Requiem for an Oak Grove

They cut down our beloved Oak Grove. It was an epic struggle pitting Berkeley activists and neighbors and a ragtag group of tree-sitters against the legal and financial might of the University of California with its plans to build a high-tech gymnasium to enhance their football program, three stories into the earth adjacent to the Hayward earthquake fault. The University, not beholden to the municipal laws against cutting old oak trees, nor the desires of their host community, presented their plans for Berkeley as a done deal and expected to plow ahead as usual. But the Oak Grove called our hearts and we rose to protect her. We filed lawsuits, we made phone calls, we conducted educational tours of Strawberry Creek, we marched to the Chancellor’s home and most noticeable of all we sustained the longest North American urban tree-sit in the branches between a city street and the Memorial Stadium.

Even as my heart aches from the destruction of these beautiful living elder trees and the community of animals and people it sustained, I am so grateful we made our stand. I wonder how I keep jumping into these struggles when the odds are so against us, and yet if we give up because of that, then we automatically lose. I cry for the birds soaring in circles where their home once was and for the students who are so lost but I am uplifted by the community we have woven and the brave and beautiful actions of so many. What have we created? What have we learned?

The tree-sit was quite a sustained effort. We kept aloft a canopy of three to more than a dozen elves from Dec. 2, 2006 until Sept. 9, 2008. We survived several raids of our support camp and constant police harassment. The University eventually built two fences with barbed wire around the sit, lit up the night with diesel powered lights and kept a mini-police force around us 24-7. When UC attempted to block food being sent to the sitters, a posse of older women calling themselves the Grandmothers for the Oaks came with a home cooked Thanksgiving meal and continued to supply quality nutrition in a beautiful ritual of defiance every Sunday for almost a year. The support camp, being one of the only places to sleep outdoors without getting a ticket, also attracted the homeless, travelers and crazy people many of whom gave valiantly to the effort. It was a challenging situation where the services provided and the peace that was kept should be appreciated. It was, however, a stretch for the shiny faced college elite to grok the depth of what was going on.

There are critiques that could and should be made. We could have organized better with regular meetings and clear decision making methods. We could honor and hone those who stand out as leaders and insist on honest communication so the group is represented. We could encourage more diverse voices to speak out. We could cast our web for allies more consciously.

We underestimated the Public Relations campaign against us. Many students echoed back UC’s propaganda, all of which was easily challenged if given a fair forum. Though the tree-sit got impressive coverage, most of it was sensational and did not represent the core issues we were challenging; turning around human behavior to abet global warming, democratic control of public land, understanding and respecting natural systems, negotiation rather than power plays, corporate takeover of a state university, respecting a Native American burial ground and sacred site, being logical about not building on an earthquake fault, etc. The construction of the high-tech gym is just the first of a long list of bad development projects UC wants to inflict on the local environment and the future direction of humanity. They have just begun construction of a huge vivisection lab at the head of University Ave and they want to build dramatically in our fragile Strawberry Creek Canyon, including a lab paid for by BP (formerly British Petroleum) to research genetically engineering plants to provide fuel for American SUV’s by industrial mono-cropping vast areas of third world countries.

But we made a stand against the plan and that is a tremendous victory in itself. The vast wheels and levers of development were challenged. A student stood next to me on the last day of the sit as we watched the last four tree-sitters clinging to the top of the redwood. We were both inspired, it was clear that these brave men believed with all their heart and had stood with all their might. The student understood that there was a deep and powerful resistance and message and he talked of sharing this with other students. And this is our hope; that the action we took will inspire others that something needs to be changed and that individuals can choose to make a stand. Of course UC sent out its message too; that the system is intransigent to change and that it will use force. But this is the “Big Game” of our time. Can we awaken as a species and turn around our destruction of the web of nature that sustains us before we annihilate ourselves and other species? We have nothing to lose by trying.

As our hearts cracked open with the murder of our tree elders, I felt the flood of love for all the very many who had done something. We wove a community. We shared and learned and strived together. We climbed trees, had meetings, wrote letters, shared acorn pancakes, danced, took the streets, built platforms, cared for each other, ran a bike powered radio station, played drums, distributed flyers, called press conferences, talked to students, floated balloons of food, grew oak saplings, sang, prayed, celebrated with circuses and concerts, went to court, went to city council, went to jail, and held our ground.

And some dared to ask why we weren’t saving important trees like those in the Amazon. No, we are protecting the trees right here in our neighborhood and as Ayr suggested, “why don’t you go into a bar and ask that question?”. We are doing something.

That is the key to hope. !Vivan los Arboles!