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Craig Beneville’s Quiet Thunder

Nature lost a warrior. Earth First! lost a hero. I lost a friend. We all gained perspective.

Last week, Craig Beneville accidentally fell to his death from high up in the forest canopy. He was using his climbing skills to create habitat.

Of late, Craig had also been climbing in a number of groves themselves slated for death by the Bureau of Land Management’s tireless efforts to, as they themselves put it, “implement the Clinton Northwest Forest Plan.”

Y’all remember the 1994 Forest Plan? The Big Greens said this, “our greatest victory,” had ended Ancient Forest logging and saved the forests, the spotted owls and other species that depend on it. Well, of course, it did none of that.

Craig and climbing buddy Mick Garvin are best known for two things — as the sly geniuses behind the Seattle WTO “siege engine” that the cops bought as real, thus diverting police action until hundreds of people could successfully lock-down at the various intersections around the WTO Conference Center and as stalwart defenders of Warner Creek, Oregon, truly one of our greatest victories. Craig and other hardy champions spent two winters in the snows successfully defending the area from Forest Service plans to “implement the Forest Plan” there.

One of the requirements of the Forest Plan is that the agencies involved have to do biological surveys of species dependent on the forests before any logging can take place. Of course, the agencies have botched it. Lawsuits have been won forcing them to comply. Even then, they have always come up short. So, folks like Craig and Mick have been climbing the trees looking for active nests of the Red Tree Vole, a rodent that spends almost its entire life living hundreds of feet up in the tree tops and is a major food source for the endangered Northern spotted owls–the Indicator Species for the health of this majestic ecosystem.

Word quickly spread through the larger community he was an integral part of–the forest protection community, the river rafting community, the rock climbing community. Some two hundred folks from all over descended on Eugene last weekend for a Celebration of Craig’s Life. Amid the tears, hugs, laughter and tales, we came to terms as best we could with our loss. Usually, as a group, we’re not too good with emotional sentiment, and like Craig, we generally use anger and wisecracking to deflect it. But, this time, we matured.

A number of us had gathered the Saturday before on the Oregon Coast for an after Thanksgiving dinner party. Craig was there flashing his sly smile and cracking his wry wit. He was headed to his Joshua Tree winter retreat soon. We planned a trip to a desert hot springs next month. Of course, those of us fortunate to have spent this last weekend with Craig were stunned, but thankful we had last seen him in such good spirits.

Saturday, after another huge meal surrounded by photos and other Craig memorabilia, we gathered around the fire to celebrate. Now, Craig would usually have had nothing to do with such a show of sentimentality. Accordingly, in Craig’s honor, Mike Roselle boycotted and stayed behind guarding the kegs–one a local microbrew and one an organic root beer for us nondrinkers.

Jonathan Paul’s booming voice rose over the crowd as he started things off with a rousing recap of what Craig meant to him and to us all. Many stories were shared and toasts raised to our fallen comrade–that “sexy mo-fo.” It was noted that Craig was seldom a seeker of the limelight (except when his alter-ego Thunder Craig would take the stage). In a movement beset with large egos and petty authority and leadership issues, Craig wanted none of that. Yet, as Hazel noted, when the call came, there was Craig volunteering to do the surveys as he always volunteered to do the stuff he deemed most effective.

On Sunday, the Cascadia Wildlands Project (CWP) arranged for a bus skillfully driven by Eugene’s former Communist Party City Councilor Kevin Hornbuckle. We loaded on the bus and headed for a grove where Craig had recently found five vole nests. This remnant 35-acre grove of 400-year-old giants is part of a larger 600 acres slated for logging.

Jeremy Hall and James Johnston of CWP led us through the pouring rain into the “Thunder Grove.” As we stood at the base of an ancient fir tree, we read Craig’s writing on a ribbon announcing the presence of two vole nests above. Things came into clear perspective there in the damp. We all vowed to help preserve this grove in his honor.

The long ride there and back allowed us to catch up with one another. Every person on that bus is giving their lives to the planet. I talked with person after person who has dedicated their life to defending Mother Earth. I learned a lot.

I learned that the community has come out fully to defend against California’s latest Recall. Pacific Lumber (MAXXAM), the scourge of the Redwoods, has decided that they cannot defend themselves against the $300 million Civil Fraud environmental degradation lawsuit filed by the Humboldt County District Attorney, Paul Gallegos. So, they’ve funded a Recall against, as Daveau put it, “the sole elected politician I’ve ever liked.” MAXXAM pumped in over $40,000 at the last minute, paying gatherers $8 per signature which gave them just enough to force the Recall and has plans for another $400,000 to influence the March 2nd election.

I learned how the San Francisco contingent has been working hard to elect one of their own, Matt Gonzalez, their new mayor. I heard of many campaigns to rollback degradation — people working to limit bird-killing wind farms, against trucking nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, for changing forest practices laws, for coalition building with forest workers. I also found out for the first time that some of the community (who’ll remain prudently anonymous) have been traveling to the “Occupied Territories” and serving as medics in Jenin, Ramallah and elsewhere. Every person on that bus is a hero.

LEARN THE RULES. PLAY TO WIN

We’ve also learned that we need to reexamine tactics and come up with new strategies. As Mikal Jakubal, the original tree-sitter noted, the public polls with us 80% of the time, massive amounts of cash have been raised on our campaigns (not that much trickles down to the grassroots), yet we get beaten politically worse and worse each time, the Stealthy Timber Initiative (“Healthy Forests Initiative”) being the latest example. So, some of us have decided to hold our noses and look into setting up our own Political Action Committee (PAC) and just funnel money directly to politicians’ campaigns — just as our opponents have been doing and beating us.

As a group we relearned the necessity of undertaking dangerous missions with a buddy. Hard and traumatic as it was for Mick to be there when his best buddy fell (and my heart goes out to Mick), we all are thankful that Mick was there.

We learned a hard lesson about Living Wills. Not wanting to look at our own mortality, as a group we’re pretty unprepared for something like this. Our “wake” was nothing like the one his bereaved parents held in California. They put on the full Catholic funeral, complete with Rosary and talk of how “Craig loved Jesus.” Sure, Craig loved the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and lived his life accordingly. Yet, I doubt he wanted to go out this way. And, had he survived in some vegetative state, I know he would have wanted someone to pull the plug. So, Dana Stoltzman decided that for every one of her friends’ birthdays from now on, she would give them a Living Will kit. So will I.

But the greatest lesson gleaned from this sweet man’s untimely passing has to be the acknowledgment from a lot of folks that life is precious, our days are numbered and we damn well better appreciate our friends now. More gatherings are planned. We will gather with people he loved and we’ll do our best to defend the places he loved. There’s nothing else to do.

Around the fire that night, someone yelled out, “Who here never kissed Craig?” One sheepish voice said, “I never got the chance.” She was met with a collective, “You don’t know what you missed.”

I do know and I’ll miss him dearly. Thunder is out there ahead of us again–smiling that glorious smile and blazing trail. We’re left with the comfort that his was a life well lived, our work is worthy and we are among friends well loved.

MICHAEL DONNELLY first met Craig Beneville when Craig worked as an editor with the Earth First! Journal collective. He can be reached at: pahtoo@aol.com

To find out more information on Craig’s work and how you can help end Ancient Forest logging, contact James Johnston at: jdj@efn.org

 

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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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