Monday, September 29, 2008

Requiem for the Oaks

"It's a shame the University made itself into the oppressor."
Tony Serra on the Memorial Oak Grove struggle.

September draws to a close and with it the impression of events remarkable on anyone's scale remain on the shore.

Berkeley is justly known for its many, many trees-- how abundant, how profuse they look in aerial photographs. The ripened smell of trees this time of year comes in with the breeze. The fall came in this September along with a few hot days after a cooler than average Summer. The battle for Wall Street swung into naked combat. The cracked-vase President wanted $700billion handed over to his administration without oversight and he'll go quietly at the end of his term. Senator Barney Frank of Massachusetts said when he demanded compensation caps from the investment bankers "They acted like I'd ask them to have the rabbi serve bacon on the high holy day." A pundit commenting on the issue on the PBS news hour remarked, "Wall Street wants the problem solved before the Jewish holiday."
Sheer demagoguery was laid bare in choosing a combative Pentecostal small town beauty queen as vice-president under a cancer-survivor in his seventies. That was at a convention that temporarily suspended itself rather than have Cheney seen on a split screen with another hurricane in the Gulf. Then old Snakeface McBush himself temporarily "suspended his campaign" to hammer out the Wall Street pay-off. The next request we expect from the GOP will be, of course, to temporarily suspend the election.

It seems we are well on the other side of the looking-glass and into a dystopian wonderland. Berkeley, ever reflective of the macrocosom, has seen it share of scary developments as well. I am not referring to the site of Cody's last stand ending-up once again as a Hallowe'en store.
naturally I am contemplating the last stand of the storied Oak Grove and other eventualities less brightly lit.

When I last wrote I tried to fill in the history of the the confrontation that began when UC Berkeley dropped its plans to rip out a substantial grove of old coastal oaks and redwoods to build an uber-mensch training center next to their football stadium in order to build up their sports donor base. After long clandestine planning they dropped it as a done deal to the shock and horror of neighbors, ecologists, and the general public alike. Young activists took to living in the trees and for a year the University tolerated them and the ground-support community that grew around them while various lawsuits ground through courts dominated by GOP appointees.
After ten months of this and with another football season coming, the University erected a huge complex of fences surrounding the grove and adjacent parking lots and hired round-the-clock guards. No expense seemed to great as when darkness fell they began switching on banks of klieg lights directed at the tree-dwelling youth. Crowds of UC cops loitered in the vicinity collecting paychecks including Chief Harrison who was recently hired back at an enormous rate of pay after taking a 2million plus retirement earlier in the year. Mogulof the UC spokesman who resembles Jiminy Cricket's evil twin spent his days meeting with news people or in sinister conversations with grim potentates at the back of the grove, then driving his fat paycheck to the bank on the way home.
After this lavish display of homeland securitizing, and the courts predictably siding with money and power, they are demanding that the City, the neighbors, the protesters, the tax-payers, and whatever other rubes they can implicate pick up the tab.
And the day after the decision saying they could they began the tree slaughter in earnest. Groups of reactionary footballers stood around with signs saying "free fire wood" and yelling "timber!" between cheers. These ballsy boys in cut-off tea shirts momentarily lost their bravado when a few middle-aged ladies got in their faces. Luckily the superfluous dullards in blue saw fit to protect the out-numbering arm pit boys.
Executioners with chain saws made quick work of the mighty oaks and towering redwoods, bull-dozers ran against others until they cracked and few with huge groans. By nightfall almost all that remained was a lot of pale disturbed dry dirt and piles of the amputated limbs and trunks of freshly killed trees. That evening on the news Mogulof and a group of interested parties from the UC pool of self-interest appeared for a photo-op, appeared looking positively jubilant. The unilateral destruction of a vital wild-life corridor and a place that was a balm for the souls of passersby was for them a cause for celebration.

