Monkeywrench

By  |  August 31, 2016
“Luminescent Ditch” © Michelle A. M. Miller. Courtesy of the artist “Luminescent Ditch” © Michelle A. M. Miller. Courtesy of the artist

Travels in Radical Florida


 

The first day I showed up for the Earth First! rehearsal in Lake Worth, Florida, a small coastal town thirty-five miles north of Fort Lauderdale, I walked in late to find a dozen tattooed people pretending to be a machine. Tentatively at first and then with increasing enthusiasm, they pantomimed the pulling of levers and the pushing of buttons and other nonsensical but orderly tasks.

“Now the machine speeds up,” instructed Maren, the rosy-cheeked Minnesotan who was codirecting the musical. The imaginary-lever pulling became a little more frantic. “Now it’s breaking down!” Everyone’s movements became strained; a guy in a black hoodie bounced like a deranged spring. 

For the next exercise, Maren had the group make something called a “fear machine,” which involved lots of cowering and pointing. “Okay, now let’s make a deep ecology machine,” she said. For a moment, no one moved. Then a slender woman in black boots stepped into the middle of the circle. She closed her eyes and began undulating to some internal rhythm, making soft swishing sounds with her mouth. Slowly, other people joined in. The movements of the deep ecology machine involved a lot of gentle swaying, as if this were an instrument made by engineers high on Ecstasy instead of Adderall. This machine ran on longer than any of the others had; for some reason, everyone had started making a soft purring sound. It was nice. 

After a few minutes, Maren ended it. “I was going to say, ‘Now there’s an oil spill,’ and make you play that out,” she said, “but this was going so well.” They could, she decided, invoke the oil spill tomorrow.

Most people in the room were not Floridians; instead, they lived in fringe towns—Ithaca, Bloomington, Oakland—where the rent was cheap enough that radical politics could flourish. They wore black boots and rode bikes; they all seemed to know each other from protests and actions and summers spent picking blueberries in Maine. 

They were here because, in October 2015, just as the winter chill had started to creep into people’s bones, a flyer began circulating among activists, inviting anyone willing and able to travel to sunny Lake Worth for the month of February “to help devise, build, perform and otherwise scheme on” a musical that celebrated the history and philosophy of the radical environmental group Earth First! (In 2010, Earth First! had moved its publishing operation from Tucson to Lake Worth, making the town the de facto headquarters of the diffuse, controversial organization.) “The show will involve audiences writing to political prisoners, cast members repelling [sic] down cardboard redwoods, and seating based on willingness to risk arrest,” the flyer promised. “Hurrah!”

 

In my daydream version of myself, I’m badder and bolder. I risk arrest, have a complicated, asymmetrical haircut, and make rich people uncomfortable. There is, after all, a lot that’s wrong with the world, and plenty of things that could use some smashing, or at least a little shaking up. 

The punkest I ever felt was when I was a teenager, on family trips to Florida. I’d climb in my parents’ rental minivan and stare moonily out the window as they kept up their bland, parental patter in the front seat; as we left the industrial outskirts of the airport and started to drive by stupidly huge houses, multitiered and festooned with balconies, I became aware of a rebelliousness rising up inside me. Florida was all big cars, strip malls built over wetlands, bars nursing the long hangover between Spring Breaks—and I hated it. I wasn’t used to feeling unequivocal about anything, and it was liberating to be so free of doubt, so certain in my anger. In Florida, I subjected my family to impassioned speeches about how civilization was on the verge of collapse, how every human was fat and greedy, how we all deserved the apocalypse we clearly seemed to be making for ourselves. But I was a human, too, so the whole time I was also busy resenting myself. And all the while the ocean was right there, collapsing in on itself in little implosions of foam. It was hard to notice it; I was too preoccupied with everyone else’s bad values, their wrong idea of what was beautiful. 

Once I was back home in Virginia, though, I would sink back into my old self again, my moderate soul, my desire to see everyone get along. As I’ve grown older, I’ve only gotten more compromised and compromising. But what hasn’t changed is my infatuation with people more rebellious than I am, the ones who can conduct their social (or actual) sabotage wholeheartedly, without any of my anxious hemming and hawing—my friend Donna, for instance, who got involved with Earth First! as a teenager in the early 2000s. That was the era of the tree sits, when Julia Butterfly Hill got famous for spending 738 days living in a 1,000-year-old redwood named Luna. There was something happening in the Pacific Northwest then, a wave of energy carrying forward from the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, lots of black hoodies and talk about the imminence and inevitability of “the rev.” It never occurred to me to go see it for myself—but Donna’s the kind of person who would, and did, dive right in.

