When a Tree Falls

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The email’s subject line read “Protest plans to destroy half a million trees, using pesticides, in East Bay.”

And so I first heard about the plans to cut down an entire urban forest of eucalyptus trees in the eastern hills of the San Francisco Bay. The email came to me from a stranger through a radical environmental email list. As a local forestry student and self-proclaimed environmentalist, I was instantly intrigued. So I read some news articles, and discovered that there were big plans underway right in my backyard. The University of California, the City of Oakland, and the East Bay Regional Parks District were all applying to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to reduce hazardous fire risk in the area. This translated into cutting down many non-native trees, mostly blue gum eucalyptus, because their physical structure and dense numbers were thought to make them more dangerously flammable than other plants. Scouring through Google, I found dozens of news articles and blogs, all with different perspectives on the fate of the trees. My first instinct was to dismiss that sensationalist email. I figured its author was blowing things out of proportion, probably misinformed. My education had long ingrained in me that eucalyptus trees in California were bad: invasive, dangerous, a nuisance. They didn’t belong. Little did I know that it was not that simple, that silhouettes of eucalyptus trees would begin to haunt me, uprooting my beliefs, twisting my consciousness around and around.

The first day I ever stepped foot in the Bay Area was during my senior year of high school on a college visit. My mother and I wandered from Downtown Berkeley toward the gold letters that spelled “University of California.” Walking up the path, right there on campus, a grove of extremely tall trees immediately caught our attention. Their magnitude lured us in. We both stood in awe, before the naturalness, wildness, beauty. The trees smelled so good, their bark painted like muted rainbows, the tall, dense canopy ushering us into something that felt sacred, or at the very least, wonderful. I didn’t know then what type of tree they were; it didn’t matter. I just loved them.

By the end of the weekend, the rest of the campus had captured my heart, and I decided to enroll. I would be moving west. I left my home in Maryland for the Bay that august. I later found out that those trees that first enchanted me comprised the tallest grove of hardwoods in the Western United States.

Eucalyptus trees first arrived to the Bay Area by way of European settlers in the mid 19th century. They wanted to leave a legacy by planting a forest, providing timber resources for the future. Coming from the east, they were accustomed to a dense, wooded landscape and so they planted the trees to improve the visual aesthetics of the previously grassy and shrubby (“ugly”) hillside. They colored the crackly golden hills with thick green. Once, there was an oak-studded landscape that Ohlone Indians had maintained for centuries, perhaps millennia. They set fires to open up the hills and create the conditions that would allow them to subsist. Free to grow in the moist, foggy, nutrient-rich environment where they found themselves, eucalyptus trees settled in with as much tenacity and vigor as the human settlers. The trees literally rooted into a colonial legacy, displacing native plants as the Europeans displaced the indigenous people. The settlers soon found that their blue gum dreams didn’t grow into any sort of marketable timber like they’d envisioned, so they stopped harvesting them. But the tenacious trees stayed. Nowadays, blue gums pepper the California landscape as if they had always been around.

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My final year of college, I chose to research this “eucalyptus controversy” for my senior thesis. I called my project a study of public engagement, but really I wanted an excuse to talk to people, to hear more stories and opinions about the contentious trees. I surveyed Berkeley residents and interviewed people actively involved and engaged in the issue. I began reading everything I could to immerse myself in narratives. I watched YouTube videos of public hearings, and read all the comments on hot-button blogs. I became fascinated and frightened by the opposing narratives that I heard, the ideological differences, all within circles of environmentalism, circles that I found myself straddling.

The folks in favor of cutting the euc’s down are passionate about reducing fire risk before it’s too late. They also yearn for a transition back to a more native and healthy ecosystem for the East Bay hills, one that holds a diverse community of oaks, bay laurels, coyote brush, and native grasses, one that supports a mosaic of life. They look to a long ecological history for guidance on how to create and restore. When they look at eucalyptus bark and hanging limbs, they see a ladder for flames to climb up and intensify. They fear that climate change will worsen the wildfire wrath. They’ll show you pictures from the 1991 Tunnel Fire that raged and roared through the Oakland hills destroying lives and homes, pointing their fingers at dense groves of eucalyptus trees as the culprits. They’ll tell you that nothing grows in a dark eucalyptus forest. They’ll tell you they’re invaders.

