It hardly seems possible that a quarter of the year has already passed, but now that we’re here: welcome to the new era of calendar drawings! For 2022 I’ve settled into an A5 MD Diary // Monthly Light, taking a different approach to the monthly spread: instead of trying to fill every box every day, I'm making a conscious effort to choose only a few memories to highlight with drawings and minimal text. I have other workbooks and journals where I can write about events and plans in detail, so preserving so much of the open space of the layout in my planner feels really refreshing.
Some other changes: I’ve been keeping running lists of books read and movies watched for each month. I'm letting myself use stickers more again. Until recently, I stuck to a simple black Uni-ball One gel pen to write and doodle, going back to add color whenever I have a moment to paint. I broke that rule this month with this huge tree painting.
Now this essay is going to veer hard into different territory, tonally. I am not always very open in these letters, often holding back from discussing anything that feels too personal. Privacy is of utmost importance, and our journals are one of the few places it is still completely protected. I write and draw fiction—of course I feel better using made-up characters and situations to hide my values and foibles in plain sight. When it comes to real life, it is easier to talk about the pretty things ink does on paper, about self-soothing practices. It is easier to let a nice painting be just that. To tell you about it in any sort of detail may reveal something I care about very much, which feels like opening myself to ridicule, apathy or derision. But maybe it’s worth it to share anyway.
The tree I painted is one that stands outside our apartment, visible from the desk I am sitting at now. My best guess is that it’s been here for at least 20 years. It drops fruit that resemble, but don’t quite seem to be, avocados. It has been a base of operations for the local mockingbirds as well as a pit stop for the parrots from Pasadena and, once, in 2019, an extraordinary flock of migrating monarch butterflies. I’ve looked at it, sometimes with conscious appreciation but more often without really thinking about it, probably every day for the last five years I’ve lived here. Earlier this week, it was scheduled to be cut down.
What do you expect? That’s city life, apartment life here. It happens all the time. There’s plenty that you get no say in, that you just have to put up with, especially when you cannot afford to simply move elsewhere. Actually, I’d already requested that this not-avocado tree be spared at the start of renovations, several months ago. There used to be old hedges lining the driveway and trees shading the roof, too, which were destroyed and replaced with concrete and nothing. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. But instead, I was deeply upset. Maybe even more now, because it was the only one left, I couldn’t bear to see this particular tree go without saying something. I asked the workers as politely but firmly as I could to pause their work until I could talk to the owner, who upon arriving cited pipes and parking spots as the reasons for the tree removal. This was all perfectly reasonable in the ear, but made little sense past that. There have been no plumbing issues, and (unusually for an apartment at this income bracket in the area) there are already several designated side-by-side parking spots on the property. Perhaps sensing my dissatisfaction, the owner added conciliatory: “We are an environmentally friendly company. We might plant some flowers in the yard over there.”
I consider it a highly unusual stroke of luck, and a credit to this person’s character, that a conversation like this could happen with rental management in this city at all. And so I tried to reply with the same open forthrightness that had been extended to me. “I don’t live in that unit. I won’t see that yard. I live over there, and this tree is the one I see every day from that window. You say you are environmentally friendly, but you have taken out all the other bushes and trees that used to be here, and I’m not hearing any plans to put anything living in its place. I know I’m just a renter, and it’s your decision. I’m just saying that if there isn’t actually a problem with the pipes, and the tree is not diseased or in danger of falling over, it seems like a real shame to cut it down when it’s been living here just fine for so long.”
The owner gave me a calculating, slightly bemused look. “You really love this tree that much?”
I know how it sounds. I’m an artist and I live in California. Why don’t I just chain myself to the thing, yada yada. But let’s set aside glibness for a second. My reasons for doing this have nothing to do with acting out some hippie or activist stereotype. In fact I feel quite cynical. For one thing, I am tired, after the past couple years going about life as carefully as I can amidst forces out of my control, of gracefully accepting decisions I find ugly, unnecessary, wrong. I am frankly sick of going back to my room and trying to work and write real anger, sadness and pain into submission while I wait for the screech of machinery, the interminable heat and the invisible disease in the air to go away. For some time now, whether I write plainly about it or not, I’ve felt heartily done with stopping the needle at “There’s Nothing Else I Can Do” though sometimes it might be true, and there’s a great deal of pressure to believe so. My internal barometer now reads, “Do Something”—even if I don’t know what difference it will make.