Since then she’s gone on to get a master’s degree in experimental theater and remained one of my most consistently radical friends, with her power tools and polyamory and shadow-puppet workshops in Palestine. A few summers ago, she convinced a few dozen punks to camp in a field in Vermont for a month while they assembled an unauthorized DIY version of Les Misérables. They toured the musical up and down the East Coast, performing in the unconventional venues—galleries, squats, abandoned buildings—that Donna seems to prefer. The Baltimore show was held in the weedy backyard of the warehouse I was illegally living in at the time. I’d always thought of Les Mis as a show for theater nerds with boring and obvious taste, like Cats or Phantom but with more sad-girl solos. But Donna’s staging—the multi-gendered sex workers, sinister police officer, and ramshackle barricade—surprised me. She’d somehow managed to find something ecstatic, even revolutionary, underneath the Broadway sheen. 

Last year, Donna emailed me the flyer she’d made to promote the Earth First! production and invited me to come along. I thought: I don’t think so. But everything Donna does seems to gather a force of inevitability around it. A few days later, I found myself thinking: Well, maybe. And then I thought: Okay. 

  

Earth First! was founded in 1979 by a group of self-described “rednecks for wilderness” inspired by Edward Abbey’s 1975 ode to environmental subversion, The Monkey Wrench Gang. In the beginning, their version of activism involved equal parts sabotage and political theater. It was a time when corporate logging and development interests were gnawing away at the West’s few remaining wild places; the EF! activists, alarmed by how slow-moving and complicit the mainstream environmental movement was, opted to go gonzo. The situation was dire, and cheery Earth Day platitudes about how recycling would save the planet didn’t cut it anymore. And so throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Earth First!ers defaced billboards and bicycle-locked themselves to bulldozers; they cut down power lines and got in screaming fights with loggers. They also had a lot of fun: Once, they dressed up like woodland creatures and crashed a meeting of the California Board of Forestry, declaring themselves the true representatives of the woods. Another time, they interrupted the Secretary of the Interior’s visit to Glen Canyon with an elaborately staged fake funeral for the Colorado River, complete with mannequins and floating coffins. Their tactics were unapologetically confrontational and often destructive. Ecodefense, the EF! monkeywrenching manual, includes sections on “stink bombs,” “tire flattening,” “plugging waste discharge pipes,” and “pursuit and evasion,” as well as “miscellaneous deviltry.” 

Earth First! is often described as a radical environmentalist movement, in part because of this penchant for lawbreaking direct action. But in those early years, their rhetoric was considered radical, too. While the group’s actions were often hyper-local, they were ahead of the curve in speaking about environmental devastation in terms of interdependent systems—how clear-cutting a forest damaged not only the trees, but also caused erosion that would degrade soil and ruin rivers, for example. Even more difficult for the mainstream environmentalists to swallow was EF!’s overt misanthropy. (EF! cofounder Dave Foreman once said that he’d welcome the coming ice age “as a much needed cleansing,” and that he saw “no possible solution to our ruination of Earth except for a drastic reduction of the human population.”) In retrospect, though, at least some of their pessimism appears prescient. “Foreman and his friends were among the first people to realize the true depth of the environmental crisis,” Susan Zakin writes in Coyotes and Town Dogs, her history of the movement. Reading about the early years of Earth First!, all that Western swagger and self-righteous aggression, makes the organization’s activists sound like the most difficult kind of assholes: ones who are in the right. And while the movement has changed—these days, Earth First! is less misanthropic and more concerned with wider concerns of social justice, particularly the overlap between mass incarceration and environmental degradation—the basic let’s-fuck-things-up ethos of EF! has remained consistent. 

But even as some of EF!’s ideas have increasingly been absorbed into the mainstream, the movement has been struggling. The group was damaged badly by post-9/11 panic, when eco-activists who’d plotted minor acts of sabotage were snagged by sting operations and prosecuted as terrorists. (A few have since been released after a judge ruled that their convictions were based on entrapment; others are still serving multi-decade sentences.) The subsequent paranoia poisoned the group’s freewheeling, fun-loving attitude. At the same time, the old guard of hard-drinking, macho rural Westerners clashed with the younger, urban activists who wanted to create a more inclusive culture. Internal debates erupted around how much EF! should focus on issues like mass incarceration and indigenous rights, as well as the homophobia, misogyny, and racism within the movement. 

