Sometimes you have to sit down to stand up for your spiritual ideals — go out on a limb to save an endangered tree, brave public scrutiny and risk ridicule, backlash, and failure to win a righteous cause. I recently proved this theorem true when I spent 2 1/2 months living beneath an ancient magnolia, striving by Witchy will alone to save it from a rapacious condo developer’s ax.
At stake was public parkland the County Commissioners had sold to developer Stewart Coleman. His 11-story Parkside condominium complex would’ve killed the olde magnolia that called the parkland home.
It’s hard undoing what’s considered by many to be a legal fait accompli. Divergent views ran the gamut from fundamentalist revulsion at Witches circling the tree to publicize its plight, to liberals too timid to take direct action to save it, to conservatives seeking to protect private property rights at all costs.
I fought for over a year before beginning my stalwart squat — working “in the system” railing against the tree’s demise in endless development review meetings and stirring up a countywide cauldron of opinion in the process via my hard-hitting Commentaries and T.V. interviews.
Election year sentiments ran high on all sides. Bribes, an eyebrow-raising campaign and contributions given Commissioners by Coleman ran rampant throughout the ordeal; each time I thought I’d plumbed its depths, more corruption was revealed and few officials escaped its taint and the public’s growing ire. Navigating through this milieu was like swimming with sharks. I had no desire to embody the city scold, yet my Pagan belief that a tree older than anyone involved had a right to exist fueled my conviction to persist for the public good. Still, it was blood curdling to realize that I was making multi-millionaire enemies.
What began as a Coven quest steadily attracted admirers and helpers of all persuasions opposed to over-development, sleaze and injustice.
I quit the “legal” rubber-stamping route when a woman whose supposed cause was preserving trees voted in favor of sacrificing the magnolia. I strode angrily out of City Hall and sat down directly across, beneath the tree, vowing not to leave until I’d saved it.
As a long-time anti-police brutality activist, I expected to be immediately arrested. But as the land was technically Coleman’s, the cops could do nothing without him issuing a trespassing complaint. I started out with nothing and utterly dependant on food delivered by whoever pitied me. I lived in a fishbowl in front of the court house — wide open to the elements, tourists, and judges passing by.
I soon became aware that I was not only fighting Coleman, but the County and crazies as well. The parkland donor’s descendents were suing the County for selling, Asheville’s homeless wanted to use the tree as a flophouse, and fundies came at night waving baseball bats and threatening to “Cut ‘er down!”
Good-hearted folk who appreciated my sincerity sprang into action and lent me a cell phone, a video camera, water coolers, sleeping bags, and other needful things. An activist park conservancy group began a petition that over 9,000 people signed. Save-The-Magnolia T-shirts were printed and became the hip seasonal thing to wear. Rallies, strategy meetings, and direct action training seminars were held, where normally pacifist folks practiced resisting bulldozers .
The tree soon became famous and folks came by the thousands, keenly concerned about the tree’s plight, wanting a photograph before the twin tree’s evocative trunk, or tying a hopeful fetish to a limb. Many times daily I arranged my open-air living room for optimal intimacy — creating sacred space for anyone to “come and sit a spell” beneath Asheville’s liberty tree. I and untold others bonded with the magnolia in the extreme.
I learned every dirty story there was about Coleman and the local officials; enjoyed spontaneous concerts from roving musicians; and got a massage from a passing masseuse. It was a dizzying, ever changing, raging/soothing, heady brew. Nightly people dropped by to sip ale, congratulate us on the day’s publicity, or to offer thanks and well wishes.
The gentility we displayed showed the public the real dichotomy: The Powers That Be might sell public parkland in secret, but we were citizens operating transparently — actively engaged in civil disobedience for all to see. Days stretched into weeks, then months I clung on, nonetheless, convinced that nothing less than winning would do.
In his hubris, Coleman believed our relentless pressure could coerce officials to buy him out for mega-millions. Growing desperate as the lawsuit loomed, he threatened to cut the magnolia down within 35 days; we responded by calling an immediate Press Conference at the tree and defiantly rejected his deadline.
Supporters packed the courtroom wearing their magnolia T-shirts, sporting Stop Parkside stickers, and waving flyer fans I’d made. I sat beneath the tree during two days of hurricane Fay.
The day before the judge was to reveal her ruling, Coleman came armed with a day-glo orange canister and spray-painted the ground with a fence line; I warned him that if he proceeded, he’d need a fence to protect his mansion from public retribution. The next day the judge sided in the people’s favor. The merit of my months-long tree-sit had been vindicated — against all odds we’d saved the park, and the tree!
Lady Passion is co-author of The Goodly Spellbook: Olde Spells for Modern Problems and High Priestess of Coven Oldenwilde in Asheville, NC. She may be reached via: www.oldenwilde.org