The Privateer; Subcontractor, Dept. of Unauthorized Forestry

In September of 2016, under cover of broad daylight, assisted by her two trusty partners in crime, whom also served as convenient sweet little innocent distractions to any suspecting walkers in the area, Jackie Willowtree smuggled in and planted the contraband.

“It often tends to be, uh–well the whole concept of legality doesn’t matter much. It’s the intention. As long as you know what you’re doing.”

–So advises Tony Santoro on his pilfered scooter in his Guide to Illegal Tree Planting, as delivered in his profanity-laced classic New York City Italian-American accent.

There’s this gal. It’d be unfair and incorrect to say she hates people, but she doesn’t tend to like them. And that’s different than saying she dislikes them and nowhere near close to saying she hates them. Whatever the particular case may be, she’d rather avoid them, those people, all of those people.

She might like to volunteer with some of the local forest and wilderness organizations and associations that work to maintain open and usable trails or work to restore and revitalize natural habitats.

But these groups tend to be as much of a social club as they are work parties out to actually work. She’d like to work, to lend a hand and help improve and protect the backcountry and wildlife, but she’s not looking to socialize.

Then there is the rigmarole of safety requirements and legal obligations. She is not donning a hard hat like a New York City construction worker only to clip twigs and branches along a flat trail.

So she went out on her own. An unofficial undocumented botanical subcontractor for the Department of Unauthorized Forestry.

As a keen spectator in the stands of America overlooking the public arena and watching the ruling class, political and business alike, she well knew it’s easier to ask for forgiveness afterward than permission beforehand.

And then if caught and interrogated, to claim poor memory. “I don’t recall.”

She imagined, with amusement, the bureaucratic tangle of laws and regulations and rules and policies and protocols the official in charge of the nature preserve would sputter on about having to abide by and fulfill.

She found it impossible to believe she would ever receive a prompt, “Yes! Marvelous idea. Go right ahead and plant that tree.”

Her experiences in such pursuits strongly suggested such quick and easy approval would never occur.

And that’s to say nothing of the personal preferences of the official in charge whom, as kind and upright as they must be, may not appreciate the suggestion of some lone unassociated stranger horning in on their turf or who may have specific opinions of their own about what type of tree should be planted and where, if anything should be planted at all.

Never mind it all. Just plant the damn tree! she thought. A real rebel. Risking nothing.

Jackie Willowtree. Out to, gasp, plant a tree.

She imagined, once more with amusement, being busted for planting a tree, being interrogated and lectured for such a transgression. The teacher’s voice from Charlie Brown.

She imagined the tree ripped from the ground by officials like spray-paint graffiti wiped from a building.

The willow cutting growing strong in July of 2019.

She walked a section of the dry Santa Ynez River in the spring of 2016, where in her younger years a quiet swimming hole once pooled, but which was now choked with sediment and cattails.

What was once a long open gravel beach just a few years ago was now bristling with young willow trees that had sprouted and grown tall during the current record drought and low water levels, the river never running swift enough to clear out its bed.

Here she scanned the thin, tall trees for the straightest, best shaped and healthiest specimens.

She selected a 20 foot sprout and cut the top off and trimmed the large six foot scion, removing the lowermost branches to create a tree-shaped cutting.

She placed the cutting in a bucket of rain water for several weeks, changing the water as necessary until a thick mat of pink and red roots formed.

She planted the huge sprout in a pot where it grew for several months through summer to establish a robust and dense root ball.

Then on a fine late summer day she hauled the rooted clone to the spring at San Marcos Potrero on the North Side.

She dug a hole and sunk it in the ground beside the small puddle that was still, despite the drought, being filled by the reliable little trickle of ground water that poured from the rusted pipe.

Four years later the tree remains, standing much larger and fuller now with a big green bushy head of leaves and a fattened, crazed trunk. The tree casts a cool afternoon shadow over the puddled spring water wherein the frogs swim and where from the mammals and birds drink.

Here at the spring where before no tree stood in what had been a bare naked exposed and shadowless, sun-scorched hot spot.

Now, a green new future grows.

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15 Responses to The Privateer; Subcontractor, Dept. of Unauthorized Forestry

  1. Cynthia Delster Reiber says:

    thank you

    a wonderful story


  2. Ah yes, guerilla gardening. An activity I condone. Well done Jackie Willowtree!

  3. Ha I know this character that is continually dissatisfied with the lack of forest maintenance to certain back-country camps. Said person Chrissie decided months ago it would be great to start cleaning up and planting some trees at these spots to provide some shade and breathe life again to those forgotten gems. Chrissie began to sprout Ponderosa, Jeffrey Pine seed and Acorns in pots in the backyard. Surely the higher ups would approve such a grand project. Wrong she was met with a great deal of push back. “You cant go planting trees in the Wilderness” they said “NO, NO, NO, NO, absolutely not” Jeez a crushing blow and another great disappointment. Chrissie would back off quietly but not abandon the idea. Surely there might be other folks out there that Chrissie could stand long enough (she’s not fond of many people) to help accomplish a few said missions in the future. I do think Jackie Willow Tree may just be one such person. Great write up thanks for bringing me a big smile this morning in these rather turbulent times.