Almost all the trees had been cut that Friday. One tree was left standing, a redwood in which three of the tree-sitters remained. On that day of arboricide they had merely sliced-off all the branches below the sleeping platforms. There remained a small group of branches topped by a now-iconic look-out structure, the only feature of there habitation that had been visible when all the trees were still standing. The University had given them a deadline of Monday to climb down or be removed.
I visited the grove on Sunday coming up through campus, up new flights of stairs to a gate just North of the grove. The sight was stunning despite what I'd seen of it on TV. The raw knob of the stadium obtruded over a a heart-rending scarred-dirt lot with the one half-butchered tree rising over the barbed wire and the beefy squad of cops still preventing the tree hold-outs from receiving supplies. It was saddening to say the very least.
The demeanor of the cops was far less intense than in recent visits. A concert crowd was assembling at the Greek theater--many pedestrians and endless automobile traffic poured through narrow passage now bordering a wasteland. I joined several people on the median below the tree-sitters. On their sparse limbs they may have been a little nervous as they talked to each other and on a cell pnone to others elsewhere. After all they'd been through-- nights in wind and rain, days in hot sun, resting only precariously--I can only imagine their good hearts and admire them.
Just then one looked directly at me, "Fresh" now called "Shem." A tall strapping bearded blond young man, he was the former UC student who did the more arduous central campus tree-sit earlier this year. I gave him a peace sign and smiled; he smiled and waved back. I felt better--hope he did too.

Tuesday noon when I emerged from my building under the constant ominous drone of stationary news helicopters, I knew that up the hill it was all ending. I shook my fist at the sky, as futile a gesture as any. As we saw that night on the news, they surrounded the tree with cherry pickers manned by the police, Then they had workers build an instant tower of scaffolding around the tree until they were on a level with the tree-sitters' perch. Then Shem, Mando, and another sweet young cat voluntarily stepped onto the platform and were arrested.

The last tree was gone in minutes. And the UC representatives reneged on their promise to give the tree-sitters movement the stump of the Grandmother oak, a tree several centuries old. The UC people said it now belonged to the tree-cutters they hired. The raggle-taggle gypsies, young people who love life and love trees, had planned to turn the stump into a drum.

An appalling postscript concerns this appalling character Birgeneau, recent Chancellor of UC Berkeley. On Saturday September the 27th, he officiated at the ceremonial ground-breaking for the $140 million advanced athletic training center at the cavity on the faulted hillside. It was undoubtedly a gala although somewhat secretive affair--somehow despite my obsessive consumption of local newspapers I saw no publicity for the event.
Birgeneau had been in the news a few times that week as well. He had been outraged at a "anti-Semitic obscenity" "on campus." At a bus shelter on a public sidewalk cross Bancroft way from me, someone had defaced a pro-Israel propaganda poster. It was a political statement and not "hate speech"--a swastika meaning fascism equated with a star of David standing for the Jewish state. Sponsored by a pro-Israeli public relations group, the poster said "only in Israel" can Arab be a sports star while no Jew could ever represent an Arab state. It did not promote peaceful co-existence, it made the usual argument for Israel's exceptionalism and superiority over its barbaric neighbors who, by extension, deserve anything that happens to them.
Birgeneau, however, said nothing to address an accompanying incident -- actual threats against an actual campus group supporting Palestine that had been written on the wall of a UC classroom.
The other news story appeared in a Berkeley independent paper, the last one to remain critical of UC Berkeley in any meaningful way now that the corrupt Express and the pathetic Daily Cal have both gone whole hog reactionary. This story concerned how an alumni couple who had distinguished themselves by donating money to the University had written him to decry both the wanton over-reaction and ill-treatment of the opposition to the destruction of the grove and to the many examples of unethical compensation schemes exposed recently. They received a reply from Birgeneau which they described as an attempt at intimidation and turned over to the press. In his letter, Birgeneau wrote that the majority of opposition to the athletic center came from people who were motivated by racism against the low-income minority students who will benefit from it the most.