And so a couple questions hovered around the margins of any discussion of the play: Would the production be a reinvigoration of Earth First!’s radical approach, a validation of extreme tactics in our era of escalating environmental disasters? Or was the musical more of a memorial to a mode of protest—local, romantic, small-scale—that didn’t really have a place in the era of climate change? 

  

On the next day of rehearsal, Donna wore a thrift-store sweatshirt that read THIS IS NO ORDINARY HOUSEWIFE YOU’RE DEALING WITH and giant earrings that included a mouse skull and a curtain of fringe. Her hair was piled haphazardly on top of her head, and she looked like a messy mermaid, or a happy witch.

She told me that the musical was “not a satire and not a history and not a homage—but maybe more of a homage than anything else. I keep thinking about Hair, and Rent, these shows that try to capture a particular subculture at a particular moment.” We were talking during a break while everyone snacked on chocolate-covered Oreos frosted with Hanukkah symbols; the previous night, someone had raided the fancy chocolate store’s dumpster.

“Musicals take place in a heightened reality,” Donna said. “The stakes start out so high—and then when the first person breaks into song, it’s like a quantum leap of intensity.” That intensity was nicely suited to stories of radical movements, with their emphasis on direct action and dramatic swings between triumph and despair. The story of Earth First!, which involves betrayal, sabotage, government infiltration, and attempted murder, was positively operatic. 

But the musical wasn’t even the biggest news in Lake Worth’s radical community that month. Ryan Hartman, an Earth First! member and self-described anarchist, had decided to run for a spot on the city commission. If he won, he’d be the second anarchist to hold public office in Lake Worth in less than a decade. You wouldn’t necessarily expect radical politics to find such a substantial foothold in Palm Beach County, one of the richest counties in the state, which is home to both Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion and the headquarters of the white supremacist website Stormfront. Lake Worth has long been a cheap and diverse outlier in the Palm Beach region, a place where old-school hippies, recent immigrants, and young activists—or “the crazies, the communists, the socialists,” as a Lake Worth attorney told a local conservative website in 2011—could afford to enjoy South Florida’s mango trees and February sunshine. That year, the town elected its first Republican mayor in years. Hartman’s candidacy was part of a larger effort to take Lake Worth back from the pro-development faction. 

The day before I arrived in Lake Worth, I’d received a flurry of emails from the musical’s organizers. It seemed as though someone in town had found a copy of the flyer inviting activists from around the country to visit Lake Worth and smelled a conspiracy. Wes Blackman, a prolific and often furious local blogger, was increasingly adamant that Earth First! the Musical was a ruse for importing anarchists to town in the weeks before the election. They’d register to vote, Blackman and others worried, taking advantage of Florida’s somewhat relaxed proof-of-address requirements, and then they’d stuff the ballot box for Hartman. “They will be making decisions for you, the taxpayers,” candidate Andy Amoroso warned his constituents during a forum. The musical was gaining a new, urgent energy as the campaign season became increasingly theatrical.

To avoid jeopardizing Hartman’s campaign, the musical’s participants were warned to be particularly careful not to create any undue cause for alarm. I was instructed not to park on the wrong side of the street, and definitely not to sleep in my car. Like all the other newcomers, I was also provided a hand-drawn map with local points of interest. If all maps encode particular values, this one prioritized thrift, sneakiness, and good food; the points of interest included taco trucks, a cheap produce market, and prime dumpsters for scavenging. At one edge of the map, a jagged line denoted Lake Worth’s long stretch of coast. This part of town was marked by a skull and crossbones, and a warning: “Rich people! Cop calling condo dwellers! Beware!”

The map also showed the house where I was staying, one of a handful of spots in town that served as crash pads for activists passing through. The yard’s plants were overgrown and abundant, giving the house a feeling of jungly seclusion from the street. Inside, the furniture was thrifted, the walls were covered in flyers from last year’s shows, and there was a persistent, not unpleasant, yeasty smell. A handful of people lived there full-time, and the building was also where the Earth First! Journal was produced. A number of short-term visitors—myself included—were sleeping in the empty rooms, and on the roof, and in the yard. 

