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Trees and Things that Live

I am one of those rare individuals who was lucky enough to spend most of my childhood in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley when it was still in large part agrarian. Our home was surrounded by acres of farmland, orange and walnut orchards. A ten-minute bike ride would get a strong rider to rolling hills that had cattle and horses grazing. If you were a little sneaky you could climb through the barbed wire fence and go skinny dipping with your buddies in a green, somewhat slimy reservoir. That was until my parents actually went to look at the cause of the slime and the strange smell I often came home with in the summer heat. There were several stands of trees with low limbs that were easy to climb and made perfect foundations for building forts. I loved the outdoors and the adventures my friends and I created in those hills with the help of our vivid imaginations.

I also remember fondly my family’s regular trips up into the San Gabriel Mountains. Only an hour away from our home, we went for day picnics and weekend stays in a cabin with a wood burning stove. Almost every summer my parents and aunts and uncles rented a large cabin with my grandparents. The five families took turns sharing the space often overlapping with each other. The kids, including my cousins and occasional friends, usually ended up sleeping on the porch surrounded by the thick pine tree forest.

I developed an appreciation for those trees in part because they were a challenge to climb. Sometimes, when we were playing in the middle of them, I felt protected, like I was in a cave. And of course, I appreciated the pine needles we often used to soften the ground under our sleeping bags. Over fifty years later the unique, gently whispering sound pines trees emit as the winds blows through their needles is still imprinted in my soul.

The term tree hugger has been around for a good part of my adult life. It was usually intended to be derogatory applying to a silly person out of touch with reality. There were also political implications. Initially this might have implied one of those harebrained hippy types or even a leftist, out of touch with the real world. I would never have referred to myself as a tree hugger in those early years, even though I secretly appreciated them. But admittedly I saw trees as something that were simply there for my enjoyment and comfort.

Today, however, I find myself in a very different mindset.

For years nearly ten years now my wife and I have lived in the forest on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. Our builder cleared only the trees that were absolutely required to create a space large enough to build our home and a long driveway. He was careful to leave every other tree undamaged which he proudly pointed out. We were not around when the trees were cleared but I don’t think it would have meant much to me at the time. They were lovely trees but they were just trees after all. There were nearly a hundred of them on our property alone. With our neighbors’ property it created a continuous expanse of huge trees.

Over time we have come to love each one of our mature trees, many of them over a hundred and fifty feet tall. The smaller trees may never mature because of the lack of sun, but they still wait in the wings for an opportunity to fill any gaps caused by windstorms, fires or disease. We appreciate them hanging in there for the cause. We have our favorites and we have named many of them. There is Queen, actually a lush hemlock but she is the most elegant. I have told my children I would like to have my ashes spread under her large, soft, caressing limbs. There is the King, of course. Close to thirty inches at its base, it goes straight up over a hundred and forty feet. He stands alone in his obvious power and strength. There are the Three Sisters out our back window. They sway back and forth in the wind together as if choreographed by a dance instructor.

Then there is the Secret Place. At one point her limbs made a small tent where my wife and granddaughter had secret gatherings with tea parties, snacks and little people. The tree experts have told us several times that Secret is too close to the house. They warned she would cause serious problems for us in the future. They recommended her removal five years ago. I have had my roaring chain saw against her bark on three occasions but she still stands. With limbs now six feet off the ground and a granddaughter now too old to play make believe, she is no longer a secret hiding place. But she is still a sweet memory for her grandparents.

Last year our neighbors expressed some concern about three of our largest trees on the side of a small hill. A large part of their roots were exposed. Towering over their small home, these trees seemed to be leaning a little more each year in their direction. We knew we had to do something. We reluctantly signed a contract with one of the local tree service companies to come and take them down. The trees were marked on a Friday for a demolition on the following Monday. Clearly this was the logical, proper, safe and necessary thing to do. We were sad but we knew we would get on with our lives on Tuesday.

On Sunday evening Charron and I walked outside to say goodbye to these mighty trees. She had written a beautiful poem to honor them. One of the trees was an inspiration for me. I called her Determined and Proud. She had obviously been severely harmed as a young tree. There was a three foot curve a few feet out of the ground before she gained the strength to continue her growth straight up. In the place where the curve had formed, there was such a strong bond the professional chain saws would barely cut through it. It was nearly four feet thick at that point. Even with the bend, the base could still handle weight of the rest of the hundred and fifty feet of tree. It was an amazing example of how one can overcome even the most serious difficulties with beauty.

After Charron read her poem in honor of the three trees, I went over to each one of them. At this point, crying openly, I put my arms around each one of them, as far as I could reach. Yes, I hugged them. I swear I could feel life flowing through each one of them, especially Determined. Seldom has a day passed when I do not stop and give thanks for her sacrifice and inspiration.

Our trees, however, are just one way my life has opened up to the reality that we are truly connected and frankly dependent on all forms of life. Once you start watching it becomes apparent the forest is a living organism. In large part it is in balance. The standing dead trees become habitats for bugs, worms and all kinds of critters. These bring the birds by the hundreds. We have Woody Woodpeckers nearly two feet tall. They can peck a perfectly round, two-inch hole in dead trees. When they are done eating the bugs they are searching for, beautiful little birds make nests in those cozy round holes. I have made friends with squirrels who chatter away and deer who just stare at me while they quietly graze on our plants.

The idea that we humans have been given dominion over the animals, the trees and the waters is just wrong. At some point we are going to have to admit we have been blind to what we have done and are continuing to do. If we do not begin to function in harmony with all Creation, I am afraid Homo sapiens will have a short history on this earth. Even more tragic, we humans will have missed an opportunity to experience an amazing awareness that could have led to a profound, life changing spiritual experience and a very different worldly experience.

Living in a more natural world has changed the way I see everything. When you open your eyes to what happens every day in such perfect symmetry, it becomes more obvious how out of touch our slash and burn mentality has taken us. We have nearly destroyed what was once perfect. Why has it taken us so long to realize that we humans are the cause of the sickness we are now experiencing in our precious world? We may even discover we are the cancer spreading over this beautiful planet.

I think Thomas Berry had it right. We are too busy talking to ourselves and not listening to who and what we should be listening to. We are stuck in the wrong paradigm and frankly Christian Scriptures are of little help here. Thomas Berry is correct, I believe, when he suggests we should put them on a shelf for a while until we learn to listen to our real teachers. This includes not only the forest but our sea world, our pets and yes, our horses. In the last ten years I have learned more from the forest, the wild animals and family pets than any books, articles or demonstrations I have encountered. I have come to view Thomas Berry as a true prophet.

Here are a few quotes from the Priest and Prophet Thomas Berry. All of these quotes are from his book The Great Work, 1999.

“We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual ‘autism.’”

“The natural world itself is our primary language as it is our primary scripture, our primary awakening to the mysteries of existence. We might well put all our written scriptures on the shelf for twenty years until we learn what we are being told by unmediated experience of the world about us.”

“In our totality we are born of the Earth. Our spirituality itself is earth-derived… If there is no spirituality in the earth, then there is no spirituality in ourselves”

~Thomas Berry

Is it too late to make the changes we must make for human survival? Is it too late for a completely new consciousness? Can we help bring about the Axial Shift so many people have been counting on? For my grandchildren at least, I hope so.

Just call me Fred Plumer, Tree Hugger.

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