The Tree-Sitter
Suzanne Matson
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Buy *The Tree-Sitter* by Suzanne Matson

The Tree-Sitter

Suzanne Matson
W.W. Norton
224 pages
February 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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Julie Prince is totally besotted when she first meets the charismatic Neil one weekend at a University frat party. Neil is a left-of-center Ph.D. student studying the economics of deforestation on old-growth forests, but he also has a predilection for activism. He is preparing to go to Oregon during the summer months to help with a planned sit-in by a group of like-minded protesters.

From the moment she meets him, Neil touches something completely different within Julie. It is not just his powerful sexual allure that seduces her but also the fact that in every word he says, his conviction is a palpable, almost physical force: "it's like their hungers merge into one hunger." Julie's lawyer-mother Ginnie, however, mistrusts this naive young man who is all too willing to place civil disobedience and the willful destruction of property above political jurisprudence.

Dismissing Neil and his ilk as "impressionable fanatics," Ginnie only wants the best for Julie, and she worries whether her daughter is making the right decision in hooking up with this smart but overly idealistic young man. Ginnie's intellectual pragmatism and her willingness to fight the system from within the system make her all too aware that life needs to be built out of compromise, not hair-brained activism.

Julie is fraught over her relationship with her over protective mother "who battles around inside her head, whether she wants her there or not." Pressured by the weight of Ginnie's longings for Julie to be the perfect person she had in mind, Julie refuses to listen to her mother's qualms. Armed with enough money from a trust fund established by her late grandfather, she embarks on this romantic road-trip adventure with Neil, full of idealism, convinced that they will both be able to change the world.

Upon arrival in Oregon, Julie and Neil camp out with the protesters and change their names. Moved by the practical beauty of the woods, Julie feels the trees alive beneath her, part of a tapestry of forest branches filtering slanted, always-changing light, "a feeling of being woven into the tree's purpose and place." With Neil she begins to feel marooned, in a lovely way: everything elemental and natural, no static from anyone else's expectations. It is in Neil's presence day and night, his smell, and his smile, that his voice grows into her very consciousness, "the boundaries between them becoming indistinct and blurry."

The loggers try to anger and intimidate group, determined to proceed with the felling, ignoring the boundaries of the "clear cut." The attitude and damage they are willingly causing enrage Julie, and she begins to see the forest as contested ground, each tree like a child in a custody battle. When she eventually gets to tree-sit and sees the clear-cut zone, "stubbed only with stumps and discarded branches, the barrenness so authoritative and total," her commitment to the cause becomes complete.

Julie throws herself into supporting Neil's fervor based on his arguments for preservation, which seem irrefutable and overwhelming. But as she is asked to do more, she progressively comes up against what this kind of idealism means in practical costs. As Neil finally declares his love her, she is asked to participate in the well-placed bombing of a car dealership, and she begins to realize that at rock-bottom, she is not as committed as everyone else seems to be - or as she thought she was.

Julie realizes that the level of protest and civil disobedience necessary to change the course of government or business is just too immense, but Neil and his activist friends see these measures as the only way to shine the spotlight of truth on destructive and deceitful corporate interests. To them it is the power of shock and disruption, the genuine violent change, offered as an option available to all. Julie thinks that their plan to bomb innocent people is nothing more than terrorism, an activity that can only lead to certain death and futile destruction.

In languid and sensual prose, author Suzanne Matson skillfully explores the moral puzzle, the line that inevitably forms between activism and terrorism. Julie begins to see the dangers of becoming integrated with a group like this, but everyday involvement makes it harder for her to walk away. She is falling for Neil, but when she first began the passionate relationship with him, she had attempted to compartmentalize, deceiving herself that these two worlds, the worlds of love and activism, would never violate each other.

Julie finds herself caught up an emotional and moral dilemma of her own making. The forests of Oregon are undeniably saturated in opaque light, and her desire to have sex high atop the landscape in the branches of the redwoods is made all too real. But the sense of danger, and the commitment to a cause about which she continues to harbor doubts, is insidious and all-encompassing.

Her mother tried to warn her that indulging in the reckless activities advocated by a man like Neil would be imprudent and downright irresponsible, but Julie just can't help herself. She succumbs to youthful passion and idealism, and it is this mistake that ultimately changes her view of Neil and of this insular world that has so taken hold of her.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2006

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