The Guest in the Tree
But on occasion I’m reminded that, whether I like it or not, I’m the go-to guy.
Like last night when I got the phone call from Officer Gilbert of the Portland Police department.
“Mr. Seifert, I understand you are the person responsible for the Quaker meeting house here on Stark Street? Is that right?”
“Yes, I am the person responsible,” I conceded with a hint of hesitation and foreboding. “Tell me what this is about, officer,” I invited as visions of disaster bubbled up in my brain.
“Well, is the name Tre Arrow familiar to you?”
“Vaguely, isn’t he that environmental activist who camped up on a downtown building’s ledge for a few days several years ago?”
“That’s the one. Now he’s here in the fir tree in the backyard of your Quaker building. He’s yelling from up there. There’s a crowd here, some Occupy folks are shouting encouragement and the fire department has a ladder truck in place. We have the street blocked off.”
I could hear distant hollering in the background. A group chanted “Occupy the Tree! Occupy the tree!”
I heard myself say, “I’ll be right over, officer.”
It takes about 20 minutes to get from my house to the meetinghouse. That was enough time to gather my thoughts and run scenarios through my mind.
What if we have this guy in our tree for days? What if the crowd grows and “Occupies” our backyard? What if the chanting and yelling continue disturbing the neighbors in what the media would call a “normally quiet residential neighborhood.”
When I arrived I found pretty much what I imagined. It was a vision from the evening news. Flashing police lights. Squawk box commands. Barricades.
It was also an arcade for a media carnival complete with earnest correspondents and trucks equipped to broadcast “LIVE on the scene!” “Up-to-the-minute Action News.”
Before going to the backyard to assess the situation, I huddled with the police sergeant in charge. As we stood on the center line of the barricaded street, he calmly suggested that his officers and the fire department leave. There was really nothing they could do except attract unwanted attention. Wrestling Tre Arrow from his sylvan perch 60 feet above ground could lead to disaster.
I readily accepted the sergeant’s assessment and advice, and thanked him. The police and firefighters departed.
I was left to whatever might happen next, yet somehow a calmness descended on me.
As I went through the gate to our backyard, I had already decided to treat Tre not as a trespasser or intruder but as some kind of “guest.”
An uninvited guest, but a guest none-the-less. “Unexpected,” someone suggested later.
Precisely, an unexpected guest.
But who were these other folks standing around staring into the boughs above? I set about introducing myself, inquiring to whom we Quakers had the pleasure.
Peering up into the tree were the reporters with accompanying camera crews. Their lights sought out a shadowy figure who was heard far more clearly than he was seen. The silhouetted figure filled the evening with righteous ranting about the "rape of Mother Earth."
Also at the base of the tree was a small, surprisingly somber contingent from Occupy Portland.
I decided to invite the media to leave our backyard. As a journalist, I know that such requests are honored. Tre might be a “guest” but unwanted reporters and crews with cameras to be “played to” can be construed as trespassers. So the media quietly, and professionally, retreated.
As for the Occupy folks, I told them that our meeting had formally supported the Occupy movement and that I, in fact, was a member of Occupy's “Faith/Spirit” Spoke (or committee) They seemed duly impressed.
They were also impressed, and probably surprised, that I told them it was fine for them to stay. Perhaps they saw the absurdity of the “Occupy” movement's occupying part of itself.
And then there was a young woman who came up to me and quietly introduced herself as “Tre’s friend.” A friend concerned about Tre’s clearly agitated state. We quietly introduced ourselves and talked. She filled me in. She thought that once people left, her friend would come down. Indeed after the camera crews and reporters established a public safe haven on the distant sidewalk, Tre began to work his way down the tree to the ground.
I greeted him as he lowered himself from the fence at the base of the tree. I shared with him that Multnomah Friends Meeting considered him a guest.
“Thank you, thank you. You Quakers are so great,” he said as we shook hands.
I guess that was a bonding of sorts. Barefooted and a little worse for wear from his climb up and down the tree, he made his way to the media waiting at our gate. There, from our side of the fence, he proceeded to lecture the reporters on the state of the planet. It went on and on...such is the state of the planet.
Finally his quiet companion whispered in my ear, “You are going to have to stop him or he will just keep going.”
“How is he with people placing limits on him?” I asked
“Not so good.”
Great, I thought. “Let me see what I can do,” I whispered back.
When it was clear to everyone (perhaps even to Tre) that Tre’s lecture was looping back on itself, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “I think it’s time to wind down.”
He seemed almost grateful for my interruption. He turned and we shook hands. “You’ve been very understanding,” he said. “Thank you.”
Then he led the media gaggle across the street where he resumed his sermon until, at last, everyone lost interest and wandered off into the cloudless winter night.
As more than one person noted, the moon was full.
I later joked with other Friends that there is nothing about dealing with tree protests in the clerk’s job description. But, I was reminded, there are references to being “open to the spirit” and “finding one’s center.” If not exactly a job description, the Quakerly words provided the guidance I needed Sunday night — that we all needed in this little tableau from our times.
For a news clip of what happened go HERE. Yes, that’s me in the baseball cap with our “guest.”