The old oak, benevolent sentinel on the road to New Camaldoli, seemed like the tree of life to me. Since before I was born, it has offered shelter to birds and shade to pilgrims. For many years now I have been one of those pilgrims, and coming for retreat season after season, I developed an arrival ritual. As soon as I can, I walk down the road and press my forehead to the oak’s rough bark in silent greeting from me and from the redwoods of my native place. In return it welcomes me to the land, this Big Sur mountain above the Pacific.
When my selfishness threatens to prevail over loving kindness, I like to sit beneath its leafy branches to inquire about generosity and fortitude. A tree gives glory to God by being a tree comes the wind-sifted answer.
It was suffering, I realized when I was here in June, and I wondered if I had failed last winter to notice the brown leaves covering entire sections or if the disease had attacked that quickly. Today, on the brink of autumn, most of those limbs have been lopped off, and the arborist’s work truck stands ready to take more, now adorned only with lichen. A few neighboring oaks are beginning to succumb.
The oak seems like half the tree it was, no longer beautiful, except in art and memory, no longer magnificent. Yet who am I to judge? Surely below ground its roots sink as deeply as ever into the earth. They still commune in fruitful friendship with mycrorrhizal fungi, a crown to mirror the canopy that once was, above.
When I am a crone, white-haired and wizened, may I find sanctuary beside the snag the tree of life is on its way to becoming. May we sit heart to heart with a secret no one else can see – grounded, glowing beauty.
Did you have a favorite tree as a child? Mine was the pine tree in our backyard, a bit of the wild in our tract house neighborhood where my sisters and I could climb, build a clubhouse, or imagine elves and fairies. The green needle canopy of that single pine, its sappy branches, duff carpet, and unique scent formed an entire arboreal world, Sherwood, Narnia, Fangorn Forest. And when I tired of company and play, it became a place to hide out, just the pine tree and me, my first hermitage.
Nicholas Hoel, a character in The Overstory by Richard Powers, also grows up with a special tree. For him it’s the chestnut on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa. Readers meet that tree as a nut gathered by a young Norwegian on Prospect Hill in Brooklyn in the 1850s and carried across the country when Jorgen Hoel and his bride move west to homestead. By the time Nick is born, it has become a landmark sentinel in the prairie, its growth improbably recorded in a series of monthly photographs taken by generations of Hoel men.
Mimi Ma’s childhood tree is the mulberry planted by her immigrant father in their Wheaton, Illinois backyard, “the Tree of Renewal, the tree at the universe’s center, the hollow tree housing the sacred Tao.” In this language you can hear the author’s reverence for trees, one of the many reasons I adored this book.
Nick and Mimi are just two of nine characters spread across the country, all survivors in one way or another (shot down from a plane in Vietnam, electrocuted, paralyzed after falling from a tree) with completely separate, fully realized stories, and it’s astonishing to watch the way trees bring them together. For trees are the stars of this book, the trees that connect the human characters and speak to the reader too: Listen, there’s something you need to hear.
Some of the trees I loved as a child are long gone. The weeping willow that dripped long fronds over our neighbor’s driveway was the perfect backdrop for Halloween when Mrs. Brookman dressed as a witch and – unrecognized in her theatrical makeup – passed out candy to the neighborhood children, but one weekend when the family was out of town the neighbor on the other side chopped it down because the roots were forcing their way up through his driveway. Gone too is the little grove of eucalyptus that grew in the field behind our house, taken down to make room for more houses. Perhaps the most painful loss of all was the liquidamber in the middle of our backyard lawn with its big leafy branches that turned red and orange in autumn – who says we don’t have seasons in California? One winter a storm knocked it down, and we were devastated to see it lying on its side, massive roots ripped from the earth. My father and uncle rigged ropes to hoist it upright and replant it, but the wounds had gone too deep, and the tree could not be saved. It was like losing a loved one.
An epic novel about deforestation and activism, The Overstory is inevitably also about such loss. Powers is such an effecting writer the reader can’t help feel grief when blight takes out all the chestnuts on the eastern seaboard and western forests are clear-cut, but attachment to a particular tree becomes personal and deep when two characters take up residence in a towering old-growth redwood called Mimas in an attempt to save it from loggers (think Julia Butterfly Hill but with a boyfriend). In the face of corporations that view forests as money and loggers on the ground trying to earn a living, how else can one protest and protect? But what kind of activism is ultimately effective? And when does it go too far?
One of my favorite characters is Patricia Westerford, whose speech and hearing impediments have made her feel more at home with trees than people. After studying botany in college, she finds “an animist’s heaven” in forestry school, but quickly realizes that there’s something mistaken about a field in which the men in charge “speak of thrifty young forests and decadent old ones, of mean annual increment and economic maturity.” Ahead of her time she understands the forest as an ecosystem and sets out to prove that trees are social creatures.
