A Tree (Now) Grows in Oakland

I didn’t really know what to expect when I agreed to volunteer for The Sierra Club this morning. They had reached out a few days ago to see if I wanted to help plant trees around Oakland. After spending nearly three hours on four buses and two trains getting to and from the Oakland headquarters for the Bay Chapter earlier in the week to phone bank for the Tuesday elections I made sure to wake up early. Setting the alarm for 7 the night before did little to help me arrive at the designated meeting area by 9 as I chased buses and navigated the ever-changing BART line schedules across The Bay.

In the bowels of the BART station I let my team lead Derek know that I would be late and with a little change of plans I was told to meet my team at a new location to plop those trees in the ground. A half-hour later I had pulled up a curb on Taft Street and waited until Derek showed up with the effervescent Mary Sue, a self proclaimed former hippie and adventure seeker.

The first tree planting of the day along Taft Street in Oakland.

Over the course of the morning I learned that there was more to tree planting than digging a hole, plopping in a tree, and throwing some dirt back on it. Ok, so I knew there was more to it than that already but Derek, a landscape architect took me under his wing as the newbie to show me the care it takes to ensure a tree thrives in a new environment.

It was only a matter of minutes before I was unpotting trees (if that’s the right term), freeing roots to roam through freshly dug earth, prepared biodegradable watering systems, and built berns around the bases to steer runoff to the tree should it be fortunate enough to encounter a bit of rain. Although as I dug one hole, encountering a trickle of water that began to pool, tree roots need air and if they are covered in water they can drown.

Derek patiently answered all of my questions including why we were planting these trees rather than the city. It appears that much of the department that cared for trees had been cut in the last budget. In a partnership with the city, The Sierra Club helps residents who request trees in front of their homes, to pick a tree species from a list to be planted by volunteers. It is then the resident’s obligation to properly care for the tree for a few years until it is time for the city to take over care. Sort of a tree foster program.

Derek waters a newly planted tree on Morgan Avenue.

From Taft Street Mary Sue and I filled the bed of Derek’s small pick-up with shovels, pickaxes, and gravel, piled into the front seat and drove off to Morgan Avenue, stopping along the way to check in with another team of volunteers planting trees along Coolidge Avenue. After a quick chat we dug in to some drier ground, made use of the pickaxe, and planted two more trees – African Sumacs.

A little known fact about planting trees is that people talk while they dig. Mary Sue continued telling Derek and I a story about her travels that she had begun during the ride over. It was in the mid-seventies that she hopped in a VW bus with her husband and drove east, through Canada and eventually down parts of the coastline. I honestly thought that was a wonderful tale of “hippie spirit” until I found out just how adventurous this modern day upholsterer had been. She took a steamboat to Morocco and toured Europe passing through the UK, France, Spain, and Greece among others. Throughout the digging I learned that Derek also traveled during his university years, visiting many countries including Russia, South Korea, and Greece. Among his trips he also currently finds time to advocate for a rare species of bird that nests in unique sections of Korea (unfortunately I forget the name I was told due to the swinging pickaxe in my hands at the time).

At this site Chuck, a retired resident of Oakland who rides his motorcycle around town and enjoys driving his Model A for longer trips, joined us. However, those longer trips seem to be a rarity for Chuck who stated his fondness for keeping his trips local, in his “little circle”.

Chuck and Mary Sue scout the Coolidge Avenue site before planting two trees.

It was soon time to pack up and take our merry band to the final stop of the day along Coolidge Avenue. Here we dressed up a bus stop by planting two trees, dug up an old sign post, and were incessantly barked at by Sherry, the homeowners’ dog. Before long we had finished our plantings and I was being driven back to the BART station by two more volunteers who shared with me key tips for newly arrived Bay Area residents.

“Don’t ever call it San Fran. It’s The City or San Francisco, never Frisco either.”

“Visit Muir Woods for the best views of The City. Find the highest elevation with an unobstructed view.”

“And go this weekend when the parks are all free.”

What a way to spend a Saturday morning…among friends.

Read more about Oakland’s sidewalk tree request service.

Learn about The Sierra Club’s volunteer programs.

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