As you walk north on the 2600 block of North Halsted the streetscape isn't too remarkable. To your left are a couple of realty offices and Chinese restaurants; to your right are a frame shop, a trendy restaurant, an antique store, and Uncle Frank's hot dog stand, marked by an eight-foot fiberglass wiener on a skewer.
But as you continue walking, something unusual comes into view directly under the giant hot dog, a three-story mural at the north end of a vacant lot. First you note an immense range of shades of green, and then the details become apparent: two tall trees, and a background of wooded hills that stretch into the hazy distance. As you walk closer you notice the animals peering out from the painted underbrush: an anteater, emerald-and-black butterflies, a brilliantly striped snake, a bejeweled hummingbird.
But the most important detail is the bulldozer that's just knocking down one of those majestic trees, its operator hidden behind a brick wall. The mural's creator, Chicago-born artist Gary Larson, believes that the operator bears a disconcerting resemblance to ourselves. Larson has completed the mural just in time for World Rainforest Week, which is being celebrated September 7-13 by the Rainforest Action Network, an international organization sponsored by a variety of environmental groups.
"The yellow bulldozer represents the desert-sand color it's creating," says Larson, sitting in the doorway of his battered and paint-spattered minibus. He is tall and bearded and his speech tends to swerve rather easily into idealistic terms. He describes the destruction of tropical rain forests to make way for cattle ranches, among other things, as "one of the most critical global environmental problems man is facing." He explains that tropical rain forests, though incredibly rich biological systems, are based on very poor soil. When the trees are cut down to make way for ranches--whether in Central or South America, Southeast Asia, or Africa--the land typically becomes desert within a decade.
The pressures of development in third world countries--especially nations like Brazil and Indonesia, which have large populations of urban poor and great expanses of jungle--have contributed greatly to the loss of virgin rain forests. Currently, the rain-forest acreage lost yearly equals an area the size of West Virginia or Nebraska, depending on whose estimates you believe.
Ecologists claim that this rapid clearance will have catastrophic effects, from the destruction of traditional native ways of life to global climatic changes. What Rainforest Action Network emphasizes, though, is "biodiversity." Rain forests are so rich in plant and animal life, the ecologists say, that deforesting even a small area can eliminate a whole array of unknown species. The result: the loss of plants and animals that could be medicinally or agriculturally useful. "The loss of rain forest is so staggering that few people are willing to believe it, or that America is participating in it," says Larson. "What we're doing is destroying a huge part of our genetic heritage."
Larson likes to emphasize a specifically American connection: the raising of cheap beef in third world countries to produce American fast food. He argues that Americans' love of hamburgers has had dire effects not only in the rain forests but also at home. Larson has spent a lot of time in Montana; since 1980, he says, 27 cattle ranchers near his home there have sold out. In buying foreign rather than domestic meat, "the fast-food chains are cutting the throat of America's beef industry. They're erasing the mythology of the American cowboy and replacing it with Ronald McDonald, a horrible farce of what America stands for. The profit motive has got to come under closer scrutiny."
Burger King, he notes, just announced--after a three-month boycott organized by Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, and Earth First!--that it will stop using beef from rain forest ranches. "Burger King has taken a quantum leap in corporate responsibility. I thank them for saying, 'We care about more than just our profit margin.'"
Ironically, the profit margin may soon affect Larson's art rather more directly. The vacant lot between Uncle Frank's and the mural is slated to be filled in with a 24-condominium development; the plans dictate that no viewing space will be left before the mural. The Chicago chapter of Earth First!, says Larson, who's a member, is petitioning the developer to create a courtyard that would leave the mural in the open.
"This is symbolic of what is happening to the rain forest--losing them to private gain. There's the very same lack of ethics, the use of public land for private gain. We're [Earth First!] trying to change the idea of what open space is for. If we're going to live here we have a right to trees and grass. If we don't think of Chicago in qualitative terms we're not improving the city."
If the development project goes as planned, Larson says, Earth First! members may turn to more radical tactics. "The Earth First! motto, 'No compromise in the defense of Mother Earth,' may actually come to some sort of confrontation here. Whatever we do here we may have to do in the rain forest. If our efforts are of no value to anybody, then maybe we deserve to fail, maybe we are a rarified, elitist group that deserves no audience--but I don't think so."
Earth First! gained a radical image in May, when a California sawmill employee was severely injured by a spike that had been driven into the tree he was sawing. (Earth First! members regularly "spike" trees in order to make them worthless as lumber.) "Earth First! has been slandered as a terrorist group," says Larson. "But in this urban setting we're trying to focus on education and on being philanthropic." Along with Earth First!, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago, Gospel Outreach of Chicago, and local businesses--including the owner of the apartment building the mural is on--contributed time and supplies to the project.
The Chicago chapter of Earth First! is sponsoring a "mural dedication fest" tonight, September 11, and tomorrow, Saturday, from 7 to 9 PM at the mural site. Featured will be music, poetry, a narrated slide show on rain forests, with speeches by Larson, Dr. Paul Heltne, director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences (Friday), and Dr. Thomas Antonio, taxonomist at the Chicago Botanic Garden (Saturday). Admission is free. The mural is on Halsted just south of Schubert; try 677-9464 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.