    Chrissie P Jeffreyi

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Yes. One day. One day. The damn virus, though, right now. I have a few different oak seedlings going at the home nursery including an endangered variety.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        I have a white oak. A two year old seedling. But the tree I was referring to is Quercus tomentella started from seed I gathered. Doesn’t naturally belong on the mainland, obviously. Probably wouldn’t fare well off the immediate coast for that reason and, if keeping with both it’s habitat requirements and “ethical” concerns about proper placement of botanicals in the forest, it probably shouldn’t be planted out yonder. I just thought I would mention that I had it. It’s a beautiful tree.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        I recently planted a black cottonwood in my yard which I took as a cutting at the same time I took that willow sprout, several years ago. The blacks readily take as cuttings just like the willows, but are of course rather more regal. You may want to consider that and incorporate them into your plans.

  4. Paul says:

    Your editorial seems to hint that the working volunteers and certain others associated with LPFA are setting conscience aside to obey authority and “give in to the man”. Even thought not written, this is the clear subtext of your essay. I have been on one of those trips and my experience was not at all what you describe. Social? Yes, but accepting of newbies, even loners such as your friend. Groveling to unfair regulations? Yes, but so what? Merely cutting twigs? They do so much more and you can find out for yourself if you like. (There was even a public discussion a few months ago, attended by a standing-room only crowd at the library, telling of all the miles and maintenance done and all the maintenance still needed.)

    It’s too bad you felt the need to disparage to make your point. And may I suggest that neither approach is better than the other and perhaps your next opinion piece might attempt to be fair, even attempt at some sympathy for each side.

    P.S. I have wanted to plant trees guerrilla-style as you describe but have not yet found the nerve. I agree with the guerrilla approach but have nothing against the “conformist” approach. Remember it was government that protected the LPFA.)

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Paul. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate hearing from you.

      I’m going to hazard a guess that you are Mr. C. Of course, I don’t know you, but I certainly know the name and I am quite aware of your good work out there as well as that of the LPFA.

      I am sorry that you mistook my words as you did. Your interpretation was not my intended meaning.

      I know Conant. Have for years. As a matter of fact, funnily enough, I just exchanged emails with him this morning on something completely different than this issue.

      And in that email, one of several exchanged in the last two days, you know what I told him?

      I told him to keep up the good work with the LPFA. That’s what I said. And I’ll pinky swear to you that in doing so I had no thought of this post. I told him that because I honesty meant it and I really appreciate what the LPFA does out there.

      I’m glad you commented because it gives me an opportunity to say something I had been thinking about in the last number of days after I wrote this piece.

      But before that forthcoming comment, I’d like to say that I had no intention of disparaging the Los Padres Forest Association or the good folks involved with it.

      I have donated money to the LPFA. And not just a few dollars either.

      I am a writer. And as such I have to express myself openly and freely and without reservation nor regard for how my words may or may not impact people so far as I may be able to guess at without knowing them and without knowing who is out there reading my work. Or else there is no reason to write, and I’d be a phony, a hack. I must call them as I see them and tell it like it is for the same reasons.

      I don’t expect people always to agree. But I would hope that people would not take things so personally if’n they disagree with my world view.

      And so, as this is my blog, I need to convey who I am as a person through it. And do so honestly. And convey my character, all of it, not just the easy going lovely traits, if I have any, but the warts and bunions, too, which are plentiful.

      Joining a group outing with the LPFA is just not in my DNA. What I wrote is how I see it. But that should not be taken as a reflection of my opinion of the individuals involved or the association as a whole.

      I can see how this may sound contradictory. To that point I have nothing I can offer in response.

      I may never have been out working with the LPFA, but that in no way means I am clueless to what the association does.

      I know the man in charge, as I said. I also have a friend from high school, that is a long time friend, that has worked with the LPFA and donated to it. And I know people wear hardhats out there for minor work. You cannot honestly tell me otherwise. And you know it. Although we may disagree on what the definition of “minor” is in this case.

      You read way too far into that comment in thinking I believe the LPFA only snips twigs.

      Furthermore, you even admit what else I wrote is also true, although you use a disparaging word that I never used and would not use, because I do not hold a negative view of the LPFA despite what I wrote.

      You wrote:

      “Groveling to unfair regulations? Yes, . . .”

      So you appear to not like what I was writing, even though you agree with it.

      As to hinting, believe me when I tell you that I don’t hint at anything. If I feel a certain way I state my position plainly and without reservation. People that know me would be quick to tell you this, I assure you.

      Now that forthcoming comment I wrote of just above.

      After I wrote this piece it came to mind that I should have let it be known that I was not ripping any association or organization nor the folks that volunteer.

      What came to mind was a simple light hearted reference. Because I had and have no interest in sidetracking my post or posts, my blog, by trying to hedge against my other words or any commentary just in case somebody didn’t understand or did not appreciate what I was saying.

      I have no interest, and I do not want to clog up my blog nor bore readers, with a disclaimer aside every time I think that there may be possibly perhaps somebody out there somewhere at some point that won’t understand or won’t like what I have written.

      But, anyway, the reference that came to mind as a disclaimer was a bit from the old Seinfeld show. It was this:

      Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

      There is nothing wrong with complying with the law and the safety requirements of the LPFA to accomplish the much needed work that needs doing out yonder.

      I just happen to, personally, not appreciate it. That is all. And my dislike of what is required to participate should not be taken as dislike for the the LPFA or its volunteers.

      I hope this has cleared up any misunderstanding you may have had, even if you still dislike what I wrote.


    • Jack Elliott says:

      Another, extended clip for context in case you aren’t familiar with this old TV stuff.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      One last thing. I am not just sorry you mistook my words, as I already said, but I am also sorry if I personally offended you in anyway. I never meant to insult or offend anybody.

  5. Paul M. says:

    No insult taken.
    Your essays give me much to consider about government and land use and my attitude about how and when they should mix.
    Paul M.

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