Going Au Natural to Save the Oaks:
UC Berkeley's Free Tree Movement

Gar Smith / The-Edge
May 8, 2007

Scores of tree-lovers dropped their clothes and dropped to the ground to record a haunting image that may help save Berkeley's Memorial Oak Grove from a developer's bulldozers.
Credit: ©2007 Jack Gescheidt. www.treespiritproject.com
The University of California at Berkeley stirred up a hornets' nest of eco-activism when officials announced plans to bulldoze a landmark oak grove to make room for an athletic training facility. Under the plan, the 38 towering coast live oaks and 66 other trees that comprise the Memorial Oak Grove would be removed to accommodate the new building.

The Memorial Grove and the nearby Memorial Stadium were dedicated in 1923 to honor the Berkeley students who lost their lives in World War I. Now the current generation of Berkeley students is fighting a battle to save the oaks from the university's war against nature.

Students and community activists flocked to the site and many of them, in the spirit of local eco-hero Julia Butterfly, took up residence in the oaks' commodious boughs. Over the many months of the tree-sit, campus police have staged raids to confiscate belongings and have managed to arrest several tree-sitters on charges of "trespassing" but the pro-oak alliance is standing firm. And the oaks defenders have some pretty good arguments to back up their demands.

"Saving intact groves of trees in our urban areas is one of the important actions people can take to turn global warming around," the Save the Oaks coalition maintains. The trees' defenders point out that "the grove is the last significant stand of coast live oaks in the Berkeley lowlands and it serves as a key wildlife corridor, frequented by foxes, deer, raccoons, skunks and myriad species of birds and insects.

"This ecosystem of tress is irreplaceable and will be lost if the University of California and its agents moves forward with these plans to destroy the grove against the wishes of the City of Berkeley and its residents.

"With sudden oak death syndrome and development sprawl ravaging the oak population throughout California, this grove of healthy oaks -- one is 200 years old -- is important to the gene pool and a key link in the urban-wildlands interface."

And there's one other salient point that suggests building a sports facility on this stretch of hillside above the Berkeley campus is not a good idea -- the land sits atop the Hayward Fault, an active earthquake zone.

Under the Berkeley Coast Live Oak Moratorium law, it is illegal to cut down any oak with a circumference greater than six inches. But UC, as a state university, doesn't have to abide by city laws -- a major source of continuing town-gown frictions.

Geologists, seismologists, environmental scientists and the Sierra Club have backed the demands of the Save the Oaks coalition of students, faculty, alumni and residents. They have even proposed a solution that involves moving the training building to a safer location near an existing stadium on the Western edge of the Berkeley campus.

The Tree Spirit Project Visits the Grove
On March 17, the grove's defenders received support from an unexpected source a San Francisco photographer named Jack Gescheidt. Gescheidt has taken his life-long fascination with trees and his skills as a photographer to create a compelling new kind of nature photography.

It's fair to say that Gescheidt has taken the phrase "tree hugger" to new heights -- by staging spontaneous interactions in which a few people, or scores of people, disrobe and drape their bodies over the trunks and limbs of trees. Some of Gescheidt's stunning photos are staged in rural woodlands but many -- like the one he recently shot for the Memorial Grove -- are staged right in the heart of the city, with pedestrians and car traffic within easy eye-shot.

When Gescheidt posted a notice on Craigslist that he was planning to photograph Berkeley's endangered oaks, more than 75 of his friends, fans, and absolute strangers showed up to drop their clothes and pose beneath the boughs while the tree-sitters shed their wraps and posed naked overhead on the oaks' sprawling limbs.

After the photo shoot was over, The-Edge asked Gescheidt how he became involved in this local campaign. Gescheidt explained that he heard about the campaign to Save the Oaks not from neighbors across the Bay but from a story in the New York Times. The tree-sit made national news after three legendary Berkeley septuagenarians -- former Mayor Shirley Dean, former Councilmember Betty Olds, and Save the Bay Founder Sylvia McLaughlin -- climbed up into the trees to join the vigil for their protection.

Dean noted that, between them, the three Berkeley elders represented 250 years of life experience. Dean told the cheering crowd gathered below that her wish was that the oaks would survive to be enjoyed by her grandchildren.

"I crossed the bridge to check it out and I was moved," Gescheidt recalled. "Walking into that grove felt like entering a cathedral. And in the branches were these people who had reverted back in time by living in trees."

Captivated, Gescheidt approached some of the protest organizers, explained the kind of work he had done over the year at the Tree Spirit Project, combining images of naked human bodies draped over living trees in loving embraces. "I discussed what a mutual project could do for the campaign to save the oaks and what it could accomplish for the Tree Spirit Project. It worked both ways."

"One gear of mine is extremely verbal," Jack admits. "I can talk but sometimes talking is beside the point. The tree-sitters have gone largely non-verbal. Close to the trees, they have become excited, alive-in-the-moment, out-on-a-limb, literally! As Edward Abbey said, you're only fully alive when death is nearby."

Gescheidt understands how many people who read about the tree-sitters may choose to dismiss them charitably ("Oh, they're just kids") or indignantly ("Get a job!") but the fact is, having met them and observed them in their "elevated state," Gescheidt has come to see the vigilers as people who are "bonding -- in a positive way -- like children. But these are innocents who are providing a profound and important role."

Getting Naked to Save the Oaks
Sitting comfortably in the lower branches of one of the oaks, Jack explained that the tree-sitters and the scores of volunteers who showed up to be in the photo shoot should "feel free to be in the picture clothed or not. You are free to choose."