The other, more important thing is, the tree is alive and harming no one.
“Yes, I do.”
“Okay. I respect that.”
“I really appreciate you hearing me out. I respect you as well.” I meant it.
“You know, tree removal costs a lot of money. You’d be saving me $1,200.”
I felt like laughing deliriously, but didn’t. “I would love to do that. I would love to save you money and not cut down this tree.”
The owner stepped over the curb into the churned-up, half-shoveled earth. “Let’s see what we can do…”
What followed was an extended conversation about parking spots, future plans, some fuss with a tape measure and further expressions of mutual respect, with the end result that the workers were given other tasks to be paid for, but the chainsaws were put away. We came to an agreement; the tree stays. After the trucks left the driveway, I took a chair out onto the concrete to spend some time with it and draw myself back to calm.
If I feel any sense of victory about all this, it’s fleeting. I am grateful. But there is no guarantee. In the end, I pay money to stay and write here, at the mercy of someone else, who controls what stays and what goes, who has their own business interests and family to take care of and whose plans may change at any time. If we moved out tonight, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to find a stump here tomorrow. But today, the tree breathes and rustles in the wind a bit longer. Even I am not so disillusioned yet as to watch, as I paint, two doves fly into frame to peck at the roots in the dappled shadow-light of the leaves, and call that a loss.
Text and photos by: A.C. Esguerra
Where to find A.C. : instagram @blueludebar
Read other stories by A.C. : Here
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I love this post, too. Can I recommend a book? I’m inspired to do so by this attitude of mutual respect you embodied so well and seeing the way it opened a new door almost like magic.
I’ve been lucky to know a wonderful couple, Alice and Staughton Lynd, who were involved in organizing SNCC, resisting the Vietnam War, and then after the 60s movements began to wane, after getting blacklisted and losing an Ivy League professorship, they decided to become lawyers and move to Youngstown, Ohio, in order to be useful to working people. I was born around there, my dad met them through his union activity, and so they’ve been like family friends for much of my life.
Lately, I’ve participated in a reading group with them, and the way you acted is exactly how they implore us to make change! Instead of directing others or spreading their own ideas, instead of showing up and saying hey, listen to me, I know what we should do, they’ve focused on helping the people around them by taking direction from them, by being showing up and asking just what can we do to help you — an idea they’ve theorized as “accompaniment,” inspired by multiple sources like labor history, certain Socialist thinkers, Liberation Theology and other Latin American struggles.
Anyway, because they have so little interest in self-promotion, I think their ideas are far too under-known, and I think they offer something of an antidote to contemporary political tendencies — or “antidote” is a bad word, because really this is a shockingly powerful way to act in the world, and it has nothing to do necessarily with avoiding confrontation — as in your post, it remains a way of acting out of indignation and outrage, but with love, solidarity and understanding.
Periodically, they have friends who try and force them to publish books or collections of essays about their ideas, so there are a couple out there despite their personal inclinations against self-promotion! I’m starting to read “Accompaniment” and the book “Wobblies and Zapatistas” is also wonderful. Thanks for the post, sorry for the massive comment!
I’m so grateful that you defended your neighbor, the tree. That the owner was open to a conversation and was willing to see your point of view is awesome. And it’s doubly awesome that a living thing was spared the chainsaw because you spoke up. Thank you.
A beautiful essay and at our house, we appreciate your words. My husband used to be responsible for street trees in our city, and he suggested you might look into having the tree declared a heritage tree, in which case it will never be destroyed. Someone will identify it, also.
I always appreciate your insight and it gives me pleasure to think of you sitting by that tree-a friend indeed.
Thank you for sharing this with us – such a beautiful example of how connecting to life (people and trees) can move mountains. I love that you did this. And your more spare calendar pages are so lovely. Soothing to the nervous system to look at.
Love “Do Something”—even if I don’t know what difference it will make. Always an excellently written, real story.
Simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing your words and feelings.
Thank you for saving that tree! Hopefully it will be there for another 20 years. I think some people miss the concept that something as simple as being able to see a tree outside of a window can provide joy and comfort in the crazy world we live in.
this is so beautiful! I actually copied a part of your article into my journal because you said it so beautifully and as if you are in heart, speaking on my behalf! -thank you