The tree is a multi-family unit; Hannah's next-branch neighbors are professional tree-protectors John Quigley and Julia "Butterfly" Hill, and for one night Joan Baez. In Los Angeles, you really can shake a tree and a celebrity falls out. Hill, who is in the midst of a hunger strike that wound up lasting 26 days, encourages me as I ascend. "So often in our lives fear holds us back," Hill yells down at me, smiling. "And most of us miss out on the magic of life because of that one little word." I wonder if by week three, Gandhi was this chipper.
The Tree of Fame is not the weirdest thing going on here. Not even close. The tree is on a 14-acre farm in middle of South Central Los Angeles the area south of downtown that rappers mention when they want to sound tough. The seemingly endless gardens are farmed by 350 poor people, each of whom have a plot where they make dinners from the corn, bananas, guava, cactus, mulberries, avocado and sugar cane they grow. It is one of the most surreal things I've ever seen, and I was at Time Warner when AOL bought it. But the gardens are also not the weirdest thing I see.
That's because the land is actually owned by developer Ralph Horowitz. The city invoked eminent domain laws to take the land from him in 1986 to build an incinerator. Unfortunately, the city forgot to ask South Central if they wanted an incinerator. They did not. So Horowitz fought city hall, which, while not impossible, does take a long time. Meanwhile, after the 1992 riots in South Central, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, whose offices are adjacent to the land, decided to temporarily use it as a community garden. Then, in 2003, Horowitz won his land back. Last month he won another court case to evict the squatting farmers, which have banded together under a radical leader named Tezozomoc who gets along with neither the city government not Horowitz, but is well-loved by far-left protestors. They, it turns out, are the weirdest thing here.
On any night, more than 60 earnest young kids are sleeping on the land in tents. They have written the phone number of the farm's lawyers on their arms, and are ready to resist eviction by the sheriff's office, which conducts nightly reconnaissance in circling helicopters. Farmers cook dinner for the protestors, massagers massage them and famous people play music for them tonight it's the guy from Rage Against the Machine, shiatsu and some delicious homemade soy-milk hot chocolate. During the day, there are pop-ins from celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Willie Nelson, Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, Laura Dern, Ben Harper, Ralph Nader and, proving that casting directors are underpaid, the mom from Dharma & Greg. You figure if the Field of Dreams guy got Shoeless Joe to come to a baseball field in a cornfield, this is just about right for a cornfield near Compton.
At sundown, I go to the nightly candle-lighting ceremony, which involves a woman playing violin and screeching like Enya caught in a tree. A person in a smiling sunflower costume made of felt is dancing to this screeching. At some point, she dances in front of me, leans in to my ear and says, "The people have spoken. The garden will stay." I am in a South Park episode come to life.
Normally, right after the candle-lighting, there would be a march around the property. "But last night there was an Aztec ceremony for 24 hours," Hannah explains to me, "so we're not doing a march." You can't take blood from a stone, people.
The most surprising thing about Hannah is that, for a woman who's been sleeping in a tree for almost two weeks, she doesn't smell. She attributes part of that to the flowers and herbs in the Aztec ceremony, but also because she takes a jury-rigged cold shower in the corn fields every few days. The one eventuality I am certain of in all of this is that we are less than a year away from a Daryl Hannah reality show.
But while teenagers in menacing face-paint take shifts as lookouts around the property, ready to battle the cops with tribal dance and felt costumes, the tree-dwellers are on their cell phones (charged by a solar-paneled, bio-diesel fueled truck parked outside) battling on several fronts. Since most of the farmers are Latinos who don't actually live right near the farm, and because the largely African-American neighborhood is the only area in Los Angeles to have lost jobs since 1992, the locals are on Horowitz's side: they'd rather raze the farm and build a warehouse. "We don't need some dingdong like Daryl Hannah going on TV and saying people need fresh air," says city councilwoman Jan Perry. "They also need jobs." An urban planner, Perry points out, would spread the community gardening money around the whole city instead of jamming it all into one area. Plus, Perry is intently focused on getting a soccer field out of all of this, which Horowitz conceded to.
At the beginning of the week, the Annenberg Foundation had given enough to raise the $16.3 million asking price. But Horowitz, who has been put off by Tezozomoc, refused to sell. Early Tuesday morning, 120 sheriff's deputies came in. They used saws to cut the chain-link fence surrounding the site, arrested the protestors, and, using fire engine's cherry-picker, pulled Hannah and Quigley from the almond tree.
I guess Horowitz has a right to do whatever he likes with his land, and that it was unfair for 350 residents to control so much land in the middle of an urban area begging for jobs, and that no matter how surreally beautiful the place was the protestors weren't right. But I wish I lived in a world where they were.