Nude Protest and Photo Shoot at Memorial Oak Grove

Berkeley, March 17, 2007

Last year, the University of California announced that it was going to build a new athletic training facility next to Memorial Stadium at the eastern edge of the Berkeley campus. Unfortunately, in order to build the facility as planned, the University must remove several oak trees that are currently growing on the site.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, local activists have seized on the fate of the "Memorial Oak Grove" as the cause du jour, and a vigorous campaign has been launched to stop the project and save the trees. To that end, protesters have been actually living in the trees since December of 2006, alternating in shifts every few days or weeks. The controversy has received an inordinate amount of media coverage.

Completely unrelated to any of this, a local art photographer named Jack Gescheidt has recently become well-known for a photo series he calls the "TreeSpirit Project," which involves naked models pictured climbing and hugging trees. But when Gescheidt heard about the Memorial Oak Grove brouhaha, he sensed a perfect media opportunity. He announced that the next installment in his Tree Spirit Project would be a nude photo shoot among the oak trees next to Memorial Stadium. And this time he wouldn't use only professional models: he issued an open call for anyone and everyone to come get naked for the trees.

And so on Saturday, March 17, 2007, the planets came into alignment and a disparate confluence of people found themselves gathered together in the oak grove: tree-sitters, nudists, activists, journalists, Jack Gescheidt and his assistant, perverts, pornographers, the police and passersby. And yours truly.

This is a record of that day.

Some of the dedicated tree-occupiers were already in their usual places when the crowd started arriving.

What makes this entire imbroglio a tragicomic farce is that these oak trees, contrary to what everyone assumes, are not "old growth" trees that grew naturally, but rather were planted by gardeners in 1923 as part of the landscaping when the construction crew finished building the football stadium.

Jack (on the left) worked in tandem with his assistant (on the right), who videotaped his every move. Because, you see, the creation of art is just as important as (or more important than, according to the "Process Art" movement) the final product itself.

Since (as seen in this video of the event ) the police informed Jack that he might be subject to arrest if he went ahead with the mass nudity, the first order of business was to at least get photos of the volunteer models in place with their clothes on. That way, even if everything went awry later, he would at least have these clothed photos. So, on cue, everyone lay down on the ground amidst the trees.

And as Jack snapped his first pictures of the participants...

...most of the other photographers there took pictures of Jack as he took pictures. It began to get a bit surrealistically self-referential.

As an environmentalist, I generally sympathize with any wilderness-saving cause. But this "grove" of trees is not wilderness: it's man-made, not particularly old in tree-time, and frankly not very well-designed or attractive. Furthermore, as revealed in the University's FAQ about the project, the plans entail only removing some of the trees, not all of them; the only three healthy old-growth trees (two oaks and one redwood) will in fact be saved; and when the project (if it ever comes to pass) is completed, there will actually be more trees around the stadium, as the design calls for planting 142 new trees to replace the ones that are removed.

So -- what's the fuss all about?

Forget about facts! It was time to get naked.

Jack told everyone to go off to the side, disrobe, and then return to the exact positions they had been in before. The photographer on the right is Mike Kepka of the San Francisco Chronicle, pointing his camera in the wrong direction as he takes this picture.

Some people disrobed in a matter of seconds, but they had to wait impatiently for the slowpokes who carefully peeled off each article of clothing.

Finally everyone was ready to go, and Jack gave the orders to lie flat.

The participants all hugged the ground... Jack snapped away, along with dozens of other camera-toters. It was important to get Jack in the foreground of your picture, so the process of you capturing the process of Jack creating his art could be preserved for posterity. Or something like that.

Photographers clambered into all sorts of positions to get the right angle.

Compounding the meaninglessness of it all is the fact that the entire building project has already been halted by a judge for seismic safety reasons. (The Hayward Fault runs through Memorial Stadium just a short distance away.) So there is no imminent threat of construction anyway.

This wasn't about trees. It was about making a spectacle of yourself. About finding the puniest and most ridiculous cause imaginable and acting like your life depended on it. Genocide in Darfur? Nuclear proliferation? Who cares? We've latched onto an issue that really matters: They might change some of the landscaping around the stadium! Action alert!

Up above in the trees, some people who I presume must have been Jack's professional naked tree acrobats clung perilously to the branches.

One guy in particular made me very nervous with his antics -- the branch he was hanging from seemed in danger of breaking.

After a few minutes, Jack announced he had gotten the perfect shot; the photo shoot was over and had been a success.

Everyone got up and headed back to their clothes. A celebratory mood filled the air.

The people seen here arm-in-arm are members of the X-Plicit Players, a public nudity activist group who take every opportunity to be unclothed in public.

It turned out, despite the preparations and police warnings, that nobody got arrested after all.

In case you're curious to see "The" final perfect photo of the event taken by Jack Gescheidt, he has put a version of it online here.

Color me underwhelmed.

Casting about for a legal rationale for stopping the project, local activists now claim that the grove was originally a Native American burial ground, based on a document stating that three skeletons had been found at the site. But there was no indication that the skeletons were ancient, or Native American at all, nor have any other artifacts ever been discovered there -- which is understandable, since the stadium site was nothing more than a barren treeless hillside before the area became part of the University campus.

The article in the San Francisco Chronicle about this event said there were 78 nude protesters; I only counted 65 visible from where I was, though there may have been a few more of them off in the distance or in the trees where I couldn't see them, so 78 sounds about right.

I don't know why the police never followed through on their threats to arrest people. Despite -- actually because of -- a long history of naked activism in Berkeley, it actually is now illegal to be naked in public both on the University campus and in the city itself (contrary to common belief that there is no law against nudity in Berkeley). I suspect the cops didn't want to escalate the situation, and thought it was more prudent to just let the crowd disperse.

Which we did.

So: did all that nudity save the trees? Only time will tell.

More coverage of this event can be found at these links:

Videos taken in the grove, at "Berkeley Citizen."

Slide show on the protest, taken with a fancy camera.

Jack Gescheidt's website about the event.

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