By Reilly Capps
He is often called the Monkey Wrencher, after the Edward Abbey novel where a bunch of Utards throw Greek fire at mining equipment. But forget that book — Tim DeChristopher (real), is so much better than the Monkey Wrench Gang (imaginary), for six main reasons, the greatest of which is mentioned last — results.
Did you read the Monkey Wrench Gang? Someone needed to tell Abbey: THIS IS BORING. You don’t need to wax poetic about the mountain, the type of rock it is, how it was formed as a kind of afterthought of the Lord. You just need to blow it up. DeChristopher barely looked at the land he was bidding on. He just snuck into the BLM lease, MacGyver style, and bought it, even though he was broke. (That this land happened to be as beautiful as La-La was luck.) He was St. George walking into the mouth of the dragon, and the fact that he later came up with a plan to actually buy the land just added to the drama. (DeChristopher could still get five years.)
All the characters in Monkey sound the same — painfully self-righteous. In the real world, where even the Kennedies are inarticulate, DeChristopher summarizes beautifully: “I’d been reading Vaclav Havel … and he said that the first and most important thing they did in resisting an oppressive regime was they just began to act as if they lived in a free and democratic society.”
3. Violence vs. nonviolence.
Abbey’s characters can light fuses and derail trains, but where’s the genius in lighting a match? Real-life ELF idjits can burn down SUV lots and ski lodges and achieve … what? … bunch of bad PR and pollution and, on the positive side, more work for rural carpenters. DeChristopher destroyed squat. How does it make sense, anyway, to save land by blowing it up?
In Abbey’s book, expletives always feel extra, thrown in, as if he’s trying to make these bleeding-heart characters seem more salt-of-the-earth. Tim, born in West Virginia, a Christian, church-goin’ man, uses few expletives, even when they are explicitly called for in such sentences as, “These were really unique parcels that would never have been available under any other administration other than Bush or Cheney. They were just trying to destroy as much as they could.”
5. Surprising characters.
Abbey’s are pure stock, cardboard cutouts, but Tim is a possible felon who studies economics and took drug-addicted kids on Outward Bound-style trips. How’s that for a surprising leading man? And his choice of lawyers was a non-sexual “Crying Game.” You’re expecting some Suby-driving gluten-allergic Chomskyite and out steps Pat Shea, Rhodes Scholar, skier and Clinton’s director of the BLM. “All of the environmental safeguards that we put in were simply thrown out wholesale,” says Shea. An agency that used to protect the land started trying its best to punch holes in it. How weird is it to have Shea defend a BLM saboteur? It’s as if Abe Lincoln came back to defend the Iraqi shoe-thrower.
6. The ending.
With the Monkey Wrench Gang, the best part was when it ended. Meanwhile, DeChristopher did that the Gang didn’t: he won. New Interior Secretary Ken Salazar threw out 77 parcels in the sale, including the ones DeChristopher bid on. You can be pretty sure the attention he brought to the issue had a lot to do with that decision.
That doesn’t mean DeChristopher is off the hook. I talked to him the other day, and he was still worried about prosecution.
If it comes to it, Shea will defend him in court using a Law and Order plotline: the “Choice of Evil” defense. DeChristopher’s choice of evils, he’ll say, was either a) let the environment get ravaged or b) commit fraud. “It’s not used very often,” Shea admits. “It would be a significant uphill battle.” But it could work. These leases were so outrageous, such a giant oil industry reach-around at the expense of Utahns and other human beings that a reasonable jury might see more evil in Bush than in DeChristopher (gee, tough sell). Especially if the jurors like poetry (which Abbey’s book lacked), and have read Terry Tempest Williams writing in the newspaper about the exact same oil and gas leases DeChristopher mucked up. She wrote:
“What is actually being sold is the soul of a nation, one public parcel at a time.”
Reilly Capps is a writer in Telluride, Colorado, who thinks that cheese is made of milk, streets are made of asphalt and climate change is human-caused. His email is email@example.com.