Heart of the Monster

[For more reviews from the Earth First Journal, click here]

Tearing out The Heart of the Monster: A literary voice rises against the tar sands

 A review of The Heart of the Monster: Why the Pacific Northwest & Northern Rockies must not become an ExxonMobil conduit to the Alberta tar sands, Published and distributed by All Against The Haul, 2010.

I picked this book up during the Earth First! Rendezvous this summer near Lolo Pass on the edge of Montana and Idaho and put it in my daunting stack of shit to read. A day later we stormed the Governors office and occupied the Montana capitol building in Helena. Six weeks later, thousands would descend on DC for two weeks straight of mass civil disobedience at the White House. I decided it was time to pull the book from my stack. And as I write this review, anti-tar sands organizers are in the midst of preparing for mass actions in Canada’s capitol, Ottowa, tomorrow.

Indigenous Leaders and author Naomi Klein Join Keystone Tar Sands Pipeline Protest

A defining mass movement of our times is underway. The presence of a book like Heart of the Monster is evidence that its roots are settling in for the long haul of a struggle, that the movement is nurturing a broad culture of resistance to fight from.

The book is divided up in two primary sections between co-authors David James Duncan and Rick Bass. The first section is part essay, part memoir mirroring the book’s title. It lays out the facts and statistics of tar sands impacts, touching on some possible options for local alternatives to the energy empire; the latter is presented as a “novella,” A Short History of Montana, with a narrative voice of someone who may or may not have worked as a former aide to a big–headed governor, and his border collie dog.

The Monster

“On April 8, 2008, the bodies of 1,606 dead waterfowl were scooped from a Syncrude tailings pond. Syncrude’s effluent “pond” is formed by the second largest dam on earth… the actual number of birds killed that morning, any morning, is impossible to determine because mired birds sink fast in the sludge. The bodies of moose and bear have been found in the same sludge. In May 2008, the same “pond” was responsible for the death of at least 500 ducks, but the kill was not reported by Syncrude…”   —David James Duncan, Heart of the Monster

Prior to reading the book, one would assume its title to be based on a simple cliché metaphor for industrialism and the oil economy. But there is more to it than that, as Duncan explains: “To reach Alberta, ExxonMobil’s Tar Sands cargo will creep within fifty feet of an ancient basalt formation known to the Nez Perce people as “The Heart of the Monster.”[p. 113] He goes on to tell the details

Heart of the Monster Image Courtesy of the Nez Perce National Historic Park

of the creation story based on this rock pile heart, in which Coyote tricks a monster that is devouring all the animals on earth by getting himself inhaled so he can reach the beast’s heart and cut it out. Along the journey inside the monster, he gets in fights with other living animals which turn on Coyote rather use their strengths to stop the monster (resulting in Coyote shortening Grizzly’s nose and flattening Rattesnake’s head.)

The Nez Perce story leaves a strong impression on Duncan, inspiring him to make a pretty kick-ass no-compromise declaration: “Standing by the Heart of the Monster, I could find no reason why those of us living outside the dominant paradigm should plead any longer with those by whose logic we’re being so completely misled. To ask corporate Earth-killers to stop the killing leaves the decision to the killers’ tyrannical thought processes.”  [p. 119]

And he describes his view of the growing eco-resistance movement as a natural force:  “This energy is neither a political or religious force. It’s more an unspoken intensity felt by nearly everyone who is fighting for a creature, an ecosystem, an oppressed people, a small cultural good. Many have described this energy as Earth’s own immune system rising up in her defense.”  [p. 122]

Duncan’s part of the book also has a strong personal narrative, starting at his encounter with the parents of a young fly fisher, Liam Wood, an 18-year who was killed in an oil pipeline explosion while fishing on Whatcom Creek, near Bellingham, Washington, in the summer of ’99. It turns out Liam was also a fan of a novel Duncan had written, The River Why. At this point the book could have turned into a feel-good Field & Stream magazine promo. Instead it launches into a persistent call for mass mobilizing to defend wild lands and rural lifestyles from corporate dominance.

Duncan doing important research on the Clearwater River in Northwestern Montana. Photo by Frederic Ohringer, whose photos also appear in The Heart of the Monster

Through a series of stories, dreams, re-telling of US history and ancient legends, Duncan lays the foundation for a strengthened biocentric resistance effort from the Pacific Northwest—more specifically, the northern Rockies and the watersheds surrounding Lolo Pass.

A history of Montana’s governor

“I need to begin telling the story of who we are, of how we made a stand. A true story of how the least populated state in the country defeated the largest company in the world, and in the process saved the world. It hasn’t happened yet but I can see it happening. I can see the few trails by which we can win…”   —Rick Bass, A Short History of Montana

The story continues along a similar trajectory, meandering between past, present and future. The distinction between fact and fiction is a bit blurry, but a reader is left with a pretty clear feeling that the unnamed sell-out governor, his border collie Old Shep, and the former-aide narrating the story are likely based on the real deal.

