A new sculpture stands at the north end of Steinbrueck Park like an unavoidable truth. The Homeless Remembrance Project’s Tree of Life reminds us that, every night, things don’t have to be the way they are for 8,000 or more homeless people each night in King County. That things weren’t always this way. That we are better than this.
The monument looks like a pair of new plant shoots, arcing in graceful fragility to form what might be a broken heart or the tail of a whale. Rising dramatically from a large circle of pale frosted green glass, the sheet metal artwork evokes life and death, growth and decay, energy and entropy. The leaf-shaped holes stamped out of the iron create negative space within the brutally solid whole to signify the unity of presence and loss.
This gorgeous concept is complemented and completed by the Leaves of Remembrance. These bronze leaves, each engraved with a name and that person’s year of birth and death, are embedded in sidewalks throughout Seattle. So far, 109 lives have been memorialized. The locations of the leaves and the name engraved on each can be found at fallenleaves.org.
There are nine outside the Real Change door on South Main Street. Each holds a name. Fred Spruitenberg (1949-2010). Michael Garcia (1960-2009). Catherine O’Neale (1949-2012). Paul Von Kempf (1944-2006). Linda Spafford (1952-2009). Timothy “TJ” Shorter (1957-2011). Karen Norcross (1952-2010). Earle Thompson (1950-2006). Rhonda Endersby (1966-2011). Karen Lee Pedersen (1966-2011).
Each represents a hole in our hearts, and each brings to mind a community’s dedication to building a world where people no longer die poor and homeless in the midst of such surplus and abundance.
It took nine years of organizing and a long list of committed people, led by WHEEL and the Women in Black, to bring this vision to completion and, as more than 100 activists and community members gathered last weekend to dedicate the Tree of Life, I was struck by the depth and beauty of our shared work and vision. It takes a lot of people to remake a world.
Joe Martin, a social worker and political philosopher whose roots in this community go back more than three decades, reminded us of another turbulent time, when Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, because his ideas had become too dangerous. His “triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” spoke to the rotten core of a society headed toward slow, certain death.
When King spoke of homelessness, Martin reminded us, he spoke of its existence in the Third World. The American poor had not yet been abandoned on the massive scale that we see today. With our presidential election less than two weeks away, it is sad that neither candidate has mentioned homelessness. We live in a hollowed-out dream, where life-denying racism, empire and consumerism define the deeply impoverished terms of political debate.
The Tree of Life, rising as it does from the heart of Seattle’s civic space, is a powerful reminder that we are more than this, and of how much more there is for us to become.