Interviewsand Articles

 

Interview: Tree & San Francisco's Free Farm

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 16, 2012


 

 

 It was on a bright Sunday afternoon when I paid my first visit to the Free Farm stand in San Francisco's Mission District where my friend Pancho introduced me to Tree, the Free Farm's founder. As I walked toward Parque Ninos Unidos looking for the stand, I spotted a queue of people along the sidewalk and leading into the park. I knew I'd found the place.
     I'd been hearing about Tree from Pancho for over a year. "One of my favorite love warriors," Pancho called him. And Pancho [Francisco Ramos Stierle] knows something about love warriors, being an exemplar of the same himself. So I listened, and made a note to self: Tree -future interview. 
     When an article about Tree and the Free Farm appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, I thought maybe the time had come. I wanted to meet Tree myself to see if an interview could be arranged. And so I found myself at the park. I soon spotted Pancho and asked, "Where's Tree?" He pointed and looking through a clutch of people I spotted an inconspicuous, bearded man with a bucket hat, talking with someone. "That's Tree."
     Soon Pancho was introducing us. Tree was friendly and open, and also busy keeping his eye on things. We made an appointment to meet at Tree's apartment later that same day. Pancho then introduced me to a couple of volunteers. Both were students of Stanford professor Page Chamberlin, a strong supporter of the Free Farm. 
     Cutting to the chase, a
 few hours later, I arrived at Tree's Mission District address where he was unloading boxes of produce with the help of a couple of volunteers. Unlike the other buildings pressed against each other and sitting up against the sidewalk, at the front of Tree's place a tree grew vibrantly from some hidden patch of earth. And I noticed an artichoke plant in a small square of earth that had been liberated from the concrete.
      By and by, Pancho, Tree and I found ourselves seated together in a quiet room at the back of Tree's apartment. I'd heard about Tree's reluctance to expose himself to media coverage. He was wary of attention that would stoke the ego. That was definitely to be avoided. And Tree spoke about his uneasiness about the interview. But as we chatted, he began telling me about his life. When he'd first moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles. He'd become part of a commune that published a magazine called Kaliflower, the title being a bad pun, as he said, referring to the Kali Yuga of Hindu cosmology. This was the age of strife we are said to be living in. I asked him if he'd been part of the Diggers when he'd first come to San Francisco. 
 
Tree:  No, but I was inspired by the Diggers when I visited San Francisco in 1967. I was fed by the Diggers and was so impressed. I don't know where one gets one's calling, but I know that was very influential in my coming to San Francisco to do a free food program in the park like the Diggers.
 
Richard Whittaker:  Did you already have an inclination in this direction?
 
Tree:  Yes. In Los Angeles, before I moved here I worked with an ex-priest named Dan Delany, who now is involved, I think with the Catholic Worker house in Sacramento. We were trying to feed people on skid row and we started one of the first soup kitchens in Los Angeles on skid row. 
    There was another group I was involved with, too. This was in the 60s, also. There was a guy, I can't remember his name, collected pastries from Van De Kamps bakery and gave them out at free events like be-ins. So somewhere along the line I started doing things with food and feeding people.
 
RW:  Did you grow up in Los Angeles?
 
Tree:  Yes. In the San Fernando Valley and then I went to school in Westwood.
 
RW:  UCLA?
 
Tree:  Yes. But because of the war in Vietnam, it was hard for me to keep focused on school. I just got sucked up into the anti-war movement and specifically the non-violent draft resistance movement. 
 
RW:  What was your focus of study at UCLA?
 
Tree:   Well, my father was a doctor and I was going to be a doctor. But organic chemistry was kind of overwhelming. I couldn't get through that so easily. I took philosophy and psychology and some German classes. And then I just took classes that seemed fun. But I spent most of my time trying to stop the war, hunger fasts and things like that. 
 
RW:  Hunger fasts? You did that?
 
Tree:  I think the longest one was a twelve-day hunger fast on campus.
 
