Catherine Ann spent 30 days living in an oak tree in bee tree holler on Coal River Mountain. On day 30, limited resources necessitated that she descend and continue the fight against strip mining from the ground. She began her decent in the morning, in the evening she was charged with trespassing and conspiracy and was released on her own recognizance. This is her story of that day.
I was determined not to get a littering charge.
I finally had everything down from the trees, and I kept checking in with security, anxiously, to see how likely I was to be able to get my things up the hill. The head of security had been checking in with these men even more anxiously: it seemed that every few minutes they demanded an update on my “status.”
This urgency didn’t make sense to me until I was finally on the ground, and my security guards radioed in to say so. The scratching voices on the other end then informed us that we were to stay exactly where we were: they had been waiting for me to get out of Becks’s tree so that they could blast, clearly somewhere very nearby. I imagined now that they must have eagerly scheduled a blast that morning as soon as they heard I was coming down, not realizing how long the whole process would take me. I probably delayed the blast for about an hour, and if I had known that such an explosion was waiting on my descent, I may have been tempted to cling to Becks’s tulip poplar, platform or no platform.
As soon as I was on the ground, security prepared for the blast by sitting down, and recommended that I follow suit so that I wouldn’t tumble down the steep slope when it went off. Soon after that, we felt the detonation shake the earth. I wished, not for the last time, that I were back in my oak.
I hoped that I could take multiple trips up the slope, eventually hauling all of the gear to the top. But to my dismay, a shout fell down from between the trees above, ordering me to come up and meet my arresting officer. I slung a small bag with my cell phone onto my back and grabbed the two heaviest buckets. As I labored up the slope, I was somewhat unimpressed about what people had been complaining about; the slope was steep, yes, but there were sturdy rocks to step on and it wasn’t long before I knew I was almost at the top. I noticed that the head of the small stream that smelled like a mechanic’s shop and flowed by Becks’s tree. It flowed from a jumbled path of boulders that lay below a scummy green pond held in a small impoundment. As I topped one of the mounds beside that pond, I was beset by the heavy heat and a vicious glare. I dragged the buckets, panting, beneath the small pop-up where I stood awkwardly for a moment beside my arresting officer and security personnel. Though aware that I must have been a spectacle, but I was too stunned to do anything about it, but instead stood squinting and swaying amidst the austere spread of this great white desert. Across the dusty expanse rose a wall of rock with large bore-holes in the black coal seam. I might have imagined that some fearsome creature lived in them, but this scalding plain seemed inhospitable to all life, even a mythical monster.
Officer Mitchell denied my request to collect the rest of the remnants of the treesit and carry them up hill; he was noticeably annoyed by what had been, for him, an eight-hour wait in the excruciating heat of the minesite. In order to convince me to abandon my things, he told me that I wouldn’t be charged with littering on their account. When I was cuffed and in the car, he said “I won’t charge you for the things at the base of the tree; what we will charge you for is the paper that was at the bottom of the tree when your friend came down. We got pictures of it.” This trick seemed to satisfy him a bit.
Perhaps more garrulous than usual after my long stint of relative solitude, I put a couple of questions to Mitchell as we wound along the dirt road down the mountain.
“No–I don’t mind if you ask that,” he began, “but I’m going to be perfectly honest with you: I’m sick and tired of these little stunts that you all do.” And he launched into a list of grievances, most the important things that he hadn’t been able to do that day because he was waiting on the minesite. He released a spate of angry words, some of which made more sense than others. “…and so I’d prefer if you’d just sit back there and keep your mouth shut.” I told him that I was sorry that he’d missed things waiting for me, and that next time we’d communicate better so that the police wouldn’t come out until they had to (this time around, we hadn’t called the police–mine security had).
We careened in silence along the highway toward Beckley, until I noticed a smashed-up gray car occupying two of the lanes; it looked like it had just stopped spinning from an accident of some kind. A woman whose face was stretched with trauma was stepping out of the door of the car, amid the smoke or dusk that had not yet dispersed. I didn’t see a second car.
To my surprise, my arresting officer sped right by this scene of obvious distress, mumbling intently into his radio. The green police SUV was going at quite the clip now, and I heard a siren outside of it. But there was no Doppler effect: I couldn’t tell whether the siren was approaching or retreating, as one usually can from the changing pitch, because the wavelength remained perplexingly steady. I then noticed that we were actually weaving in and out of traffic, and that a red pickup was doing the same thing a few hundred yards ahead of us. I was in a car chase.
Whatever else Officer Mitchell was, he was good at his job. He managed to maneuver the SUV in and out of traffic safely, while still maintaining a speed that allowed us to keep up with the small pickup that was swerving madly ahead. After spending a month in a 10ft x 20ft space, was delighted by this new speed, potential, anticipation. Soon we were gaining on the pickup, which eventually became trapped in a plug of traffic before an intersection. Under the red light, Mitchell pulled up beside the pickup and screamed at the driver, a woman with long blonde hair.
