“An Act of Sabotage” by Joshua Mensch

Joshua Mensch


Because I was young and heretical
(I wanted to be a radical) I spiked 
trees to save them. This, I was told, 
was the right thing to do: each tree 
found with a spike ruins the forest 
around it. It wasn’t true, of course. 
The lumberjack’s logic (practical) 
is to find the spike, cut beneath it. 
But being young and eager to see 
myself in the act of saving trees, 
I whacked nails into bark at my height 
and felt very militant and right. 
Years later, I met a man with a missing 
thumb (half of one hand was gone) 
and still being young, I asked him 
what had happened. I was cutting wood
he told me. A nail in a log wrecked 
the chain off the saw and whipped 
his hand clean through—so now 
he rides a mower for the church.  
Though it was many years before 
and somewhere else, I felt ashamed: 
a man’s life (possibly) for a tree 
that would be cut down anyway.
What dumb advice! I remembered
the man who had given it to me:
mid-thirties, moustached, with wrap-
around sunglasses and a sleeveless T,
holding a paddle (he was a river guide,
we were in a rubber raft) who leaned in
to whisper the name of his group
(Earth First! but don’t tell anyone)
and offer useful tips for conspiring: 
sugar in gas tanks destroy engines,
loosened lug nuts topple trucks,
flames ruin wood raped from the earth.
And, of course, spiking trees:
an effective means to defend against
the enemy. I sat before the enemy,
ashamed, and told him what I’d done
years before. He told me not
to worry—I’d botched the job,
and anyway, the nail he hit was one 
he’d put there himself and then forgotten,
but chainsaws are smarter now,
so deaths and injuries are rare, 
though he agreed that I was right
to feel like an asshole. There are
better ways to save the earth, he said.
There was a shadow on the field
from a cloud that had grown heavy
while we were talking, and were it not
for the wind it might have rained.
I could hear the cries of the gulls
from the sea beyond the hill,
and the bell of a church began to ring.
Later that night my father made
a fire in a ring of stones.
Flames tongued out of the wood
like sea anemones searching for food.
We had chosen nature, the quiet
burning of expired stars
in a place without a roof, where
the rushing of the surf was our radio.
To keep warm, we burned wood
and talked about the future,
which seemed far away, theoretical,
and entered into a new conspiracy,
a dream in which we were happy
and our existence felt justified
and good, because we were moral
people, and the trees forgave us
our sins, because they understood.

from Rattle #81, Fall 2023


Joshua Mensch: “Like many people, I’m anxious about the current state of the world, and climate change ranks high among my worries. It’s not a new concern, though. Scientists have been predicting doom since I was born. As a child, I was diligent about picking up litter, turning off lights, not wasting food, and by the time I was a teenager, I had become somewhat radical in my outlook. I believed sabotage and eco-terrorism were a viable path to saving the planet. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that such acts do little to change the policies and behaviors of governments and corporations, but can cause dramatic, personal harm to the individuals who work in targeted industries. So, what response makes sense, then? As an individual there’s not much I can do; my political and consumer power is limited. And yet, as an individual, I still consume a tremendous amount of resources. My climate footprint is huge. Imagine taking a tank’s worth of gas and lighting it on fire in your backyard. It would feel like such an unbearable crime, all that pollution. And yet, for years I’ve done just that, filling my car up once a week and then sending it into the sky, which I need to do to earn a living and go about my life. So my quandary remains unresolved. This poem, which is based on true events—I met these people, they really existed—is an attempt to work through that, though the realization the poem enacts took longer in real life, and in many ways, is still something I struggle with.” (web)

Rattle Logo