Christine Grillo is a science writer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; her work has appeared in Audubon, The New York Times, and the Utne Reader.
For the past year, environmental protesters have led an “aerial blockade” of tree-sitters along a proposed natural gas pipeline in the Appalachian Mountains.
For almost five months, Phillip Flagg has been living in a chestnut oak tree 50 feet above the ground. His home is a four-by-eight sheet of plywood, a little larger than a typical dining room table, that is lashed to the oak’s boughs. Since going aloft on October 12, he has not set foot on the ground.
Below him there’s small group of about a dozen scrupulously anonymous young people who take care of Flagg’s basic human needs. They’re all here to halt the construction of a natural gas pipeline in rural Elliston, in the Virginia highlands near Roanoke. For many of them, organizing, staffing, and supporting long-term eco-protests like this is as a way of life.
Unlike his campmates, Flagg, a 24-year-old native of Austin, Texas, doesn’t mind revealing his identity. Before Yellow Finch, as this particular tree-sitting exercise is called, he participated in two other “action camps.” He was also at Standing Rock, the much-publicized protests that erupted in 2016 in an effort to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. But that doesn’t really count, he insists: “Everyone was at Standing Rock.”
The Yellow Finch action camp, named after a nearby road, is trying to block the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a 300-plus‐mile underground pipeline that would transport natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” from shale in the Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and New York. The natural gas is heading to southern Virginia and ports further south, for export to energy markets in the U.S. and overseas. But legal challenges mounted by groups like the Sierra Club have delayed pipeline construction, and hundreds of local landowners along the pipeline’s route have already had tracts of land seized by eminent domain when they refused to sign easements that would allow Mountain Valley to proceed.
Yellow Finch is the latest in a series of tree-sits, or “aerial blockades,” of MVP, with the first beginning in February 2018. It may also be the longest ongoing blockade for this project, so far. About eight others have occurred at different sites along the pipeline route, supported by organizations such as Appalachians Against Pipelines; all have been shut down through legal processes.
But Yellow Finch endures, in defiance of Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC, and the elements. In his months in the treetops, Flagg has so far endured single-digit temperatures, snowstorms, ice, rain, and even a hurricane. He’s protected only by tarps and a rain fly, leaving him just enough room to stand up under the peak. He worries about lightning strikes, but only “in a sort of vague way,” he says. “I’ve never heard of a tree-sit being struck by lightning.”
In a nearby white pine, he has a neighbor who chooses to remain anonymous; this, says Flagg, is his “tree buddy.”
To Flagg and his cohort, an “activist” is a broad term that can include people who live and toil in the mainstream and go to marches. What the Yellow Finch camp does represents a different level of commitment to direct action. “I do activism,” he says, “but I wouldn’t call myself an activist.” They offer up another label for who they are—“dirty kids.” But they take pains to distinguish themselves from dirty kids who do drugs and go to music festivals. “We look like them, but we actually do stuff,” one protester tells me.
Flagg explains to me why he’s here: “We’re actively creating a different world while simultaneously fighting the dominant culture,” he says.
And the world they’ve built here in the wintry woods offers a kind of sylvan idyll, a temporary utopia of the donated and scavenged. For the young people who choose to call it home, an eco-protest encampment can also serve as a kind of intentional community for aficionados of off-the-grid living.
“We don’t pay rent; we don’t buy food; we don’t have jobs,” says another protester, my guide on my visit to Yellow Finch. “We’re real happy.”
Tree-sitting as a form of civil disobedience is at least 50 years old. During the late 1980s and 1990s, environmental activists in Northern California famously used the tactic to stall logging projects in old-growth redwood forests; one celebrated tree-sitter, Julia Butterfly Hill, maintained her vigil for two years. The protesters’ assumption, of course, was that the loggers would not fell trees if it endangered human lives. In 1998, one protester was killed by a falling tree.
The last Northern California tree-sitter came down in 2008, having outlasted the timber company. Over the decades that protesters and loggers played cat-and-mouse in woods, tree-sitting has evolved with a set of practices intended to keep protesters safe. (The creation of the Earth First! climbers’ guild established better safety protocols and tips for rigging structures to trees.) In the 1980s, tree-sits were not always as well supported on the ground as they are today; these days, sits have support camps from Day One.