“YOU, PULL OVER!” He shouted while using his whole arm to point at her unmistakably.
“ME?” She screamed back, while making a violent jabbing motion toward herself with her arm that mimicked his. I could tell that she was using unnecessary volume, even though I could only read her lips. As soon as the light turned green the woman spun the pickup through it in a dramatic arc that terminated in the bank of the road that left the intersection on our right.
Mitchell got out of the car, drew his pistol, and pointed it at the red pickup while screaming.
“GET OUT OF THE CAR.”
She did, with a sluggishness fed by confusion, pain, and fear.
“GET ON THE GROUND.”
When she had done so, Mitchell walked backwards to the SUV and opened the door to the back, where I still sat. He removed my handcuffs.
“Stay here unless you need to leave. You can leave the van if you feel like you are in danger. Do you understand?” I told him I did and he returned to the woman on the ground and handcuffed her.
“I came back to take your cuffs off for two reasons,” he told me later, “one was that I didn’t want you to be stuck in the car if anything bad happened; the other was that I only had one pair of handcuffs.”
“Alright,” said Mitchell, “you see this girl here? She won’t give you no problems if you don’t give her any.” He finally got her, cuffed and protesting, to sit in the seat across from me. Large scrapes ran up her legs and very far up one of her thighs, where her short-shorts were rolled up. Scabbed abrasions also darkened other parts of her body, and by their varying states of repair I could tell that she had earned them on more than one occasion. At least one set, I later learned, were the result of a drunken ATV accident.
Now other police cars had arrived on the scene, and while they examined the truck (which had been stolen from someone in North Carolina), my fellow arrestee questioned me. She strayed from moods of anger, to defiance, to a sadness in which I could tell that some kind of awareness breached, and she understood for just a moment what she had done and what might happen to her.
“Five years” she said in a voice hoarse with despair, “My seventh DUI. They’ll put me in Prison for five years.”
Although she wouldn’t give her name to the cop, (“why don’t you find it out? that’s your job.”) I soon learned it when he came back to the car (“How’s that for finding out, Louise Blizzard?”). It seemed that Louise’s experience was simultaneously exaggerated and diluted by whatever intoxicant was in her system. Eventually she asked, with a certain camaraderie, what they had me for.
“Well, I’ve been living in a tree for the past month, trying to stop the strip mining that’s happening on Coal River Mountain…” Louise shot me a look of such utter confusion (something I imagined that she didn’t need more of right now) that I abandoned my explanation and left it at “trespassing.” I felt guilty to be in a much less grave situation than she, and groped about for the commonality that I knew she was looking for.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “He yelled at me, too.”
* * *
Back at the jail, Mitchell took me into a room to process me first, leaving Louise on the bench outside, possibly cuffed to it. I gave him my information, to the sound of occasional obscenities that flew in toward Mitchell from the bench.
“I wanted to apologize to you for what I said earlier” he said, “we try to treat people good here and, well, I wanted to apologize with how I was with you earlier.” Surprised, I accepted his apology and reiterated mine. He continued to process my information.
“I’m not going to charge you with littering” he said, “just trespassing and conspiracy.” I was fascinated that he had made this concession, which had seemed a matter of principle–even if the principle was just stubbornness–for both of us. He asked a few questions about what I’d observed while he was pulling Louise over. It seemed that he wasn’t trying to pin her with evasion, although that wouldn’t have seemed unreasonable to me: I had heard him say into his radio that they didn’t need to raise the level of alarm, that she had pulled over when she saw him.
“I was wondering if you could do something for me. You don’t have to–but I was wondering if you would be willing to write a statement on what you saw today.” This statement, he said, would lend his testimony more credibility.
Perhaps it was still just a game.
* * *
As we walked into the building that housed magistrates’ offices, where I would share a cold cell and my sweatshirt with Louise, I heard Mitchell talking on the phone. It sounded like he was sharing an important idea with someone close to him.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot… and we’re all just people. We’re all human, and we have our flaws as much as anyone… but we have to remember what we have in common.”
I will never know whether Mitchell’s kindness was the result of shrewd strategy or sincere philosophy. I will also never fully understand how Louise could hand me a sweatshirt out of empathy for my chill when she had left two women injured in their car just a few hours before. I don’t even know that my motivation for living in a tree for a month was fed by a love for the innate value of humans and mountains, and not just by a hunger for excitement and recognition.
Human character is like a scale glinting in the sunlight. A glance from one angle reveals one color; a small shift produces quite another. And while many colors exist together simultaneously, the truth doesn’t seem to be a blend of their tones, but a paradoxical multifariousness that defies capture or understanding. I can only try to seek pure motivation, knowing that there is plenty to be found.