by Jean Fisher

(Excerpt from “Diary of Plant Activist: The fight of one woman to save an historical vine from the land developers’ bulldozers in the home of Luther Burbank.”)

I folded my sweatshirt and scooted it underneath me for padding against the gnarled, wooden trunk of the wisteria; then shifted the heavy chain away from the spot it was pinching on my neck.

I looked up through the light green foliage of the old wisteria vine and listened to the frantic pitch the robins’ and blackbirds’ chatter had begun to take.

The sun had fully risen by then, and the chill of the damp morning air was dissolving -- retreating into the shady corners of the dilapidated arbor under which I sat.

I looked at my watch. It was 7:15 am, and I could hear the shouts of the workmen drift across to me, muffled by the shrubbery, as they assembled to coordinate the demolition of the old Wright Nursery. 

As I looked up at dilapidated arbor, I was struck with an amusing thought: It was as though the old arbor and the ancient vine had made an agreement from the beginning -- as though the arbor had said, “Look, I’ll hold you up for the first hundred years, and then you can hold me up for the second hundred, okay?”

It made me chuckle out loud.

I imagined what it must have been like when the Wright Family owned this property and decided to go into the nursery business. With the greenhouse addition, the house had taken on some “Winchester Mystery House” like qualities: Windows had been boarded-over and made into knick-knack shelves, concrete steps outside led up to blank walls, and rooms, which had once been porches, were walled and glassed-in -- only to have other porches built onto them. . .

I sighed aloud when I thought of the sprawling, busy place that this formerly quiet, rural, agricultural community of SonomaCounty had become. The walnut, pear, and prune orchards I remembered from my youth were all but gone. Only the scraggly vestiges of them remained -- pieces scattered here and there, as debris that is left in the corners of a room after being swept by a lazy housekeeper.

As a kid, I had loved late summer and early autumn in SonomaCounty. It had always meant a time of “gathering” -- of harvest -- to me. The old orchard trees that still dotted the neighborhood where I grew up offered “free snacks,” available for the taking, on the way home from school. There were blackberries, figs, apples, pears, plums and crab apples.

Then, later in the year, there were English walnuts to be cracked with a quick stomp of the heel; but not too hard, least the prize within be smeared across the sidewalk, like peanut butter, and lost.

Those were the tastes and smells of the Northern California of my childhood in a time before the vines of Zinfandel and Chardonnay wove their tendrils across the county and all but obliterated the old fruit orchards. Now, only their names remained on street signs, condos, and business parks to remind us of where they once stood. . .

I was roused from my thoughts by a middle-aged woman, in slippers, who approached the arbor -- coffee cup in hand. She called out, but I couldn’t understand what she said, so I shouted back, “I beg your pardon?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she growled back, glaring at me (7:30 am was probably not her favorite time of day); “I was calling my cat. Here Fluffy, here Fluff-baby. . .”

I hoped her precious “Fluff” wasn’t napping inside the old house, because in a little while, when bulldozers were through reducing it to a pile of splinters, there wouldn’t be a large enough piece of it left even to make decent kindling.

The woman lowered her cup and steadied her gaze on me, glowering. “Are you chained to that tree?” she asked in a dubious tone.

“Yes,” I offered calmly, “and, actually, it’s a vine - - not a tree.” 

Her _expression abruptly changed to one she probably reserved for alien abductees. She shifted to examine the poster at my feet --the one I had hurriedly lettered that morning -- and read it aloud:

“100 years in the light and the dark, it has more rights thana business park.”

“They’re going to tear it down today, you know . . .” I said to her, gesturing toward the house with my chin, “. . . the old house . . . everything . . . “

Something in what I said touched off a spark, enlivening the woman’s demeanor, and a slight flush came over her face.

“I know”, she joined in, “It’s such a shame how they just tear things down all the time. Nobody cares about these old buildings ‘n stuff anymore. They’re all just in a hurry to tear ‘em down.”

“Yes,” I nodded sadly, “Do you know that some of these plants may have belonged to LutherBurbank?”

“Really?” she said as she sidled-up closer.

“It’s true,” I said, conspiratorially. Then I proceeded to give her a brief synopsis of my well-practiced narrative about the Wright Nursery.

I was interrupted by a short, grey-haired man in a hardhat who walked up and seemed to be intensely scanning the area (for “squatters” like Fluffy, I imagined). I took him to be the construction crew foreman.

“Good morning,” he said, and nodded pleasantly enough, as he passed by. Then, he froze in mid-pace, and whirled around, abruptly, to face me.

“Are you chained to that tree?” he asked, his voice tightening up a notch.

“Well, actually, it’s a vine --not a tree -- and, yes, I am chained to it.” I quipped breezily.

He shifted his gaze to my poster, then quickly back to me. “Well,” he huffed, “You’d better get unchained real fast, Missy, or you could get real hurt, real soon!”

“Oh? And I suppose you’re going to bulldoze me right along with the building and kill me if I don’t?” I countered with a bravado that was belied by my quickly elevating heart rate.

