Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Last Tree

The choppers whirled a few feet away, sending still green oak leaves from their branches. It circled, waiting for confrontation.  It circled, adding swift currents of anxious air. 
This was not the sweet sound of evacuation. It was not civilization coming with dry walls in the midst of a flood. It was the brutal force of empire. It was metal and strength looming from above. It was reinforced steel and bullets. It was brute strength.
There was one more tree left, the rest had been cleared away.  Chopped, roots dug, bark mulched.
I had been there when there was still a small grove of oak trees. It had been a sunny Saturday. Blue. A soft wind that carried summer on its wings. The earth had been covered in a blanket of tan leaves that were hard and brittle and sharp along the edges.
The spirit was still young then. There was still a chance, they thought, to save the grove. A small group had gathered around a guitarist.  He leaned against a tree, eyes closed in concentration, lyrics forming on his lips.
My steps echoed with crunching leaves, adding a bit of unnoticed rhythm.  The leaves, one step closer to the earth. Dust. The trees were a canopy. Late afternoon light sprinkled in like glittering jewels. 
A barefoot man in cutoff jeans walked through the grove holding burning sage.  A thin, button-up shirt, unbuttoned now, exposed his smooth hairless chest.  Skunk and earth.  Smoke looked like genie dreams in the rays of sunlight.  
Close to the sidewalk, a few bicycle  activists distributed bruised apples and oranges collected from the nearby farmer’s market. The small space was alive. Young girls in wide skirts.  Old women with long white hair that had seen this all before, and yet still hoped. 
"We will save it," they claimed.  They would.  They wanted to.
Months later, the university was through with games.  The guitarist, apples, the sage.  All forcibly removed.  The squirrels, birds, they were all gone. The police had built a metal chain link fence around the grove, trapping a few lone tree sitters that had climbed into the thick oak branches as a last resort.
I had almost been one of those girls. I had almost taken my sleeping bag and gone into the night. There could have been moon light, a stolen kiss, but that was a different path. I stayed in my blue carnival house.  Warm, cool-hued and imagining, never regretting a night under the stars that would never be.  
There was a different tree to climb and I listened to him sooth me like water.  Cool.  Tranquil.  His words dripped down my ears.
The fence went up, metal and cold, doing what it was designed to do. The crowds watched, pushed to the other side of the street, their hands clutching the barrier, watching as the chainsaws came. They cut every old oak in the grove.  They turned a home to little pieces, they turned it into dust. 
Just one lone tree remained.  The barefoot activists. Just a few thorns left.
Force was nothing new, force stretched out, trickling into every dark hole.  Fifty years. It was not about war or free speech, it was only trees. Nothing had changed, the eyes of the country still blinked in hazy sleep.
Far worse had been done, more violence stood tall on batons, ready for another skull. 
The police came, the fingernails on the octopus, the lowest level that would squeeze into those holes, bashing the centers with their metal-toed boots. Trained men.  Guns, bullets, gas, masks, batons, handcuffs.  Helicopters. Once again.
There were just a few left. The only animals now remained high in their branches, waiting for the inevitable.  Barefoot, eating granola, waving signs, burning sage.  Surrounded by gas and guns, the tree could offer no protection. Its own death was coming. 
The grove was gone.  Steel bars and cement were no longer a bad dream.  The hard hats were ready.  Plans.  Fiberglass.  The obstacles were cleared and soon it would all be over. Most would forget this ever happened.
I listened to it on the radio, driving early. Bright morning light coming through the windshield.  News of the final standoff. The barefoot people came down. They said they had been assured no charges would be pressed.  The university later denied making that promise.  And the final tree came down. 

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