How the Mighty Have Fallen

Reaching 75 feet closer to the sky than the Statue of Liberty, Hyperion—the tallest tree on the planet—has stood for more than 2,000 years in a Northern California redwood forest, a dense, foggy world of pin-drop silence. This living creature with its own nickname wears a coat of bark more than two feet thick, foolproof protection against insects, disease, and anything else that might try to kill it.

For millions of Hyperion’s smaller but no less majestic redwood brethren, protection has resulted from a complicated tradition of confrontation and negotiation among activists, government officials, and timber leaders.

The end of World Wars I and II brought unprecedented growth in construction and an insatiable need for wood; giant businesses responded by buying up local, often family-owned logging companies and transforming miles of ancient trees into a sea of stumps. “It was a combustible situation,” says SFS Upper School history teacher and Assistant Dean of Students Darren Speece, who grew his University of Maryland doctoral dissertation into the just-released book Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics. His use of “combustible” is apt, given that the decades of conflict triggered everything from an activist’s narrowly averted death in a car bombing (for which she was unfairly blamed) to massive protest rallies, arrests, lawsuits, and even insider trading on Wall Street and the rise of presidential executive action.

Darren recently presented an animated, well-received overview of this history at an evening book talk and signing in the Robert L. Smith Meeting Room, arranged in conjunction with the DC bookstore Politics and Prose.

As a student, Darren was on the periphery of what he calls the “rowdier period” of the Redwood Wars when he attended Humboldt State University, located 250 miles north of San Francisco in the epicenter of the action. He was awestruck by the trees and the ecosystems as he hiked in the formidable forests. As he learned about the history, people, and culture of the area, he ventured to both peaceful rallies and loud, angry protests against the save-the-trees environmentalists; he admits he was “too chicken to get arrested.”

But his imagination was sufficiently captured by the plight of the trees and everyone involved that, in graduate school a decade later, he realized “there was something about this environmental battle that might have historical lessons for us.” In Defending Giants, he traces the roots of the wars as well as the modern-day ramifications on the American environmental and political landscapes. He illustrates for readers how the power of the Endangered Species Act and other laws were harnessed by citizens to save redwoods on private property; details the profit-driven, hostility-inciting reach of insider trader Ivan Boesky and “junk bond” king Michael Milken; and peels back the derisive connotation of the term “tree huggers” to reveal the complexity of the people who served, and continue to serve, as a voice for the silent beings in the forests.

For more about the book, visit the University of Washington Press website.

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