The book she eventually writes, The Secret Forest, finds its way to the treehouse in Mimas where the young activists known as Maidenhair and Watchman read it during their long sojourn. It reminded me of a book in real life, The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester. Peter Wohlleben draws on scientific research and his own experience to show how trees are indeed social creatures with friends and families.
Nonfiction is generally where I turn for information about the environment, but fiction – with its possibilities for emotional engagement and spiritual resonance – may have a role to play too. Didn’t J.R.R. Tolkien offer his own powerful plea for the earth in The Lord of the Rings as the wizard Saruman cuts down Fangorn Forest and then despoils the Shire? More recently Deena Metzger’s novel A Rain of Night Birds tells a love story while also advocating that we reclaim TEK, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, to combat climate change. What do you think about environmental fiction? Any novels you’d like to suggest?
“I can hardly wait to have a drink,” a fellow churchgoer told me with a grin as we walked out of the Easter Vigil a few years ago. Ah yes, the bliss when you finally partake of a delight you’ve abstained from for forty days (alcochol! chocolate!), but that was the year I gave up social media, and I had no burning desire to rush home and check Facebook. In a relatively short time I’d gotten out of the habit of even thinking about it. Plastic, on the other hand, I have obsessed about like no other Lenten sacrifice of my life, yet there can be no blissful anticipation at returning to its use.
“How’s your plastic challenge going?” friends often asked me over the last six weeks, and the answer was always some variation of humbling – because I kept failing. Early on I imposed my own penance and promised to give 50¢ to charity for every piece of plastic I put in a trashcan and 25¢ for every piece I recycled. Any guesses on my donation to Save Our Shores? My transgressions add up to a shocking $25! The biggest culprits were trash bags, tamper-proof seals, and takeout containers. There’s not much I can do about those plastic seals, but I’m learning which restaurants use compostable containers and try to remember to take my own “doggie bag” with me when I go out for a meal. Despite my failure to completely eliminate single-use plastics, I have reduced, which means less garbage and fewer trash bags. If you’re contemplating reducing your plastic use, consider other side benefits. Eating less processed food is good for your body as well as the planet. By not shopping online, you will support local businesses and maybe even buy less stuff.
Which habits will stick now that Lent is over? To be honest, the ones that don’t require much of a sacrifice like using mesh produce bags and shopping bulk bins. Avoiding clamshell containers is much harder because I love fresh berries and those Trader Joe’s salads that are perfect to take for lunch at work, but I’m going to try. I’ll definitely keep relying on my Kleen Kanteen and Zojirushi coffee cup and plan to switch from liquid to bar soap, but I might not keep making my own yogurt (yogurt tubs can be recycled though!).
After forty days of considering environmental action as spiritual practice, I’m delighted that Easter and Earth Day almost coincide this year. At this double celebration of life and hope, I’d like to end with a poem in honor of the gray whale I wrote about last week.
In 1995 I was traveling down the length of Baja in a 26-foot motorhome with my ex-husband. In the village of San Ignacio we heard tell of a lagoon many miles down a dirt track where gray whales came every year to mate and bear their young. Although it was late in the season, well into April, we signed up for a tour. A fisherman who spoke only Spanish drove us in an old pick-up down the long bumpy road to Laguna San Ignacio and helped us aboard his little panga. It was just Marcus and me and the fisherman, and we motored out into the lagoon.
We soon spotted dolphins leaping in buoyant, graceful arcs out of the water, but most of the whales had already headed north. When we finally came upon a mother/baby pair, the few other boats carrying tourists zeroed in on the same spot. Later I would learn that the lagoon is a sanctuary and that there are rules about approaching whales there – you’re not allowed to, must wait for them to come to you – but on this day there was a dearth of whales, so the boats with Norteamericano tourists to please swooped in on the pair and followed them. Very soon, though, Marcus and I asked our boatman to abandon the chase; we didn’t have the heart for it.
Back on shore, the fisherman’s wife cooked us a lunch of deep-fried fish and beans and tortillas. While we ate with the family in their small hut near the sea, they showed us photos to prove the stories they’d told of friendly whales, pictures of people leaning over the sides of pangas to pet whales that swam right up to the little boat. You had to come earlier in the year, we were told; by now most had departed the lagoon for their long migration up the Pacific coast to Alaska.
Two years later Marcus and I returned to Baja, in March this time, and made a beeline down to San Ignacio. The village was as we remembered –women patting out the most delicious tortillas in the world at the same little tortilleriaand children selling dates underneath the oasis palms shading the village square. We drove our motorhome down the long dirt road and slept on the shore of the lagoon where the sounds of whale spouts floated out to us on the sea breeze. “I can hear Whale breathing,” I said.
