Yet this is deeply damaged land. At least three times in the last 100 years, this land has been logged. The tall redwoods are juveniles; there are no elders left, except as giant stumps here and there on the creek beds. Streams that once ran year-round are now dry in summer; gravel beds where salmon and steelhead once spawned are buried in silt. We see the beauty of what is left, but the earth's unspoken pain is in what is missing: the old growth, the salmon, spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and bears. A whole, hidden world of lichen, fungi, and insects live only in the branches of redwoods that are over 150 years old. None are left to seed new colonies in these redwoods, even if they should survive to that age.
|Could it be that the oaks were dying because we don't gather from them, talk to them, care about them?|
Land is resilient, and every ecosystem includes its healers. Here in this California coastal forest, the healing tree is the tan oak. A tree at the edge of an old growth forest, it grows sparsely, covering small wounds, providing acorns and nourishment for animals and birds. Tan oak is tough: Cut it down and it resprouts from its roots, part of its adaptation to the fires that were once a characteristic of this land. An old, mature tan oak is a beautiful sight, with spreading branches and large acorns hanging beneath creased, leathery evergreen leaves. The Pomo call the tan oak "Chiskale"--"beautiful tree"--and prize its acorns as the heaviest and sweetest.
Where the land has been clear-cut, the tan oaks move in and cover the devastation with a thick blanket of bushy, multi-trunked growth that in turn becomes a deadly fire hazard. Because of its ubiquity, and because we who live on this land today do not eat acorns, the tan oaks are often not valued.
Mabel McKay, a Pomo healer and elder, once said, "When people don't use the plants, they get scarce. You must use them so they will come up again. All plants are like that. If they're not gathered from, or talked to and cared about, they'll die."
Today, our tan oaks are in danger of dying. A new disease has appeared, a blight that threatens tan oak, live oaks, and black oaks and strikes so quickly and completely it has been named Sudden Oak Death. When I first became aware of this disease, the news struck me with a deep, despairing panic, much like I felt when we finally realized the AIDS epidemic was real and would affect many of our dearest friends. I know that blights have wiped out whole species of trees before: The elms that once graced so many yards and streets, the chestnuts that once were the major forest tree in the Eastern woodlands. The thought of our woods without tan oak, our hillsides without the wide and powerful black oaks and valley oaks, made me sick with fear.
Could it be that the oaks were dying because we don't gather from them, talk to them, care about them? The Pomo in these hills now live on a tiny, 40-acre rancheria that has little or no tan oak on it. Could it be that the trees miss the old rituals, the old songs? Or could it be, on an even deeper level, that when we eat from the land, we literally are made one flesh with the oaks, that we are meant to see ourselves not as an isolated, dominant species but as "people-oaks," one community with the trees and all they shelter? And when we don't, when the food we eat is factory-farmed, grown with poisons or transported across half the world, when the forests are clear-cut, when the human community falls out of balance, perhaps that discord is reflected in the natural world.
I decided it was time to start talking to the trees, to pray for them, bless them, and appreciate them. Around this time, I was at a conference with a wonderful activist and social-change trainer named George Lakey. He was describing how he taught a hardened union organizer to silently cheer for his trainees. At first, the man thought George was nuts. What good would it do if he cheered inside himself? George had him sit down and asked the rest of the group to silently cheer for him. As he describes it, the man turned beet red and started to sweat, the experience was so intense.
|We make powerful magic when we transform fear and despair into love.|
In the Craft, we talk about "sending energy" to someone. I now like to think of cheering them on--it's a simpler, more vivid image. I walk around the land, cheering for the trees, rooting for them as you might for a football team. At first, I feared this practice would be exhausting. Instead, I felt energized. In fact, cheering the trees on fills me with gratitude and hope that counteracts fear and despair.
We all know how to root for a sports team, an Olympic contender, our child performing in a school play. Now it's time to root for the trees. Go outside and start talking. "Hey, trees, you're beautiful; we love you, we appreciate you. Stay healthy, stay alive, thrive and grow."
And when you get used to cheering for the trees, try rooting for your friends, family, for those people who step out and take the risks and responsibility of changing this world. We might save the trees, and we will surely feed and nurture the people-oak, human-redwood communities that fight for the forests. We make powerful magic when we transform fear and despair into love.