By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Terry looks weary. "Stayed up most of the night. Working security again," he offers by way of explanation. He stretches his long legs and takes another swig of his late-morning coffee. To his allies here at the Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment, Terry--a 42-year-old North Dakota native, part Ojibwe, part Dakota--is known as Ten Bears. It's the handle he uses over the walkie-talkie when he keeps watch over the camp, looking for signs of police or interlopers or any other sort of trouble. Despite the general preference for so-called forest names here, Terry seems to be content to be called just Terry.
We are sitting in a pair of office chairs just outside the communal kitchen, a partially covered, open-air octagon cobbled together from scrap plywood and pallets. There is a fire smoldering in the cooking pit, which is ringed by prep tables, cabinets stuffed with dry goods, and a stack of plastic coolers marked "vegan only!". Unwashed dishes have been collected into a heap, awaiting the attention of a volunteer. The walls of the kitchen are inscribed with slogans: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," "Earth First! Was Here," "Parks Not Pork." An information table sits nearby, covered with stacks of photocopied literature explaining the camp's crusade: to halt the rerouting of Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis and put a stop to the massive new four-lane highway that is slated to run smack through the center of camp, through the middle of the stand of four old bur oaks that gave this camp its name.
It's been slow around camp for the last few days. No demonstrations. No arrests. I had first come here in mid-July expecting some measure of bacchanalian excess--the "no drugs or alcohol" sign posted at the camp's entrance notwithstanding. A good share of the campers who stay here regularly--as few as ten at times, up to thirty other nights--are young rebel types, with wild hair and shredded clothes and enough ox rings and studs to implode an airport metal detector. Surely, I thought, the recipe for a party. And yet, in the course of my visits to Four Oaks, I found camp life quite serene, very nearly dull after eight months running.
On this hot late-August day, a dozen or so people are milling around, not doing much in particular. As a small group of ragtag kids--late teens, early 20s--dig into a late brunch, Terry settles into his seat to while away the time. All of a sudden one of the kitchen loiterers, a guy--maybe 20, with a streak of magenta ina his hair, a nose ring, and a rakish smile--scrambles atop the old yellow school bus parked at the center of camp. His face is covered with a veil, revolutionary style. He begins to gyrate wildly, and bellow out some inchoate credo, which he punctuates with a fist in the air, a power-to-the-people salute. He's wearing a pair of Depends Adult Undergarments. (As it turns out, he later explains, adult diapers are one of the more useful weapons in the arsenal of these activists, kept on hand here in the event that someone needs to quickly "lock down" to a tree or a bulldozer.) As he wraps up his routine, takes a bow and hops off the roof, the audience guffaws at the high jinks appreciatively, then returns to the business of the day, which, apparently, consists of some more hanging out.
"You know," Terry says, looking on with an expression of amusement, "I think these Earth First! kids have great values. I tease 'em about being vegan and everything, but I respect them. They're easy to love. I'm glad they're here." In earlier conversations, Terry had spoken with conviction about the significance of this once obscure spit of forest and field, situated on the western bluff of the Mississippi River, a stone's throw to the south of Minnehaha Park and a hundred yards or so east of the existing Hiawatha Avenue corridor. His ruminations on the topic had invariably led back to carefully constructed arguments laying out the reasons the state's Department of Transportation ought to scuttle its plans to pave over the camp land--arguments that revolved around claims by the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (a tribe not formally recognized by the federal government) that this is a sacred site, a place of mystical importance.
For many of those who stay here, the decision to come to Four Oaks represents a first foray into direct-action politics. "I'd never done anything like this," Terry says, echoing an oft-heard refrain around the grounds. Because I've found Terry an easy guy to talk to, less dogmatic and circumspect than many of the other campers, I press him to tell me about his life before he became Ten Bears, before he gave up his apartment in Mankato and his job as welder, and, in his words, "put everything else on hold" to live here. Besides, I was curious less about the political motivations of the campers--a topic examined at length in the course of the noisy yearlong campaign against the road--than the peculiarities of the camp itself, the life that people had carved for themselves on this spot.