Jack tells the story of the making of “Here Before The Prophets” in Richardson Grove State Park, Humboldt County, CA in 2011.
Wow. What a (Sun)day, what a trip. We — I and the TreeSpirit film crew — entered Humboldt County the weekend of Sept. 11-12 with strong intentions, lots of passion, crazy optimism—and our share of concerns and fears. After all, we’d gone to a lot of trouble to PUBLICIZE this event, so we were expecting some kind of authorities to meet and, uh, greet us. The only question was WHICH AM: park rangers, CHPs, police, sheriff or mix ‘n match?
What DID surprise me was the row of cars—and eager participants—already waiting for me at the meeting place along Hwy 101, one-half mile south of The Richardson Grove redwoods—at 6:55am. After being warned about “Humboldt time” – meaning everything’s later than planned, scheduling is more relaxed, and chill out man, it’s all good, ironically, perhaps poetically, it was WE traveling Marinades who kept enthusiastic tree lovers waiting, not the other way around. (To be fair, our The TreeSpirit film production schedule was ambitious—and we hit snags, like the ones to come this very morning.)
But here they were, fellow treehuggers awake before dawn to show their care for trees, trees over 1,000, over 2,000 years old. The kind of trees that almost every human, treehugger or not, feels SOMETHING different, something significant, while in their presence. The word had gotten out, thanks to many residents and fellow friends of redwoods who, felt compelled to join me in a peaceful but dramatic demonstration to save old-growth redwoods from being harmed. (CalTrans wants to cut into the roots of over seventy (!) old-growth redwoods, some 1,000 and 2,000-year-olds, to expand Hwy 101 through the middle of Richardson Grove State Park, currently posted at 35 mph. That’s too slow for some, and already too fast for people like me (since, of course, people regularly buzz through at 40-45mph).
By the time we moved the cars out of sight from the road, put people in place to direct additional arriving cars, and finally gathered to talk logistics, we were about 50 people strong. That’s when the (Richardson Grove State) park rangers came.
I spent a lot of time and energy planning this event to make it public and accessible. So did many people in Humboldt who generously offered THEIR time and energy. Our emails and leafletting made the local paper and radio station (KMUD). At the same time I did not fully disclose every detail because I thought we might have to play hide and seek with authorities who would respond to our invitation. The game began weeks before this Sunday, Sept. 12th.
A ranger stepped out of his SUV to address the group. He told us he had heard about the photo, and that we would be violating two park codes against large assemblies without special permitting, and against nudity anywhere in a state park. And of course he announced the code numbers in case any of us were interested. (I was not.) He was professional and polite. In my opinion—and the majority of our group agreed—given the job he was assigned to do, he couldn’t have been more polite or low-key. (Although his not visiting us at all would still be my first choice.) He delivered his message, walked away, drove away.
I asked the group to circle up. I asked whether they were wiling to proceed despite this warning and the risks, whatever those might be. I asked for a show of hands…and everyone’s hand went unhesitatingly, enthusiastically up. I realized (again), that this was Humboldt county, home to decades of logging demonstrations, protests, both nonviolent and violent, with feelings running strong and deep. (And on both sides of forest issues—and there are often more than just two sides. For instance, the well-known “Save The Redwoods League” has NOT come out against the CalTrans plan that many believe would harm and kill old-growth redwoods. Their stance is seen as a compromise or, worse, a sell-out, and cause of bitterness and anger for some in the “forest defense” community.)
Our next step was moving to a staging area much closer to the actual photo location, until now known only to a few: me, assistants, the film crew and volunteer coordinators. I had wanted to hike everyone in, about 30-45 min., get our blood moving and spend time enjoying walking among the trees. But the day before I changed my mind, and now I was sure of this new plan: our chances of traveling undiscovered were better if we, sorry to say it, carpooled in. This would avoiding an unusually long procession of hikers crossing Hwy 101 south of the grove where we stood. And then crossing Hwy 101 again, via walkways in the grove itself, again in plain sight, to finally reach the staging area 100 yards from the photo location.
Driving meant speed and discretion. One small group was set on walking anyway, but the visible majority of us began a car-shell game. The drive necessitated going through the park’s entrance to buy a 3-hour pass giving access to the only roads to our staging area. Minutes later, at the little entrance booth where an attendant collect entrance fees, I saw on its window an 8.5×11″ posted sign that read: “There will be no special photo event today.” Well, that made our unofficialness official. The Parks Dept. sure didn’t tell ME our photo event had been cancelled. I was the organizer and I still thought it was on, as did all the people in my car, and all the treelovers piled into the cars lined up behind us.