I say a prayer for the trees now lost and for the all the beings who abide.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Midnight Walk

Looking again toward the points of restoration and salvation, I describe here the essential walk comprised of the idea of many separate late night walks...

Usually not earlier than 11 o'clock PM and as sometimes as late as 2AM, I set on a fairly established course. Unless I am hitting the mail box up Bancroft, I generally cut right across to lower Sproul plaza and cross it diagonally while picking up speed. The revelry at student drinking hole can vary from a skeleton crew of lonely drinkers to a mob in alcoholic mating mode. Their celebrations are given the lie by the lost souls who seem to spend the night huddled on the unforgiving benches across the plaza. I proceed to the creek and turn up the walkway to cross it at Sather Gate-- a structure topped with glass globes that throw a warm colored illumination on some abutting red woods. Several plaques attached to the Gate show plump rather sensuous nudes and were in fact only returned there after years of sequestration in some prudish dungeon. Unlike the stylized stone phallus broken from the angel over Oscar Wilde's grave and hidden in a furtive conservateur's office in a cemetery in Paris, they were returned to public view during more open times. They can perhaps be expected to disappear again shortly.

My own extremities intact, I walk across on a marble border stone runner to save me feet. Tonight a strange structure has arisen on the walkway. It began as a row of perpendicular wooden beams set on end and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Now they are covered in sheeting and look solid. It constitutes yet another intrusion into pedestrian space.*
Lone students or small groups pass on the dark concourse sometimes a little guardedly. There is usually a silent giant with red hair who sleeps there along with a general assumption of his harmlessness. If he hasn't turned in yet he stands around the mound of his back pack, observing what there is to observe I suppose. Then he sacks out along the sidewalk without any apparent attempt at concealment. He is one of the longest-running street people these days, a very familiar sight no doubt tolerated by the rather profuse campus cops.
I think the cops have gotten to recognize me as well, as the guy who takes an exercise walk on campus year-round, rain or star shine. They certainly make themselves seen at this time of night. One night as I rounded a sidewalk in front of the Chan Shen auditorium, a police car hurled around the corner on the sidewalk at a pretty fast clip. I had to scoot out of the way onto the grass at the last minute. Most vehicular activity by the UC police is conducted at similar reckless rates of speed-and they get demonstrably pissed if anything forces them to slow down.
Think of the type of person who becomes a cop, then turn him loose in a vehicle on a boring patrol--all police unions fights any attempt to have cops walk around on a beat, only the most effective way to reduce crime.
Last Spring the UC police were having a mini-jamboree in this area (as opposed to their all-out oppression and occupation of the Oak Grove). A lone tree-sitter had first occupied a tree on the creek opposite Wheeler hall, then had moved to a very central oak tree a little downhill. Despite the low branches and lack of perching spots, he managed to evade the cops for a month or two. He turned out to be twice a hero as one of the last hold-outs in the Oaks tree-sit as well--they call him "Shem". I'll return to tell that tale.
The cops grabbed his sleeping bag and food at one point and tried to prevent others from supplying him with food and water. These techniques and their implied ideology were adopted from the Oak Grove tree-sit punishment squad the way the Abu Ghraib perpetrators adopted the theory and practices tested-out at Guantanamo.

I push on through. As I walk on down slopes I repeatedly join my hands behind my head and bring them forward like a baseball pitcher's warm-up motion. An incline begins on the central campus walk around the point of the ornamental wayside clock that keeps good time and audibly jumps a Roman numeral as I pass. This gets me ready to round my turn in front of the library and start up a somewhat greater incline My heart is beating encouragingly as I don't slow down. Students are often scattered about under the tremendous -visible-from-space lighting that is is on all night in this vicinity turning the staely building's facade blinding white at night.

