(This piece was originally published in a now-deceased local paper, about four or so years ago. I am reprinting it here now. Because.)
My daughter has always been attuned to suffering. When still but a toddler, those she perceived as in some sort of pain she dubbed “poor,” and she felt compelled to actively empathize by formally, soberly, petting them. This gift she bestowed indiscrim-inately, from bloated dead sea lions festering on the beach, to cruelly shaped and tamed ornamental shrubbery.
“Poor car,” she would say, running her hand over some rusted, abandoned junkheap. “Nice car.”
My daughter has not yet experienced that cruel and abusive torment of nature known today as ”Downtown City Plaza.” I know, though, that she would instantly see it for what it is: crabbed, crimped, crippled. Sterile, suffering, more or less dead. She would gaze upon it with compassion, and then she would ask: “Can I pet the nice park, daddy?”
Frankly, I don’t want her to ever even see the thing. She and I spent many happy moments there, when once it was actually alive, when it was still “Downtown Plaza Park.” Perhaps our happiest times were those that are now illegal: resting silently for a time upon the benches, in the dead of night, feeling the wind move, picking out the wingbeats of night birds, at peace in an ether largely emptied of awakened humanity. But nope—can’t do that anymore. Pausing in the park at night now is verboten. It has been proclaimed loitering. A pursuit of vagrants.
It is true that the United States Supreme Court, more than 30 years ago, in Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville (1972) 405 US 156, struck down as unconstitutional this nation’s vagrancy laws. But what the hey. This is not a nation of laws. It is a nation of men. Men ever intent on using the law to deprive men and women of the right and ability to do as thou wilt.
The difficulty is that these activities are historically part of the amenities of life as we have known them. They are not mentioned in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. These unwritten amenities have been in part responsible for giving our people the feeling of independence and self-confidence, the feeling of creativity. These amenities have dignified the right of dissent and have honored the right to be nonconformists and the right to defy submissiveness. They have encouraged lives of high spirits rather than hushed, suffocating silence.
It is plain that there are far too many Wrong words in that opinion—”independence,” “self-confidence,” “creativity,” “dissent,” “nonconformists,” “defy,” “high spirits” “Constitution,” “Bill of Rights.” Which is why people like its author, William O. Douglas, are today prevented by main force from coming within twenty thousand leagues of a seat on the Supreme Court. These sorts of Douglas-type people just don’t understand that the only important word today is “security.” And that it is just not Secure to allow people to sit in a park at four in the morning. They might be a Danger.
And thus such people, who might wish to sit upon a park bench, awaiting the dawn, are today Outlawed. In the City of Chico. In the State of California. As Dangers.
The final words of that excerpt from Papachristou—”hushed, suffocating silence”—aptly describe the condition today of “Downtown City Plaza.”
This is an edifice consisting almost entirely of dead materials. What nature that does exist—grass—is not even permitted to grow in the ground: it is carefully elevated, retained within large concrete planters, safely and firmly contained. It must not escape!
There are also, last time I looked, two large trees there. But anyone who regards these trees with attention will soon come to understand that they cower in fear. They’re as out of place amongst all that concrete as teats on a hog, and they know it. They hate it there. One of these trees, sick unto death of meddlesome fiddle-abouts periodically ascending it to attach bizarre sky-king-worshipping doodads to its crown, recently broke off its own head in an effort to frustrate such outrages. Undeterred, the fiddle-abouts have proclaimed that in the future they will affix the useless doodads to the sufferer’s arm.
Actually, it was touch-and-go there for a while as to whether even grass would be allowed admittance to the “Plaza.” Seems it was argued that grass attracts bees, that bees come equipped with stingers, and that there was no telling when some ornery passel of emboldened bees might run wild, unaccountably plunging their stingers into screaming, fleeing children. Bees, clearly, posed a Danger. Planting a known bee-attracter like grass was likewise a Danger. Grass stood exposed as a pernicious foe of Security. It must be Stopped.
Perhaps due to the intervention of terrorists, grass somehow succeeded in infiltrating the lifeless silence of the “Plaza.” Thank heaven at least the trees were cut down! Trees have branches, branches sometimes fall, branches sometimes fall on people. Trees, therefore, are a Danger. They are not Secure.
