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UPSET IN THE MAKING

10/27/2008

As you read this, there are people living in trees—not among them, understand, but in them—next to Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The setting seems like a perfect introduction for a cute fable with a pithy moral to make everybody feel better about themselves and their place on our precarious earth.

The problem? This tale about a small band of protesters fighting the encroachment of football facilities on a stately grove of trees has too many morals. Maybe it's a warning about the price of football glory. Or a message about the perils of underestimating the persistence of people who latch onto a cause and ride it beyond logic. Or maybe the lesson is simpler: the return of good old-fashioned protester values in a society driven by profit and self-interest.

But one anecdote does illuminate this odd clash of counterculture and football culture—the parable of the papier-màché Cal bear, and it goes like this.

One late-September day, some of the tree people's ground supporters were rummaging through a fraternity's dumpster and happened upon a four-foot papier-m‚chÈ Cal bear. They rescued the bear and brought it up into the trees, where it sat in the crotch of a live oak, visible from Stadium Rim Way. To this point, most interaction between the tree-loving people and the football-loving people consisted of the latter yelling obscenities and alternate-lifestyle suggestions at the former. The football people saw the tree people as nothing more than buzz-kills out to defile one of Cal's best seasons. The football people saw nothing but good in leveling the 1.5-acre grove—oaks, redwoods and cedars, none of them old-growth—for a new football training facility. The school had proposed planting three trees for every one cut down, and the new complex would keep coach Jeff Tedford from leaving and help land recruits who might otherwise choose USC or Oregon. And so the football people told the tree people to take a shower, get a job and leave football alone—that kind of stuff.

But as the papier-m‚chÈ Cal bear smiled toward civilization, an amazing thing happened. It began to represent the vision of the then-No. 2 Cal Bears and started to change local perception of the tree people.

Go home! became Go, Bears! Horns honked in commiseration. The tree-sitters yelled back Go, Bears! even though some of it might have carried "a subtle hint of mockery," as one tree person says. Nevertheless, civility reigned.

Then, a few days after the dumpster rescue, some frat boys staged a late-night raid to reclaim their garbage. No bear, no peace. "The bear changed everything," says Lola, a pink-haired, barefoot member of the tree people's ground-support staff. "It made us cool. When it left, the anger returned."

THE TREE people, you should know, call themselves "tree names" such as Millipede, Over There, Bus Stop and Grounded, the better to keep their real names off legal injunctions. They've made the trees their home since December, following the lead of former mayoral candidate and rabble-rouser Zachary Running Wolf, who has since returned to earth. In August, before Cal's opener against Tennessee, the university fenced the tree people in like zoo animals. Then, in October, a judge ruled that anyone going up or down may be arrested.

That's where things stand two days before Cal's stunning loss to Oregon State, as a guard in a standard-issue yellow windbreaker wanders inside the cage. He steps around a shopping cart full of grapefruit, a Hefty bag of rotten pizzas, a pyramid of empty Red Bull cans. A ravaged paperback of Into the Wild rests near a xylophone and bongos. The guard says anyone may climb the trees, but handcuffs will be waiting when they come down. "You ready to join Swiss Family Robinson?" he asks.

Dozens of tree people, up to 25 at a time, have spent 300-plus days and nights traversing treetops on zip lines and rope-and-wood catwalks, getting their food delivered (and waste disposed) by means of pulleys operated by 24-hour ground personnel. Platforms they've built in the trees are roughly eye level with the football offices in Memorial Stadium, and many a summer morning one tree-sitter serenaded anyone in the vicinity with primal screams. No wonder coaches hold their breath every time a recruit visits. "We've altered the route we normally take our recruits and their parents on," says a Cal assistant. "They'll see it eventually, but we don't want it to be the first impression."

The tree people say they're out to save oaks, not ruin football. Bus Stop and Over There are fans; they sit on a platform in the tallest redwood to watch games. The tree people even claim a Cal player spent the day in the trees earlier this season. "People need to understand, this has nothing to do with football," says Millipede, a raspy-voiced twentysomething woman. "We'd be doing the same thing if it was a library. This isn't about us seeing the football team become this big deal and us trying to compete by asserting our dominance as a protest school."

They really talk like that, these tree people. But they know that game days provide their biggest audience. On Saturdays, their sidewalk information booth—a sagging card table—is surrounded. UC police officers replace rent-a-cops as thousands of people file past, stopping to stare at the cables and platforms. Halfway up an oak, a huge Gatorade jug hangs by a bungee cord. It looks like it could have come straight off the Cal sideline. Bus Stop says, "We don't know where most of this stuff comes from." The football team, which doesn't officially condone or condemn the protest, mostly keeps its distance. "Everybody should believe in something," is Tedford's stock response.

For now, the expansion project is stalled. Cal continues to fight the protesters, community groups and the city (which has concerns about building on a fault line) in court. A decision on whether the school can go forward with its plans may come before USC arrives on Nov. 10. But, says Bus Stop, "I'm staying here 'til I know the trees are saved." He sits on the largest platform, in the middle of the grove, and even though he's within shouting distance of the fence, he prefers to use his cell when talking with outsiders. Just before he ends this call, Bus Stop hollers down: "Go, Bears!"

And laughter echoes from tree to tree.