Originally published in 2000, A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle is a gripping, humorous and emotional novel which charts the life of committed eco-activist Ty Tierwater and his battles to confront humanity’s destruction of nature. I first encountered an excerpt from this book several years ago when reading the anthology I’m With The Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet. The chapter ‘The Siskiyou, July 1989’ was something of a revelation for me then, a powerful, slow-reveal vignette in which a man, his wife, young daughter and another set out under cover of night on an arduous and forlorn protest against the logging of the virgin Oregon forest. The horror builds as you realise not only of the protestors’ helplessness when confronted by the loggers and the local police, but also in the love of a father for his daughter as they endure the physical and psychological torment of their protest. Boyle captures both the comedy and torment of a father torn between the love of his daughter and his attempts to fight against humanity’s rampant ecocide. As I started to read A Friend of the Earth this last fortnight, I recalled this tale and realised that this was a novel that speaks directly to one of the key dilemmas of our time: how one makes sense of the destruction of the natural world.
The novel opens in the surreal Californian countryside of 2025; a land wracked by drenching storms and stifling heat – a climate in meltdown and a society fast unravelling. At this late stage in his life, Ty Tierwater is a cynical caretaker for a bizarre menagerie of exotic animals owned by a reclusive ex-pop star. Ty’s former wife Andrea re-enters his life as the zoo’s animals escape, and the novel then oscillates between defining moments in his life and his climate-shocked ‘present’.
A rollicking, satirical read, Boyle cleverly develops Ty’s life story around his growing disgust at humanity’s relentless destruction of nature. Initially a reluctant environmentalist, through Andrea’s influence he becomes a committed eco-warrior and under the weight of his failed protests and subsequent jail-time, his resolve hardens and his methods become more extreme. As Ty declares ‘to be a friend of the earth you have to be an enemy of the people’ (p.56). Modelled loosely on the example of eco-activist groups such as Earth First!, Boyle skilfully invests the story with the details and events of Ty’s mission; the species of owls, amphibians and trees that are endemic to the Oregon and Californian forests; the traffic jams and chaos of American suburban sprawl; the detailed process of ‘monkeywrenching’ the logging trucks and other machinery that Ty is at war with. The various defeats and humiliations he endures fail to dim his determination to change things, even if this means saving one small piece of the whole. As a result, Boyle creates a sympathetic anti-hero; an outsider reminiscent of the misanthropes in a Kurt Vonnegut or Carl Hiaasen novel.
Nor is this a simple morality tale. From Ty’s perspective, society is a consumerist nightmare, and the loggers, police and investigators are thugs and hypocrites. Yet, as in life, there are no neat happy endings, and Boyle emphasises the compromises and contradictions that underlie environmentalism. For instance, the co-option of increasingly corporatized environmental organisations is also neatly skewered, paralleling Naomi Klein’s more recent critique of ‘Big Green’.
While published seventeen years ago, A Friend of the Earth is more timely today than ever. In an era of climate crisis, the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry, and the election of a US President hell-bent on destroying what piecemeal environmental protections currently exist, there is much about this novel that resonates deeply. As Aldo Leopold (1949: 183) noted nearly seventy years ago:
‘one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds…[an ecologist] sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.’
In the unequal battle of the economy versus the environment, A Friend of the Earth captures many of the dilemmas faced by those aware of the harm we are unleashing on this planet; the lonely and often futile fight to try and limit our own creative self-destruction.
If you’re interested in the context and history of eco-protest in the Pacific northwest forests check out the excellent documentary If a Tree Falls (2011).
Image: ‘Last Stand’ by T.J. Watt