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Berkley Urban Tree Sit

September 19th, 2007

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–with the voices of “Siege,” a tree-sitter, and Nik, whose role as ground support has helped people like Siege.

Nik’s directions took me to an Oakland neighborhood where, he said, there was bi-weekly semiautomatic weapon fire and “slum-bird” helicopters buzzing low overhead; I saw the birds, heard the bumping bass, and the guys hanging at the check-cashing corner store. (at right: the kitchen)

I was in the Bay Area to photograph tree sitters on the University of Berkley campus, a group whose actions Nik supports and with whom he could provide introductions.

The front of the house was boarded up but around back, more resembling the chaos of the natural world than anything else, were a few shacks, an outdoor kitchen, and wood-chip paths connecting it all. They were dismantling the squat as the property was going to be developed but what previously existed were a geodesic dome, a straw bale house, large organic gardens, and his own dwelling made of pallets, reclaimed building material, and insulated with futon ticking. (at left: outdoor shower)

Nik, an old friend from university, is immersed in the world of sustainable living and development; not with a holier-than-thou eco-militance, but through an incredible knack of peaceful engagement, intelligence, and skill. His mindset is natural coexistence. Think organics, gray water reclamation, alternative energy (he runs an old Mercedes on biodiesel), and, well, green living. He’s pretty good at it.

My rental car, the smallest Thrifty had on the lot, was a bright red new-model Mustang. For someone who drives a beater Subaru wagon and is going to visit with eco-protesters and hippies, I felt pretty embarrassed by my ride. Especially when pulling up for some dumpster diving where Nik ran into a friend who was also checking out the goods. We harvested three grocery bags full before finding our way onto campus; some good eats for the people in the trees. (at right: the mustang)

I slowly wound my way through the trees on tyrolean traverses employing basic climbing safety techniques. The tree-sitters were meeting out at the “Fuck You” tree, the one connection to the ground outside a recently erected chain link fence intended to protect the tree-sitters from football fans but also acting to isolate them from their supporters. Security officers watched 24/7 and floodlights lit the ground at night. The tree-sitters were discussing logistics with their ground supporters–like Nik–and, ironically, about what “consent” means in a sexual context. (at left: dumpster diving)

Nik and I, while catching up over lunch, had had this very discussion because of the work I’ve been doing with sexual violence. Drifting through the trees I heard “No means saying I don’t like that, no means not kissing back, no means being drunk, no means no response, you don’t have to hear someone say ‘No’ for it to mean no.” It was a pleasant distraction as I was sweating in the balmy evening, guide-less and negotiating unknown traverses and platforms 60 feet off the ground in the growing darkness. I was hauling my camera gear, extra clothing, and enough food and water for two nights. I didn’t want to be a burden on the tree-sitters’ resources. (at right: Nik at home)

Across to “lower Caruna,” hand-over-hand to its upper platform, from there another traverse to “yea-mama” and a crossroads. To the right was “okey-doke” where most of the hippies hung out all day, to the left was “lower deodar,” a tall conifer that served as another junction for what I was coming to see as the ultimate game of hot-lava. When I finally arrived at lower doedar it was dark; I decided, partly for safety, that I would hang my gear and stay the night there. Later that evening “Burlap,” one of the tree sitters, would come through and take me to the Crow’s Nest, a small platform wobbling on the very tip of “upper deodar” and the highest point in the network. It was a bit gripping with all the free-solo climbing to get there in the dark (no ropes or safety), but once there we relaxed in the cooling night gazing toward the lights of San Francisco and listening to the fraternity parties below. (at left: a tourist attraction)

I rose early to find a snoring tree sitter hanging between two branches, and waited as the morning fog lifted. At 10:00 “Busstop” came over from Okey-Doke to make pancakes; I left to make images and at 1:30 Berkley students staged a protest. They jumped the fence to deliver supplies and clean the grounds. The police let those who wanted to to leave and arrested the remainder, citing and releasing all but one. I thought they did a great job considering all the heckling they received but had to remind myself this was a college campus; I know in the past protesting has been different, but this seemed like a mid-level course in civil disobedience with the police captain serving as guest lecturer. The protesters left by 5:00–which was about the time the pancakes Busstop started that morning were finished and consumed. (at right: kristin in the trees during the protest/arrests)

While I’m sure you find a
ll of this interesting, I bet what you’re really wondering is the all important question: how do you go to the bathroom? Simply put, in a sealable five-gallon bucket. Excrement and paper mix with a bulking agent like dirt, urine goes in rancid bottles dangling from the platforms; women use funnels. Before the fence these items were simply lowered from the platforms to the ground crew. Now they need to traverse all the lines I laboriously crossed before they can be disposed of. Scary. Especially since I found out you can’t rely on the bucket handle; I nearly dropped the ultimate stink bomb onto the pavement below. (at left: “Siege” making a traverse)

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3 Responses to “Berkley Urban Tree Sit”

  1. Anonymous says:

    is there any way you could help me find a way to contact one of the tree sitters i met recentley

    -ari

  2. Tim Matsui says:

    please PM me and I will connect you with one of the people who knows many of the sitters.
    -tim

  3. Jonas Malito says:

    Hello, I identified your blog inside a new directory of information sites. I dont know how your web site arrived up, have to have

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