Moving across the country during the election year might have required me to forsake much exploration, and strike out instead for more immediate community interaction and political participation. My “mental map” of the Bay Area last week was a list of words: of sidewalk chalk, beards, murals, speeches shouted from VWs, black panthers, and protested police. Yet still I thought it would be better to delay dwelling on the past, to wait on exploring the sites and signs and murals and parks, at least while the present so demanded my attention. In New York my time usually felt divided between academics, community, and political action, and now (I thought) was the time for the latter. Today’s politics seem too urgent to allow for a citizen to spend their time on history, and meeting a new city.
Yet my nagging conflict was that history and exploration, becoming native to a place, is my politics: being local to the out-of-the-way gurus, full of stories of old landmarks, obligated to my community, friend of the best of purveyors for my grains and ginger, cheese and carrots, coffee and bananas. Perhaps most important to me politically, as a student, is to be both needed by my community, and to make my needs require them, who supply and produce the products of the policies, treatments, and trade relationships I support. Yet I foresaw that in moving to California, I would have to jump blindly into politically-gathered groups of students, and let the scattered details of local life I found on campus replace a more deeply rooted connection with a place.
What I’ve found is something very different than I expected.
All three of my Cal professors began our first class Tuesday with a brief history of their department, their course, and themselves. At first I thought it was a symptom of academic ego, of the (somewhat pretentious) assumption that their personal past contributed to the subject about which we had gathered to learn. The cartography prof described how he had studied in the same classroom we were in, had used India ink and blotters to draw maps, and how his department had created that (yellowing) map of Oakland on the wall, the first of its kind. The City Planning professor described his experience in the department when he was at Berkeley, and how he’d wished a class like the one we were in had been taught back then…so now, a professional lawyer, he’d come back to teach it. The Urban Forestry guru breathed slow and heavy like my grandfather, and gave us a handout on his decades of experience with Asian foliage. Upon hearing of my interest in Urban Agriculture, he rattled off the names of several individuals who’d researched with him on campus over the past thirty years, and wondered if I might like to consult them.
On Thursday, students across the country held a daylong event to Focus our Nation. Focus the Nation is a project of the Green House Network, and this week over 1000 colleges and universities organized a day of climate-related education and activities, as part of a national teach-in on global warming solutions for America. At UC Berkeley, the day included a panel that ended with a city official who reminded us of the powerful movements that have shaped our nation’s history. Fifty years ago: Civil Rights. Forty years ago: Vietnam. In the last decade, whether we like it or not: Anti-Abortion. We must initiate a movement, he said, with the old kind of demonstration (against something) and the new (on how to make change). “And not just personal change,” he said, “but policy change! Don’t just get on your bike – get off the campus! Take over the streets! This is Berkeley!” And everyone clapped and agreed. It is as though they all know the powers-that-be will be behind their insurgence. The same way the Save the Oaks people, living in the trees on campus, shrug and shiver and say the “police are just bewildered about how to get us out!”
The next night, several different student groups organized a night of “Art and Activism” on the Cal campus. This event began too with a panel. Though sitting in mixed order, the participants represented six consecutive decades of Berkeley alumni. White, Asian, Black, and Latino, they spoke about participating in the Free Speech movement and acting with the Third World Liberation Front, using hip-hop to express their frustration in the ‘80s, and feeling the campus clam up in confusion after September 11th. They reminded us: that action must include dancing. Dancers danced, and poets read, slamming war, abuse, and intolerable silence. The panel had explained the relationship between arts and action, and the way we use art, we need art, to imagine and express the world we might create, the world we hope to live in. I thought of movements made, and murals, and felt something seeping through my skin, reminding me of a history I don’t really know. It was just there. And this decade was a part of it, just as it should be.
Yesterday I went on a field trip with my Landscape Architecture class, to explore the forestry of San Francisco. I had stood at the top of the Twin Peaks two weeks earlier, but had not of course considered the trees scattered throughout the view, and how few of them there are. Most of the trees in the city are not native, because it used to be prairie grasslands, inhabited by the Ohlone Indians. We touched the type of grass that used to cover the peninsula where San Francisco has risen. We visited the Dolores Mission, one of the first built by the Spanish padres, and stood under the olive tree, a species the Franciscans introduced here. We checked out the Coast Live Oaks in the Golden Gate park; noticed the conspicuous lack of planting space around the city’s post-gold rush residential buildings on Cape Street; the London Plane Trees of City Hall Plaza, planted in the spirit of City Beautiful, after the Chicago World’s Fair; Presidio where the Army planted a forest of Eucalyptus, Pine, and Cypress trees before the World Wars; streets and neighborhoods and parks designed in the ‘30s and ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘90s. We learned the controversial details of the planting of Canary Island Date Palms by the Embarcadero. I learned when the earthquakes and the fires were, by what trees had been planted in their aftermath.
New York has Onion Tours and tourist plaques, movies made about our historical gangs, and marquees proclaiming the “oldest” establishment of each neighborhood and community. But the past has often been built over and forgotten. And I expected the Bay Area history too would be hidden in its own way, in the gardens perhaps of the baby boomers’ backyards. But instead, it peeks out at you from panels, calmly coaches you in classrooms, looks down at you from every tree. In my courses, at the campus events, during the field trip in the city: history and politics and culture were not separated or distinct. They were not angry, did not demand that I divide my time into periods of learning and fighting and living day-to-day. They hung in the air, and asked me, somewhat casually, to dance.
The primary vote is tomorrow. And the future of our nation is very desperately in need of young people to commit themselves, and vote for their lives. Yet whether Obama’s elected in November, or Clinton, Romney or McCain, the nation will not transform itself by naming a new president. And the answer is not to fight harder. Politics, particularly in relation to our climate, must cease to be a battlefield. It is simply urgent, and there is no more time for sides and divisions. We must let our values seep under our skin like music, take history and the present on our arm, and dance into the future. Politics must be our ballroom. We must demonstrate, yes, but demonstrate dancing, rejoicing in the wonderful change we will create, the waves we will surf, the world we will imagine, and enact through the art of our movement.