December 4, 2000
When seven years ago, almost to the day, we closed the purchase of the small 1,000 square foot 70-year old house, an old redwood weekend cabin for the wealthy San Franciscans of time past, we had no idea we had moved into a neighborhood in the midst of a public uproar.
Right in front of our driveway stood two traffic devices in a half-moon shape of about 20 feet long and 6 feet wide at the farther edge of the elongated moon-like curve. One was on our side of the street and the other one, staggered, was on the other side, forming a chicane. They were essentially planter beds with a raywood ash tree in each, a few flowers and lots of weeds. They were supposed to slow down the speed of traffic. The entire neighborhood was dotted with those planter beds along the streets and at each intersection was a full circle with newly planted oak trees.
We learned of the public uproar over the traffic devices through a crisis of our own. Right after moving in, we noticed that neighbors were parking their vehicles on both sides of our driveway perpendicularly to the hedges lining our 80-foot wide lot. The cars and trucks were parked so closely to our driveway that, with the traffic device extending over one-fourth of the entrance, it made getting in and out of the driveway a delicate at best and hazardous proposition at worst. So we felt we could reasonably ask our neighbors to stop parking thus.
Little did we know! We were told the right-of-way was not part of our "property" (a factual assertion), that they had always parked in such fashion (a human-natured assertion), and that they would go on as always (an incorrect assertion, as it turned out, that was closer to an assumption than to a statement).
We kept asking, left notes on the windshields, to no avail. We researched the laws of parking in the county, found out that vehicles were not supposed to park perpendicularly on the right-of-way, called the local constables - that would be the sheriff office - to help us with the matter. The constables were less than eager to get entangled in such a minor dispute and left us on our own to find a solution. We decided to drive wood stakes in the ground, every four feet along the right-of-way. The next morning, the picket would be laying broken on the ground… Drive them again… Broken again… We tried to drive steel stakes instead. These could not be broken, right? Right, but the constables came to let us know they were dangerous to public safety and had to be removed. We removed them and were again left alone with our problem. Safety, a notion endeared to the American psyche, was not deemed worthy of the "authorities" when it touched a resident concerned by the precariousness of entering or exiting one's driveway.
We then began to experience the natural feelings any hapless biped goes through when stuck in a very unpleasant situation caused by other people: annoyance, irritation, even anger. Too often, this kind of sentiments leads to antagonism and low-degree neighborly war-like actions. Actions cause reactions, etc… Rarely does anything positive come out of those futile games. So, we let the issue rest for two or three months in order to give our testosterone time to return to a more acceptable level. It helped with the anger but did little to alleviate our problem.
Then one morning, looking at the traffic devices with their proud trees planted in their middles, we hit our foreheads and said: "Why not plant along the right-of-way?" This was an obvious choice: Beautifying the neighborhood to get rid of a nuisance looked to us as a stroke of genius to defuse the unfriendly state of affairs with the neighbors. Little did we know again!
We proceeded with our plans and planted a row of oleanders close enough that vehicles could not park in between them and big enough that they would not be driven over by the possibly unhappy and outsmarted residents. A week later, a notice from the county public works department was in our mailbox. We had to remove the oleanders or they would be removed at our cost by the department (our tax dollars at work!). The reason? They were planted too close to the street.
We called the public works department and tried to explain the circumstances, to no avail. A rule is a rule, is a rule. What about the law in the books that clearly indicates that vehicles can only park along, not perpendicularly to the street? The fact that a rule is being violated is not a reason to violate another one was the answer. And with this impeccable logic we felt that the entire world was against the two of us. We were, in other words, quite depressed.
But we did not give up. Instead we walked all over the neighborhood and collected the addresses of the lots that had plantations or railroad ties along the right-of-way that were as close or closer to the streets than our oleanders were. And we called the department of public works again and politely acknowledged that we understood there was a rule in the books and that we should follow it. However, we also submitted that if the rule had to apply to one residential lot it should apply to all lots in the neighborhood. A simple notion of fairness also anchored in the American psyche made us suggest to the head of the department that his decision to enforce the rule with us but not with anyone else could be lamentably construed as an act of discrimination against a newly arrived resident with a heavy foreign accent…
While we'll never really know whether our Cartesian logic had much effect on that gentleman one could surmise that the same gentleman was not ready to entertain the possibility of a discrimination case (which we would never have filed…but he did not know it…) to defend the rights of another resident who had complained to the county about those miserable little weedy oleanders. And so, with admirable poise, he gently retreated by asking us to contact a landscape architect who was the president of a neighborhood organization called the Fair Oaks Beautification Association (FOBA). If FOBA considered that our planting was acceptable, we were told, then the county would let the matter rest.
We contacted FOBA and explained the circumstances to its president. He diligently visited our place and wrote a letter to the public works department asserting that the oleanders were not a nuisance or a hazard to the safety and well being of the residents, that they actually were beautifying the neighborhood, etc., etc., etc. … and the rest is history!
We joined the association, met many residents and learned about the public uproar surrounding the traffic devices that had been installed to allegedly slow down the traffic and beautify the area. The population was equally divided among the proponents, the opponents and the undecided residents who would go with the flow one way or another in typical American flair: 20-20-60.
