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Street Theater

Puppet Politics

Can a giant puppet head change the world? David Solnit thinks so. The 39-year-old carpenter and community organizer is part of the Art and Revolution Collective, a San Francisco–based group that has expanded demonstrators’ standard arsenal of protest signs and chants to include masks, skits, pageantry, and oversize puppets. The resultant carnival atmosphere adds levity and pointed humor to otherwise sober protests. But the activists also have a serious purpose: The spectacle brings to light complicated issues like trade globalization, helps grab much-needed media attention, and even mellows police and calms crowds.

One of several loose-knit groups of "puppetistas," Art and Revolution first unveiled its masks, one-act plays, drums, and puppets on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic Convention in 1996. That event featured one of the group’s most elaborate puppets ever, the 21-foot-tall Corporate Tower of Power, a headless, necktie-clad business executive perched atop a model skyscraper emblazoned with corporate logos. Eventually, the CEO toppled, revealing painted scenarios of the group’s ideas for a better world. (Because of overhead trolley and electrical lines, you won’t find a puppet taller than about 12 feet these days.)

While giant puppets capture spectators’ attention, skits inform and encourage involvement. A recent Art and Revolution event at a Chevron Texaco refinery in Richmond, California, was called "Alice in Oil-land" and featured a spoken-word artist and a hand-cranked device resembling a low-tech television set. The skit told the story of the global oil industry and how it ultimately affects people’s lives on the streets of Richmond ("without sounding like a two-hour college lecture," Solnit points out). At the show’s conclusion, dancers unfurled banners calling for safer and cleaner alternatives, such as "renewable energy," "reverence for the earth," and "restorative justice." Art and Revolution also held "art parties" in the community called "Another World Is Paintable," where kids covered four-by-five-foot canvas squares with their visions of the future and then carried them to the entrance gate of what they had dubbed the "Toxico" refinery.

Sitting in his group’s San Francisco warehouse surrounded by papier-mâché "Frankenfood" monsters, oil dinosaurs, and endangered coho salmon, the lanky, goateed Solnit says, "The idea is to open up political space for everyone to take power, by talking at the heart and gut level" and making protest "fun, participatory, and rich in culture." Only then, he says, can we "break through the corporate media." (As it turns out, the techniques that capture spectators’ attention are irresistible to the media, too: Few things appeal more to a roving news photographer than an ornate giant puppet head. Knowing this, savvy puppeteers adorn their creations with prominent signs, thus ensuring that "WTO Trades Away Our Forests" becomes the real photo caption, no matter what a newspaper editor may eventually write.)

Solnit shows off storyboards used to choreograph a coho salmon "die off" held in front of a California Department of Fish and Game office in 1998. Working with local activist groups fighting the Maxxam Corporation’s logging plans for the Headwaters Forest in Northern California, he coordinated dancers and other volunteers who trained for an hour or so before the demonstration. Then, with Solnit narrating, the "denizens of the forest" assumed their roles as salmon or murrelets or carriers of a broad blue banner that represented rivers imperiled by logging debris; on cue they flew, swam, and flowed along the streets of Eureka, California. Recruiting was easy. After all, Solnit says, "would you rather attend a planning meeting, or a puppet-making workshop?"

Most recently Art and Revolution and other groups took on the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks in Miami. (See "Lay of the Land," page 14.) The Miami City Commission was so anxious about an invading army of artists that it tried to pass a temporary resolution banning the activists’ puppets. Solnit found the overreaction ridiculous, and confirmed his belief that his cadre of street protestors has a secret weapon: "We have more fun than they do." —Reed McManus


Griz Lit

Our relationship with bears is one complicated emotional tangle. We have feared, hated, loved, played with, captured, hunted, tortured, adopted, eaten, and worshiped them. We even put baby down snuggling with a tamed and fuzzy teddy. It’s not surprising, then, that different writers approach the grizzly bear from wildly different perspectives: Some interact; others chronicle the history of interaction; and some watch with immense, reverent patience. A wonderful example of the last is Grizzlies in the Mist, by Chuck Neal (Homestead Publishing, $14.95). Veteran bear scientist Neal draws on some 3,000 observations of grizzlies in Yellowstone and vicinity to give a sense of the bear’s remarkable character—especially its versatility. He depicts the fearsome predator maneuvering its six-inch claws to tickle up delicacies like ants, moths, beetles, bees, and grasshoppers. He describes those same claws churning up an acre of land to find tasty roots. Then he revels in the switch from gourmet to scavenger, tracking a bear that uses its incredible sense of smell to locate carrion two miles away.

