No one seems to know exactly how long the magnolia tree has graced City/County Plaza, a stone’s throw from the Asheville City Building. Based on old photos, most interested parties have guesstimated it to be more than 100 years old.
Predicting the date of the magnolia’s demise entails a more precise calculus, aided by a pledge from the man who may have the most to say about the matter. On Aug. 5, developer Stewart Coleman, who says he plans to build the Parkside condominium project on the land where the magnolia now resides, handed a letter to Steve Rasmussen, one of the activists leading the drive to stop Parkside and save the tree.
The letter laid down a timeline, asserting, “The magnolia tree will be removed sometime after 35 days from today’s date.”
Coleman isn’t bound by law to wait that long, but project opponents say he’s pledged to do so in conversations with them; he’s also letting them camp on the property. If he keeps his word, that means he won’t take down the magnolia before Monday, Sept. 8.
In the meantime, Rasmussen and his wife, Dixie Deerman, are keeping a round-the-clock vigil at the tree (except for shower, food and bathroom breaks), joined on many days by Asheville resident Clare Hanrahan. Rasmussen and Deerman are devotees of the Wiccan faith, serving as priest and priestess of Coven Oldenwilde. Hanrahan, a veteran social-justice crusader who logged prison time for her activism against the U.S. Army School of the Americas (now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), keeps a digital diary of her tree-side watch on her blog: www.ashevilleontheground.blogspot.com.
At press time, the three had been at it for more than six weeks, and they say they’ll stay until the tree’s fate is decided. They’re also hatching plans for a broader civil-disobedience campaign to try to block any chain-saw-wielding crews that might arrive.
Most days, a stream of activists, reporters, politicians and curious visitors ebbs and flows around the tree, which has become the crucible of the whole Parkside controversy. One recent afternoon, Xpress pulled up a lawn chair in the shade of the magnolia and talked to the tree watchers about why they’re there, how they pass the days, and what the future might hold. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Mountain Xpress: When you first came out here, what did you hope to accomplish?
Clare Hanrahan:We strongly believe that there’s an important issue here that we just can’t let go, in the face of the theft of public land and the threatened death of a revered tree. People say, “It’s not just about the tree.” Well, it is for some of us, because the tree is a living being that holds a sense of our community here.
Dixie Deerman: I hoped to sit at the tree and, by taking that stand, that physical direct action, somehow rally people to the emergency of the tree’s demise—the imminence of it, the wrongness of it. … This is what it came down to. I didn’t expect anybody to support us, but I had to risk all.
Steve Rasmussen: I started out trying to talk [Deerman] out of it. I said: “I don’t know if we can do that. It’s not safe—we’d be here all night—and I don’t know how we could keep it going.” But she was resolute, and as the days went on and she proved her fortitude, more and more I said: “I’m going to stay here too. … I’m going to make sure nothing bad happens and try to follow your example.”
Where do you sleep?
Deerman: Right in front of the tree. We just put down a piece of plastic and donated sleeping bags.
How have your interactions with Coleman gone?
[An extended discussion on that topic followed, including what the activists said were failed efforts to entice Coleman to smell and touch the tree during one of his visits to the site.]
Rasmussen: He told me that if he’d realized what a knapsack of trouble he’d be stepping into—I think that was the euphemism—he never would have bought the property in the first place.
Do you believe Coleman’s letter, which says he’ll wait 35 days to take away the tree?
Hanrahan: I think that he would be a foolish man if he were to cut it down anytime before he said that he’d be moving on it. I don’t know him well enough to know. … All that aside, even if I were absolutely certain that Mr. Coleman would not move on this, I would remain here: I would continue to come every day. Because part of me being here is to be a visible counterforce to the city and the county … to represent a groundswell of anger. It is about saving a tree, but it’s also about uncoiling a web of corruption.
Rasmussen: I don’t trust it one little bit. I think we need to be out here every moment. And frankly, not just to protect it from Mr. Coleman, but also to protect it from redneck yahoos who think it would be funny to cut it down in the middle of the night. Or from religious extremists who think we’re worshipping the creation and not the creator, and therefore they’d cut it down.
Are you surprised that Coleman lets you stay here?
Deerman: No, not me. Because a lot of people have been pretty upset with him … and I think he’s starting to become aware of his public-relations situation. I think he realizes it would be very ungoodly for him to just kick us out when we’re just trying to marshal support.
If the police were to come by right this moment and say, “The property owner has asked you to leave,” what would you do?
Deerman: Well, we’re having meetings about that. … I think the general consensus is the desire to put ourselves between the tree and harm’s way.
Earlier, one of you mentioned naysaying about your tactics, even among Asheville’s activist set. Can you elaborate?
Hanrahan: This is a town full of strong activist leadership, and we don’t always agree on tactics and strategy. We’re learning how to listen and respect each other’s different ways and approaches. I had a peace activist say, “Well, it’s just a tree, for God’s sake, and the war is going on.” I know about the war—I’ve been standing against it for six years. I think we need to try to keep working together and stand with one another when we can.
Some folks say, “Is this about the tree or about wider public-policy issues?”
Rasmussen: It’s about both. People underestimate the importance of a symbol. The tree represents all of the trees—all of our heritage, our nature, that’s the basis of our prosperity here, because it’s what brings tourists and what brings people to move here. … Most of the conversation about these developments is based on lines on paper, or some architect’s soft-focus rendering, but here it’s real. People come by and say, “What’s going on here?” We explain that we’re protesting a nine-story condo that would be put here, right in front of City Hall. They look around and say, “Here? They want to put a condo here? That’s crazy.” That’s what they all say. They all want to have their photograph taken hugging the tree. It’s trendy to be a tree-hugger.