Plus, the park desperately needs—and deserves—all the funds it can get, and we happily paid. No matter what else happens this day, the park would get some extra money. With a welcoming smile from the booth attendant, we drove on in, leaving behind us a line of cars that, at 8AM on a Sunday morning, yelled out, to me, “Something’s going on here!” At some point you just have to cross your fingers, say your prayers, and move forward, stealth begone.
By now, roaming about the park’s interior roadways were ranger SUVs, mercifully bright and clean white and easy to spot amid dark redwood trunks. After dropping off my tripod and big, bright blue camera bag—more loud tip-offs!—at the staging area with a participant, I drove off to park my car 1/4 mile away. I wrangled some some other cars to join my parking spot, spreading the vehicular congestion around, hoping to throw the rangers off our assembly’s trail. At 8AM on a Sunday in Richardson Grove State Park, “where there’s cars, there’s people.”
We all regrouped behind a wooden amphitheater’s facade, our staging area 100 yards from the photo location. This partially hid us from the parking lot and roadway where two ranger vehicles were sitting. I talked to the group, asked them to sign the usual TreeSpirit Project and Film releases giving us permission to use the final TreeSpirit photo, showed them test photos I’d made 2 weeks earlier to explain today’s photo composition and location, and gave a quick demonstration of what I would ask them to do in relationship with the redwoods this morning.
Finally, at around 8:30AM, we made our 2nd migration. We all walked, in separated clumps, along the interpretative trail paralleling Hwy 101 in front of the Visitor Center (which was closed before 9AM). We now stood adjacent to some of the largest, oldest redwoods rooted literally three inches from the pavement. (And why CalTrans wants to hack into and/or compress their living root systems beneath more road bed.) I asked for everyone to spread out in a line 50 yards long and wait for my signal. When I gave it, they were to remove all their clothing and move quickly through the brush to specific giant redwoods in my camera’s composition. I asked for my assistants to join me at the roadway’s edge. I set up my camera and tripod, leaving my big bright blue camera bag behind in the brush. I pointed out to them as best I could which trees to run to, where they would be human markers for the soon-to-be-naked participants. And off the ran, 40-100 yards north along empty Hwy 101 to those trees, human markers for all the other participants waiting on the trail just a few yards away.
I ran away from my camera & tripod, back to the trail where all the tree lovers were waiting for my signal. As if starting a Grand Prix road race, I moved my arm swiftly down from above my head to the ground, repeatedly. And they were off! First the clothes, and then the tree huggers. I ran back to my camera position and got ready for the action I’d waited months for. In just a few more seconds, beautiful naked tree people would appear at the trees along the roadway. After all the morning’s maneuverings and dodging and planning and meetings, with park rangers still just yards away…
They ran to the redwoods and embraced them as planned. I figured I had only a few minutes to make this photo before the rangers would react to this flurry of activity, object to our being so close to the roadway, object to the nudity, who knows what. Adrenaline slowed down what little time I had. Someone behind me, I think it was Navyo, the documentary film’s director, let out some sort of emotional cry, something like, “I don’t believe it!” Indeed. I didn’t have time to revel in success yet, or let land that it was actually happening, that after all our planning and being shadowed by rangers assigned to warn us off this activity, we as a community were bringing a vision to life. I’ve found that for anything I’ve anticipated and contemplated (or feared) doing for so long, the experience is always different than the imagining of it. Hence the necessity, the beauty of…doing.
I saw that people were not at all the exact trees I would have preferred. I thought to yell out to quickly move some from one tree to another I thought worked better in my composition. And then I thought better of it. We didn’t have the time. “Work with what I had,” I thought, “now or never.” Better to make a photo with what was before me now, get something, rather than mess around and maybe get shut down and get nothing. I had already chosen my shutter and aperture and ISO based on the typically low light among redwoods, framed up what I saw the best I could and kept my mouth shut. I’m used to calling out directions numerous time but did so only twice I think: Plant your feet on the ground!” was one. “Melt into the trees!” was probably another. I don’t know, don’t ask me, ask the film director, maybe he knows.
