In my twenties, I was a Christian anarchist. This stance was rooted in my pacifistic reading of the Gospels. I did not want a revolution to overthrow the government; I just couldn’t support the violence that is necessary for a state to exist. Nevertheless, any time I told people I was an anarchist, they thought I must support the kind of street violence practiced by Black Bloc anarchists and that my ‘naive’ anarchism would lead to the kind of chaotic violence seen when governments collapse in places like Somalia and Afghanistan. It was while working in Detroit at a Franciscan-run urban farm that I found a metaphor for the kind of anarchism I espoused. The urban tree is the ideal anarchist. Even now, as a non-anarchist in the American Solidarity Party working for radical political change, I see a valuable lesson in the example of the urban tree.
Detroit has become a mecca for urban agriculturalists because there is so much open space interspersed throughout the city. Fifty years of economic decline left 90,000 open lots and 70,000 abandoned buildings scattered through every district and neighborhood of the city. Those empty lots grew up into thickets and meadows which are ready to be cleared by industrious community groups and entrepreneurs, if they are lucky enough to find uncontaminated soil and a way to contact the owner. But most of the empty lots and abandoned buildings are left to grow wild, and there we see nature reversing the process of urbanization and industrialization. City is turned back into wilderness through a slow and peaceful revolution.
How do trees and grass overcome the might of man without having the use of mobility, thought, or technology? You don’t have to go to Detroit to understand this. Next time you’re in town look at a tree, even an intentionally planted one, growing in the swale between sidewalk and street. The tree doesn’t know it, but it is a foot soldier in the revolution. And it is much more effective for not knowing. The tree merely follows its God-given nature. It never looks at the city and says “*** you, I will defeat you eventually!” It looks up, always up, reaching for the light of the sun which is the source of its life. With total disregard for the row homes that shade it, the pedestrians that scuff it, the cars that pollute it, the tree seeks only the light. And it doesn’t hurry around seeking allies and looking for the best spot to attack; it sends out roots wherever it is.
Slowly pushing and digging, following the path of least resistance just enough to find the nutrients and water it needs, the tree begins to break up the concrete and black top, lifting slabs of sidewalk millimeters per year. By the end of its life a single tree won’t have made a big change. A few cracks in the concrete, a few hundred pounds of carbon dioxide turned into organic matter, a few thousand seeds scattered mostly where they will never grow. But those cracks will serve as sites for the next generation to grow, and that organic matter will serve as food to feed the next generation. And a few of those seeds will grow. And in a scale of time much longer than man is capable of considering, nature will turn the city of man back into wilderness without ever raising a hand in violence.
Of course, unlike trees, we do have mobility, thought, and technology, and we should use them. As a political movement with a radical agenda, we must use every tool we have. But we should use them the way the tree uses its roots, digging in deeper where we are, reaching out to what is nearest us. And like the tree, we should not be looking at our enemy, searching frantically for its weak spots and scheming to exploit them as quickly as possible; rather we should simply look always toward the Light that enlivens us. Let our every act be an act of fidelity to our God-given nature and calling. Let us simply speak and live the radical truth as faithfully as we can, not watering it down to fit in and gain allies. The urban tree neither combats nor compromises: it simply is itself, and, by being so, it wins the slow revolution.