Eucalyptus Worship versus Urban Wildfire. See Mike Neff’s Web Del Sol / The Potomac / a journal of poetry and poetics (Washington, D.C.) for more on this story.
The issue: 1) we and our neighbors live near a grove of blue gum eucalyptus, AKA “gasoline trees”; 2) summer is now upon us and so, too, is the risk of urban wildfire; 3) after 20 years of debate, the issue is still unresolved.
Now, following the “Martin Fire,” our neighbors and friends in Bonny Doon are moving back into their homes, i.e., those lucky enough to still have a home!
So there was the headline, “The killer of killer trees is out on a limb in Santa Cruz… with a lead, “Robert Sward, 68, of Santa Cruz, doesn’t look, sound or act like a tree murderer.”
The paper, The Sacramento Bee, after a few kind words about my poetry (“his verse, more lovely than any weed tree…”) went on, “One might suppose Robert would obey the city ordinance that protects ‘heritage trees.’ Instead, he flings it down and dances upon it.”
Yes, much as I love Santa Cruz, I’ve been at war with the city fathers, the majority of whom defend all trees no matter where they came from or what idiot planted them in the wrong hemisphere because only God can make a tree. [I’m paraphrasing here from a feature on blue gum eucs in Audubon Magazine.]
“These so-called progressives speak in a way that would delight Lewis Carroll,” I am quoted as saying. “A local version of the Duchess recently told me, ‘Diseased or not, two blue gum eucs constitute a grove… and the tree you removed was a member of a grove.’ All that was missing from our exchange was a queen to declare, ‘Off with his head!’”
The blue gum eucalyptus—or ‘gasoline tree,’ as firefighters call it—is an invasive exotic from Australia that evolved with fire. Fire doesn’t kill blue gums. Instead, it clears out the competition and opens their seed pods.
Soon after murdering a tree, I stood before Santa Cruz City Council, our lawyer present, facing a $9000.fine. For what? Removing one euc and lopping off a few branches from another.
The grove in question, the four or five shallow-rooted, fire-prone monsters endangering our home, is situated on our property, property on which we pay taxes. Our property, our trees, our taxes.
It all started in 1991 with the Oakland Hills/Berkeley fire which killed 20 people and caused more than $5 billion damage. Fire officials determined the blue gum euc was a key cause of that tragedy and also the fire storm that later struck Australia. Australia, where the shallow-rooted, unstable gasoline trees are also known as ‘widow-makers.’ Why? Because of their tendency to drop heavy branches or fall over without warning.
After reading about the Oakland Hills fire, I did a little research. What I learned was that eucs are the original burn baby burn trees. A little lightning, a careless smoker, a kid with a firecracker, that’s all it takes.
Hearing of our plight, which we share with hundreds of other Californians, the Los Angeles Times ran a front page feature, “Tempest in the Treetops… Some prize the blue gum eucalyptus for its beauty and scent, while others see a messy fire hazard. Battles are being waged across California.”
“After a decade of unsuccessfully fighting City Hall for permission to ax his grove, Sward—a poet, retired college professor and avowed environmentalist—resorted to a botanical form of civil disobedience. He hired a tree cutter to take them out.
“Scarcely had the buzz of the chain saw kicked up when city parks inspectors—‘tree police,’ as some locals call them—stepped in, halted the cutting and hit Sward with fines initially totaling $9,000.”
Maybe I should have known better when, in 1985, I moved here and learned that the most popular film ever shown in Santa Cruz was The King of Hearts, starring Alan Bates. In World War I, as a German army retreats, they booby-trap the whole town to explode. The locals flee and a gaggle of cheerful lunatics escape the asylum and take over.
Again, I love Santa Cruz. I love the people… so much so that prior to the 1991 Oakland Hills fire I might have been persuaded to strip naked, join hands with my friends, encircle and protect a euc tree—see photo above!
But then, after what I learned, innocent no more, I tasted the true nature of the tree.
Yes, I was once politically correct. A stoned out of his mind innocent. Yes, yes, and holier than thou. That was in the days before political correctness became a force that would determine the outcome of elections. That was back before I became “an enemy of the people.” That is, an enemy of the blue gum euc. Fucking trees.
You don’t run for office, certainly not in this arena, unless you’re PC and pro-euc. Hence the power of those who would fine us $9,000.
That, in brief, is the story. True, City Council later reduced the fine to $1500., which our lawyer suggested we pay.
“All of which has Santa Cruz’s tree-killing poet [and his neighbors] bewildered,” says the L.A. Times. Yes, it’s true. I am bewildered.
“Sward doesn’t see the sense of it: These are his trees. This is his danger.
“’There are people in Santa Cruz, Sward said, ‘who believe the blue gum euc is more important than human life.’” And that’s not an exaggeration. An esteemed arbortist who himself works for the city told me, “There are people on Santa Cruz City Council who wouldn’t move a eucalyptus if it were lying across the body of a small child.”
Anyway, the blue gum eucs are still there. The grove overhanging our home is still there. The politically correct are still in charge. Nice people, well-intentioned. And so it is we, and thousands of other Californians, face another year with our homes and our lives, and our children’s lives, still at risk.
We’re talking here about urban wild fires. “Okay, so what would constitute an emergency whereby we could chop ’em down?” I once asked a politically saavy fire chief. “Well, the trees would actually have to be on fire. Then you could remove ’em!” he replied.