The people who planted the park’s now-felled trees knew a lot more about them than those who cut them down. The planters were people who were comfortable sharing their world with trees. They knew that part of living with a tree was accepting the risk that all or some of it might someday plunge to earth. They understood trees better than we did, and so they feared them less. People always fear what they don’t understand.
Places like Chico’s Downtown Park Plaza went up all over the state when people who had heretofore spent their lives living in the country began congregating in towns. Usually these “park plazas” marked the center of the town, a leafy square around which clustered such structures of the emerging American “civilization” as the courthouse and post office. People gathered in these parks to gossip and trade, to discuss politics and the latest riveting court case, to listen to lecturers, politicians, and bands. They felt comfortable gathering at a site reminiscent of the country life they’d so recently left: plenty of big trees, scattering of shrubbery, fine carpet of grasses.
These people didn’t “prune” trees, and they didn’t fuss over bees. They knew that the wind prunes trees, and that without bees there wouldn’t be a hell of a lot for them to eat. Big trees were especially important to the people who settled in valley towns like Chico, for they understood that they had come to live in an actual hellhole, a place that was so damned hot through every endless summer that no sane animal or red person even stuck around for such torment: they migrated up into the foothills. Bees were valued as vital in this agricultural valley which, when John Muir first sighted it, coming over the Sierra in spring, exploded in the eye as a vast riotous colorburst of flowers, stretching 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long.
Jaguars moved then through those flowers. But today the only Jaguars in Chico are those fussy sleek internal-combustion machines, whose owners cry piteously that there are too few slots downtown in which to wedge their beasts. These people don’t need big trees, because they move from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned food emporium, where they can obtain plastic-wrapped agricultural products without ever having to sight a single bee, a creature today regarded as but a pest to barbecues on the deck, and a menace to children who have willfully shed their shoes.
Americans, for the most part, no longer really have much use for nature. On the nightly news nature is perpetually portrayed as a meddlesome menace: outrageously visiting ill-timed floods and fires and hurricanes and mudslides on people so that they can’t log on to the internet or drive to the mall. Every agricultural product extant must be available for purchase at once, in any season, at every supermarket, but woe betide any bee buzz by. It is true that sometimes nature is briefly visited, as an alternative to the gym, for pursuits that require ever-increasing outlays of consumer spending: skiing, surfing, snowboarding, boating, biking. And it also looks pretty on television.
But it doesn’t belong in our parks. The people who built Chico’s Downtown Park Plaza were comfortable with nature; they liked having it around. But they are all dead now, and so is their park. It’s not even, today, a “park”: it’s the “Downtown City Plaza.” While we slept, would be do-gooders, over decades, pricked and picked at and “pruned” those big trees until one day came the inevitable, abashed “oops” moment. “We thought we were helping, all those years, but actually what we did killed those trees! Sorry!” S’okay. Paved the way—literally—for the construction of Chico’s first post-park park: the Downtown City Plaza. The first park that doesn’t look anything like a park! Amazing! The genius of it!
Chico is represented in both the state and federal legislatures by men of the post-nature persuasion. Rick Keene, our local assemblymember, returned recently from a two-week environmental “fact-finding” jaunt to South America with a single considered conclusion: the US must fell more trees. Wally Herger, throughout his more than two decades as our congressmember, has waged ceaseless war against the national forests, condemning them as sick, disordered firetraps, declaring on at least one occasion that the “timber” therein should best be grown in stiff straight rows, cleansed of all underbrush, with sufficient room between each row for forest “monitors” to pilot their SUVs.
Back home here, Chico’s former urban forester, Chris Boza, decided to entirely cleanse the city of all its old orange trees after one such tree dropped a branch on a parked car. This unconscionable assault on an innocent automobile, he told me when I attempted one morning to halt on Wall Street his anti-orange-tree jihad, presented serious city “liability” issues. Thus he had determined to visit collective punishment upon all the city’s remaining orange trees, as punishment for the sins of this one miscreant. Besides, although the trees were not dead, they were old, and some of them were a little sick. I too am old and a little sick, I told Boza: shouldn’t he take a chainsaw to me, too? He demurred, then waved his men in.