In 2019, at Yellow Finch, the game works like this: The pipeline company has rights to the easement, but not the land directly adjacent to it. The tree-sits are on the easement, and the action camp has stationed itself entirely off the easement on private property.* Because of the tree-sits, MVP has halted construction, and the company is trying to use eminent domain to have them removed legally, while also seeking an injunction from federal court.
Yellow Finch was established in September, as part of a loose network of tree-sits and support camps that have sprung up in the forests along the MVP route. According to Flagg, some of the volunteers and equipment came to Elliston from an earlier support camp in Giles County, Virginia, where a woman lived in a monopod—a kind of pole-mounted protest perch. The campaign, Flagg says, emerged organically, without founders or leaders. “The blockades move and we move, not necessarily all together, and not necessarily to the same places. People come in and out as they please.”
It’s not so much of a community, he says, as it is a lifestyle.
The number of action-camp residents varies from month to month, but holds steady somewhere between nine and 12 at any one time. They use propane and campfires to cook, and they heat dishwater over a fire. There are about half a dozen tents spread across a steep, muddy hill, protected by tarps. In the center there’s an open‐air, covered area created by more than a dozen tarps tied to trees—downtown Yellow Finch, as it were. “We call this Tarpington Heights,” says one of the campers. “Because of all the tarps.”
After six months, Yellow Finch looks like any other long‐term campsite in the woods; there are benches, and worktables and plastic wash basins, and a rack for hanging pots and pans rigged with ropes from tree limbs. There’s a spice rack and shelves holding condiments, salad dressing, and jelly. Piles of firewood are everywhere. Hanging out on the compost pile, where it’s probably nice and warm, is a grey tabby.
Most of their food, including a couple cases of Arizona Iced Tea, is donated by local supporters—professors and students from nearby Virginia Tech, along with area farmers, residents, and others who oppose the pipeline. They bring cooked meals, beverages, cake, and the occasional tank of propane. Over the holidays, they brought the protesters a roasted turkey.
What food isn’t donated comes from the dumpsters located behind nearby grocery stores and restaurants. “If we’re out driving for any reason,” says one of the campers, “I’ll get the driver to pull in behind the grocery store so we can do some dumpster-diving.” The one behind Panera is where the best scores are made. For drinking water, they draw and treat water from a nearby creek, or just use rain. “It’s amazing,” says one of the campers. “All this water just falls from the sky.”
Perhaps surprisingly, there are no guitars in Yellow Finch, but there is a ukulele. Several inspirational signs hang on trees. One of them is a ceramic plaque with faux-Celtic lettering: “It Is What It Is.”
“We found that in a dumpster,” says my guide.
During the day, the action campers keep busy chopping wood, cooking three meals a day (everyone eats together, including the two tree-sitters) and scrounging supplies.
Nothing here has been built onto the land or trees—no nails, no construction—to avoid running afoul of local regulations. The tree platforms are affixed to the chestnut oak and the white pine by what’s called a “wrap 3, pull 2 anchor,” which uses webbing and friction. “It’s in the Direct Action Manual,” Flagg says, referring to the Earth First! guide to non-violent protest techniques.
Living in a tree 24/7 is an austere existence. For food, water, and other essential supplies, he uses plastic buckets, 14 to be exact, hanging on rope and pulley systems, as well as plastic water jugs. A solar panel rigged to the structure provides enough power for him to recharge his sole electronic device, which he refers to as a “shitty phone.”
“There’s a bucket for every conceivable need,” he says. Three times a day, someone from camp uses a bucket to deliver a meal. One bucket is designated for medical supplies such as over-the-counter pain relievers. Another is for hygiene, and another is for books. The last bucket is what he calls the “poop bucket.” He uses baby wipes to wash himself, but never his whole body all at once. I ask him if that’s because of the cold. “More like because I’m lazy.” He brushes and flosses every night.
He spends a lot of time just lying down and thinking. He reads a lot of books. Lately he’s been doing push-ups and squats for exercise. Using a data plan paid for by a supporter, he’s watched all the available Bob Ross videos and has recently begun watching The Wire.
When I ask if he gets bored, he tells me that he’s almost never bored, whether in a tree or on the ground. “I think I’ve been bored once or twice up here,” he says. When I ask about loneliness, he says that he’s not really a lonely person. Like anyone, he says, “I felt lonely sometimes before I was in the tree,” he says, “and I’ll feel it sometimes after I come down.”