RW:  Wow. Now I've got the idea that you're connected with the Catholic Church.
 
Tree:  No. My father and mother were Jewish, but we weren't very religious. My father died early, like at fifty years old. I think he knew he was going to die, so he started going to the temple every Friday night and I remember going with him. I was seventeen. 
    But I've always been inspired by Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Gandhi-all these great people. When I was involved with the anti-war movement, some of the people I would run across would be Catholic Workers like Dan Delany, for instance. And I also met these Maryknoll nuns. You know, you pick up these things as you go along. I met some Quakers who introduced me to becoming a vegetarian. These Maryknoll nuns told me, "You've got to do more than protest. You've got to start doing service." So we started our own house and we put up men who were awol from the army, who were escaping the draft. 
 
RW:  And this would be when, more or less? 
 
Tree:  1967, 68 -something like that. Late in 1969 I started working with Dan. We were living communally-me and a woman whose husband was in Lompac prison for draft resistance. We didn't burn our draft cards, we did something a little more creative. We sent them up in balloons. But I did get to meet the FBI who came up to me after I did that and they took down my information. But I've had some odd medical problem since I was a little kid and I was declared 4F. 
 
RW:  So you got lucky there. 
 
Tree:  Lucky, but unlucky -because I really wanted to go to prison with all my friends. So we ran this communal household. 
 
RW:  And that was just you and a couple of other people?
 
Tree:  Actually just me and one woman. She was really a dynamite person. 
 
RW:  It's unusual to have the convictions and then to act on them the way you did. 
 
Tree:   I don't know. It seemed like everybody was doing that. Before that, when I dropped out of school, I had some money I'd saved and I met these people who were going to start a coffeehouse in Silver Lake. I thought, wow, this is great! They'll give me an office to run the draft resistance movement and there's going to be coffee and showing movies and all these things. They turned out to be heavy duty Maoist Communists. 
   I was pretty anarchistic and would freak them out -like I painted the room where they were going to show films red, white and blue. Then, when I was running the cafe, I'd just give people the food. I wouldn't charge them for it. 
   They weren't too happy about it, but I put a lot in for the rent, so they couldn't do much about me. Then I realized they had a stash of weapons. That's when I decided I didn't want to work with them anymore, and I just left. 
    About a week later, they showed a political film about Castro and a group of Cubans came in and burned the place. [turning toward Pancho] You've heard this word gusanos?
 
Pancho Ramos Stierle:  Gusanos. Yes. It refers to Cubans who came to Miami after the revolution. The ones who owned casinos and clubs and so on. 
 
Tree:  A group of them came in with machine guns and made everybody leave and they firebombed the building, and that was that. 
 
RW:  Well, you mentioned Gandhi and the Maryknoll nuns and other people who inspired you, and I'm wondering, did some of this come from your father? 
 
Tree:  No. I think maybe my father inspired me to do service, though. He was pretty generous with his patients. And the only thing I ever thought I wanted to do was to do service.
 
RW:  How far back do you feel that went?
 
Tree:  I think all my life.
 
RW:  Even as a kid?
 
Tree:  Yeah. I never imagined anything but doing service. I mean, it's weird, but the earliest thing I can remember is having the idea of working on this medical ship that went around to different countries. I didn't want to be a regular doctor and run a business. If I was going to be a doctor, I wanted to be on a medical ship that would go around and help people. I remember that. 
    When I moved to San Francisco in 1970, I thought, well -I'm going to figure out how to do my food thing. I wanted to find people who could help me doing a food program like the Diggers. 
 
RW:  Where did you move to in San Francisco? 
 
Tree:  I moved in with this ex-boyfriend. In college I had a fling with him until he figured out that I was just interested in politics, really, not romance. But we were always friends. He had moved to San Francisco. So I asked if I could stay with him until I got my food thing off the ground. I didn't know what I was doing, and I don't think you ever do know.
 
RW:  You try to follow something that's meaningful, right? 
 
Tree:  That's it. 
 