Tom Klatt drove me into the hills to show me. He used to be UC Berkeley’s Environmental Projects Manager, heading up eucalyptus removal and other projects on university-owned land. Together, we overlooked hillsides where he himself had hiked through for years, armed with a backpack of herbicide (his own special recipe), following the tree faller, and applying his chemical mixture to each stump so that it wouldn’t re-sprout later. He told me you only have a couple of minutes to treat the stump, or else you’ve missed your chance. The day we drove to the hills, he was on crutches, his knees in trouble, a result of all the time he spent scaling the landscapes he cared so much about. And he was proud to show me where native coast live oaks and bay laurel seedlings were regenerating, where he had succeeded in keeping the feisty blue gum sprouts out. I could hear in his energetic voice the feeling that he had made a positive difference on a landscape scale. Without herbicide, the euc’s would be back with a vengeance – Tom knows from experience. “You only get one chance to do it right the first time.” Looking out across his legacy, I couldn’t help but agree. The landscape looked good, like a mosaic of plants and textures, shades of green, what I’d been educated to see as ecological health. He took me to a dense eucalyptus plantation that had yet to be cut, pointing out the peeling bark, hanging branches, and the ladders of fuel from the ground to the canopy. “Can you imagine a cigarette landing in there?” I touched the ribbon bark and it began to remind me of flammable paper used to get a campfire going. I watched the forest set fire in my imagination.

Then we drove to a popular hangout spot overlooking the hills and the Bay, a breathtaking view, and sat down on a graffiti-filled bench. To my surprise, Tom pointed out his initials, with a rambunctious grin on his face. “I always have to leave my tag.” He also told me about all the abandoned cars he had found pushed down the hill, leaking battery acid and other toxic stuff into the watershed. It was his job to get them out of there. These were his hills and he was proud to be their steward.

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The first tree I ever watched fall was a blue gum eucalyptus. I was planting redwood seedlings with the Forestry Club in nearby Claremont Canyon, supervised by Tom himself. To his dismay (or maybe delight), we stumbled upon a small eucalyptus tree that had somehow managed to dodge his surveillance. He hacked away at it with an axe, and then let my friend Brita take the final chop. We all watched it fall. Even with my educated dislike of eucalyptus trees, I cringed. It still sounded like dying. And yet there, all around me, were native plants ready to pounce on the open space left behind by the absence of that tree.

Thinking ecologically, or “thinking like a mountain” as conservationist Aldo Leopold famously phrased it, is easier said than done. When we ourselves are living, breathing creatures inhabiting ecosystems, existing as mere pieces of the puzzle, it doesn’t seem possible to see the whole picture clearly and objectively enough to make decisions about it. We have emotions and biases. We have brains but we also have brainless perceptions of beauty and wonder. And yet “managing” landscapes is what foresters do and have done for centuries. It’s what the Ohlone have always done. It’s what I was training to do, and once I got to thinking about it, it frightened me.

Quickly after the word got out on some well-known local blogs and news sites about the proposed plans and FEMA grants, an opposition movement sprung forward, growing quickly and voraciously. Thanks to the National Environmental Protection Act, federal funding for environmental projects goes through a rigorous “public process.” The agency, in this case FEMA, has to listen to, document, and address every legitimate comment that a member of the public presents, as part of the ultimate “Environmental Impact Statement.” In reality, this translates into an opportunity for dissent. Supporters tend to stay at home, while opponents jump up to make their voices heard. Public hearings, then, become a perfect outlet for a “Stop the [blank]” campaign. In this case, hundreds showed up to raise their voices against the proposed eucalyptus removal projects, and thousands mailed their comments in. The discourse sounded familiar to me. It sounded like many passionate environmental justice campaigns I had encountered before, like no more DDT or save the rainforest. Supporters of the projects also stepped up to raise their voices – maybe not as loud, but equally passionate.