The traffic device plan was actually a compromise reached out of another plan devised by the adjoining incorporated town of Atherton, a very wealthy enclave in Silicon Valley. Their residents had decided to close all the adjoining streets with barriers so that automobilists could no longer drive through the two neighborhoods. The proponents of the compromise carried the day. Their opponents who wanted no change whatsoever were up in arms, condemning the traffic devices and the overall plan as an unjustified attack against an American right as potent as the right to bear arms, that of not having our dear cars and trucks encumbered by silly laws and regulations. The devices, in their opinion, were ugly, the trees a hazard to the drivers who could not see further than from one device to the other, thus forcing them to slow down. The proponents, a reasonable bunch of individuals across class lines, argued that this was a plan that was better than having the streets entirely closed to circulation, that something needed to be done to alleviate the Atherton residents' concerns, and that it would indeed beautify the area.
The opponents would not give up though. And so started the chainsaw war and used oil poisoning.
It first began with some residents taking pleasure in speeding along the streets as to say to the proponents, "you see, your - insert your favorite expletive here - devices don't do their job. We can still ride as fast as we want!" Of course, in so doing, they demonstrated that the devices were not therefore detrimental to traffic, thus obliterating the very case they had been making all along…
Then one morning we were told a truck had run over a tree on the main street. So the proponents decided to place some big rocks on, or drive 10"x10" wood stakes in the ground in the "line of fire" so that truck could not ride over the devices. Sometime later a tree was chain sawed. Another day, only half of the trunk of another tree was sawed. Yet another time, the bark would be removed all around the trunk so that the tree whose lifeline runs through its bark would inexorably die. Time and again trees would be destroyed. Even used car engine oil would be poured around the root bowl, thus slowly killing the secretly attacked tree. Attacks would almost always occur late evenings or in the middle of the night.
FOBA's members would meet and try to devise a strategy. Two schools of thought were in play. In both cases it was agreed that we should do our utmost to reach out to the leadership of the opponents. But that was leading us nowhere, as the leaders of the other side did not know who was behind the tree attacks. Yet, while not condoning the attacks, they would never miss an opportunity to point out that such vandalism was to be expected when a bunch of young and upcoming bleeding-heart environmentalists were forcing an entire community into complying with devices the community never wanted in the first place. That the neighborhood device plan was a response to a much more drastic one instigated by the wealthier residents of the adjoining community, the complete closing of all the streets, left the opponents unfazed. They'd rather have gone to court over the issue, dismissing the fact that the wealthier community could have taken its time and bankrupt us with costly attorney fees and countless appeals.
The law is another endearing component of the American psyche. To any real or perceived prejudice the court will find a just and honorable remedy, so the story goes. Thus, there is no need to find solutions, no need to compromise. A judge in black attire, often totally detached from the events at hand will decide for us. We are told that this is the best system in the "civilized" world where disputes are adjudicated by trained professionals, thus rendering moot our common responsibilities as humans and neighbors.
And the law was called upon by some of the proponents who justly regarded the damages done to the trees as unlawful. Let's have the sheriff apprehend the culprit and have the full force of the law applied to the alleged felon. That will drive a powerful message to the opponents. They have to understand that we "mean business," they would argue. The law is the law. Tit for tat, an eye for an eye… A few of those who espoused that view had seen their mailboxes filled with excrement in the past months and had been subjugated to minor harassments, hostile and insulting letters. They were tired and ready for retribution through the law. They even were proposing to raise reward money of $500 for anyone who would come forward with information leading to the arrest and successful prosecution of the culprit.
Others, perhaps more cool-headed, certainly less confrontational individuals, analyzed the situation in other terms. The tit for tat approach and the idea of a reward did not appeal to them. How long would it take to bring the perpetrators to justice? Would the reward escalate the conflict? Should we start carrying guns and reenact some B-movie in the Wild Wild West? It did not look like a very palatable option to them. They also took into account that the culprits were always acting in the dark and in secret. They could only boast about their actions surreptitiously. They were having an effect on the neighborhood but could not claim authorship. What if, it was argued, instead of acknowledging those somewhat nefarious individuals we ignored them? What if, every time a tree was destroyed during the night, a replacement tree would be planted the next morning? We had time on our side. We had plenty of trees donated by local nurseries or paid by various grants. Could determination prevail upon cowardice? How long would they carry on if their acts of sabotage were to be erased time and again? Like graffiti painted on a wall, repaint the wall, ignore the perpetrator. Do it again and again and the person behind the graffiti will eventually lose interest… You can't keep doing something night after night with the incurring risks to your freedom and yet never enjoy your daring exploits.
Reason prevailed; we replanted. Endurance prevailed; we replanted again. Determination prevailed; we replanted again, and again, and again.
Seven years later all the trees are gently growing, their young canapés bringing shade and solace in the summer months. The tree cutters have since been forgotten. They may have moved; they may silently resent the whole world; they may even have dismissed their pitiful deeds as ancient history and reconciled themselves to living with the living trees.
It does not matter. The trees won and will still be here when we are long gone!
(Next week: Does this tale contain any lesson applicable to a 1000-year old majestic redwood tree?)
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