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Lesotho RPCV Tim Ream - Starving for the Trees
Lesotho RPCV Tim Ream - Starving for the Trees
Starving for the Trees
by Alan Pittman
It's a Saturday evening nearly two months into Tim Ream's hunger strike against salvage logging. Ream sits on a foam pad on the rough concrete outside the federal courthouse at 8th and Pearl.
Elaine Weiss, a supporter, stoops down in her thick overcoat and wool hat to talk to him. "I brought you vitamins," she says.
"You know, I haven't had any vitamins in two weeks," Ream tells her. Weiss settles down to eye-level with Ream. "Will you take them?" she asks.
"I would take a half or a small piece of a multi-vitamin maybe," Ream says, pinching two fingers together. "Depending on what it looks like." Deep brown eyes look out from Ream's sunken cheeks. Bony angles jut from his gaunt, ruddy face.
Putting down the vitamins, an anti-logging magazine and a pint of carrot-wheat grass juice, Weiss walks away from the hungry man.
"Basically, [the savage logging rider] just said log, log, log, and those are the three priorities"
Thirty -three-year old Tim Ream has starved himself for more than 60 days. He says he's doing it for the ancient trees and the environment. In order to stay alive, he's consumed juice and clear broth, but nothing else. With all of his insulating body fat long gone and few calories to burn to keep him warm, he chills as the November evening fades over the concrete plaza. To keep his thin body warm as he talks, Ream hangs layers of clothing over his tall frame -- green sweats, a knit white sweater, two pairs of gloves. Then, rising on his Reebok shoes, Ream walks over to his pup tent on the plaza and crawls under the flap to put on another layer of long underwear. In a few minutes he's back on the backpack pad, pulling a gray wool hat over his dark, collar-length hair.
Rubbing his leg against the cold, Ream stops, squeezes and smiles. "Oh gosh, my leg is so skinny now," he says, and then laughs.
Ream started his hunger strike on October 3. Involved in earlier protests against salvage logging, he was among a group of forest activists talking about the possibility of a hunger strike. One day, after hunger strike was mentioned in four separate conversations, Ream decided he was the one to take it on. "I felt a lot like the universe sent me to do this," he says. To get him eating again, Ream says, Congress would have to have another vote on the salvage rider -- this time as a single issue with open public debate. Last summer, conservative Republicans attached the salvage logging bill as a rider to a balanced budget bill. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. The measure suspended laws to allow salvage logging and clearcuts on timber sales that were held up in court because they would harm endangered species.
Environmental leaders, forest service employees and even Gov. John Kitzhaber have spoken against the salvage logging law, which Ream calls the "savage logging rider."
"Basically, [the rider] just said log, log, log, and those are the three priorities," he says. "In this country Congress seems to be run by one dollar one vote, and the timber industry has a lot of dollars. They bought themselves the ideal piece of legislation."
Many people question, however, what influence a singular dramatic act -- one man's hunger strike -- could have on legislation that has already become law. Perhaps even Ream, in the dark and cold middle-of-the-night, wonders if he'll have any long-lasting effect. Since a protest over a month ago that drew more than 300 people, Ream has received little press or organized attention.
Chris West, vice-president of the Northwest Forestry Association, for one, has no praise for the Ream's hunger strike. West says Ream's kind of environmental "hysteria" is misleading the public. And if Ream is consuming juice and broth, asserts West, it's really not much of a hunger strike. "I don't know what he's trying to prove," West says from his Portland office. "I don't think he's having an effect on anyone but himself and maybe the few people who believe as he does."
Ream's followers -- including his own mother, his girlfriend and a group of dedicated supporters -- says they do believe in Ream's decision, and plan to stick by him throughout the strike.
"He's about the most determined and driven and dedicated individual I know," says Ream's girlfriend Jess Burt. She says that despite months without solid food, Ream's speech remains clear and animated. "At this point I thought he would be in his sleeping bag all curled up and depressed, but he's not," she says. "He wakes up and he talks and talks and talks and then he goes to sleep. He's articulate even after all these days of not eating."
Kathy Rile, the woman who organized a "broth brigade" to make sure Ream has a warm drink every night, has also come to deeply admire the starving man. "The sinew that is in him really inspires everyone who comes in contact with him," she says.
"This whole idea of 'we need to save the planet' drives me nuts. We don't need to save it. We need to stop killing it"
Ream grew up in Chicago, the son of a social worker. The long-time Boy Scout took many camping trips with his parents. According to his mother, Carol Lent, Ream was focused and determined from an early age, and did well in school. He was individualistic, she says, but "he always cared more about other people than himself."
Ream worked his way through college studying to be a doctor. He earned degrees in chemistry and psychology, and went on to earn master's degrees in psychology and neurophysiology. Upon graduating, he decided against becoming a doctor and instead joined the Peace Corps. He traveled to southern Africa to teach math and science in a tiny village.
Ream's friend and fellow Peace Corps worker Tom Ostrum says he's not surprised by the hunger strike. He remembers how Ream organized a two-day fast in Lesotho, Africa that successfully raised funding for an ambitious reforestation campaign.
"He's always shown himself to be really committed," says Ostrum, who now lives in Seattle. For instance, he says, Peace Corps officials opposed the Lesotho fast, but "Tim stuck to his guns."
The two-year stint in the Peace Corps, and especially seeing people live with such scarcity, had a profound effect on Ream's life, says his mother. Lent recalls a discussion she had with her son about recycling soon after his return from Africa.