RW:  And that can be tricky.
 
Tree:  Right. I've always gone against the grain in the sense that "you follow a career." That just never made sense to me. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and so I just tried to follow that instinct. 
 
RW:  What does it take to be able to follow that?
 
Tree:  Well, it takes a certain trust that you're going to be okay, that you don't have to worry, that something will work out. I think that's the main thing. And then you've got to not be brainwashed that you need to worry about survival. 
    I think there are a lot of good biblical ideas out there. One of them is the idea that God will support you, the lilies of the field and so on. You really have to take that to heart. You have to pretty much believe that. 
 
RW:  Here you are. So forty-one years have passed and apparently that trust you're describing has been justified, I gather. 
 
Tree:  Yes. And I feel very blessed and grateful for that. I can't tell others what to do, but from my experience that has worked out. Pretty much everything I've wanted and strived for, you pretty much get it. And there's another thing that's important, which is having a support system. It's true that you are alone in the world, in a way, but having community behind you is really pretty imperative, I think. You need help. So at a very early time in starting on this path, I lucked out. I found a community that supported me. 
 
RW:  What was some of the luck you've had? 
 
Tree:  Well, that's it, finding those people where everything clicks. So when I came to San Francisco I asked this guy I was staying with, who can help me do a food program in the park? He gave me two names. One was the White Panther Party and he also said, go to Kaliflower.
 
RW:  And you found them a resonant group?
 
Tree:  Well, I went first to the White Panther Party and told them I wanted to start a food program in the park like the Diggers. They said, that's already been done. We're now running a food conspiracy.
 
RW:  What did they mean by that?
 
Tree:  It was a movement where friends and neighbors would get together and buy food in bulk. Then they'd meet in someone's garage once a week and divide the food up. If you didn't have much money, this was one approach-to start a food conspiracy. 
    After that, I went to Kaliflower and they were very supportive. They gave me a tour of the place and said, that's a great idea! We'll help you! They let me live there. I didn't have to work for money. They were publishing. Wow. I thought, this is what I need. 
 
RW:  What was your vision? 
 
Tree:  It was pretty simple. It wasn't thought out. It wasn't like today where it has a label. It's just that I wanted to feed people who were hungry. You just want to cook a meal and serve it to people. 
 
RW:  It was just that direct?
 
Tree:  Yeah. I don't even know if I understand it. But that's what I wanted to do, to feed people in the park. An interesting story around that is that I met someone who was living on 17th Street in San Francisco. At that time there was money available called Aid for the Totally Disabled (ATD). There was this guy who lived in his garden, without clothes most of the time. He got ATD and he didn't need his check. He met me and gave me his money to buy food. So we started, not only cooking a meal, but I'd give out dry goods, too-rice and beans. This lasted for only a very short time, my original project. 
    After that I didn't get back into feeding people for a long time. I got into a lot of other things with this group of people I was living with. 
 
RW:  Kaliflower?
 
Tree:  Yes. It was often called that, but it was on Sutter Street and so sometimes it was just called the Sutter Street Commune. 
 
RW:  So there was this long hiatus and when did your focus on food for others come back?
 
Tree:  I left this group a number of times and once when I left I found this newish soup kitchen that had opened. I just happened to walk in and one of the cooks hadn't showed up. They asked me if I could do the meal. I ended up pretty much cooking every day there and, when I was cooking there, it was basically vegetarian. It was the Haight Ashbury soup kitchen. 
 
RW:  So they liked you and you liked them?
 
Tree:  Yeah. And there was a sense of excitement kind of like there is today with a lot of interesting young people coming by. It wasn't a hard-core Tenderloin kind of place. And I think that partly you attract people like that. We were doing a vegetarian meal and putting flowers on the table. 
    I mean, whenever I did things, I tried to bring it up a notch. Just being vegetarian you kind of focus on health. So we did a really good meal and we got a lot of people who came. 
 
Pancho:  Why don't you talk a little about the beautification of the meals where you dressed up and all that...
 
