(Written as a guide to prepare students from two classes—“Place and Identity” and “Conservation Biology”–for a walk into the woods beyond Dominican University of California.)
Trees transform, shield, shade and provide oxygen, fruit, and beauty. They offer many other gifts. Without trees, humans would not survive. Through the magical process of photosynthesis, tree leaves and other green plants release oxygen by transforming carbon dioxide and water.
As our human learning community walks into the woods here beyond the Dominican University of California, I invite you to experience the plant community. See and feel the trees and all that surrounds them—above, below, and around, in all directions. Feel the trees and what they hold and ground, together as woods and apart, individually. Each tree is its own self, with its own way of being and standing, or bending after contact with its dance partner, the wind.
Borrowing a phrase from forester Aldo Leopold, changing one word, I invite you “to think like a tree.” Consider this an exercise in critical, creative, innovative, clear thinking about our dwelling here on this one Earth. Allow that which is hidden and concealed to be revealed to you by those of the other-than-human world. We deliberately go outside the classroom to study the material of our two classes—“Place and Identity” and “Conservation Biology.”
Each tree has its own distinct, unique energy, as does each human. Trees together create a place. Trees of the same species, like humans, differ. Trees together are like a village. They form a community, with an upper-story, an under-story and a multiplicity of life forms that surround it and are dependent upon it.
Perhaps a tree will summon you. Be willing to incline toward it and connect. Listen to any messages that might arise within you evoked by that particular, individual tree.
Sometimes trees lean on each other and appear to be a couple, like the tall redwood and somewhat smaller incense cedar on my farm. Their branches mingle and appear to hold each other. Beneath them, on the forest floor, I sometimes nap or sleep, day or night, content with their protection.
Notice if the trees’ dancing partner arrives and takes them for a spin in the air. Notice if they shimmer. Notice if any leaves fall at this beginning of autumn.
If you feel inclined, greet a tree with a human sound, like “thank you,” or motion, like a salute or bow. At another time, let’s walk in silence, listening to our foot falls on the forest floor, the rustling of leaves, and any other-than-human sounds that this forest and its many residents might make.
What is your favorite tree? Mine is the rainbow bark tree, which I planted where I lived in a jungle in Hawaii. Its trunk is many-colored.
I was raised alongside a jungle in Latin America. At night one could hear black panthers out there. Many howler monkeys would swing gracefully through the trees. Outside my small farm now, at night I sometimes hear coyotes, Great Horned Owls, and other evocative sounds from the woods.
As a boy in Panama, I saw a sloth up in a tree, which scared me, so I ran. Years later I learned how slow this herbivore moves, eating no meat. But those long claws, for digging roots, scared me. I saw a boa constrictor digesting some animal. I have these memories of trees and animals from long ago inside me. Do you have such memories from being in nature?
There are many trees on my farm, and I have planted more in the last twenty years. Redwoods create a rainforest and effectively bring moisture down from the sky and into the ground, benefiting my fruit. They surround my crops, providing habitat for beneficial insects, which can de-populate potential pests.
A redwood stand shares the land where I also live, along with dozens of oaks—valley oaks, live oaks, black oaks, blue oaks, coastal oaks, and hybrids. I especially like the arrival of wine-colored leaves as the black oaks leaf out each year. Most of the oak leaves will soon fall to the ground and I will gather them as mulch for my berries. The leafless trees enable me to see far-away hills. Most of these trees were here before I arrived and, hopefully, will remain long after I part from this Earth.
This year a mighty oak also fell, in the Cunningham Marsh at the foot of my place, a victim of sudden oak disease. I knew that tree, would often salute it as I walked by. I saw it prostrate, black fungus all over it, and fell to my knees weeping.
I have seen other trees fall to chain saws. The sound as they fell swiftly through the air and onto the Earth is unforgettable.
I share the land where I live with many kinds of trees—magnolia, mimosa, bay laurel, mayten, lilac, mock orange, eucalyptus, orange, deodora cedar, plum, apple, Italian Stone Pine, Monterey pine, and ones whose names I do not know. I consider myself part of their family and the community that we make together with our various species.
