No tree is illegal! – Midnight insurgent arborists seek to reclaim wasted urban land – direct action vs. carbon offsets

In Slingshot #93, I wrote about how my housemates and I harvested, processed and distributed hundreds of pounds of fossil fuel-free urban backyard fruit last summer. At the end of the article, I proposed that cities with nice growing conditions (like where I live in Berkeley) could grow a lot of our own fruit locally — eliminating the need to truck in fruit in fossil fueled trucks — if fruit trees could be planted on un-used urban spaces, such as the little strip between the street and the sidewalk known as the “parking strip.”

With this idea in mind, we agreed at a housemeeting this winter to plant 2 trees in the parking strip in front of our house — a plum tree and a persimmon tree. We don’t own this land — it is owned by the city. And we knew that there was a law against planting anything on this land — especially against planting a fruit tree. The city prohibits fruit trees because they are worried that people won’t pick the fruit and it will cause a mess.

When we moved into the house, this piece of the earth, about 45 feet long by about 5 feet wide, was covered by weeds, dead grass, and garbage. In other words, it was a mess — but apparently not as bad a mess as fruit trees would be. Since then, I’ve planted drought tolerant flowers on it each spring and it has been dead flower stalks the rest of the year. We try to clean up some of the garbage.

Planting the trees was the type of fantastic, hopeful act that planting a tree always is. When you plant a tree, you’re thinking far into the future, trusting and hoping that the future will hold a place for you, your friends and community, and the tree. You imagine the delicious fruit you may someday enjoy. It is a leap of faith.

I gently set the tree into the earth, watered it in, and began waiting the 2-5 years it would take to mature enough to produce a lot of food. It was an act of civil disobedience and a calculated risk that the city wouldn’t bust us for “nurturing an illegal fruit tree.” Since we’re anxious to pick the fruit, we weren’t worried that the tree would make a mess. In walking around town, I’ve noticed several dozen other “illegal” fruit trees on parking strips in the neighborhood — lemons, pears, oranges, apples, figs, olives, plums — so I thought that we would probably get away with it.

The Bust

Nope. Within just a couple of weeks, a truck from the city was out in front of our house and the city forester was knocking on the door. “These are fruiting trees. You have to remove them.” But she didn’t actually cut them down herself . . . we were supposed to do it.

Before the bust, every day on my way out of the house, I watched the bare trees looking for signs that it was spring — waiting for them to leaf out and begin to grow. And when the leaves came out, it was the kind of natural miracle that makes life amazing.

But after the bust, seeing the doomed trees growing everyday was sad.

Mass-produced agriculture and trucking food around is a major consumer of fossil fuels and a major contributor to global warming. As recently as 100 years ago in the USA– and still in many areas around the world — food is grown, picked and used all in the same place informally without money or markets by the people who are going to eat it.

While mainstream political leaders talk about “carbon offsets,” “alternative fuels” and other high-tech, corporate based “solutions” to reduce fossil fuel use, what is really needed is direct action — figuring out how to simply avoid fossil fuel use by living in ways that don’t require it.

So say you want to eat some fruit. The direct action way to do so is to plant a tree, take care of it, pick the fruit, share it with your friends and neighbors, and eat some of it yourself.

The mainstream/capitalist way to meet this need is for a corporation to own a vast tract of land somewhere out in the country and use fossil fueled machines and under-paid farm workers to plant and grow the fruit. In most cases, the fruit is grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but even organically grown fruit generally uses various non-local inputs for fuel as well as hired labor. When the fruit is ready, the best ones are picked, boxed and put on trucks. All the fruit that has defects is usually thrown away. The boxes are driven on a truck to a warehouse where they are bought and sold by some more corporations. Even if you get your food from a farmer’s market, the food reaches you by truck. Finally, you work a job doing what someone else feels is important to get money to buy the fruit. And after work, you go to a market and buy the fruit.

The capitalist/mainstream way of dealing with the fossil fuels consumed in this process is first to have years of reports and meetings to discuss how it would be nice to not use so much fossil fuel. Slingshot first published articles about global warming in 1995 — there was enough evidence then to know it was real. At that point, Al Gore was vice-president with a real opportunity to do something about the problem, but I guess he was waiting for something . . . .

Since 1995, the amount of fossil fuels burned on earth each year has only increased, year after year.

The capitalist/mainstream meetings and reports on controlling climate change suggest solutions like carbon offsets or cap and trade systems which create a global stock market in carbon credits. These are very complex, market based, non-local strategies that often don’t actually prevent fossil fuels from being burned, but rather figure out ways to justify continuing to burn fossil fuels as usual. For instance, carbon offsets mean that the farmer (or liberal driving an SUV) purchases the right to burn fossil fuels from a company that would take the money and spend it — probably not to reduce the burning of fossil fuels — but on projects to reduce other human emissions of greenhouse gases. For instance, to cap garbage dumps with a cover so as to collect methane gas (another potent greenhouse gas) so that it doesn’t escape into the atmosphere. Granted, capping garbage dumps is a great idea — but shouldn’t the garbage dump company pay for that?

Carbon offsets are ideas invented by politicians and businessmen to sound like something is being done about global warming but they generally mean that fossil fuels continue to be burned — business as usual — by people who can afford it. They are a fake solution.

By contrast, growing our own food on the streets where we live is a real solution — every piece of fruit we eat that doesn’t have to travel by truck thus reduces demand for trucks and the burning of fossil fuels to run them. Such solutions empower individuals and local communities rather than corporations and governments. Such solutions emphasize simplicity and working with the earth, rather than hyper-complex, high-tech new structures designed to clean up the mess made by the current hyper-complex, high-tech structures.


As of this writing, our illegal fruit trees are still there. The city told us to take them out, but they didn’t follow up and we won’t do their dirty work. The city may come and take them at any time, but we’re hoping that they’ll forget about them — after all, the dozens of other “illegal” trees in our neighborhood are still there. Now whenever I walk around town, I spot more and more “illegal” trees quietly defying the Law. I also planted an illegal Fuji apple tree in front of a nearby abandoned house as an experiment to see if it would be possible to plant stealth parking strip trees in various forgotten urban spots. The apple tree has so far gone un-noticed. When you think of direct action, you often think of a logging road blockade, a treesit or a masked figure disabling construction equipment in the middle of the night. In corporate America, even growing food outside the market system requires a mask.