Neal does a fine job of showing the bears’ connection to their habitat, enlivening the account with on-the-ground descriptions. Of a mother bear he writes: "She rapidly gained on the frantic and dispersing bison, who seemed to be astonished as well as startled. Within a few yards of the nearest bison she went into a half-upright posture, actually running a few steps on her hind legs. She threw her front legs wide apart in a gesture just as a man might do while attempting to haze a herd of curious cattle. Her great ivory claws flashed in the gentle rainfall."

Neal finds bear management inadequate to ensure survival, and concludes with a plea for roadless areas, migration corridors, and support for the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which is languishing in Congress. Because it shows how much a love of the wild can deepen human experience, the book itself is a compelling argument for such protections.

Unlike Neal’s work, Grizzly Seasons: Life With the Brown Bears of Kamchatka, by Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns (Firefly Books, $29.95), uses a Jane Goodall strategy. Whereas Neal literally apologizes to bears for intruding, Russell and Enns settle near a lake in Russia’s vast Kamchatka Peninsula, the best bear country in the world because of its isolation (the Soviets had kept it that way to conceal their military operations). Russell and Enns adopt orphaned bears from a zoo, raise them from infancy, and reintroduce them into the wild. Thus they develop an astounding physical intimacy with the bears, in a sense becoming bears themselves, "parenting" the cubs by feeding them, walking out with them to explore, and even helping them find food. The result is a rich collection of photographs of bears hunting, loafing, growling; close-ups reveal moods from perturbed to whimsical. Although Enns and Russell lived in constant contact with bears, they are by no means advocates of the practice. Like Neal, they advise the rest of the world not to intrude into bears’ territory.

Respectful interaction as a key to averting attacks by bears was discovered long ago by Native Americans and by Euro-Americans in their earliest encounters, as we learn from scores of firsthand historical accounts inBear in Mind: The California Grizzly (Heyday Books, $60), edited by Susan Snyder. She has assembled a vast collection of photos, illustrations, and stories, including Indian fables and myths; Spanish tales of encounters and hunts; reports of slaughter by miners, farmers, and professional hunters, and of the killing of the last grizzly in the state in 1908. The accounts are by turns folksy, wry, angry, puzzled, and comical. But what many have in common is the tendency to attribute human feelings to the bear. Typical is the adventure of one Don José Ramon Carrillo, who fell into a ditch with his horse and the bear he was pursuing (with lassos, the favored Spanish hunting method), but then boosted the bear out by pushing him up from the rear: "The bear having the good sense to rightly appreciate this friendly assistance, struggled forward, got out, and scampered away, leaving the horse and his master to climb out as best as they could."

Snyder wraps up this big volume with scientific accounts and an interesting discussion of California’s paradoxical relationship with the grizzly. When the territory was seized from Mexico by U.S. colonizers in 1846, they put an image of the bear on their flag (and it remains on the official state flag). Unlike the Indians and Spaniards, the wave of newcomers soon became savagely bent on exterminating the bear, "set on evicting the grizzlies from every inch of the state."

While no one today would dare talk of extinguishing the grizzly, it remains imperiled by old frontier attitudes: exaggerated fear, unbridled demand for resources, and insistence on muscling in on grizzly space. Snyder’s book helps us recognize these outmoded stances and resurrects a more accommodating approach, making it a welcome addition to the lore of the grizzly. —Bob Schildgen

New from Sierra Club Books

Animal Heart, by Brenda Peterson, combines suspense, love, and cutting-edge research in a novel that explores the bonds between humans and animals. Drawing on her work with dolphins and other sea mammals, the author of the acclaimed novel Duck and Cover uses fiction to make science alive and accessible in a way few writers can.

More Information Order this book from the Sierra Club Store by phone, (415) 977-5600; through our Web site,; or by writing the store at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105.

At A Glance

Looking for the Summer by Jim Brandenburg NorthWord Press, $34.95

A painted turtle considers a portage around a waterfall in Minnesota’s North Woods. The colorful adventurer is joined by dozens of fellow denizens in Brandenburg’s photographic exploration of the region’s diverse landscapes and lakeshores.

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