The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The November rain fell in torrents from the darkened skies over Cobb Mountain and the Mayacamas Inner Coast Range, as one storm cell after another poured from the atmospheric river flowing over Northern California. The water saturated Cobb’s volcanic soil and percolated deeply into the fissures of sandstone and serpentine in the Franciscan geological mélange. When the summer-parched ground could hold no more, the water flowed in rivulets from the hillsides, tumbling down steep canyons into the Alder Creek drainage. I was reminded of the words of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) in “The Man Watching”: The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on across the woods and across time, and the world looks as if it had no age: the landscape like a line in the psalm book, is seriousness and weight and eternity.
I am caretaker of ten acres that range over hills and deep canyons and across Alder Creek, in Lake County, California. Over the course of two decades, I have worked on this land to help repair damage from a long-ago wildfire, planting seedlings of pine and fir and oak and coast redwood trees. Every spring I plant a few seedlings of Sequoia sempervirens in protective chicken wire cages. Fertilizing the plantation in February, I water them every two weeks through at least their first summer. I clear away brush and weeds that threaten to choke them, and I mulch them against the drought of “Indian summer.”
I feel a real kinship with my redwood trees, not merely because I have planted and watered them. I feel kinship because I look forward to their reciprocation of my care in years to come with their shade and redwood scent and streambank stabilization. Even more significantly, I feel a strong kinship with the redwood trees because they are as truly my relatives as are any other life forms on earth. Sequoia sempervirens and I share a most recent common ancestor (MRCA) from 1.37 billion years ago. To be sure, a redwood tree is not as close a cousin to me as is Amanita phalloides, the deadly poisonous death cap mushroom with whom I share the MRCA only 1.23 billion years ago… but redwoods are related to me just as are humans, and chimpanzees, and salmon, and rattlesnakes, and Monarch butterflies and the milkweed on which they feed and breed. We are all descendants of the same primordial root on planet Earth, springing to life some 3.6 billion years ago.
On that rainy Saturday in November, as the water overtopped Alder Creek’s bank, I saw it inundating some of the redwood seedlings I had optimistically planted too close to the edge of the gentle summer stream channel. The winter flood submerged my little trees in a brown, fast-flowing torrent that tore away their protective cages and pulled at their roots. Most clung tenaciously to the sand and rocks of the stream bank, but when the water receded I saw that I had lost a few. It was a personal loss, not entirely unlike that of losing a companion animal. I found the chicken wire cages washed far downstream, and I will plant again this spring.
One might wonder about the futility of attempting to plant and nurture redwood trees on a streambank when they have a pretty good chance of being washed away before they are big enough to resist the force of a storm surge. But it might seem equally futile to plant them farther up the slope, where they might eventually die of thirst in the blistering summer heat of a drought year. Why waste time and effort at all in fighting capricious nature?
For me the answer is simply that I am compelled to plant and tend trees. I am convinced that on this—the only life-bearing planet we know of yet—life is worth nurturing. This is particularly trues since animals and plants and ecosystems are under attack as never before. Homo sapiens is arguably orchestrating the biggest extinction event since the Eocene-Oligocene transition 33 million years ago (see Donald Prothero, The Eocene-Oligocene Transition. Terrestrial biodiversity has been reduced by thirty percent since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics where deforestation is destroying 12-15 million hectares of forest every year, the equivalent of 36 football fields per minute. In a new report by the World Wildlife Fund, if we continue our current pace of water, land, and resource consumption, the picture could become even bleaker: “Humanity is outstripping the Earth's resources by 50 percent — essentially using the resources of one and a half Earths every year.”
Colby Loucks, the director of conservation sciences at WWF, compared humanity to bad houseguests: "We're emptying the fridge, we're not really taking care of the lawn, we're not weeding the flower beds and we're certainly not taking out the garbage." (2012 Living Planet Report, conservation.) In the face of such a frightening prospect, what can an individual do? The steps I can take are small but important: reduce my eating of meat, abstain as much as I can from conspicuous consumerism, recycle more, commute by bicycle and public transportation when possible. I can also work with nature, learning and communicating important lessons about virtue and kinship with my fellow creatures, and passing these on to my children. Let me sketch some lessons I have learned from working with trees.
Seven lessons taught by trees
1. Humility. My son Robert asked me a few years ago (when he was quite young) why I was planting redwood seedlings that I will not live to see grow very big. I thought carefully about that question and told him that nothing inspires humility quite like planting a little redwood tree that will not be middle aged until a thousand years after my own death. I conveyed that idea in age-appropriate language, of course, but I believe he grasped its truth and integrated it into his own perspective on life.
