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Richard Pennicuik hardly fits the image of a radical environmentalist. He’s an Australian of Scottish descent. He spent his life working in the mines, in the awful oppressive heat of the Western Australia deserts. His face shows the lines and creases of a life outside.

But he worked hard and did his bit and looked forward to quiet retirement on a shady street in the Perth suburb of Thornlie. His front yard on Hume Road was graced by a magnificent eucalyptus tree—a gum tree. It is the predominant tree in Australia. They can be seen across the continent, from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans, in a hundred varieties. All of them have adapted to their environments and flourished. For Richard, his gum tree provided needed shade in the afternoon and it was pleasant to look at. No more, no less.
And so the 57 year old man from Thornlie assumed his tree would shade him for years to come and that it might even outlast him and provide comfort and pleasure for those who followed him.
But the Gosnells City Council had a different idea. A few years earlier, a limb had snapped from a gum tree on Hume Road and fallen on a passing motorist. The driver was uninjured but the car sustained some damage. That was enough for the politicians to act. They decided to cut down ALL the gum trees along Hume Road—twenty-two to be exact, and replace them with flowering jacarandas which are lovely trees that produce fragrant violet blossoms in the Spring and are non-native to the Australian continent.
Pennicuik and others appealed to the council and at first it appeared their pleas had been heard. Plans to chop down the Doomed 22 were put on hold. But the Council members changed their minds again and plans moved ahead to cut down all the trees, including Richard’s.

No one knows for sure just what Pennicuik was thinking as he heard the news, but something clearly snapped in his head…something so bold and outrageous, few of us can even imagine contemplating such an act of defiance.
In the early afternoon of December 7, 2009, Richard Pennicuik leaned an aluminum ladder against his beloved gum tree, hauled food and water and sleeping gear and ropes and other basic necessities into the upper limbs of the eucalypt and announced to the world he would stay there until the Gosnells Council agreed to spare his gum tree.
The local media came out and interviewed him from the ground. Richard made the Six O’Clock News on all the Perth stations. His quixotic quest made a good “human interest” story. They started calling him “The Tree Man.” Some admired him, others mocked Richard, most viewers chuckled and thought he was “a bit mad.” Everyone assumed he’d last a few days, get hungry and miss a flush toilet and would be on the ground again by the end of the week. But at the end of the week, Pennicuik was still there, with no indication he had any plan to abandon his gum tree.
Still, Christmas was coming and New Year’s Eve—surely he wouldn’t spend his holidays thirty feet up a tree. But that is exactly what Richard Pennicuik did.
Christmas came and went. New Years. Australia Day is January 25; Pennucuik was still up there.
As is usually the case in a world marked by short attention spans, the story became boring to most after a few weeks. Reporters went away. A few sympathizers climbed into the lower branches with the Tree Man in the spirit of solidarity but they got bored too after a day or two and climbed back down to solid earth.
Late night teenagers, usually stewed to the gills, began cruising by Richard’s tree, hurling beer cans, shouting insults and stopping to urinate on his tree and the lawns of adjacent homes. Neighbors turned against Pennicuik, blaming him for the late night noise and vandalism.
Three months passed. Pennicuik maintained his vigil. By now he was almost beginning to appear as wild and gnarly as the tree. A reporter or two would drop by occasionally, just to check his progress. He admitted he’d love a bath. A reporter asked what he missed most. “Privacy,” said Pennicuik. His salt-and-pepper beard fell over the front of his tattered shirt. His uncut hair gave him a Rasputin-look. But “nevermind,” he said. “She’ll be right.”
On March 22, one of the fiercest storms in a hundred years struck the Western Australia coast at Perth. ABC News Australia reported:

“Homes have been damaged, power knocked out and hail the size of golf balls has fallen as a sudden storm swept across the Perth metropolitan area….roads north and south of the Western Australian capital have been flooded. There are also widespread reports of property damage caused by rain, strong winds and hail. Western Power says more than 150,000 properties were without power.”

Through it all, Pennicuik stayed in his tree. Despite the fierce winds, not one limb on the gum tree broke. Gratified and vindicated that he and the tree had survived the storm, Richard claimed victory. Surely the Gosnells Council would now spare the tree. After all they had been through, his eucalypt had earned the right to live and he had earned the right to come down.
On March 26, 2010, 109 days after he first ascended the tree in its defense, Richard Pennicuik, the Tree Man of Thornlie,  touched solid ground.  Reporters returned for the dramatic climax; Pennicuik had this to say:

“We have won the constitutional and moral victory by protecting this tree which has become a symbol of our freedom to rule ourselves by our constitution and not be ruled over by politicians who rule under the guise of serving.”

Six weeks later, on May 6, 2010, the Gosnells Council cut down his tree anyway.
Now, Richard Pennicuik will stand trial in Armadale Magistrate’s Court next October for “obstructing the Gosnells City Council.” He faces fines of $5000 and $500 for each day he ignored the council’s demand that he come out of the tree.

For Richard Pennicuik, he’s happy to be back with his wife, relieved to be able to take a shower and a shave, but he has no regrets. He misses his tree and he gave it his best.
But he did it alone.
Isn’t it odd? We always admire the courageous few, but then we say, “But it didn’t do any good. Nothing ever changes. Ultimately he just wasted his time.”
Imagine a thousand protesters surrounding that tree, in solidarity with the Tree Man? What would have happened then?
We’ll never know.
Because it rarely ever happens.
And that’s why the world is the way it is.


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