Last night I was met by what would be a surprise if anything surprised me any more. Richard Brautigan wrote the final surprise is that nothing surprises you anymore. A large temporary pavilion covered in white plastic had been erected on one of the last surviving open lawns--one vital to campus social life I might also suggest. His of course is typical of the "Highway 61 Revisited" crash-and-burn for short-term results mentality of contemporary American capitalism. Golden barges for departing administrators as they raise costs for students and think nothing of subjecting them to four-years of construction during their education. The arbors and open spaces that make the campus looks so good in promotional brochures are apparently available to be withheld to accommodate semi-privatized expansion.

But I shall not be stymied by the doing of the short-sighted. I persevered on to my plateau of return. I climbed the stairs leading to the Campanile and continued on that way, touching the granite orb as my part of my ritual of return. Next a brief rest at the steps that lead down from the Campanile, as I looked out at the Golden Gate reckoning the weather by what I see--the lights of the bridge seen in clarity mean no cold fog is on its way in. I looked up at the clock and noted as many of the planets and stars as I could.
Then with a nod to the carotid of old Honest Abe Lincoln, I shuddered a little at the knowledge that many levels of the Campanile are used to store skulls and bones--in case "we" need them again. Sometimes love-birds perch on the facing bench with it's trumpet vine bush adding to its decorative effect.
As always I proceeded to the sun dial and climbed the base of whose pedestal. It's like a lectern or a pulpit. When I looked up at the Campanile I saw the lights trained on it form a cross in the sky---made more visible last night by the mists. I crossed myself then said the Lord's Prayer. Then squinting up at the structure I see how it resembles an icon of the Virgin Mary, and say a Hail Mary for my Mother. Sometime passers-by notice me there praying, I bless them silently as well.
At this stage I felt very good as I usually do on my walk. I start down the way home doing an upper body motion, sort of like making a heart shape with my arms, seventy-five times. And I finished by crossing lower Sproul with my hands on my head in what I call my "perp walk." I crossed the incandescent boulevard with its round-the-clock traffic and intrigue. Then I climbed the precipitous staircase for a good night's sleep.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Pacific Ocean Healing

On the sweltering afternoon of Friday September the fifth, the University of California cut and destroyed the lives of all but a handful of the trees at Memorial Grove. In an upcoming entry, I'll write the story of my sojourn there the Sunday following. Now I want to remember the intervening Saturday and an escape to the seaside...

The September heatwave ensued and I saw my escape plan beckoning from the back deck---San Francisco under clear skies. Ever the noirish gentleman, I was dressed nattily in an l.l.bean long-sleeved blue striped cotton shirt, boxer shorts, black cargo shorts worn with black cotton socks and blundstone boots, black sunglasses and a black beret. I brought with me my city lights canvas book-bag, with water, some raisins, prescription cookies, and an extra whole foods bag to carry the boots on the beach. That's it--all rations and gear accounted for.
I intended to wait until I was aboard a street car headed for the ocean before I devoured my almond shortbread cookie. It was created with butter containing the active ingredient from quite high grade cannabis. But to keep travel fun until then I had a few quick puffs of a blend of four or five different varietals before leaving. My lovely radio program, "Thistle and Shamrock" hosted by the endearing Fiona Ritchie, had just commenced at 2 PM when I plunged out into the heat. High 80s.
The students had recently repopulated, young people were everywhere--generally not wearing much clothing. Down the chute through campus, and into the downtown BART station. A busy and slightly cheerful Saturday crowd fills the train to San Francisco. I spied a friend among the standees across the car. He is an Oakland poet, thirties, sort of patrician Irish-American background, from Massachusetts like me, we were both friends of the late Beat Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. Despite his doctorate in English from UC Berkeley, he still has his long thick mane and he reports on hip hop for the institutional local alternative free-weekly. Tall and good-looking, he reminds me of the young John Wayne. Leaning up by the door, he was reading a book entitled The White Tomb.
He got off at Embarcadero, my stop, so I was able to catch up to him. I had decided that the extra half cookie I had brought with me would go to him. I told him that he was looking too serious otherwise--don't forget that the White Tomb is where we are going to put McCain. It was a enjoyable moment before we hurried off on our separate ways. He was headed to work, poor lad.

