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ARBOREAL WONDERS OF CALIFORNIA AND THE BAY AREA: Contemplating the Magic and Mysteries of Why "Only God Can Make A Tree"

Posted Dec 12 2009 12:00am
Somewhere in the area that is now Round Valley Regional Preserve, tribes from near and far gather in anticipation of the acorn harvest celebration. Maidu, Miwok and Ohlone peoples have made pilgrimages here to offer up for trade an abundance of abalone, fish, shells, feathers and arrowheads, and to share a cornucopia of acorn wealth. All year long, they have waited and marked off the days, in observance of the time when tiny buds, infinite and hidden, would pop out, followed by the magical appearance of leaves bursting forth to mark the miracle of transformation , and finally, as summer waned, writes Malcolm Margolin in The Ohlone Way, “the sight of the gradually ripening, shiny, green nuts filled them with joy and security. Throughout the year the people responded to the stately rhythm of the oaks with the greatest awareness and involvement.” A merry time of social catching up and interaction, of blessings of gratitude, for all the prayers, dances, songs, and supplicating rituals have paid off handsomely. More acorns, in fact, than can possibly be eaten at the yearly celebr ation marking the timeless cycles of migration to and from the sacred oak groves.

Children scatter and play tag and hide and seek, the men sit in circles, smoking tobacco from ornately carved pipes, telling stories and jokes and rolling mystery dice onto gambling trays, while the women, with blessings and joy in their hearts, convene around the special rocks with mortar holes to sing the sacred Acorn Song about how the acorns came down from the heavens and they planted them in the valley and lo and behold they sprouted - Hu’-tim yo’-kim koi-o-di’ Wi’-hi-yan’-ning koi-o-di’ Lo’-whi yan’-ning koi-o-di’ Yo-ho’ nai-ni, hal-u’-dom yo nai, yo-ho’ nainim’. In rhythmic unison – Thump! Thump! Thump! - they work wooden pestles up, down, up, down, grinding, grinding, grinding – Thump! Thump! Thump! – pulverizing batches of acorns into powdery edible gold, the first stage involved in turning the nutritious nuts into delicious provender that will sustain them for the coming year. Acorns of all shapes and sizes overflow from large beautifully woven reed baskets, decorated with colorful animals and cosmological symbols – it is indeed a bountiful harvest! Praise the Acorn Spirit!

For Ohlone and other coastal and inland native peoples of California, the little acorn from the genus Quercus – especially from black and tan oak trees – provided (along with salmon) the bulk of their sustenance, the foundation of their subsistence patterns, the raison d’etre of their celebratory rituals; indeed, the powerhouse nut represented the key to life itself and the marking of new phases of time. It’s easy to see why the mighty oak – Emerson's “th e creation of a thousand forests in one acorn” – was so revered by not just autochthonous tribal peoples in North America but by ancients the world over, wherever this ubiquitous keystone specimen is found. And indeed, apart from providing an important dietary staple for humans, oak tree groves create drought-tolerant islands of shade and coolness, and spawn environments conducive to a rich wildlife habitat. In California alone, oak forests sustain over one hundred species of birds, while multiple dozens of its land mammals rely on oaks in some symbiotic relationship during their lifetime.

Trees! Joseph Campbell invokes a divine con nection, heavenly inspiration, when he realizes that “God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, 'Ah!'" Trees! Ah! Delightful and important living specimens that offer up their bountiful shade, indulge us with sensorial and aesthetic pleasures, and induce ecstatic joy in our lives at their mere presence and sight. Trees!! – Ah!! Sentient beings who nourish us with their bounty of fruits and nuts. Trees!!! – Ah!!! Vibrant creatures connecting heaven and earth, who freely give over to us the raw materials of their bodies for shelter, who provide free harbor and berth for innumerable animals and insects. Trees!!!! – Ah!!!! Ancient and indispensabl e entities without whom this earth would be desolate and impossible for animal life to survive in any great abundance or diversity.

What epiphanies and rhapsodies are left to pen? Deeper thinking philosophers have graced us throughout the ages with penetrating insights into the divine nature of trees, and greater poets have tantalized us with lyrical descriptions of the heavenly trees of nature. Certainly, if "only God can make a tree", as Joyce Kilmer concluded in his famous stanza, or if, as Kahlil Gibran informs us, "trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky", then what do I or can I or anyone really know about the arboreal essence of these protean, rooted creatures of the earth - perhaps nature's greatest wonders - who teach us about patience (if we're willing to learn), who outlive us, and who have been around for 370 million years? We may only know what we intuitively know from a poetic and metaphorical standpoint - that they are, as Proust states, "a vigorous and pacific tribe which without stint produces strengthening essences for us, soothing balms, and in whose gracious company we spend so many cool, silent and intimate hours." Little wonder that Thoreau, on shunning human companionship for his different drummer mind-set, preferred to tramp "eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines." For my part, I know that I love trees - I pledge my allegiance to them, I pray to them, I worship them like a pagan. I hug them, I smell them, I'v e even been known to kiss them. Shamelessly. Passionately. Reverently. Eternally. And yet, like wide-eyed Gambolin' Man going ga-ga over a pittance of a trickling stream of unheralded water, it is precisely because of its miraculous simplicity that it is rendered sacred and awesome. . .is it just me getting excited over everyday, commonplace trees? I now know why Emerson's remonstration continues to echo down through the ages - "The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more."