They all wanted to “save the hills” but they fell into very different camps. To me, it seemed so easy to be swayed by whatever news source reached you first. Watching videos of the hearings, I couldn’t help but think that there must be a better way. Here you had hundreds of engaged people in a room together, all fired up. One by one, over the span of a few hours, they delivered their comments, as FEMA recorded and received them in silence. Where was the exchange? I imagined the conversations that might happen in an interactive setting, giving people the opportunity to immerse themselves in each other’s vantage points like I found myself doing. I wanted to see a room where people could deeply explore their community ecosystem of ideals, identifying common grounds and diverging ones. I wanted the kind of exchange that could actually strengthen a community and its ability to collectively manage its land. I dreamt of all the emotion that I saw filling the air being used for something good, and, dare I say it, sustainable. Instead I saw fiery flames of opinion flicker into dead air; I saw passion get lost in bureaucratic no-man’s-land.

Through the same list serve that awakened me to this whole issue, I found out about a protest organized by Citizens United in Defense of Olmstead (CUIDO), a disability-rights group known to use nonviolence and civil disobedience. The protest was against “clear-cutting” eucalyptus trees and using pesticides in the East Bay hills. They planned to meet in downtown Berkeley to march around town and distribute fliers to passersby. Naturally I had to show up. When I first arrived, I found a handful of people, most in wheelchairs. I began talking to one elderly man, trying to explain that I was a student conducting research on the social dimensions of this “eucalyptus controversy.” He didn’t understand. I quickly learned that he was partially deaf; he tried to sign to me. Another protester came over and tried to translate between the two of us, although she didn’t understand the old man very well. Something about tree roots, chemicals, water. He wanted to know if I knew anything about it; he wanted to pick my Berkeley brain. I muttered something about herbicide only being applied to tree stumps, not to soil, thinking I could quell some of his fear. I don’t know if either of our points got across.

More people arrived, until there were a dozen or so anti-clear-cutting activists. Marg, one of the organizers, gave everyone fliers to distribute. The flyers shouted, “Clear-cutting proposed in the East Bay hills! Stop the destruction!” They listed some basic facts about the project, using emotionally charged language as any good activist pamphlet should. I cringed at what I felt was misinformation or exaggeration (like the term “clear-cutting” itself). But I kept silent, there to observe, not to judge, correct, or even really engage. Marg handed me some fliers. I took a couple but refused to hand any out to the public. I, the “unbiased researcher,” marched along with the Citizens United in Defense of Olmstead.

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I wound around downtown Berkeley with the wheelchair warriors, closely observing the reactions of passersby. As an activist the motions felt again familiar. Raising awareness, engaging with the public, taking a stance, fighting for beliefs, using powerful messaging. I’d gone through similar steps during anti-fracking efforts and Earth Day gatherings. I thought about how I would react if I was walking down the street and one of them handed me a flier. I’d probably join the cause, because really, who wants the East Bay hills to be CLEAR CUT? After about half an hour, I broke off from the crowd, thoughts and emotions whirling. I glanced to the hills. Even from afar, I could tell where the eucalyptus trees stood firmly in the ground. I could recognize the difference in texture along the landscape. The trees have truly changed the environment there, establishing it as their place. Are they the ones in power, or are we?

About a month after the protest, I arranged an interview with Marg. We met in a café in downtown Berkeley and talked for an hour, discussing her involvement in CUIDO and her thoughts on public engagement. She shared with me that many group members were chemically disabled, having been exposed to pesticides at some point in their past. They feared that applying herbicides on a large scale across the hills would make the area dangerous for hiking and exploring. Marg, and others, felt that these projects were infringements on their rights as citizens. She asked me if I knew why Tom and the UC Berkeley team were so passionate about removing the trees. I said that it was really about the fire risk, and perhaps a little bit of native-plant preference. She said she suspected it was a ploy to expand UC development. Even as I knew that wasn’t true, I could understand why she felt that way: among many activist communities there is a general mistrust of the University of California and its motives. Corporate partnerships and sponsors play a big role in that – British Petroleum is a major funder of natural resource research at the school, for example. How could I tell her she was wrong? How could I deny that their fear of toxins was legitimate? I left that meeting feeling even more confused about my beliefs. What I knew for certain, though, was that someone should have met with them to discuss the reality of the risks. No one did that. Activists were written off as ignorant and overly emotional. The friction pushed people on opposite sides further and further apart.