In a moment I was down at the Muni platform waiting on a train. I impetuously hopped aboard a present "N-Judah" rather than wait a few minutes more for the "L" train to the Zoo. But that was not to be. The driver somehow forgot what train he was driving and followed the tracks for the "L" rather than the "N." In short order the local crowd sounded alarm when they realized this.
The driver stopped at the next station and most got out and dashed over to the other side for a return to the "N" line. The driver just looked flummoxed and didn't really have advice or even an announcement for the remaining crowd. Just the "L" arrived and before much longer the purported "N" slid off. I packed myself into the cannery of a crowded car for a hot ride, now standing up. I had begun my cookie before the mishap and it was happening before the long ride ended.

I relish touring the wind-worn precincts along the neighborhoods approaching Ocean Beach. I look for remnants of the 20th century in architecture and in the nostalgic signs of the out-lying neighborhoods of old San Francisco. From the West Portal with its tidy branch library, the Philosopher's Bench bar, the enticingly-named "Squat and Gobble" eatery. The forlorn pet stores that serve a largely Asian clientele; the "Irish Home Care" service for the dear old inhabitants of the neat quiet cottages one sees passing by; the look of the locals in this part of town, I see all, I notice all, on this long ride culminating in quietude at the ocean and the zoo.

The "L" to the Zoo stop is a convenient conveyance to the beach. As far as the managery itself is concerned, I have not visited it or any other zoo in decades. I hold animals too dearly to enjoy seeing them imprisoned. Even knowing that it is the only way I will see the esteemed lemur face to face, I can not indulge myself at the animal's expense. That said, I am not above, and I was not this day above, going to the open fence by the entrance where one can see some of the captive animals ranging across a hillside. As I walked over finishing the shortbread I spoke to a young black boy who was sitting next to me at Embarcadero station. "You came all the way to see the animals?" He dug it when I said I loved them too. I told to enjoy himself and went to see the cheapskate's view of the zoo.
Off in the distance I did see a young giraffe move past, but mainly I observed various Ibex resting in sort of a kneeling position with horns ten feet in the air, some somnolent storks, and some restless ostriches all fairly close by. Best of all was a glorious zebra who stood at the closest point looking back at me. He seemed glad to see me and to respond pleasurably to me, swiveling his ears to my sweet talk:"What a nice zebra! You're nice!" Of course most animal pleasure in one's company is intimately connected to their expectation that one may have food to give to them.

The San Francisco Zoo gained new infamy last Christmas day. Three wannabe gangstas taunted a Siberian tiger to the extent that it leapt from it's enclosure and attacked them. They had stood on a railing while yelling and waving their arms in a primate danger display that is beyond archetypal all the way to instinctual. And the tiger responded out of instinct to their threat at the threshold of its meager domain. The two older brothers, hostile ne'er-do-wells apparently, had lived. When rescued they had been cowering outside the snack bar where the tiger had stalked them. They had induced an under-age friend to join them for intoxicated animal-baiting on Christmas. When the boy's father reached them by phone they denied knowing his whereabouts. He did not survive the attack. Nor did the exquisite female tiger, one of only 500 left in the world, survive the police.
I happened to have been at the Cliff House a few miles from there when it happened. At 5 PM that day as the zoo was closing, I watched the sun set turn the windy cold sky blood red. In contemplation of a wildly faint possibility, I say, as I have always said, I would forgive a great beast such as the tiger if ever circumstances compelled it to devour me.

I continued to the beach, negotiating the pent-up lanes of traffic of the "great highway." Fully be-cookied by this point, the sheer exhilaration of the ocean vista of glorious breakers made my heart feel too large for my chest. From Mount Tamalpais and the headlands of Marin to the mysterious and dim southern coast all the land and sea was shining in the bright daylight.