He sleeps inside a sleeping bag inside another sleeping bag. For a while in the fall, mice came onto Flagg’s platform at night, and he’d scare them off. Then he got dryer sheets, and that seems to be repelling them. Despite the cold and rain, he has not been sick once since taking to the tree. He ascribes that to the lack of direct human contact—no germs.
Flagg’s mother sends him worried texts. “She worries that I’m going to die,” he says. But his most of his communication with the outside world is with his campmates below, via walkie‐talkie; without them, he’s helpless. “I feel like I get unconditional acceptance from ground support,” he says.
Camp life, say the residents, is peaceful. “There’s a wild lack of conflict,” one camper tells me.
“Everything happens organically here,” says my guide. “It’s kind of miraculous.”
In other communal or collective living situations they’ve been in, there are usually “at least two people fighting,” says one of the action campers. But not here. “When someone wants to leave, they just leave. We don’t pay rent, so it’s not a big deal.”
Despite the general good humor, threats lurk in the world beyond Tarpington Heights. The campers fear harassment by MVP or law enforcement; they take turns standing watch—what they call “gate shift,” during which one person watches the dirt road (there is no actual gate) for unexpected visitors while snuggled up with disposable hand warmers or a hot-water bottle.
Anonymity is infused in everything the protesters do—they worry that if their names and identities were known, information about them would be aggregated in fusion centers established by the Department of Homeland Security to, in DHS’s language, “detect, prevent, investigate, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.”
The residents of Yellow Finch are also acutely aware that they are not alone in these woods: Across the way, on the MVP easement, there’s another, much smaller encampment, close enough to see through the trees.
“Would you like to meet our visitors?” my guide asks.
I follow her up a muddy hill on the easement. It snowed a couple days ago, and despite my respectable snow boots I’m slipping up the wooded slope. At the top, I find a pair of men dressed in field jackets and khakis beside a small tent.
“We call these guys Trent and Brent,” she says. “They’re the day shift.”
“Trent” and “Brent” are private security officers hired by the pipeline company. They have what is surely the misfortune of being handed the responsibility of standing next to their Walmart tent for twelve hours every day to monitor the protesters until they’re replaced by the overnight shift. Sometimes at night, the guards shine bright lights into the camp.
This stand-off is part of the mutually observed rules of engagement between protesters and pipeline-makers. Trent and Brent remain silent while my guide talks about them, in front of them. “We’re not sure,” she says, “but we think they’re making waaaay less than $12 an hour.”
The security guys have a small generator and some fuel cans; my guide tells me they have a propane heater in their tent. On really cold days, she tells me, a co-worker might come by to bring them fast-food coffee. Somehow she has learned that for bathroom needs, they have a bucket with a toilet seat they lay on top. “They use it inside the tent,” she says.
“Here’s the light they shine on our tree‐sitters at night,” she says, pointing to a spotlight aimed upwards and across the easement. “It’s pretty puny. The tree-sitters don’t even notice it.” She tells me that she feels badly for them because they’re pawns in a dirty corporate game that will exclude them from any profits the pipeline makes, if it ever gets built. Trent and Brent barely move.
Soon three young men from action camp clomp through the mud to join us. Through a megaphone, they begin reading aloud from “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” a 2013 essay by David Graeber. “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working,” they read.
Flagg says that he too sometimes yells over to the rent-a-cops. “Just random things to fuck with them,” he says. “But I really pity them. Their lives seem absolutely miserable.”
After about half an hour, the megaphone kids return to camp. They didn’t succeed in getting any reaction Brent and Trent, but they did kill some time. The snow that was in the stockpot over the fire when I arrived is now hot enough for washing dishes, and the campers happily get to washing.
Just how long this will go on is a mystery. The kids are optimistic that they’ll ultimately prevail; MVP has already delayed the project by a couple of years. But the U.S. District Court in Roanoke has ruled several times in the company’s favor over the last year regarding other tree-sits. Yellow Finch is now waiting for the judge to decide about an injunction that would put the two tree-sitters in contempt of court; if that goes through, federal marshals could be brought in to forcibly remove Flagg and the white-pine sitter. (Mountain Valley did not respond to a request for comment from CityLab.)
The protesters say they intend to fight to the end. And if they lose their perch here, there will only be more tree-sits, and more support camps. Flagg says he’d like to visit with family and go to a friend’s wedding this summer. But he’s in no hurry to come down.
“I think Mountain Valley will run out of money and give up,” he says. “I think we’re going to win.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the tree-sitters were not located on the MVP easement.