Tim Pine is UC Berkeley’s Environmental Health and Safety Manager. I’d known about him ever since I first came to Berkeley. He’s the resident ecological restoration guru, and knows everything there is to know about Strawberry Creek, the small and mighty watercourse that runs through the heart of campus. He oversees the Strawberry Creek Restoration Project. Volunteers of this group remove invasive Algerian Ivy, plant native plants, and attempt to divert chemicals and waste from entering the water stream. Since they started, they’ve seen stickleback fish return to the creek, which hadn’t been there since the early days of the campus. Tim loves to tell the story of the time when a group of volunteers was pulling out ivy plants in an especially deep bed by the creek, and they uncovered a small memorial statue that had been completely swallowed up and forgotten about. An added bonus of restoration work! Like Tom Klatt, Tim tells his stories with enthusiasm and pride. He knows the ecological intricacies of his place, he loves native plant restoration, he enjoys engaging people in volunteer work, and he goes after invasives with passion and vengeance. He told me he thought the eucalyptus “controversy” was merely a symptom of a lack of awareness in the general public. “How do we propose ecological solutions to a scientifically illiterate society?” he asked me in an exasperated tone. This surprised me, coming from a volunteer coordinator. I thought he’d have faith in everyday people. Maybe he holds most of his faith in plants. Still, I found myself nodding my head in agreement.

Mary McCallister is not scientifically illiterate. Mary, the dedicated author and editor of the “Death of a Million Trees” blog, moved to the East Bay after getting fed up with all the eucalyptus removal in San Francisco, where she had lived for decades. I met her through Joe, my research mentor – she would frequently come to his office for scientific consultation. He’d help her get her facts straight, and she would use them in her reports, comments, and blog posts. Mary believes that the anger toward eucalyptus trees is unnecessary and unjust. She is trying to get the species de-listed as invasive with the official Invasive Pest Council, based on evidence from aerial photos across time. She uses her blog to post articles on topics such as bird and butterfly habitat in eucalyptus forest, climate change, the pitfalls of environmental “restoration,” the dangers of herbicide, and facts about wildfire in the East Bay. The tagline of her blog reads, “Saving trees from needless destruction in the San Francisco Bay Area.” I read her public comment that she submitted to FEMA; it was more than forty pages long. She cited research on the flammability of native plants compared to eucalyptus, arguing that the danger of the trees isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She talks about carbon sequestration and owl habitat, and so much more. She is a force to be reckoned with.

People in academia and forest management dismiss the dissenters as being uninformed. I beg to differ. They simply choose how to inform themselves and come to their own conclusions. Don’t we all, really?

Madeline Hovland isn’t ignorant, either. She drove me around the East Bay hills like Tom did, but from a different perspective. She picked me up on campus in her car: a small, elderly woman with a soft voice and an old-fashioned sweater. We chatted about the area; we were both originally East Coasters. She drove me up into the Oakland hills near her home, and took me to the exact area where the 1991 Tunnel Fire had started. She was living in the hills at the time; she and her husband had evacuated like the rest of the local residents. She showed me where the fire spread, which houses burned down, which ones stayed standing. She pointed out the trees that remained after the fire, some of them native, some of them exotic. She showed me the fire station that had been built after the big fire to make the neighborhood safer; she pointed out the difference in architecture and materials between the old and new houses. She knew the names of the neighbors that had chosen to stay and rebuild rather than move away. Her knowledge was intricate, personal. She held a position on the neighborhood committee and worked hard for her community.

After the drive, we sat in her courtyard with her twenty-year-old cocker spaniel. I asked her my typical interview questions. She spoke about her involvement with the Hills Conservation Network (HCN), one of the most active groups of local citizens involved in stopping the eucalyptus removal projects. HCN is mainly a group of homeowners in the Oakland hills, and they’ve made themselves an enemy of the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, a group that actively promotes eucalyptus removal and native restoration. Notice how both the groups have “conserve” in their name? HCN also filed a lawsuit against the East Bay Regional Parks District, one of the cooperating agencies applying for FEMA money. The activist group won, and the Parks District agreed to settle and alter their prescriptions. HCN has some wealthy and influential players on their side, and they’re not giving up the fight. One of the leaders of the group lost his mother in the 1991 fire – but he doesn’t blame the eucalyptus. He’ll fight for the trees no matter what. Madeline doesn’t understand why people hate the trees so much, and she told me that the battle had gotten personal, neighbors butting heads, hatred running rampant through her neighborhood.