Tree:  I don't know how many years passed, but I started re-connecting with the people I'd left and I was telling them about the excitement of the soup kitchen I'd been working at. I was getting tired of working there and there were other friends who were taking over, anyway; and there was the tension of trying to do something beautiful with someone else's set up. So I ended up moving back in with the commune. 
 
RW:  With the Kaliflower group?
 
Tree:  Yes. And I wanted to do my own soup kitchen. They were okay with the idea, but they had some requirements, hoops, that I had to jump through, like architectural things that needed to be taken care of. These were pretty artistic-minded people. We had tables, but I ended up making special chairs with one of the people I was close to there. It was a small space in our house and we needed to build so things would stack. It took us a while before we opened, like somebody had to sew a big curtain that divided the house from the rest of the place. 
    A number of the people I was close to there were theater people and also cooks. We had this idea of doing a free dinner theater thing. And they were also into printing so we ended up putting up big sheets of newsprint over the walls. So Jet and Ralph, these amazing artists, would paint these murals. Then we started developing themes for every meal, like an Indian theme or an Easter meal.
 
Pancho:  And this was every week?
 
Tree:  Every week. There was a costume bank we had access to.
 
RW:  How would people find you?
 
Tree:  Word of mouth. It got to be pretty big, like two hundred people a week. And also around that time we started noticing people would come and not know where else to go to get food. So we had the idea of reviewing all the other soup kitchens in San Francisco. Of course, we were vegetarians so the reviews were coming from that point of view. We ate at all the other soup kitchens and wrote reviews. But because our reviews were too negative about what people were doing out there, we just decided to put out this chart. It was called the "Free Eats Chart" of all the places in the city to get free food. Then we gave that out, mailed it out to different social service places. It's now the standard chart. Anyway, we would get a certain crowd. Then at some point, we had a band and had music. It was quite a scene for a number of years. 
 
Pancho:  And you dressed up right?
 
Tree:  Yes. So if we did a Japanese meal, all the waiters would put on kimonos. The Easter meal, I remember, it was the craziest thing. The Costume Bank had these heavy robes, Russian Orthodox, like from Ivan the Terrible, which we wore.
 
RW:  It sounds pretty festive. What were the years for this?
 
Tree:  In the 80s.
 
RW:   You must have so many stories.
 
Tree:  I remember some of the performances. This man John, a non-stop smoker -he had emphysema. He always slept in the park, Franklin Square, near the soup kitchen I work at. 
 
RW:  You do that now?
 
Tree:  Yes.  He used to live in a tent. He would let other homeless people sleep in his tent. He used to help us at our kitchen. He sang this beautiful song, rewritten after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" -"Take Me Home to the Hospice." It was very moving. He was a pretty funny guy. And he was a total gadfly. John O'Brian was his name. He would go to public meetings and was always hassling them about this or that. 
 
RW:  So you work at a soup kitchen and you probably get paid for that, or am I wrong?
 
Tree:  No. Since I've moved to San Francisco, I've never worked for money.
 
RW:  That's astonishing. Forty-one years. How did you come to have this house?
 
Tree:  We're renters. So here's the thing. The people I ran into were into the same philosophy as me, of doing things for free, and we figured out a way of doing that. When the commune started, people had various odd jobs like selling the Berkeley Barb or doing some gardening. And all the money was pooled. It was shared. Then we figured out that the government gives money to people who are crazy. Anybody could get that if they could prove they were crazy and obviously, we were all crazy. We didn't have to go very far to prove that. We don't believe in working for money. 
 
RW:  You don't see money at the top with everything else coming after that.
 
Tree:  I think that's backwards, but I do recognize that there are things like rent that people have to pay. There's not much other than that, really. Well, there's health care. Still, we always felt like we had an obligation to earn our keep, in a certain way. It was Nixon, I think, who had the idea of an annual guaranteed income. I think it would be much better than welfare if they'd get rid of all this bureaucracy to make sure people aren't cheating. 
 