2. Ownership. I have been careful not to say “I own ten acres,” but rather “I am caretaker of ten acres.” Some people assume an arrogant attitude of possession, such as a land developer who regards an open field as nothing but sterile ground to be bulldozed for a strip mall or a housing tract. Even more obscenely, I have heard an official of a logging company in Humboldt County refer to a redwood forest not as a community of living creatures but merely as “standing inventory.” (That is as repugnant as referring to children as “our most valuable resource.”) If over the years I have learned anything from working with a beloved plot of land, it is that one doesn’t own property; one is a temporary steward or conservator of it. In a real sense, the land owns me, requiring constant work to keep it clean and accessible and fire tolerant. The fact that the rocks of this particular part of California were metamorphically created 200 million years ago and techtonically assembled over tens of millions of years gives me (in one short lifetime) a rather tenuous title to “ownership.” In any case, in forty years (at the outside) I will be handing its care over to the next generation.
3. Patience. Caring for trees takes an immense amount of patience, as they have a significant mortality rate. I have lost a dozen young Douglas fir trees in a single attack of Dendroctonus pseudotsugae, twig-boring beetles that kill trees by girdling branches. These were trees I had nurtured for years, carrying buckets of water, shading them from the sun, and shielding them from deer browse. I have lost numerous Ponderosa pine seedlings to gophers and drought, and I have stood by helplessly as pine bark beetles killed beautiful mature trees by girdling their cambium at the base. At the same time, I have been surprised on a number of occasions to cut back dense brush and find fir seedlings thriving on a hot, south-facing slope. Sometimes when we least expect it, life finds a way!
4. Acceptance of change. We had a major wildfire on “our” property in 1962 that drastically altered the forest landscape. Our family mourned the loss of individual trees and forested hillsides and gorgeous viewscapes. But the fire was an object lesson in impermanence: nothing endures forever. California has evolved a fire ecology, in which plant communities depend for reproduction and long-term health on periodic cleansing fires. For much of my life I have witnessed the renewing phase of this cycle. When my parents built a pond in 1970 as a water source for gardening and fire protection, we watched a whole new ecosystem develop on the land, with barren slopes around the pond slowly being colonized by water plants and willow trees. To this vegetative cover ducks, turtles, and even otters gradually migrated.
5. A sense of adventure. A dozen winters ago, a big log jam developed across a narrow section of Alder Creek. As the water backed up, it threatened serious erosion of the soil along both banks of the stream. I put on my climbing harness, anchored my rope to a California bay laurel tree, and had my father belay me as I waded out into the muddy, waist-deep torrent with a chainsaw, to under-cut the central log and break up the log jam. (I learned in the process that water does not make a particularly effective chainsaw lubricant!). My older son and I had to repeat this exercise last November in a driving rain, and he grinned as I shouted over the roar of the creek, "Michael, life doesn't get any more fun than chain sawing a pine log out of rain-swollen Alder Creek in the teeth of a monster Pacific winter storm!"
6. Wisdom. When working with trees I’ve found it necessary to have the audacity to attempt change, the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. It was only after a number of attempts at reforesting a serpentine hillside with Digger pines (Pinus sabiniana) that I came to accept that there are some slopes where it is simply too dry and rocky and uncompromising even for this hardy tree to survive. Similarly, I have come to learn that while you cannot prevent wildfires in a fire ecology, you can minimize the damage fires do by periodically burning the ground in rotation after the last rains. Allowing comparatively cool fires to burn off the leaf litter kills pathogens, reduces the acidity from leaf mold, and returns nutrients to the soil through ash. If a wildfire reaches a burned area in the dry months of autumn, there will be relatively little ladder fuel conducive to destructive burning of the forest’s upper story.
7. Integrity. Trees have taught me lessons about integrity, or wholeness. If left untouched for long enough, a forest ecosystem will move through phases of ecological succession until it reaches the stage known as the “climax community,” characterized by maximal biodiversity. Human communities can coexist with their environments by recognizing the integrity of a forest and its arboreal and animal inhabitants. After fossil fuels have run out and human numbers have declined to a sustainable level, the long-term survival of the human community will almost certainly depend upon our understanding that cultures survive only when ecological integrity is respected.
A lifetime of caring for the trees on small patch of northern California wild land that I temporarily and impudently designate as “mine” has given me much. It has taught me about ecological succession and the integrity of biological communities. It has afforded me object lessons in virtue that I can communicate to my children, and it has shown me what is involved in living a deep relationship with nature. As I began this essay with Rilke’s evocative image of a storm, let me conclude with one of his poems that expresses what I might call an “arboreal panentheist understanding” of the divine presence in nature:
I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life; as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.
The wondrous game that power plays with Things is to move in such submission through the world: groping in roots and growing thick in trunks and in treetops like a rising from the dead.