"I told him, 'Oh, Timothy, it's not going to make a difference,'" Lent says. Ream's reply was that it all starts with one person. That it's essential that there are people who believe in things and who will stand up for them.
After the Peace Corps, Ream took a job with the EPA. Working on implementing the Clean Air Act from offices in New York and North Carolina, Ream says he rose rapidly in the organization. His salary climbed from $30,000 to $50,000 in just over three years, but Ream says he left the governmental agency in frustration when he witnessed managers and politicians dilute the air protections he was working on.
From the EPA, Ream went to a Zen Buddhist center near San Francisco for a six-month retreat. "I just got a glimpse into, I don't know, the beautiful nature of sitting still and watching what goes on inside your head," he says. (On his current hunger strike, Ream daily uses the meditation techniques he learned to help refresh mind and body.)
After breaking off a seven-year relationship with a woman, Ream came to Eugene in March of this year to work on an organic farm near Cottage Grove. Over the summer, he became involved in demonstrating against salvage logging at the Warner Creek burn, a call to activism he did not take lightly. "The Peace Corps taught me how to live simply," Ream says. "And Buddhism has taught me to look deeply into my actions with more intent and awareness of the outcomes and effects of those actions."
That sense of asceticism gets to what Ream considers the heart of environmental destruction and may have shaped his decision to protest against salvage logging with starvation: "This whole idea of 'we need to save the planet' drives me nuts," he says. "We don't need to save it. We need to stop killing it. And we need to recognize that it's not government that's killing it. It's not industry that's killing it. It's consumption."
Ream's commitment to not consume food is a very serious one, says Shannon Wilson. Wilson began the hunger strike with Ream but gave up after 18 days when he became weak from losing 20 pounds. "It's basically a passion that keeps you going," he says. "He's determined to go as far as his body will let him."
"My voice is going to the president and to the Congress through the voices of all kinds of people who are hearing about the salvage logging rider through me"
Ream's tent sits beneath the American flag on the courthouse plaza. Above his encampment are the large windows of Judge Michael Hogan's corner office. Hogan is the conservative federal judge who has ruled with the timber industry in applying the salvage rider to thousands of acres of ancient forest throughout the northwest.
"In the courthouse, they eat popcorn and I can smell it," Ream says. He also smells the popcorn made by the fire fighters in City Hall. Some days, he catches whiffs of fresh-baked bread, though he's not sure where the bakery is.
"I'm feeling very hungry when I go to sleep," he says.
When he doesn't drink enough juice, he goes into a sugar crash. "My blood is kind of like, 'Yo, Dude!' What's going on here? We need something to eat!'"
Ream says he's past his last belt notch now. "As a Christmas present, I've asked for suspenders. So it doesn't even matter whether my pants are close to fitting, they'll just be held up by my shoulders."
Ream turns on the blue foam pad and reaches behind to feel the small of his back. "I still can feel that I have a little bit of fat on the back of my waist," he says, "but one more cold snap will probably eat that up. Once your fat is gone, that's when you officially enter into starvation. And you can only have a limited time after that."
Ream, who has no health insurance, says a doctor looked at him a couple of weeks ago and thought he was doing all right. "If I feel I am doing permanent damage to my body, I will stop," he says. "Hopefully, I will be clear enough to know what is happening."
Describing his weight loss, Ream pulls at his sweater. "Every once in awhile, I'll get some tightness in my chest, or somebody will mention something like my liver. And I'll say to myself: how do I feel my liver? How do I ask myself if my liver's OK?"
Those closest to Ream say they will trust his judgment as to how far he'll take the strike. "I have to have faith in what he tells me," says his mother. "Otherwise, I'd go crazy."
Ream's girlfriend says she's concerned, though "worrying is not the kind of support he needs." Burt says that right now, "he's definitely feeding off all the good energy people are giving him."
But Ream may know the end is near. Every four or five days he goes to his apartment to take a hot bath. When he's undressing, he has a good look at himself in the full-length mirror. "Every time it gets scarier and scarier," he says.
And, yet, Ream has faith that his decision was a correct one. He points out that he has talked to more than 1,000 people who have stopped by his tent. "My voice is going to the president and to the Congress, not through my own voice, but through the voices of all kinds of people who are hearing about the salvage logging rider through me."
Ream recalls an incident with a man who stopped at a nearby traffic light, looked over at the hunger striker and gave him the finger. Ream says he went over and explained that he is not against all salvage logging, just logging old-growth unprotected by environmental law. By the time the light turned green, Ream says, the man held up a fist and cheered him on.
"He certainly has captured the hearts and minds of a lot of people," says Kathy Rile. For instance, says Rile, almost a dozen sophomore girls from the Waldorf School camped out and fasted with Ream for two days in October.
And hundreds of people in Eugene, as well as a few in Washington state and around the country, are wearing green arm bands and fast in solidarity with Ream and the ancient trees every Tuesday noon to Wednesday noon.
Back at Ream's tent, as night falls, a father and his young daughter walk up to Ream's tent. They have brought hot broth.
"What we'll try to do is pour the clear stuff from the top and leave the solid stuff," says Ream to Jay Powers and his daughter Tara. Powers squats down to help Ream take mason jars out of a cooler. The two pour steaming miso into Ream's thermos bottle.
"Long live the forest," Powers says as he finishes.
"I hope," says Ream.