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I came out of our meeting again a little dizzy and confused. But I stood by a conviction: emotions about trees, places, the earth – they are good. Even if they’ve polarized people around their mutual home and caused a bureaucratic gridlock, it is good that people are connecting enough with their place to have strong emotions about it. It is good that they are connecting, in a world of disconnecting. Now, I thought, we just need a way to incorporate this into what we call “natural resource management” – which to me just means housekeeping, homemaking. We need better ways to get people involved in taking care of their home, collectively and with more trust in one another. I began to yearn for a way to legitimize ecosystemal emotions and gut place-feelings.

One day while hiking solo in Claremont Canyon, I stumbled upon a group of people with their necks craned, gazing high into the trees. I asked what they were looking at. They said, “baby owls!” My heart raced; I had heard that I might be able to spot some on this trail. And I found them, nestled in a big old blue gum. Their little faces had gathered a small crowd, filling us all with glee. I stayed there for some time, rapt by the adorableness and sacredness of those little creatures, and continued on my way.

The scariest feeling I’ve experienced since delving into this controversy relates to my identity as an activist. I’ve studied the science and stories for a year, and I still haven’t been able to solidify my opinion and take a personal stance on this conflict. I guess that’s a good thing as a researcher. But in other realms of my life, I am constantly taking sides, a proud activist. Anti-fracking. Pro-renewable. Anti-Pipeline. Pro-organic. It goes on and on. What does it mean to take a side? If I spent as much time researching every issue as I have the eucalyptus controversy, I wouldn’t have time for anything else. I’d be inundated with information and conflicting ideas, and I’d spend my days wading through and experiencing it all, probably confused most of the time. Maybe I’d never take a stand. But something inside me tells me that taking a stand is important in this world. The only people who create positive change are the ones who stand for something. Admittedly, I’ve found that I sometimes resort to trust in association: if an organization or person I respect feels a certain way about something, I tend to follow. It sounds shallow to put it that way, but I suspect we all do it a little. Like I said, if I had been an unaware citizen on the streets of Berkeley and someone in a wheelchair passed me a sign that said “Clear-cutting in the East Bay Hills! Pesticides!” I think I’d have joined the cause.

So much activist effort is devoted to media, education, and outreach. These are all ways to harness facts and ideas into narratives that people can easily understand and latch onto. These narratives mobilize people. Activism inherently narrows thoughts, ideas, and information into simple messages that are built to spread. As a sustainability blogger I do it all the time. But what happens to the counter-points and ideologies on the other side? Is there a way to incorporate them, not dismiss them… to carry them, not drop them? And how do I hold it all while still taking a strong enough stance that allows me to act? Because that’s really my predicament: I need to act even as I immerse myself in a flood of stories, emotions, and ideas coming from all directions. It’s as if I’m swimming, trying to keep myself afloat, swirling in many currents. I’m hungry, now, for many truths, not just one.

And I wonder, or maybe I dream, if there might be a world we can create in which “activism” disappears, because every human is naturally active and engaged in their community ecosystem.

One day, while I was passing out survey postcards to hikers on a popular trail in Berkeley, a couple stopped and talked to me. They knew all about the controversy and were curious about my research. I told them what I was studying. The woman wanted to know: “What do you think about it?” I said I didn’t have an opinion, that I was unbiased. She replied, “No really – you must feel a certain way about it.” I said I really didn’t know. Walking away, she yelled back, partially in jest, “Pick a side!” I watched her hike off into the woods.

When it rains, the colors of eucalyptus bark become a much brighter rainbow. Almost every day I walked home from school, I passed that grove of extremely tall trees. Their silhouettes are still beautiful, and the aroma still feels like home. Now, the sight and smell of the trees awaken emotions in me; they awaken dizziness and disorientation. I see images of Ohlone people collecting acorns from oaks, I see baby owls, I see the faces of Tom Klatt and Marg Hall, I see the flames of the Tunnel Fire. I remind myself that emotions about places and trees are good, no matter what they are. And then finally I ask: will wandering through a trail of stories lead me somewhere, or nowhere at all?

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