We had arrived at the height of the season, and when the wind died down the next morning, we joined seven other people in a panga. This year there was no skulking about in sly pursuit. Before long a mother and baby swam up to us. The fisherman cut the engine, and the mama sidled next to the boat. We stretched out our hands to touch her back, covered with barnacles, and I marveled. In a place where my kind had once hunted her kind, a wild sea creature weighing ten tons was choosing to visit us, not coerced nor tempted by food, but choosing of her own free will. What could her reason have been? Curiosity? The allure of connection? I only know that after a while she dove back underwater and nudged her baby up to the surface for the same attention, as if saying, there are some interesting little creatures up there. Go on, check them out.
I treasure this photo of the mother whale and me in Laguna San Ignacio and the memory of that contact with a magnificent creature from another realm. She could easily have tipped our boat over, but she was polite and gentle – unlike the humans in the boat. In that profound moment the panga almost did capsize as we all strained over the edge of the boat at the same time, fighting for the prize of having our picture taken with a whale.
I thought about that moment when I heard last month about a Cuvier’s beaked whale that washed up on shore in the Philippines. It was not a diseased or shark-bitten carcass, but a young animal that had starved to death – from eating plastic.
More than eighty pounds of plastic bags, rice sacks, and other garbage in its stomach made it feel so full it stopped eating. “It’s disgusting,” the biologist who conducted the necropsy said. This story made the international news, but like the human calamities that fill our headlines, it is not uncommon. In Thailand alone 300 marine mammals die each year from ingesting plastic. For those of us who eat seafood (with apologies to my vegetarian friends), it doesn’t take a marine biologist to figure out where microplastics in the ocean food chain end up.
“But the plastic I throw away or recycle doesn’t end up in the ocean, does it?” a friend asked me recently. “No, no,” I assured her, but privately I wondered, where does all the plastic swirling around the Pacific Gyre come from? Cruise ships maybe? Or countries that can’t afford to recycle? Surely not from my eco-conscious town!
My guesses were not far off. A recent report by Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment found that 20 percent of ocean plastic debris “originates from ocean-based sources like fisheries and fishing vessels.” The rest comes from land-based sources, and over half of that comes from “just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam … These countries … are at a stage of economic growth in which consumer demand for safe and disposable products is growing much more rapidly than local waste-management infrastructure.”
In my part of the world this infrastructure is robust, and like me you have probably been dutifully recycling for decades. In the last year, though, I’ve learned that there are limits to what plastic can be tossed in the blue recycle bin. What exactly these limits are was a little vague for me, but after just watching the YouTube video Recycle Right! Santa Cruz, I’m starting to get a handle on it. First, everything must be clean. “Stretchy” plastic (e.g. produce bags, plastic wrap, bubble wrap) is okay if bagged and so are most containers (jars, bottles, jugs, and tubs), but “crinkly” plastic (e.g. potato chip bags), hinged food containers, plastic containers that can’t be cleaned (think lotion tubes or motor oil jugs), and other items like hangers, toys, buckets and nursery pots belong in the trash. To make matters even more complicated, every community has different rules, so check with your local waste management to know for certain what you can put in your blue bin.
Where does all this plastic end up? “For the past three decades, almost half of the entire world’s used plastic has been sent to China,” where small factories employing cheap labor converted it into “inexpensive, plastic exports like shoes, bottles, hoses, and gadgets,” but suddenly the Chinese don’t want our garbage any more. They are turning to more lucrative industries like tech, plus they want to cut down on the pollution that came with all that plastic. The New York Times reports that “While there remains a viable market in the United States for scrap like soda bottles and cardboard, it is not large enough to soak up all of the plastics and paper that Americans try to recycle.” American cities (and airports and parks) are scrambling to figure out what to do.
Does this mean we should quit recycling? Definitely not! Technology may make it feasible to burn recyclables and convert them into energy, or recycling may simply become more expensive. There are options and possibilities, but as Lent began last month, the news stories about the dead whale in the Philippines and about China stopping the import of trash had one thing in common: we must rethink our use of plastic.
Change has to occur at the global level, but it starts with individuals, you and I taking our reusable shopping bags to the grocery store and drinking water from our refillable bottles. Locally it heartens me that students at Foothill College drove the change to equip water fountains with bottle filling stations and that more and more restaurants are using compostable takeout containers and utensils.
And even at the global level change is possible. Gray whales were hunted almost to extinction, but by 1994 the population had recovered enough that they were removed from the endangered species list, and in Laguna San Ignacio these giant, gentle creatures make friends with humans. In a place where harpoons once flew, a mother who would have been prey let me pat her back and watch her baby play.