Web Extra: More of the Weekly’s Interview With John Quigley

L.A. WEEKLY: While you were up in the tree, what was the hardest thing that you had to deal with?

JOHN QUIGLEY: Ironically, there’s a sense of isolation — a strange mix of isolation and lack of privacy. And missing my girlfriend and her family, not being able to hug people. That was a big thing. And the lack of aerobic exercise: I like to play basketball.

Yet, from an endurance standpoint, staying in the tree must have been a workout.

It was a constant emotional and spiritual and physical workout. It also was an intellectual workout, maybe more than anything else, because of the continual evolution of the debate that was going on in the community and with the media. It required a constant focus.

How high up were you in the tree?

About 50 feet.

How tall is the tree?

About 70 feet.

How cold did it get up there?

The two days before Christmas it got down to, I think, 22 degrees was the coldest. And it was cold: My feet and hands were numb. In fact, my feet were numb for a couple of weeks.

And windy. Just after Christmas or in early January, the winds were clocked at 76 miles an hour in Santa Clarita Valley. In that canyon I think it gets even a little more intense than that.

What was it like to be up in those winds?

The first major windstorm it was like being in heavy seas, you’re just being tossed around, and you’re trying to hang on. By the last one, which was even more intense, I had gotten used to it enough that it was kind of like being on a flying carpet. You’re just floating.

Did you have to tie yourself down?

I was always tied down, because I had a climbing harness on. But if I sat up on my platform, right when a gust of wind came, the wind would start to lift the platform up out of the nook in the tree. So I had to keep my body weight evenly distributed on the platform.

So you had to lie down on the platform?

Yes, I would just lie back on the platform and, just like I said, it was like lying back on a flying carpet in heavy wind.

How heavy was your platform?

I made it the night before I climbed up the tree. It was made of a shelf from the kitchen that I cut in half. Then I cut some crossbeams. Probably not more than 10 pounds.

Did you ever feel as though you were in any physical danger?

The first windstorm, there was a moment when I felt, I think I need to get down. Then I just lay back and closed my eyes and tried to imagine I had roots going down. Because that tree has seen a lot of storms in 400 years, and so I just tried to root myself, and then it passed. Another image: Think of being inside a washing machine. You’re getting tossed around and the wind is just whipping through the branches, and you just never know if that’s the day the tree topples in the wind.

It is incredible the kind of forces that a tree like that has to withstand.

It truly is. What I would do is try to observe the tree and what it does. You have to be able to move with the wind. If you try to dig in and hold on, that’s when the wind topples you. What the tree does is sway. It allows the wind to play its branches, and thereby the wind never gets enough leverage to actually crack a branch or topple it. So I just tried to mimic that motion.

What’s next for you?

I’m still coming down from the tree. I’m going back to work, doing my environmental education in schools. I’ll be helping organize Earth Day events for April. I do assemblies in elementary schools teaching kids about the storm-drain system and about how our trash gets into the ocean and affects the animals. I do that for Malibu Foundation for Environmental Education. We have contracts with the city and the state of California.

Where does this struggle over Old Glory fit into the larger issue of development and urban sprawl?

I hope this was a wake-up call about the planning process. The action that I took was at the 11th hour. It was way late in the process. I hope that the people who supported me and the tree will realize they have to be involved every step of the way, advocating for protection of the natural environment. That’s just good old-fashioned participatory democracy.

People in the national media said the reason that they were covering the fight to save Old Glory is that this issue affects every city in America: figuring out where our limits are, where we decide to stop and let nature be. We’ve got all of these cities whose inner core is decaying, and yet they’re just pushing further and further out and destroying the last open space outside their cities. At some point we’ve got to stop and look inward and redevelop, here in Los Angeles, in South-Central.

Even though Santa Clarita itself is an example of urban sprawl, I understand that it would have been better for the tree if it had been located within the city limits of Santa Clarita.

Absolutely. The city advertises itself as Tree City. Several people came by and said the city’s emblem looks like Old Glory. Yes, Santa Clarita is an example of sprawl, but what’s happened is that people there are waking up to the limits of pushing into every canyon and every open space. You’ve got two groups of people who are concerned: those who have lived there for many years and are adamantly opposed to new development. And then there are those who have arrived recently, who are just now becoming politically empowered, saying, "Hey, we need to put a brake on all this because it’s just going to become another suburb of L.A."

In 1995, you sat in a tree for three weeks in British Columbia. Did you expect this experience to last so much longer?

No way. I was thinking three days to maybe a week on this one. I’m 42. I have a great career I love. It was something I could do to help out and reconnect with nature. And it just kept going.

You want the full board of county supervisors to take up the matter of saving the tree. But it is customary to defer on local planning matters to the supervisor who represents a particular area, in this case Mike Antonovich. Why should that custom be put aside?

Clearly the issue of Old Glory goes beyond just his district. People all over Los Angeles care about that tree and what it represents.


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