feet or so I had to stop and refill my brush, then continue my descent. I soon ran out of paint. The porous concrete was sucking it in. I yelled up to Sven and he lowered down another can. After about an hour of this, I was finished. I looked up and there, jagging upward, was the depiction I had painted of a giant crack in the dam wall. I whooped, despite myself, took out my jumars(a mechanical ascender) and jumared back up the face until I reached the top. I was spent. Sven helped me over the fence. Our job was done. We collected our equipment and hightailed out of there back to the truck.
And Our Earth
There had been very little news concerning what some would call a stunt. Nothing on TV. Only a tiny column buried in the back pages of a backwater newspaper. We figured the authorities had decided to keep it quiet. It mattered little to us. We would have liked to have gotten the word out. But what the hell, you can’t have everything. We not only wanted to make a statement, but a commitment. And, true to our plan, we followed through to the end. There would be more dams for us. Eventually, the word would get out. We would begin to take back our rivers. And our Earth. Slowly, over time, we have. Dams all over the country would, in time, be laid to siege, protested, and the authorities would be forced to remove them to save watersheds and salmon and the ocean. There is more to do, a lot more. We weren’t first to protest, and we won’t be the last.