Doffing my boots to skim the wet sand, I began my northward walk. A sizable crowd flocked around the immediate vicinity but began to thin as I covered ground. Delighted children danced around my gait in time with the sea's ebb and flow. Not just surfers but a good many swimmers were off on the wet side of me. Despite the absence of life-guards, going myself began to seem a lot safer with so many around who might see me if I was snatched by the waves. I watched a guy with a big belly rolling in the breakers and decided if he could endure it I could as well. Careful readers may recall that I had not brought with me a swimming outfit-- but I was to be undeterred.
I walked on until the inevitable fishing poles were planted and fewer people were encamped. Just a nearby group of young men incessantly throwing a football, catching it while falling in the water, fairly oblivious to the people nearby. I sat on the edge of a small wall and let a little time pass. Then, after determining no one was observing me, I took off my walking shorts and headed for the water in navy and gray-striped boxer shorts.
My feet and calves had met the cold saltwater but all the more cold-sensitive parts of my body needed to be introduced. Having grown up on the Atlantic I have been an ocean swimmer all my life--I have the idea of how to enter cold water without inducing a heart seizure. This involves quickly leaning over and splashing water on one's chest, the back of one's neck, and finally over ones head. Then you must dive in full-length as soon as possible. All this I did in rapid order--and it felt like being born. A transitional return to the original primordial soup from where all life came. Instantly I evolved into a renewed version of the organism I used to be.
While this was happening--as I sprung back to my feet recovering from a situation in which my undershorts gave into the persuasion of the waters--I noticed one of the fisherman, a middle-aged Chinese guy, was gaping at me in a mild show of disbelief. Let's see him try to do it--then he may form his opinion of my behavior. Another plunge and that was enough for me, I walked back to my spot on the wall--my circulation thundering, the inside of my head chilled and resplendent.
More people moved into the area and the fisherman, ostensibly unsuccessful, gave up the turf. People might have noticed what I had done--but sincerely, on both sides, who cares? I waited to drip-dry a while (no towel recall) then put my shirt over my lower half and lowered the wet boxers. The walking shorts were soon back on all was beyond criticism.
I stayed for hours smiling the whole time at the children, at the beach-walkers and the humorous dogs. A beach patrol vehicle pulled up to the young athletes and began to address them over a rooftop megaphone. Two other security figures waited nearby on cartoonish beach motorcycles--these days there is always plenty of funding for security. They drove off and after a few minutes I went over to one of the young men to ask what they had said. "Haven't the slightest idea...couldn't hear 'em." He sounded like he was Irish. The entire time I was there, the four of them were in an ecstatic world of constant motion on a sparkling beach in their youthful health. It was a place I could only gaze at in appreciation and vaguely recall.
I climbed the rough dirty "dune" in search of a discrete leak then stayed up high to gaze endlessly at the sea and at the frivolity. A lady on a fairly distant blanket saw me up there smiling. She kept looking and seemed to show a little concern, nudging her male companion.
As fetching as her green plaid bathing-suit bottom was, she need not have worried. I'd seen it before plenty. They lost interest in me soon enough and I skied back down the cascading sand.
So, hours drifted past, the waves got closer to me, and I knew I should resume my beach walk and go home. I headed North to catch a "N" train at Judah street. As I walked on past the section of the beach where the concrete wall and the highway are visible, to where dunes get bonny and the beach is busy again, I noticed a family of surfers having dinner wearing wet suits--father, mother, older sister, kids playing catch in little wet suits half-peeled-off.
My stride was a source of pride as I glided through innumerable scenes. Sweet little sandpipers combed the vacant stretches; a translucent jellyfish fell from outer space; a naked little boy ran by me giggling; pretty girls looked innocently aware of admiring eyes; a squadron of pelicans crossed the sunlight on the sea out where the surfers hung. I smiled and the world seemed to smile back.