RW:  There's the big problem of meaning, don't you think? It seems you have a life full of meaning in serving others. 
 
Tree:  And there's a lot of forms of service, don't forget. You can just do no harm and be of service -or be an artist. 
 
RW:  Is there a problem around needing a life of meaning?
 
Tree:  I'm not sure I understand that.
 
RW:  Okay. Let's say you give people money. Then what do they do? Don't people have to feel that they're doing something worthwhile?
 
Tree:  I think that the only thing a person needs to do is follow this one idea, and I think it's the basis of all religion -and that is love your neighbor. That's all it is. Getting your mind off yourself. It's very simple. Be good to others, whatever that is for you. 
    But getting back to money, I feel blessed that I fell into this understanding about this way of survival that gave me the freedom to do what I want. A lot people have problems with that. You're living off the government. But I always thought that, number one, the government ought to be putting its money into supporting people and not wars. I never really wanted to pay taxes. But living communally and sharing income certainly helps one carry out their dreams. It's all a matter of strategy. 
    We might have to have some new strategies. Some people have the idea that it's better to work and make money doing what you like to do. I've always thought, do what you like to do for free, and then figure out a way to make money that's expedient. Maybe one person in your group likes being a nurse, or another likes making music. I don't know if I have any answers. 
   By the way, my diggers inspiration is not just from the 60s Diggers, but it's from the original diggers, from Gerrard Winstanley in 1649. He was kind of Quaker and they were kind of like Bible communists. I've always been inspired by those guys. 
 
RW:  I'm thinking how startling it is to be sitting with someone who really lives this philosophy in the midst of Capitalist America.   
 
Tree:  Well, there's actually a lot of people kind of dropping out. I'm still maybe stuck in the 60s. I'm still a believer in "turn on, tune in and drop out." 
 
RW:  Except that you're obviously deeply engaged in social action with this free farm stand and with the free farm, where you're growing the food. How did the free farm get started? Was someone else already trying this?
 
Tree:  No. It was another one of my ideas. We started with the free farm stand. But every idea is not new. We steal from each other. I was very inspired by the City Slicker farm and their stand in West Oakland. 
 
RW:  Still and all, you're dropping out isn't like going off by yourself. You're engaged in these social actions. 
 
Tree:  Right. Maybe dropping out is dropping in. But I always felt like I didn't fit in with the world, so I wanted to drop out. It never seemed right that people could go hungry, that we have wars, that we execute people, that people could be greedy. It just seemed like a big mess. So I didn't want to be part of that. I didn't want to pay taxes and contribute to that. I want to be a leech or a parasite. You know, it's very hard not to buy things, but you don't have to sell. You have a choice. 
 
RW:  I think I follow you. But providing food to people is not being a parasite. 
 
Tree:  It depends on how you look at it. A lot of people criticize people on welfare and taking money from the government and all that. 
 
RW:  I follow that part of it. 
 
Tree:  But if you do things for others, people see that as contributing to the good. 
 
RW:  And rightfully so. It's interesting that you say that it's a simple thing. 
 
Tree:  I think the best I can say is I'm just trying to follow what I think is right. I'm trying to do good in the world. I don't think it's anything special. I think what's really important is that we try to inspire others for tikun olam, to repair the world or make the world a better place-a beautiful idea.
 
RW:  I feel inspired by you-and I'm inspired by Pancho here, too. 
 
Tree:  I feel inspired by Pancho. I mean, that's the whole thing about what I do. The world is such a mess, as I was saying. In actuality, I'm very crazy. My secret to not killing myself, or getting really depressed, or going downhill is to be around people who inspire me. So I was talking about these soup kitchens I work in. The poor and the people who are down and out, and especially the people who are like-minded and not trying to follow a career, maybe they're crazy and just beautiful creatures. I work with people like this all the time. They wouldn't fit in, but they're doing beautiful work. They're just shining lights. 
    The key here is that when you're doing this kind of work, you're getting something through all these other experiences that excite you. It's not necessarily grandiose or being altruistic. We try to attract those people who are like-minded and we get inspired by the people we end up working with. 
 