All over the house there were Sharpied signs aimed at transients like us, instructing us about how to take out the trash and keep the toilet functioning. An alarming number of these signs were about rats. “Definitely don’t put any fruit in the fruit bowl,” one of my new temporary roommates, a skinny eighteen-year-old named Wes, told me. There was a gravity in his voice that suggested that it was a lesson he’d learned firsthand. It seemed that the rats had formed a kind of anarchist colony of their own, refusing to cower before the oppressive authority of humans, or even politely scurry away when the lights flicked on. The Earth First!ers, true to their biocentric beliefs, were opposed to poison and traditional rat assassination methods. Instead, a sign requested visitors’ help with a complicated system of humane DIY bucket traps, which involved transporting the rats to a distant field where they could live out their days in peace. So far, it seemed, that system had not been entirely effective. “They won’t hurt you,” Wes assured me. We were standing in the kitchen. The house was already inspiring in me a general anxiety about surfaces, which manifested in a desire to remain on my feet at all times. “Except there was this one girl who opened up the cabinet and one did jump out at her. So if you hear them in the cabinet, maybe don’t open the door.”

 

The other people in town for the play were going out for karaoke, but I opted to go to an election event at the Lake Worth Scottish Rite Masonic Center. I wanted to see Hartman’s campaign in action. As I sat in a metal folding chair and waited for the candidates’ forum to begin, I stared at a giant mural depicting the town’s founding. There were kings and slaves, billowing smoke, a tepee, a handful of grimacing, loinclothed natives. An ambivalent origin story, I thought. Or perhaps it was supposed to be celebratory. Maybe the ambivalence was all mine.

Eventually, the woman who organized the meeting walked to the front of the room. She looked to be holding a lot of tension in her shoulders. “This is the first time I’ve put together a political event, and I don’t think I’ll do it again,” she said. “Some of the phone calls I’ve gotten today . . .” She trailed off, shaking her head. 

The candidates occupied the tables at the front of the room. Hartman, a tall, brown-haired man in his mid-thirties, was the only one wearing a suit and tie. He was also the only one with visible tattoos. At an earlier campaign event, someone had asked the candidates to list the most recent book on leadership they’d read. One mentioned a book by Donald Trump. Hartman said something vague about nonviolent communication, and then a small smile flashed over his face, as if his inner imp had just gained the upper hand over his better instincts as a candidate. He held up both his fists and displayed his knuckle tattoos to the crowd. They say: book worm. 

Small-town local politics are a blood sport; that has been particularly true in Lake Worth. The day before the Masonic meeting, after another campaign event, a woman heard I was a writer and handed me a sheaf of papers. “Check this out,” she said. And then, as if to warn, or perhaps excite, me: “It’s disgusting.” The samizdat listed Hartman’s aliases (“Onion,” “Joseph Parmalee”) and included several screenshots of his Facebook page. I learned that, on July 4, 2012, Hartman had posted a picture of an American flag on fire and the comment “Happy holiday sheep.” On October 22, 2014: “Happy Fuck the Police Day! Remember children, All Cops Are Bastards! Have a great day!” There were pages and pages like that. The pamphlet was just one of the ways that Hartman’s political opponents had been attempting to smear him as an anarchist who didn’t like cops. The accusations had been difficult for Hartman to argue with, since he is an anarchist who doesn’t like cops. 

At the Masonic Center, the candidates stood up for their five minutes of speechifying. They seemed to be addressing a Lake Worth very different from the one I had been hanging out in. They said things like “our quaint town,” fretted about potholes, and promised to lower electricity rates. One identified himself repeatedly as a native Floridian; another made fond, sexist jokes about his wife. When Hartman stood up to take his turn, the room seemed primed for confrontation. As Hartman made his way to the front, the incumbent mayor’s assistant, a blond man whom I had previously mistaken for a high school student, hissed “Onion!” in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone. But Hartman surprised us all by talking about potholes, too. The most antagonistic moment was when he requested that his opponents stop calling him a terrorist. The meeting moved on, disappointingly uneventful.