I told him about the plants while holding up a copy of the old Wright Nursery Price List. Showing him Burbank’s name among the varieties of plants on it, I explained that I couldn’t unchain myself anyway, since I wasn’t holding the key to the padlock.

His face turned three shades of red, and he strode off, muttering under his breath.

At that point, the lady I’d been speaking with disappeared and, I was left, once again alone under the arbor; my body still quaking slightly with apprehension.

After a few moments, “Fluffy’s Mother” returned, joined by a small band of children and teenagers. The bravest one approached me and asked, “Are you chained to that tree?”

“Actually, it’s a vine -- not a tree -- and, yes, I am chained to it.” 

This reply unleashed a deluge of questions from the group, which I answered, each in turn.

After twenty or thirty minutes, my girlfriend, Kathy, arrived on the scene. Excitedly, she told me that she had telephoned the local TV News program and tipped them off to “the happening.” 

She added dejectedly that she had also phoned all the horticultural experts and government representatives on the list I had given her earlier that morning, but, unfortunately, they were all officially “unavailable.”

So, it appeared that I was left to face the bulldozers, predictably alone. . .

Just then, I a large, white van, with “TV News” emblazoned down the side panel, came up the driveway. 

In a moment, a young, petite, brown-haired woman and a man with a video camera emerged and approached me.

After recounting my “Wright Nursery spiel” to the reporter, she explained that she would interview me again -- this time with the camera rolling. I was to answer her questions, just as I had done “off the record,” and our conversation would air that evening on the local news program.

After the on-camera interview was done, I watched as the cameraman took a close-up shot of my poster. Then he and the reporter stepped aside while he took “reaction shots” of her. 

It looked ludicrous, the reporter standing alone, holding her microphone, nodding seriously while occasionally uttering “uh-huh” or “I see” as the cameraman filmed her.

A minute later, the reporter came back over to me and extended her hand, shaking mine. “Thank you,” she said earnestly, looking into my eyes, “I mean thank-you for doing this -- for all of us, you know, who live here.”

I smiled, “You’re welcome,” I said reassuring her, “But I just have to do it. I couldn’t live with myself if I just let them tear it apart without saying or doing anything.” 

She returned my smile and then she and the cameraman loaded up the van and drove away.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a police patrol car pull into the driveway.

A young, strapping, dark-haired, uniformed officer emerged from the patrol car as he was hailed by the short, grey-haired foreman.

They spoke for a moment -- turning to look and gesture in my direction. After that, the officer walked over and addressed me.

“Look,” he said rather sheepishly, “The fact is, you’re trespassing, and, if you don’t unchain yourself from that tree, I’m going to have to arrest you.”

Summoning every bit of courage that I had left, I looked into his eyes and said, “Actually, it’s a vine --not a tree -- and I understand that you have to do your job. But you have to understand, too, what I am trying to accomplish here. These plants are living things. They are old and rare, and have historical significance to this town, this county -- maybe, even to the whole world and I’m trying to save their lives -- not to mention, a piece of our own heritage. All we care about here are the plants. Somebody has to do something to stop this destruction and, I guess, I’m all they’ve got . . .”

He gave me a look he probably reserved for orphaned puppies, shook his head slowly, and said, “I’ll see what I can do,” before walking off back in the direction of the foreman.

A couple of minutes later, he returned and informed me in an earnest tone that they had managed to contact the owner of the construction company by phone. 

The owner had promised -- if I disengaged myself from the wisteria and the crew was allowed to continue the demolition of the buildings without further interruption -- they would make a point of sparing the plants for the time being by seeing to it that only the structures were torn down from around them.

He explained that Kathy and I would be allowed to remain at a safe distance and witness for ourselves that the plants remained unharmed. Otherwise, the kind officer had been instructed to cut the chain from around me, and haul me, forthwith, to jail.

“ . . .And I really don’t want to do that. . .” he pleaded, “. . .and I’m sure you don’t want that, either. He’s offering you a pretty good deal here, really.”

I nodded my head slowly a couple of times, “Okay,” I answered quietly, “Give me a minute to have my friend bring over the key.”

“Good,” he sighed with relief, and then walked over to inform the foreman of my decision.

I called Kathy over; we feigned passing the key and the weight of the chain was lifted off my neck. After stopping to pick up my poster, we positioned ourselves on the front lawn to watch as the old house fell.


I am a freelance writer whose work is included in:

*** Two of the Haunted Encounters series books by ATriadPress, Jefferson TX (2003 & 2004)

*** A chapter of Angela Hoy's newest book about communicating with "the other side", "Real Stories of Spirit Communication".

*** Several stories (including "Story of the Month") on Stephen Wagner's Paranormal site.

*** Poetry which will be featured on beginning August 15th, 2004.

*** Various consulting ventures with other writers in the areas of: teen parenting, freelance writing, civil rights, and hauntings, psychic detectives, and other subjects.

I live in Northern California with my husband and my black kitty cat, Plunkett and am the Co-President of the Western Sonoma County Historical Society and an active member of Luther Burbank's Gold Ridge Farm (an historic site) Advisory Committee.

Contact Jean.