[I notice that Tree's eyes have been brimming with tears for some time. I'm not sure what it means and so I finally ask, "Do you have an allergy or something?"] 
 
Tree:  No. I just get emotional. Like I said, I get kind of shy about saying all these things, because they're kind of deep things to me.  
 
RW:  They're very deep. And I appreciate that you're sharing these things. 
 
Tree:  These are truths that I believe in, but it's a real challenge how to follow a path. You know, karma yoga or selfless service -it's really that. You're not supposed to think about what you get back. It's about just doing it. So it gets a little tricky sharing these things. Most of the time I don't think about what I'm doing. I just follow my passions. 
 
RW:  I guess I have some of those questions myself. I know I'm getting strokes out of what I'm doing, but at the same time, I hope there's something that's a service. Some of that I just don't know for sure. But I do love what I'm doing. 
 
Tree:  That's good.
 
RW:  And meeting you is one of those gifts. 
 
Tree:  So that's what it's all about, getting off on each other. And that's what changes the world, by the way. It's these little ripples. There's another thing. It's not just cooking food or serving food, but one of the newer directions I've gone in over the last twenty years is being involved with the earth and the soil and growing food.
 
RW:  Can you say something about that?
 
Tree:  What's interesting about that is, especially if you plant a tree-and who knows whether that tree is going to be there in the future or not-but there's a good possibility that if you plant a tree, a fruit tree or a shade tree, somewhere down the line you might actually be having a positive effect, more than these high ideas. I mean feeding people is great, inspiring people is great, but maybe you might also be able to have a positive effect on changing the environment or providing something to eat for someone down the line. 
 
RW:  Is taking the name of "Tree" a kind of embodiment of this wish you've described?
 
Tree:  Yes. Well, it's hard to explain how that came about, but it had to do with an experience I had with trees speaking to me in some way and reminding me about patience. It's hard to remember the exact details of how that happened.
 
RW:  When did you take on the name?
 
Tree:  It must have been before the 80s.
 
RW:  What's your given name?
 
Tree:  It's Dennis Rubenstein. I still use it at times like when I'm writing a grant. 
 
RW:  You write grant proposals?
 
Tree:  I have. Not as much as I used to. The last amounts of money I've gotten -I'm so grateful I didn't have to write grants to get them-some foundation just offered me three thousand dollars. That was really great.
 
RW:  How many people do you think came through the farm stand today?
 
Tree: [looking at Pancho] Any guesses? Once I counted and there were about sixty people standing in line, so I'd guess about two hundred.
 
Pancho:  Between two hundred and two hundred and fifty. 
 
RW:   So people come and the food is laid out and "I'll just take that and that and that." Is that how it works?
 
Tree:  Pretty much. With things that we don't have a lot of I'll have to have someone handing those out because of certain people who are sort of grabby. But often we'll kind of encourage people to take as much as they can. 
 
RW:  And when did the free farm stand begin?
 
Tree:  2008. 
 
Pancho:  What I understand is that we are really facilitating the growth of soil and community. Maybe you can say a little bit about that. 
 