For many years deer ate and prevented the oaks here from growing up, retarding their growth, making them into small bonsai. They responded by growing down with their long taproots into the ground.
Then a mountain lion came through and thinned out the deer. The oaks, known as slow growers, suddenly grew rapidly, as much as ten feet a year. The lion and the trees are companions. I once again have too many deer and pray for the return of a hungry lion.
Years ago I made a promise to try to plant as many trees as I have consumed. That would be a lot of trees, since I have read many books, lived in wooden houses, and used nearly seventy years of toilet paper. Though I have planted hundreds of trees, I may never achieve that goal. Some goals are worthy, even if never achieved. How many trees do you think you have consumed? How many have you planted?
The ancient Greek god Pan is one of the divinities who offers blessings to trees. While at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland I once sat without voice or movement beneath a tree in the woods for hours with the intention of seeing one of the little people. And see one I did. It might have been an elf, leprechaun, or even Pan himself, for he seemed to have hair under the chin, tiny horns, and a tail.
Have you ever seen a sick forest? It is not a pretty sight. I recently walked in one with forty members of my Veterans’ Writing Group. A blight had struck the eucalyptus forest.
Imagine a world without trees. The Amazon is the Earth’s lungs, along with all the other trees. They make the oxygen we need to survive. Without trees, there would be no humans. Trees bring more than fruit and beauty. They create the oxygen we need to survive.
Come back here again to this place beyond the Dominican campus for another stroll, ramble, meander, saunter into these woods—at a different time of year, at a different time of day. You will see different things, as the light will differ, as the sun draws trees toward it. So much is hidden, until one learns how to see deeper.
Trees protect and provide habitat and comfort. Blessings to them for all that they do.
This unconditional ground on which I recline, looking upward into the sky, always provides.
May we listen to the forest guardians—like poison oak—and keep our human selves and our pollution out of certain areas.
Your ancient air, beneath the infinite sky, infuses all our cells.
May we honor the winged-ones, the four-leggeds, and the crawling ones, including the maligned skunks, vultures, snails, and bats.
Thank you for these outreached branches, strong enough for us to climb and swing from, receiving us. After a day out among the trees, I think that when I get back home I will climb up a couple of my favorite trees. A sturdy wind has bent them downhill and made them even easy for an elder like me to climb into them.
You have not abandoned us. May we not abandon you. You keep us alive, alive, so alive. May we realize that by walking in the woods we are walking in beauty.
Thank you for your perpetual embraces. You give so much—nutrition, cover, beauty, protection, paper, firewood.
Trees are so hardy, yet so fragile.
We eat of your plenty. May we learn to give back more, and take less.
A long, long time ago, after crawling from the sea onto the shore and then moving deeper within the woods, we climbed down from you. We swinging four-leggeds then stood up and became two-leggeds. May we remember the long-ago homes you provided us, and still provide.
So why is it so many humans fear nature?
While driving home slowly in my car on a narrow, neighborhood road in our small town of Sebastopol, Northern California, I see a group of people from that block looking into the sky, as the light declines. I slow down and someone calls to me–“Shepherd, Shepherd.” It is my friend Carolyn. She invites me to stop, which I do.
“We’re watching the swifts,” she says. I look upwards and see small, fast-moving, migratory birds circling around a chimney, apparently on their way to South America. They make that part of the sky darker. They do not collide and sometimes move slightly out of sight.
Suddenly a larger, long-winged white bird flies into the largest tree nearby. “Egret,” Carolyn says, though I do not see it. Another egret comes soon, and then a third. “They often roost there,” Carolyn notes. Now I see them, high up in an evergreen.
Then through some mode of leadership and communication, the hundreds of flocked swifts, a community of birds, suddenly dive down into the thin chimney, where they settle for the night.
Animated, we dozen or so two-leggeds, having been blessed to enjoy the winged-ones and their flight, hang around for a while and chat. The inter-species contact connects us to the connection of everything.
As farmer Wendell Berry says, we live in a “miraculous world.”
(Shepherd Bliss teaches at the Dominican University of California, has operated the organic Kokopelli Farm for the last twenty years, and contributed to a couple of dozen books. He can be reached at [email protected].)