Even though I was staying in Hartman’s house, he’d been busy campaigning and I didn’t meet him until the event was over. Up close, his face seemed somehow out of focus; after I saw photos of him from his precandidacy days, when he wore a bushy beard, I thought: Ah, that’s it. He didn’t look quite right clean-shaven. The candidate forum had frustrated him—the whole campaign had been frustrating, actually. In his world, his views weren’t extreme. In fact, by running for office, he was in some ways legitimizing the state instead of smashing it, thus announcing himself as a kind of moderate. “The funny thing is, last year at a campfire meeting we were all supposed to tell our biggest secret,” he told me. “And my secret was that I think some cops are people, too.”

 

Along with its anarchists, Lake Worth is populated by a curious collection of subcultures, which makes the town sometimes feel like an exercise in experimental demographics. The largest freestanding cross in South Florida looms above the Epiphany Lutheran Church; it also serves as a cell phone tower. There is a significant LGBT population, particularly weighted toward the L side of the equation. (The town used to have a popular coffee shop called Les Beans, but it closed when the two women who owned it broke up; now one of them runs Mother Earth Sanctuary Cafe, which claims to have the largest selection of veggie burgers in the country and to be possessed by “a powerful spirit presence of a Native American Priestess whose name (short version) is Hade.”) In other corners of the world, Lake Worth is better known as “Little Finland in the Sun” because it is home to the largest number of Finns outside Scandinavia. There are also significant Haitian and Guatemalan communities, which means that Lake Worth residents enjoy a Creole radio station and their pick of pupuserias. Another cohort is in Lake Worth to dry out or detox; the town’s dozen or so rehab facilities are felt through the slow-moving men walking through downtown, holding their bodies as if everything hurts. They also congregate in a dimly lit, vaguely tiki-themed downtown bar that serves kava, a nonalcoholic plant-based brew from Polynesia. Kava tastes like leaf-flavored dirt and is supposed to be relaxing. ALCOHOL IS SO 2014 reads the sign out front. (The one time Donna and I went in, the bartender was talking enthusiastically about a guy who made gun-shaped bongs, or bong-shaped guns—it was difficult to tell. The kava had the consistency of an organic face mask and tasted foul. I would not describe the experience as relaxing.)

The anarchists and Earth First!ers have a complex relationship with the town. Some people roll their eyes at their in-your-face tactics, but their organizational abilities are admired by many, and they’ve forged alliances with fellow activist groups focusing on immigration and indigenous issues. They’re also just, well, local characters: A few years ago, a producer working with a Palm Beach theater company got in touch with some of the local Earth First!ers. She was helping put together a production of the musical Hair, she said, but the young, professional actors in the cast were having a hard time letting loose. Would the EF! activists be interested in coming to a cast party at her house next week, one EF!er recalled her asking, getting stoned, and letting their freak flags fly in front of the younger kids? Oh, and she’d heard that some of the EF!ers did nude modeling for local art classes—maybe they could get naked onstage, too? For money?

“The real-life ‘Hair’ hippies aren’t acting,” read the headline in the Palm Beach Post a few months later. The review went on to praise the EF! members for being “reliably naked.” During one performance, one of the activists was heckled by a theatergoer who told him to get a job. “I do have a job,” he replied. “I’m getting paid $20 an hour to play a hippie who doesn’t have a job.” 

 

The anarchists were starting to drive me crazy—or maybe I was just troubled by my own growing certainty that I am not and likely will never be a monkeywrencher, that my heart has little miscellaneous deviltry within it. At the car rental place, I’d been assigned a maroon minivan. When I pushed the button on the key fob, the van made a happy little chirp and its doors slid open before I even touched them. “It was the cheapest option!” I wanted to say every time I felt the anarchists look askance at me. But of course it wasn’t the cheapest option; other people had taken overnight Greyhound buses to get to Lake Worth; two men had biked here from upstate New York.

At one rehearsal I sat in the corner and watched three people improv a skit about an evil logger. I wrote “evil logger” in my notebook. A woman recited an awkwardly rhyming poem about Walmart with a level of enthusiasm that left me exhausted. One of the performers, a bearded guy who always seemed to be toting around various serious-looking volumes of early-twentieth-century anarchist theory, sat down next to me.

“Do you write from an anarchist perspective?” he asked. He was cute; for the briefest moment, I considered saying yes. Wasn’t I an anarchist inside my heart?

“No,” I said eventually. I didn’t want him, or anyone, to get the wrong idea. We couldn’t think of what to say to each other after that, and so we were both quiet.