Tree:  It's kind of a complex issue here: why do we do something? Obviously I'm not happy about how the world is so I want to do my part. And for some reason, who knows?-I'm drawn to feeding people. It's very gratifying. At the same time I know I can't really solve these big problems. Even with the people who come here, I can only give them so much. 
    I'm also very interested in sharing my enthusiasm about growing food. Everybody should be doing it. Everybody should have a little bit of that excitement of understanding where the food on their table comes from. Michael Pollan has popularized this. It's very exciting, not only to give food away, but also to grow it. Personally, I've given out so much food and done this for so long, I think it's time for me to be doing something else. So I wanted to try challenging myself to see how much food I could grow and give away. And how much I could get other people to help me grow food. 
    When we started it was just my backyard. Then a friend of mine grew some lettuce in his backyard and we just had a little table. I was trying to get other neighbors involved. Then at one point a big piece of land became available and we took the opportunity to grow even more food. At some point I had to get less involved with a number of other gardens I had helped start and was working in. And I also got connected with farmers' market leftovers-local, very high quality, organic, sustainably grown food that was not being sold at the end of the day. The farmers don't want to take it back. And because of my connections over the years with people, I got access to this food. 
    But I realized that no matter how much food we grow and how much work I do to try to set up these networks of people growing food and gleaning fruit from neighborhood trees, you can only do so much. This isn't going to solve the world's problems. So what are you really doing? 
    All you can say is that you have these good intentions to try to do your part. And what else are you doing? You can try to build friendships and connections with people and try to build community. It is like being a good gardener or farmer, your goal should be to build healthy, living soil with all this microbiology in it that is . So those are the things you're able to do. You can build a network of friends and community. That in itself is an important thing. 
    The byproduct of that maybe is that people feel happy besides getting some practical things out of it. It seems like people come together and have a good time, usually. And there's a problem we're always fighting, of course. If we become too successful and big it becomes more institutional and less like family, less like community. So it's a challenge to maintain that, to build these relationships with people and to build trust. 
 
RW:  That is a precious thing. Are you're getting to that point where you're losing some of the community part of it? 
 
Tree:  It's definitely gotten very large. Even at the farm, it's getting large. So many people come. Yes. I find it frustrating. It's hard to talk to everybody. This woman came today right when that second shift of food was coming. I just told her it was a bad time. I couldn't talk with her.  I've never done that before, actually. I just couldn't extend my friendship at that time.
 
RW:  Pancho introduced me to two or three volunteers from Stanford. Are you having people show up who are connected with classes from universities?
 
Tree:  We have one person who is a professor at Stanford, Page Chamberlain. He's a member of our core group. He's in a department called Environmental Earth System Sciences  and also on the steering committee of the Haas Center for Public Service and somehow he's able to rope in students to do voluntary service at places like our farm. We're very strong on building what Pancho calls social capital. We really have a great bank of volunteers and helpers. I'm very grateful for that. It does make it possible for us to do what we do.     
   
RW:  Now there's a core group? How many people are part of that?
 
Tree:  That's an interesting question, too. Who is our core group? There's an inner core group. There are three or four of us who really talk about deeper issues and then there's a larger core group. We've been trying to widen that. So there are about eight or ten people who are part of that.
 
RW:  So the inner core group, do you care to mention who they are?
 
Tree:  Well, Page and Margaret, his wife, are two of them. Then there's a woman named Lauren. She's got her own non-profit called Produce to the People. We've been working together symbiotically for a while.  I consider Pancho one of our core members too.
 
Pancho:  [laughs] That's why we come here. We're so inspired by what you're doing. We have the energy and you have the experience. And we had a Buddhist monk today, Asamata, who was thrilled. He was so happy. He said, "This is incredible." We have African American families, not individuals -families. We have a Farsi family. We have Mexican families. We have people from the parts of the planet we call Mexico, China, India, Yemen, and entire families. Like here comes a family with black skin. Here comes a family with brown skin. It's just so beautiful in that way. And that's why we bring other people with social capital to be of service, not only to Tree, but to cultivate this community. 
 
Tree:  Someone made a movie of one of my days at a food pantry I ran years ago. Actually only half of it was sent to me. Looking at that movie, you can see how crazy it was. That's why I'm always kind of reluctant to talk about these things. There's a certain insanity about it all. If I ever meet people who are having a hard time, or are crazy or depressed, I always tell them, get out of yourself and do something for someone else and see if that helps. 
    If I had too much time on my hands, I could get depressed. It's not a pretty sight out there. The pretty sight, the beautiful sight, is when you work in a garden or do something with art, or work with people. So all I'm really doing is trying to keep myself from going crazy. 
         
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine 

 

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