In the mid-1990s, David "Gypsy" Chain -- "a stand-your-ground kind of Texan" rather than a "blissed-out hippie" -- campaigned alongside Earth First activists fighting to save Northern California's last stands of old-growth redwoods from the ravening saws of Pacific Lumber. Chain's struggle ended in September 1998, when an enraged lumberjack toppled a 130-foot redwood tree -- worth about $7,000 to Pacific Lumber -- that hit the 24-year-old protester, killing him instantly.

Using the Chain tragedy as a lens through which to record the acrimony, escalating violence, and legal wranglings of the Humboldt County timber wars, Patrick Beach has produced a complex and thrilling piece of narrative nonfiction. Beach, a newspaperman with the Austin American-Statesman, captures his characters with simple, declarative language. "She sat in her pickup and cried her makeup off," he writes of Cindy Allsbrooks, Chain's bereaved mother whose struggles to give meaning to her son's death dominate the narrative. Beach is especially effective -- and compassionate -- in his treatment of the lumberjack whose alleged negligence caused Chain's death. The only true villain of A Good Forest for Dying is Pacific Lumber's absentee owner Charles Hurwitz -- a Texas financier who raided the company's pension fund to service his ballooning junk bond debt.

If the story has a flaw, it's hardly Beach's fault: Allsbrooks' suit against Pacific Lumber settles at the 11th hour, robbing us of a climactic, perhaps cathartic, courtroom showdown. But that seems a fitting reflection of the struggle between deep ecology and corporate capitalism -- an ongoing war of attrition devoid of satisfying outcomes.