Demands Issued for Return of Stolen Traffic Circle Tree By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday May 27, 2005

Berkeley gardener and traffic circle advocate Karl Reeh is learning the hard way: Never negotiate with terrorists.  

Especially with an unnamed person or group brazen enough to kidnap the 15-year-old Bald Cypress tree he raised from a seeding right out of a traffic circle at Ellsworth and Ward streets. 

“In a way it is like terrorism,” Reeh said. “When I give in, they just raise the stakes.” 

At the request of a resident who lives beside the new traffic circle, Reeh, on April 10, planted his six-foot cypress tree in the circle. Eleven days later the tree was gone, replaced by the following note from a group calling itself “The Society for the Humane Treatment of Trees and People.” 

“Your tree is safe, but will not be returned unless you agree never to plant any type of tree in the traffic circle. To show your good will, plant any other low-growing plant in its place and your tree will be returned.” 

The tree nabbers, believed to live somewhere on the 2300 block of Ward Street, just east of the traffic circle, gave the justification for taking the hostage. In a hand-scribbled note, they argued that as the tree grew, it would risk pedestrian safety by blocking views across the circle, crowd out other plants on the circle, and “block the open feeling of the circle and the big bowl of blue sky above it.”  

As a compromise, the tree nabbers suggested replanting the tree two blocks north on the traffic circle at Ellsworth and Carleton streets, where a young redwood, donated by the city, had died. 

Not wanting to pick a fight, Reeh, who lives in the neighborhood and is president of the local neighborhood association, didn’t file a police report and complied with their demands. 

“As a community activist,” he said, “I think it’s important not to snub the minority opinion.”  

He left Delphinium bulbs at the circle, which were planted, but instead of getting back his tree, Reeh, through an intermediary, received another note with new demands. The tree could no longer be available to the neighboring traffic circles, the tree nabbers said, because the Bald Cypress needs too much water to thrive in the middle of asphalt. 

They added, “Your tree is having a lovely time out of town, in the company of other trees,” but if Reeh wanted it back, he would have to “put out the general word to the neighborhood” that the tree would not be available to other traffic circles. 

“At this point I don’t know whether I’m going to get it back,” said Reeh, who maintains that the cypress does not require much water and is suitable for a traffic circle. “I try to withhold any anger because I don’t know who I’m dealing with.” 

Reeh said he has communicated with the tree nabbers through Holly and Bruce Schenck, residents of Ward Street, who are responsible for maintaining the traffic circle. 

“I’m happy to see the tree gone,” said Bruce Schenck, adding that he didn’t know the identity of the thieves. While his niece, who lives a few houses down on Ellsworth Street, liked the tree, he found the idea of have a cypress unappealing. 

“If you’re a pedestrian, you’re pretty much invisible to a driver when you’re walking on the other side of the circle,” he said. 

Schenck’s neighbor, who refused to give his name, said he preferred the circle without the tree and didn’t think anyone on his block wanted it. 

Meanwhile on Ellsworth Street, Alan McCornick, who first petitioned Berkeley to install the traffic circle, fumed at the news. 

“What a low-life. A tree-stealer. Now that’s a new kind of scuzzbag,” McCornick wrote in an e-mail. 

“My humble opinion is they just want control over that circle and don’t want anyone else involved,” said Reeh, who has not given up hope that the tree will end up at the neighboring traffic circle on Carleton Street. 

On Sunday Reeh paid a visit to the home of Jane Scherr, one of several people who care for the Carleton traffic circle, asking her to gather signatures from neighbors in favor of planting the tree at their circle. 

“Maybe if they see there is a lot of support for the tree here, they’ll be moved to return it,” Reeh said. “All I want is for it to be returned so it can be planted again.”