What little I do know about trees from a scientific angle - the ability to identify them and understand their botanical classification schema – their taxonomy - I have to thank the authors of a wonderful new book recently published by the Arbor Day Foundation and beautifully illustrated by Karina I. Helm called What Tree Is That? This compact, well-designed pocket guide is a hiker's perfect companion, an indispensable vade mecum for tree lovers that greatly aids in identifying the most common (and easy to confuse) varieties of firs, pines and oaks, among other species, that proliferate in the U.S. In a style easy for children and amateurs alike to relate to, the guide helps, through a logical series of elimination strategies, to identify and discover - mainly through lea f patterns and characteristics - which tree is which. Nothing brings more pleasure or educational gratification than understanding our natural surroundings, personalizing them, knowing what kind of tree it is whose acorn or leaf you just picked up. There is a greater connection, a deeper spiritual attuning, when one can say with certainty, “Ah! Here we have a very nice but really rare for the Bay Area, Quercus palmeri." (Palmer Oak) Or, "Look at this fine isolated specimen of Pinus sabiniana." (Digger Pine). Or, in a triumphant moment, whip out the book and proclaim, "That is not a White Poplar, but a Populus tremuloides, so there!" (Quaking Aspen) (On the other hand, on days when I forgetfully leave my tracking or flower or mushroom or scat or tree or bird field identification guides at home, I take solace in Whitman's anti-Linnaean admonishment, "You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.") So, do not find yourself out on a hike wanting to know What Tree Is That? without this durable water-resistant gui de! Pick up your copy online at http://www.arborday.org/trees/whattree / or at your favorite bookstore.

Trees are so tactilely sensuous, so visually sumptuous to behold in all their protean manifestations and mind-boggling diversity, as to make for infinite spiritually transcendent close encounters. Mindless to the harried world in a tranquil wooded glade, or lost in thought ‘neath the solitary shade of a favorite friend, all problems and stress find egress from your heart, for trees are always magical and mysterious, never prosaic or mund ane, and always bring cheer or solace. Even the cut-down but still growing Tree of Heaven that grows in Brooklyn (in the novel) serves as a powerful metaphor for resilience and hope springing eternal. Truly, trees are our teachers and our sanctuaries, wrote Herman Hesse. “Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.” Trees are our aesthetic, artistic, recreational, metaphorical, moral, even scientific inspiration. You can plant and nurture them, as Arbor Day Foundation and other conservation groups do. You can draw them, decorate them, play in them, and climb them. L ike the eternal Buddha, you can sit and meditate under them. You can, like Julia Butterfly Hill most famously did in her beloved Redwood Tree, Luna, take up residence in them and protest their mistreatment and mismanagement. And if you're Isaac Newton, you can lollygag a day away in dreamy thought only to accidentally discover the laws of gravity from the lessons they impart.

Trees are among the earth’s grandest and noblest creatures / creations, endowed with unique personalities / personae. Some trees are spookily draped in stringy moss clinging from branches like spider webs; others harbor epiphytic creatures in their boughs; some, like the great redwood trees, have VW-sized lumps (burls) you can sit on, and unattainable canopies hundreds of feet skyward with heretofore undiscovered ecosystems thriving in them. Some trees are gnarled and twisted into grizzled forms from harsh beatings in elemental climes; other trees are bent into freeze-frame shapes from years of Aeolian forces at work. The bark of some trees is velvety smooth, the color of chocolate ice cream or pearly beige and peeling in delicate patterns of frill and lace; some bark, like the nuisance exotic eucalyptus, shred long pliant strips that hang from branches like bizarre tinsel; other trees have striated o r course integument, mottled with moss and maculated in colorful lichen, an isolated close-up view resembling a 3-D map of a mini-canyon. Some trees’ bark smells sweetly of heaven scent fragrances – bury your nose in the furrowed bark and breathe in the sweet woody body odor – mixing olfactory sensations of vanilla, caramel, pineapple, or butterscotchy scents. California is home to the world’s tallest, girthiest, pithiest and oldest trees – redwoods and bristlecone pines. Other trees are merely tall and venerable – spruce and valley oaks, for example. Some trees are short and dwarfed, owing to serpentine soil low in nutrients, yet they thrive in abundance as you can see atop Pi ne Mountain in Marin County when hiking or biking past groves of Lilliputian Sargent Cypress. Some trees are evergreen, while others turn polychromatic in the fall, transforming landscapes into rainbow palettes of earthy red, purple, and yellow hues, and when they lose their leaves, there is something starkly beautiful about their skeletons silhouetted against a crisp, blue winter sky. Even dead tree snags can take on an otherworldly aesthetic, with their weathered, insect-bored, bony protrusions thrusting heavenward like weird sculptural deformations.