But I knew the more I yelled the more likely rangers would step out of the brush, out onto to the road or, worse, at my camera position where the guy yelling was. That would be me. I kept my adjustments to a bare minimum, not taking full advantage of all my art director’s suggestions. She knows what I like and can scan the giant scene more thoroughly than I can when I’m buried in my camera making sure I’m getting some images. Get some in the camera, I knew, and then get us all out of there. Hardly the peaceful, communing experience I prefer at TreeSpirit photo events, but in this case, with getting the photo seeming paramount to me, this would have to do.
Another thought flashed through me as I was concentrating on the amazing scene, and a rush of feeling accompanied it: “this is so BEAUTIFUL!” These people willing to hug trees, trees so big ten people can’t link arms around them, were now doing this unusual, quiet, peaceful activity in these few moments of stillness we could savor, even with the occasional car or truck or motorcycle driving through the scene! All our planning and worrying and sneaking around, all our concern for legalities and logistics—and here it was, happening now. It was really so innocent and harmless and simple, people willing to be daring and ridiculed for, at its essence…being loving with trees.
Finally, a large, sleek motor home that looked more like a tour bus appeared, heading south on Hwy 101 toward us. When it was alongside the human-coated trees, it honked! It didn’t slow or swerve, no one was endangered, but its honking was acknowledging, even celebratory. Thirty seconds later a dog belonging to one of the tree huggers, missing its guardian for too long, howled…and the tree huggers howled back.
And this also broke my—perhaps everyone’s—sense that time was standing still. I had a gut feeling that our luck and time had run out, that the rangers would appear, that we should stop and get out of here…NOW. I asked my Art Director if she agreed. She did. I yelled out that we were done, watched to see people get the message and move off the trees, and then I grabbed my camera-on-tripod rig and ran off too—but not before pulling out the compact flash card with all the images on it. I’m from New York, after all, and have years of experience hiding film canisters I thought might, just might, be confiscated by an pissed-off authority. “Just a precaution,” as my ol’ hero Bugs Bunny once put it.
When I got back to my camera bag the director, Navyo Ericsen, was there with a gigantic smile on his face, bigger than mine because, despite my exuberance and our group’s triumph, there was still the matter of the clean getaway. I handed Navyo the card and said take it, hide it, get it lost. He understood. Someone passed the news of a ranger, finally, on the trail headed our way. I immediately walked in his direction now, rather than hanging back anonymously as I did 90 minutes earlier for his first appearance. I would identify myself and take responsibility as the event organizer. (I’ve learned it’s not always best to do this in advance because then, if I don’t heed any official’s warning, it may be taken personally, though there’s nothing personal in this for me at all; the rangers are people doing a job they’re assigned to do.)
The ranger asked to see my I.D. I told him it was in my car which was parked 1/4-mile away. We walked out together to get it. The ranger was polite and accommodating again, allowing me to stop on the way to address the group again, back at the amphitheater staging area, also where we had planned to regroup. I told some concerned participants there that I had business with the rangers and might see them later that afternoon. We had planned additional, far less public TreeSpirit photos for that afternoon at an undisclosed location.
To tell the rest far more compactly: I spent the next two hours getting to my car, my wallet, my driver’s license, and finally to my citations for assembly without a permit and for “filming” which means “commercial filming” which is what CA State Parks call any filming by a professional photography. Their rules don’t distinguish between a “commercial” photo shoot and a “professional” photo shoot. Nor between today’s photo shoot and a major motion picture film company’s giant one. It’s a controversial and hotly-contested topic among professional photographers who can be cited for setting up a tripod and camera anywhere in a state park without a permit. A dentist with nice equipment can, be we pros can’t. This same double-standard applies to National Parks. The thinking behind the odd rule is that we might make money off one of our photos in the future, never mind that many of us won’t, or won’t most of the time.
My date in court has not come yet, and I’ll have to decide whether to challenge the citations (e.g., not a commercial shoot) or just pay them. I don’t know if I’ll have to appear in Humboldt County court in Eureka. For now I choose to focus on the many positives, and count my and our group’s blessings. The rangers could have shut us down, walked unsettlingly among us, or stood right in my face. They did not, and I have not asked them why. They were polite and professional in our every encounter. I prefer to guess at the answers. Perhaps it was in part because we were peaceful, we were respectful, we were not intrusive to any other park visitor’s experience early that morning. We didn’t even block the roadway, Hwy 101, or impede the few vehicles that drove by us while we made the photo.
And perhaps the rangers even knew, or heard, or sensed WHY we did what we did. For the trees. For the very same redwoods they themselves are assigned to protect. I like to think so.
– Jack Gescheidt, October 2010