Ordered by my employer not to get myself arrested on behalf of a queue of doomed plants, I stepped back and stood mute as trees that had stood for more than 100 years died in seconds. Over the roar of their dying, Boza blithely observed that Chicoans no longer came to collect the fruit of the trees. This, I politely replied, was a lie: I had observed people do just that, on dozens of occasions. Well, he countered, fruit uncollected was “messy”: it stained the sidewalk, impeded pedestrian traffic, and city workers had to be dispatched to come clean it up. Why then, I replied, are you replacing the things with ginkgos, a tree that sheds the nastiest, messiest fruit extant? All the ginkgos we’re planting are male, he beamed: never shall they produce a single fruit.
Of course. Heaven forbid trees retain the ability to reproduce. They might arrogantly elect to grow in a non-authorized area! Danger! Danger! Rogue tree!
I asked Boza why, if the city was so concerned with sidewalk “messes,” it had never assigned any city workers to arrive Monday mornings to clean up the detritus regularly deposited each weekend in the same area by human beings: empty and/or broken beer bottles, pools of vomit, clumps of feces, ragged dirty diapers.
But apparently the city is not “liable” for the vomit and shit and shards of broken glass scattered hither and yon by its citizens. Only is it liable for the falling branches of its trees.You better, then, I warned Boza, take down those lawless sycamores on the other side of Wall, because those wanton hussies are hundreds of feet tall, and every winter they rudely hurl to the street huge parts of themselves so massive they block the whole road. What if they started angrily flinging branches at passing motorists? In days they might drain to the dregs the entire city treasury.
Boza mumbled something about how the sycamores were “healthy.” To which I pointed to the leafy fullness of the orange tree at the corner of Wall and Fourth, a tree that could only be described, even by an urban “forester,” as healthy—nay, flourishing. Boza said he would “check” on the status of that tree, and would come back to kill it “later.”
Today that tree is still standing. Boza is gone. His replacement, Denice Britton, I happened to reach, by coincidence, on her first day on the job: phoning her office after rumor reached the landlord that the single still-standing orange tree was nearing its final day. Britton reported that this sole survivor is slated to perish only after the neighboring ginkgos have succeeded in providing some shade. She promised, too, to review the status of Boza’s orange-tree Final Solution, of which she was then unaware, and vowed too that the sycamores, huge and rude and branch-hurling as they may be, were, for the foreseeable future, safe.
The scrub jays and squirrels weren’t much impressed with the results of the city’s war on orange trees. They relied on those trees for shelter, in the rains of winter and the blast furnace of summer, and the trees served as convenient perches from which these creatures could observe and comment upon the passing parade.
But of course animals are themselves suspect in the New Nature. This the lesson learned anew by a friend, whom I’ll call Woodrow, disturbed at his home in Chapmantown early one August morning by a fusillade of nearby gunfire.
“I figured it was another poor black or brown bastard, being ‘detained’ by Haggerty’s boys,” he recalled, referring to the penchant of some members of the Chico Police Department, since receiving as chief Bruce Haggerty, formerly of that criminal street gang known as the Los Angeles Police Department, to mimic the LAPD’s long-time predilection for “detaining” by leaving dead on the street people from the duskier end of the color bar.
Woodrow soon discovered that although the victim was indeed dusky, he was not, in this instance, human. Instead, the CPD had shot itself a bear, a 250-pounder discovered loitering around dawn in a south Chico shopping center.
Woodrow knows something about bears. He has spent a fair amount of time in bear country, and knows that bears don’t generally elect to molest shopping centers. There is one exception, and that is garbage. Like human beings presented with a television set, your average bear is ineluctably attracted to garbage. Woodrow figured this bear had been lured out of its usual haunts by somebody’s trash. So he decided to track it.
Woodrow followed the dead bear’s tracks from the site of its killing back up into the woods. He discovered that a south Chico grub emporium had failed to properly contain its garbage, had allowed rivers and streams of grease to flow from its dumpsters into the creek. Attracted by this—to a bear—irresistible cache of slimy fat, the bear came down the creek, pausing to rifle a few residential garbage cans on the way, until it reached that mother lode of south Chico grease. Where it paid with its life.