While it starts out with some brief geological, ecological, political and social history, the vast majority is dedicated to an anonymous governor’s two terms in office. The story documents the transition of a famed Montana liberal redneck populist democrat to an ass-kissing corporate lackey, with the tone of an indirect personal plea to the current governor himself, Brian Schweitzer, to change his ways before he becomes the symbol of everything wrong in a world where the climate is changing and Rocky Mountain glaciers are melting before peoples’ eyes.

“[I]f we do not make the miracle—if it does not happen; if the governor, being mortal, chooses the old path… then we will have to put down our hoes and rakes and fight. And when we do, or if we do, I believe that we will win, for I simply do not think the earth can take any more such burning, and that the ground we stand on would be on our side. That, although outnumbered and facing the largest company in the world, with the earth’s burning at stake, Montana would win. “ [p. 246]

In a vision from the near future, the story’s narrator predicts the path to victory: “It was a long campaign and though it could have been more organized, in the end it was perfect. The first protest was the largest—three thousand Northwesterners lying down in the road, and cars parked catty-wampus everywhere, clotting the highway, so that it took two weeks to clear…”

“But still Imperial kept coming, though always, they were ambushed. Sometimes it was two or three protestors forming a blockade—other times fifty or a hundred. Elk hunters set up camps in the center of the road and built huge bonfires of beetle-killed pine. Blue-haired seventy-something birdwatchers, their guidebooks clutched like purses, joined with river rafters to stop the trucks along the Blackfoot River…Farmers along the Rocky Mountain Front blocked highway 89 with their tractors and sprayers. And Reserve Street in Missoula—already the most congested road in Montana—became the site of many epic battles…

“After a while, the t.v. and radio crews stopped covering the story, as they eventually do in all wars; instead, it had just become a way of doing things… The governor scolded the state, but could not control his state. The blockades became a form of entertainment. Instead of bingo or Sunday night church service, people would say to one another, let’s go stop the trucks. ” [p. 248]

Back to the real world

The fight has already begun. And the group who published the book, All Against the Haul just announced a major court victory on their blog this summer, the week following Earth First! actions at the capitol building. The Montana District Court issued an order granting a motion to halt the mega load corridor project on scenic Route 12, stating that the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) violated the state’s Environmental Policy Act. MDT claims they will attempt to reverse the ruling, but it seems that one tentacle of the tar sands may indeed already be severed (no thanks to the governer).

Meanwhile, trucks are rolling today along other routes, carrying tar sands equipment across the northwest to Alberta; actions have already begun taking place in Idaho. And while a mass opposition to the tar sands has been growing across the US, it has not yet shown signs of taking shape as the vision in Heart of the Monster has laid out. Of course, the real future is unwritten and it tends to require guidance to direct it on the path we desire.

Which brings me to the main distinction for me between book and reality. At this point, a majority of resources for anti-tar sands actions have focused on swaying politicians rather than physical obstructions in the bioregions which trucks or pipelines are already passing. The broader strategy of efforts like the Tar Sands Action in DC have focused on stopping infrastructure from being approved rather than opposing the transport that is already underway. Which is a higher priority? Which approach will be more effective over the long term? It’s certainly up for debate. But regardless of that, Heart of the Monster offers the sort of grounding in a local culture and regional ecology that make up the roots of successful struggle, which ever tactics are chosen. Our aim should be to spread the book’s sentiment like wildfire, so when Obama fails to be the savior, people will know how and where to respond.

About the writing

David James Duncan in the upcoming PBS Nature documentary on the Columbia/Snake salmon crisis. Photo: Mark Shelley

In a recent interview on grist.com, Duncan called Heart of the Monster “a fast response book,” meaning the book was completed in a mere seven weeks, including research, writing, editing, illustration, design, and self-publishing of a 250-page book.

While the external presentation of the book is beautiful, the urgency and haste of the project shows on occasion in the writing. The book reads like it could have used a few more edits for problems with flow and content redundancy. But overall, it is an incredible feat that other campaigns should take note of. The book seems to have been a powerful tool for mobilizing the following of these two known and respected authors to galvanize the anti-tar sands battle. A simple search for it online turns up several published reviews in literary circles outside the usual suspects of activism.

Best of all, The Heart of the Monster made me feel like those of us throwing down to fight the industrial juggernaut are not alone. While I didn’t agree with everything in the book, I shared some basic, key values with the authors. Whether the authors identify with Earth First! or not, the book felt very much like a contribution to EF!-culture. Action-oriented literary projects, like this book, make the movement feel firmer than ever to me. let’s see more of it.


Find out more about the book, its authors and their activist work against tar sands infrastructure at AllAgainstTheHall.org. For a more thorough analysis of history and impacts from the Alberta Tar Sands, check out “Into the Muskeg Swamps,” Beltane 2011 edition of the EF! Journal.

One Response to “Heart of the Monster”


  1. Tearing out The Heart of the Monster: A literary voice rises against the tar sands « Earth First! Newswire - September 26, 2011

    […] Heart of the Monster […]

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