I found myself inventing excuses to leave play practice early. I skipped one rehearsal to go driving around town with Panagioti Tsolkas, whose decade-plus of involvement with Earth First! made him one of the movement’s old hands. We hopped in his car and headed down to the county offices to drop off a notice of appeal for the ongoing legal battle Earth First! was waging against Scripps, a biomedical company that was planning to develop the Briger Forest, one of the last remaining wild areas in Palm Beach County’s I-95 corridor. (Paperwrenching, the process of blocking or at least gumming up proposed development projects via extended litigation, is monkeywrenching’s less glamorous cousin.)

The walls of the county offices were a soothing, institutional blue. “You can just leave that here,” the man at the front desk said. Panagioti, who looks like a world-weary version of Luke Wilson, smiled disarmingly. “I’ll wait here,” he said. “I don’t trust these people. In life, or in litigation.” 

We waited in the air-conditioned chill of the lobby and talked about the musical. “If it’s at the point where something ends up in a museum or a play, is it a tribute?” he mused. “Does that mean it’s over?” 

That night I couldn’t sleep in the anarchist house. The blankets smelled faintly of cat pee, but it was cold so I huddled underneath them anyway. In the kitchen, I could hear the scufflings of rats up to their midnight business. The end of the world felt more pressing than usual, and I felt old and useless in the face of it.

The next morning, I snuck out of the house and drove the minivan to Lake Worth’s aggressively quaint downtown. I ate breakfast at an overpriced diner; a sign in the window proclaimed support for one of Hartman’s enemies. I was increasingly getting the sense that Hartman’s campaign wasn’t doing so well, that his heart wasn’t in the fight, but no one wanted to admit it. No one seemed all that eager to go door-knocking. The diner’s customers were cops and civic workers; I listened to them exchange banal municipal gossip with the waitress and told myself I was conducting research, but I think I actually just wanted someone else to cook my food. 

Later that day I met with Wes Blackman, the blogger who’d been leading the anti-Hartman, anti-musical faction. The anarchists’ nemesis turned out to be a tall, broad-bodied man who spoke so reasonably and blandly—about the history of zoning ordinances in the town, and height restrictions, and other wonky city-planning topics—that I nearly forgot the rancor he embodied online. “I’m a liberal Democrat, but the political spectrum in Lake Worth is skewed so terribly that most people here would see me as a right-wing Republican type,” he told me. “They think that money is an evil, that people having the ability to make money somehow is a bad thing, that there’s greed involved. That if someone’s making profits, that’s not the way it should be, and we should live at a subsistence level so other people can live better? I’ve really tried to figure it out, and I end up scratching my head.”

We sat on a park bench, and Blackman told me about how in the mid-2000s, Lake Worth elected its first anarchist official, a special-ed teacher and longtime activist named Cara Jennings. Jennings’s election had resulted in a small flurry of attention because of how improbable she seemed as a civil servant. As a teenager, she’d started a radical cheerleading troupe with her sister; they’d traveled to protests throughout the country, chanting slogans like “We are the cheerleaders of the REVOLUTION / Here to tell you about the only solution!” Her election resulted in apocalyptic panic among some locals: how could they have a town representative who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance? “What concerns me about Cara Jennings is the fact that she hates America,” Lake Worth’s former mayor told the Palm Beach Post. But Jennings was also a Lake Worth native with a long history of local engagement who’d been attending city commission meetings for months. And so, for a handful of years, a small progressive faction led by Jennings essentially ran the town of Lake Worth. They were actively unfriendly to developers and enacted environmental rules that made the coastal condo associations very unhappy; according to Blackman, this “no growth” faction on the city commission was the main reason there was no new commercial investment in the town for more than four years. 

Blackman told this story as if he thought it would shock me, but instead I found it encouraging. I was suddenly on the side of the anarchists again; as long as Blackman was there, I felt radical. “I guess what they would say is that [commercial development] is bad, in that it leads to environmental degradation and inequality. And, you know, they’re saying, ‘We want to opt out, we don’t want to participate in the system that causes all these problems,’” I said to him. “To me, that’s not an insane way of thinking.” I wanted to articulate a sentiment that felt almost too big and slippery for words. But maybe: The possibility that things didn’t have to be the way they were, in all their disappointment and violence and stupidity. The value of believing that things could be different.

