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January 19, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Famed Perry Avenue tree falls Famed Perry Avenue tree falls (January 19, 2005)

** Perhaps 200 years old, the 'Kesey Tree' was a neighborhood landmark.

By David Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

Trees are but mute witnesses to events in and around their piece of ground. We can't ask them about what's gone on during their long lives.

If we ever do cross that communication boundary, it will be too late to question a large and celebrated valley oak tree that -- until last week -- lived in a miniature traffic circle on narrow Perry Avenue in unincorporated West Menlo Park, the witness to a colorful era.

The tree fell Tuesday, January 11, after perhaps 200 years of life, said Chloe Scott, a former neighbor of the tree who said she had had an arborist estimate the age of a similar valley oak on her Stanford Avenue property.

As it fell, the tree didn't cause any structural damage to nearby residences, but fractured a telephone pole and disabled telephone, electric and cable TV service, said Seth Johnson, a firefighter for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

The day after the incident, a new telephone pole looked down on the remains of the tree. Workers had sawn the tree into pieces, but the main trunk was still home to the resident bees, who seemed unbothered by the shock of hitting the ground and the 90-degree shift in the attitude of their hive.


A festive past

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Perry Avenue tree stood amidst a small and festive neighborhood that was home to Ken Kesey, the author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and the resident of a cottage next to the tree, said Ms. Scott, who said she lived in the neighborhood at that time.

In the book "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test," author Tom Wolfe noted that Mr. Kesey, during his Perry Avenue days, had put a mattress up in a tree's branches and would have friends up to partake in LSD-laced chili. Ms. Scott said the fallen oak is the tree Mr. Wolfe referred to in his book.

In those days, Perry Avenue -- called Perry Lane by some -- was a graduate-student enclave, said Ms. Scott. Parties moved from house to house and were a regular feature of living there, she said, adding: "You could hardly avoid them. It was all sort of loose. It was fun. It was a very hopeful time. People thought some things really wonderful were going to happen."

As for the tree: "It did feel like it was our tree," she recalled. "People were proud of having a tree in the middle of the street."

During the 1950s-era "Perry Lane Olympics" neighborhood festivals, the tree would serve as a goal post in field-hockey games, said Ms. Scott.

Benevolent regard for the tree has continued. "We called it the Kesey Tree," Perry Avenue resident Nancy Eldredge told the Almanac as she hauled away a few bracken-covered branches to decorate her garden.

"I actually feel real personal sadness," said Ms. Eldredge. "It's kind of a symbol of what the neighborhood used to be and I think the neighbors really feel sad about it."

"Everybody's sad on the whole street," said Phil Stiles, a 30-year resident of Perry Avenue. "It slows down traffic. It's nice to have a tree there."


Now what?

Over its life, the oak tree had had allies when it needed them. Public works officials from San Mateo County tried three times to remove the tree, but neighbors fought them off each time. After they hired an arborist who testified to the health of the tree, the county officials gave up, Ms. Eldredge recalled.

The neighbors now say they want another tree, but will the county allow it?

It's a narrow road, but the county would "certainly consider it," said public works director Neil Cullen in an interview. The neighbors' request should be in the form of an application for an encroachment permit, said Mr. Cullen. It would be up to the neighbors to protect and care for the tree, he said.

County staff have recommended that a replacement tree should be something other than a valley oak to prevent the new tree catching lurking diseases that might have infected the old tree, Mr. Cullen said. And given the fact that the site is surrounded by asphalt, the tree should be of a variety whose roots seek water by going deeper into the earth, he said.

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