"My camera's here, folks," Gescheidt told the assembled crowd. "If you're not shy, come up close. If not, stay where you're comfortable." This is the "44th or 45th" Tree Spirit photo," Gescheidt tells The-Edge and, to date, he has avoided the Cecile B. DeMille Syndrome. "I haven't ever used a megaphone," he notes proudly. "I want the experience to be quiet and contemplative." So far, he's been able to conduct the proceedings using only "cupped hands and voice projection." He admits this might change if he ever finds himself doing a TreeSpirit shoot with an undressed cast of thousands.

Some of the loftier tree-sitters have clambered down from perches 40 feet above the ground to drape themselves over lower boughs that are framed within the camera's view. They choose their perches and postures without any direction from Gescheidt. By some kind of propinquitous, alchemical magic, their pale bodies seemed to form a circle in the leafy air -- especially thanks to the daring of one young man who dangles backwards from a limb, suspended by a single leg bent over a thick oak branch.

"The police were completely professional," Gescheidt says after the shoot. "Some people [who came to the photo shoot] didn't want to risk arrest." Only Gescheidt was specifically threatened with arrest if he proceeded with the event. "If they were going to arrest me, they would," he reflected, "but they didn't."

Asked why the Berkeley campus police ultimately decided to stand by and let the event happen (some were seen to relax and smile as the serene gathering of people, young and old, with bodies of many hues, calmly began to shuck their clothing), Gescheidt replied: "I was thrilled to have them there. They are 'peace officers' and we are, after all, peaceful people. Our goal was to be peaceful together. That's something the trees teach."

The Variables Were Trebled
As a photographer with a unique subject, Gescheidt can never be certain what kind of event will unfold, what kind of photo will evolve or even if a photo shoot will actually happen. The composition depends on how many people actually show up and that often depends on the weather. In this case, he said, "the variables were trebled" because there were three hurdles -- the police could have refused to allow people to assemble; they could have prevented people from lying clothed on the ground; they could have arrested anyone who dared remove their clothing.

The announcement of the event triggered a media-frenzy. TV remote broadcast trucks descended on Piedmont Avenue and a mob of photographers -- professional and amateur -- flocked to the scene. After Jack entreated the other photographers to retreat to the periphery, he began to snap his shutter scores of times capturing multiple images of the living carpet of naked bodies and the cavorting figures in the trees, extended through space like acrobatic performers in an au natural performance of Circe de Soleil.

And how do you go about selecting a single image to represent the event?

Gescheidt's response combines a guffaw and a groan: "Oh! Just the usual joyful agony!" In this case, he says, it came down to a choice of two images. One was a longer vertical view that took in the tree-sitters and the community below. The other was a cropped horizontal shot of four naked tree-sitters. Gescheidt felt the horizontal image offered the better composition but the vertical image (which he finally selected) captured the larger story and provided more of a visual celebration of the grove itself.

Pulling off a Tree Spirit Shoot
"I always do a 'dressed rehearsal' first," Gescheidt explains. This gives people an opportunity to explore the terrain and find a niche in nature that feels comfortable. And this is important since posing for a Tree Spirit portrait can mean sprawling on the ground or cuddling up against an expanse of bark for the better part of an hour. Sometime, if the weather is warm and the site is remote enough, the volunteers will doff their clothes almost immediately.

More often than not, the weather doesn't start out being warm. Unexpectedly cold weather (or an unforeseen rain squall) can pull the plug on a tree-shoot that's been in the works for weeks.

"It was chilly at first, so people got into position clothed. It's a completely different feeling once you abandon your clothes and begin to feel the ground and leaves on your skin."

There's clearly something fundamentally liberating and life-affirming about tossing off your clothing in the leafy chapel of a sun-warmed oak grove smack in the middle of a major American city.

One of the first volunteers to show up was Jasmine, a zaftig African-American woman who took a series of busses to reach the shoot-site. She arrived two hours early and was among the last to leave -- still smiling broadly. This was the first time she had participated in a Tree Spirit event. She seemed beautifully energized by the experience.

After the shoot, a tall blonde with shoulder-length hair and a sculpted body, climbed back into her jeans and jacket. She walked a mile back to the downtown Berkeley BART station, swinging her shoulders and singing buoyantly the entire distance.

A Message for the Media

When the media encircled Gescheidt after the shoot, he was ready with a well-oiled sound bite, explaining that it was important to preserve the grove since it represented "the last surviving stand of native low-land oaks in the Berkeley plains."

The tree-sitters have made it plain that they aren't against the new building. They just prefer that it be built somewhere else. There is a site on the campus, near an existing sports stadium that would be suitable. Besides, the grove's defenders point out, the proposed building would be built right on top of the Hayward Fault.

Given the fact that the University's existing Coliseum is crumbling and located on an active fault line, it would seem to make more sense for the University to spend its money on tearing down the potential death-trap and replacing the concrete relic with -- what else? -- more native California oaks.

Looking back on the event, Gescheidt admitted: "I was, and remain, moved by events of the day. So many tree and nature lovers came together to show concern and affection for these trees and share a magical community experience. I felt supported by dear old friends and was thrilled to meet new ones.

Gescheidt paused to quote the Chinese poet, Lao Tzu:
"Sitting quietly
Doing nothing,
The spring comes
And the grass grows."

"There's tremendous power in being centered," Gescheidt says, " We can have our cities, wise development, and green trees too, if we speak up. We will all be immeasurably healthier and happier for it,"

What You Can Do:

  • Learn more about the campaign at www.SaveOaks.com.
  • Watch videos of the photo shoot on the TreeSpirit website (www.treespiritproject.org). Dozens of additional videos can be viewed on YouTube.com.

    For more information contact:

  • Home | Background | News | Links | Donate | Contact Us |

    (510) THE-EDGE (843-3343)
    E-mail us at gar.smith@earthlink.net