“No,” Blackman said. He was quiet for a little while. “But it’s very idealistic. Are you really going to have that much of an effect? You know, the pebble in the water—are the ripples going to go out from here? Or is this just some little utopian area that’s being created?”

Back at play rehearsal, everyone was standing under a shade tarp in the backyard, practicing “I Want to Spend the End of the World with You,” a romantic song about the apocalypse. It was just as cheesy and effective as the other EF! songs (“Remember the Sunflowers,” “Dancing on the Ruins of Multinational Corporations”) I’d heard so far. This was not an accident: Dave Foreman, EF!’s cofounder, had studied anthropology and was insistent that, in order to truly enact change, EF! had to be not just an organization but a movement. That entailed creating an entire alternative culture—and so there are EF! games and jokes and lore, famous figures, and beloved songs. 

“A lot of the songs they’re practicing are the ones people used to sing around the campfire,” Panagioti had told me. But at the group’s annual Rendezvous—essentially a combination campout/convention/wilderness party—he said, “Less and less of them know them each year. By now practically no one knows how to play them on guitar. Now they’re just sung a cappella, because we remember the words. But people aren’t learning these Earth First! classics anymore.”

Between songs, I whispered to Donna, “Wes Blackman isn’t that bad.”

“Maybe we should invite him to the performance,” she said thoughtfully.

I had been more of an observer than a participant at the rehearsals so far, particularly during the musical numbers. The fact is that I am a terrible singer. But it was my last day. I sang tentatively and self-consciously at first, aware of the particular failures of my voice, its thinness and inadequacy. But then I figured out how to blend my voice into the bigger organism of the song, and I lost track, for a minute, of which voice was mine. 

  

I left Florida early the next morning. When I talked to Donna later, I learned that during the remaining weeks of rehearsal, Wes Blackman doubled down on his angry blog posts; there was no question of inviting him to watch the musical. There’s an Earth First! tradition of naming the toilet in honor of the enemy of the moment, and so at the final performance in late February, the musical’s audience was invited to use the Wes Blackman Memorial Shitter. 

In March, Ryan Hartman lost the election by a 2-to-1 margin. A few weeks afterward, Cara Jennings ran into Florida’s arch-conservative governor, Rick Scott, at a Starbucks in Gainesville. “You’re an asshole, you don’t care about working people . . . you should be ashamed to show your face around here,” she shouted at him. Scott smiled in his nervous, reptilian way. “You stripped women of access to public health care. Shame on you, Rick Scott!” Someone uploaded the confrontation to YouTube, where it’s been viewed more than two million times.

The other day, I watched a shaky video someone had made of the musical. The production opened with a young girl, maybe eleven years old, squinting up at a man dressed in the Earth First! uniform of black hoodie, black jeans, and black boots. “Why are you wearing black?” she asks. “Because I’m in mourning for all life!” he shouts back. And then, more quietly: “Because I’m sad.”

For some reason it made me think of my last evening in Lake Worth, when I drove to the beach alone and realized that my impression of the town—scrappy, run-down, international, charming—was due to my having spent most of my time inland. The closer I got to the water, the more—I don’t know how else to say it—Floridian the town looked, all smooth sidewalks and careful landscaping and ice cream shops with lines out the door.

I parked and followed the crowds down to a sanctioned bonfire on the beach where a jazz trio was playing swingy covers of White Stripes songs. A couple clutched each other and stared pensively at the ocean, as if posing for an engagement photo shoot with an invisible photographer. A real Florida t-shirt of a sunset was developing in the west, palm trees silhouetted against orange airbrushed clouds. All along the beach were high-rise condos. They looked new, hermetically sealed, like all the other buildings lining the coast of Florida. In the sunset light they looked just as romantic as everything else. As the twilight dimmed, the people inside them flicked on their lights. I could imagine their marble countertops, the sheen of their hardwood floors, their track lighting and absence of rats.

I kept standing there until well after the sun was gone, waiting for a moon that didn’t come. I was thinking about the rats. How just because you didn’t see them, that didn’t mean they weren’t there, hidden below the floorboards. Scurrying, gnawing, biding their time. Waiting, perhaps, for the end of the world, when they would swarm out of the walls and into the open, gleeful and devouring and unafraid. When they would finally reap the reward of outlasting us as a species: a condo of their very own.


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Rachel Monroe's work has appeared in The Believer, Tin House, the New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives in Marfa, Texas. 

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