Following the bear shooting, there was some ferment in the letters section of the local daily regarding the CPD’s decision to blow bullets into the bear, rather than call Fish & Game out to tranquillize the creature. Woodrow maintains that CPD had at hand an even easier alternative. “They should have just brought out some of their ‘canine officers,’” he says. “Your bear hates a dog. As soon as those dogs would commence straining and barking, that bear would take off, right back up into the woods. Then the police could tell those slobs to slap a lid on their garbage. Problem solved.”
But no. The human slobs were not the problem. The bear was the problem. “It’s like these people who move up into bear country, who then get all exercised because a bear comes and tears through their garbage can,” he says. “All you have to do is put the can in the house for a few days. The bear will give up and go away. But I guess that’s too much trouble for some people. Instead, they get on the phone and demand somebody come up and shoot the thing.”
In order to forestall any more fearsome grease-seeking bear invasions, perhaps the Chico City Council, so enamored of late with video surveillance cameras, could run a ring of spyware around the town perimeter, so that the proper authorities can quickly lock and load, fan out at once to Meet the Menace, whenever an unauthorized intrusion of nature is sighted seeking to intrude upon the concrete citizenry of Chico.
Rumor has it the Chico City Council is controlled by progressives. Sorry, but I don’t see it. Progressives don’t implant surveillance cameras in parks. Authoritarians do. In George Orwell’s 1984, the rebel lovers Winston and Julia trek to a modest patch of green so as to couple unmolested by officious overseeing cameras. Soon that option will be closed to the people of Chico. It is inevitable that, in reaching into the bottomless pork barrel of “Homeland Security” funds, the council will install “security” cameras in Bidwell Park. Said cameras are already going up in Children’s Park, which, now that the council has killed the park downtown, is up next for destruction. Besides the cameras, councilmembers have authorized “pruning” and “trimming” and “thinning” of plant growth in the park, so that every corner of it may be clearly visible to members of the Chico Police Department as they cruise slowly past in their patrol vehicles. Apparently asking these people to actually alight from their vehicles and walk through the park was a notion so outrageous it deserved no consideration.
And so, slowly but surely, Children’s Park will be denuded—a snip here, a felling there—until, inevitably, some years on, arrives another “oops” moment, and the place is mercifully bulldozed into concrete, to join in breathtaking sterility its long-suffering, now dead sister, the “Downtown City Plaza.”
Towards the close of Terrence Malick’s film The New World, Opechancanough, an Algonquian who has spent his life in the natural forests of what would become Virginia, moves through an English formal garden. What he confronts is “nature” utterly violated: clipped, shaped, fashioned, formed, ordered, molded, tortured, tamed. It is, in context, one of the ugliest sights in all filmmaking.
That’s what we’re doing in Chico. Making the same mistakes made in Europe . . . and at precisely the time the Europeans themselves are seeking to undo the damage they’ve done. In the north of Spain winds a river running with some of the biggest, most beautiful trout in all the earth. But no one would think of pulling one out of the water: for decades the fish will be left alone; the people are bringing the fish back. The French retain, and dutifully replant, the big trees Napoleon planted to shade his soldiers, lining the roads of France: and if a motorist dies ploughing into those trees, even if he be Albert Camus, it is understood that the death is the fault of the motorist, not the tree. Not so, here in the USA. Some time back an intoxicated young frat man drove his car into a tree along West Sacramento Avenue. His “brothers” knew just what to do: load up and drive out and saw that fucker down!
Americans could learn from Europe that colonial adventuring is not only wrong but that it can never succeed, but they won’t. Americans could learn from Europe that subjecting the bride of nature to the monstrosity of foot-binding is both cruel and dangerous, but they won’t. All the mistakes, must all be made, all over again.
At the close of The New World, the inconstant adventurer John Smith encounters the woman he used, abused, lied to, and abandoned, after she had merely provided him with everything he might ever want or need. He had gone off in search of more land, more plunder, more conquest, more”glory”—the paradise of “the Indies.” Now he has returned to chat her up. Malick in his film never names this woman (though others try to): she is meant to represent America. She is now tamed and tortured, spirit stifled, English corseted, and she is dying. She has not a word to say to her one-time, would-be beau, until Smith asks:
“Did I make a mistake in coming here?”
To which she witheringly replies: “Did you find your Indies, John?”
“I may,” he admits, “have sailed past them.”
Absolutely goddam right.