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Celebrating a peace tree amid a reality clash

At an Earth Day gathering at Palisades Park, two disparate worlds briefly collide.

April 23, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Activist Jerry Rubin, right, with his wife Marissa, along with Shay White, left, and her son Elias Washington, light a candle during a ceremony at the Children's Tree of Life at Santa Monica's Palisades Park in honor of Earth Day.
Activist Jerry Rubin, right, with his wife Marissa, along with Shay White,… (Christina House / For the…)

It's hard to be a tree in the city, even one planted for peace.

Three times the Children's Tree of Life has been destroyed — twice by vandals, once by a city vehicle that accidentally backed into it.

Three times, through replanting, it has been resuscitated.

Now a fourth New Zealand Christmas tree has been allowed to grow into young adulthood, standing strong and tall in front of its small plaque.

Every day in Palisades Park, people walk by and bike by and run by its home just east of the cannon, just north of the Santa Monica Pier.

On Monday, which was Earth Day and also the 30th anniversary of the first tree's planting, activist Jerry Rubin planned a gathering.

But when he arrived treeside — holding large handmade signs, including "Let's Bring Tree Hugging Back By Popular Demand" — he found two men and a small dog sleeping nearby on the grass.

He crouched down next to each of the men and explained that he would soon be holding an Earth Day ceremony.

Would they, he asked politely, mind moving for a bit?

One was young. He said his name was Dustin and that he came from Ohio.

His body seemed to squirm without his bidding, but he picked up his squished cigarette pack, his lighter, his toothbrush (its bristles splayed wide), the thin gray blanket he'd been stretched out on and his duffel bag, which he'd been using for a pillow.

He asked Rubin, who wears glasses, if he had an eyeglass repair kit on him. Tugging at his loose shorts with one dancing hand, Dustin said that he wanted to fix his belt, which had snapped.

The other man, lying with the little dog, began shouting: "Get away from me! No! Stop harassing me! Stop hugging the Earth!"

When Rubin tried to explain that the city had proclaimed the tree a symbol of peace and that he and his wife, Marissa, had said their wedding vows in front of it, the man grew more agitated and yelled more loudly: "I don't have any family! I never had any love of my life!"

He was still shouting as he stormed off with his dog on a leash, wheeling a suitcase behind him.

Rubin said he hadn't wanted to bother anyone. For a moment, he seemed discouraged.

But discouragement doesn't come easy to this man, now 69, who has spent most of his adult life leading protests that most of the world around him ignores.

He has fasted to end nuclear power. He has collected toy weapons and crushed them underneath a steamroller.

And even though he's never owned a car, he spends every weekend on the Third Street Promenade, selling bumper stickers that say things like "COEXIST" and "MAKE ART, NOT WAR" and "TEACH PEACE." ($2 each, 5 for $8, 7 for $11).

Once the grass was clear, Rubin and Marissa — who 30 years ago this June were married in a "Peace Wedding & Life Celebration Rally," he in an embroidered white Indian shirt, she in a rainbow-colored sundress — began placing posterboard signs on the grass and greeting old friends who started to show up.

Hand drums arrived. People began making music. Rubin led a moment of silence for Boston. He organized the lighting of a heart-shaped peace candle, even though the wind put up a fight. A friend with a guitar strummed and sang Joyce Kilmer's words: "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree."

And then arms reached out and bodies pressed in as the peace tree was enveloped in a group hug.

Off to one side, Dustin jittered and gaped, his blanket bed waiting on a bench.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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