The Bay Area and California is blessed with rich, varied, healthy – preserved! – forests, harboring diverse species of native and exotic trees alike. Native pines, spruces and redwoods, yews and willows, madrone and manzanita, walnut and birch, laurels, maples, cypress, nutmeg, sycamore, alder, dogwoods and many types of oak are found thriving in national forest lands, national parks, regional, county and city parks, residential landscaping, unincorporated areas, and along roadsides. Amazingly resilient with infinite survival and propagation strategies, trees grow wherever opportunities present themselves – even inter twined with or directly out of rock, at ungodly altitudes, or in substandard, thinnish soil. Overall, there are close to 200 individually identified trees that grow in and around the Bay Area alone, which means there could be close to 1000 species in the state of California. Twenty of one-hundred species of pines are native to the state. One-third of oaks native to the USA are endemic to California. Non-native trees commonly encountered in the Bay Area are blue gum eucalyptus, florally effusive magnolias, gorgeous Japanese maple varieties, Chinese imports, New Zealand and Australian tea trees and other representatives from Persia, Mexico, Brazil, Norway, Greece, Canary Islands, Europe and Africa – given the Bay Area’s intense cultural mélange, it’s not surprising to find trees flourishing from around the world.

Trees have figured prominently in human evolution ever since our dim ancestors dwelt in them and foraged for their fallen gifts of life - nuts and fruits. Since the days of troglodytes, when branches and trunks burn ed wildly from lightning strikes, and protohumans recognized the value of harnessing this unlimited energy source, trees have always played an important role in human evolution, survival, myth, culture, and ritual. Dating back to primeval lore, we see that the tree of life was guarded by a serpent, or was representational of some other sacred universal symbol -- the tree as union of heaven and earth, repository of knowledge and wisdom and endurance owing to its life-giving, existence-sustaining powers. We see trees as metaphors for consciousness and spiritual living, trees as symbols of immortality, longevity, timelessness, renewal, strength, and fe rtility. We see trees being associated with magic and revered as objects of worship and sacred entities. The Egyptians had a thing for sycamores, ancient Hindus believed that the fibers of trunks and branches of certain trees served as the abodes of visiting devas who communicated through the trees themselves, and the Druids held land in reverence that contained oak groves and performed ceremonies and invoked blessings to "the Inner Guardians of the Order and of our Druid forebears" so that the groves "might become a truly holy and sanctified place." William Cullen Bryant expresses this divine attainment of consciousness in A Forest Hymn, by declaring, “The groves w ere God's first temples." We see that trees are sacred bearers and givers of life that possess powerful physical attributes and are no longer just trees, but rather they are liturgical monuments to be emulated and worshipped and adored, because, as Mircea Eliade points out in Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, "they are hierophanies. . . something that is no longer [a tree] but sacred, the ganz andere or 'wholly other.'"

It is difficult to imagine a world without trees. Such a place would be pitiful, barren, forlorn, and sci-fi apocalyptic -- im possible to exist in, and bereft of spirituality and joy. Think of a wasteland plain in Africa, with a sole baobab tree, or a clear-cut slope in the Sierras, or some stark shadeless place without respite from the sun. Such a world could support life - and did in past geologic time, during the Cambrian period, 550 million years ago, when animal life exploded on the scene, and later, during the Ordovician period, 460 million years ago, when simple plants first began populating the land mass of earth - but a treeless world could not support large settled populations, and certainly not human culture, nor nourish the hum an spirit. Let's face it - we owe our literal existence to trees. For without trees making their bold appearance one hundred million years before the dinosaurs, about 370 million years ago, none of us would be here today. Eric McLamb and Dr. Jack C. Hall, at the website ecology.com explain, "Trees, with their large and thick roots, helped break up the rocky crust of Earth's surface to create the soil that would allow the development of new plant species, including other trees. And it was the greater evolution of plants and trees that enabled the evolution of larger and more diverse land animals, including mammals."

We humans see m to think that trees are an unlimited "treesource" - most certainly, they provide us nourishment and shelter, the raw materials to sustain life - but cut 'em all down like we're doing in the Amazon and other rainforests, and we are effectively destroying the lungs of earth, our very oxygen supply. Today, forests cover only about 30% of earth's land area. We cannot afford to let that figure continue to dwindle. McLamb and Hall drive home the importance of biodiverse forests being vital to the health of ecosystems: “Some of the many key functions of forests include climate regulation, the cycling and distribution of nutrients, and the provision of raw materials and resources. Trees cleanse the air and provide oxygen, help soil retain water, shield animals and other plants from the sun and other elements, and provide habitat for animals and plants. They help regulate the climate, cycle and distribute nutrients..." If the hubris of humanity continues to mess with this formulaic balance, well, we run the risk of returning the earth to a state of "Darkness", Lord Byron’s bleak “seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless lump of death - a chaos of hard clay.”

Perhaps w e have evolved from the low-brow mentality embodied in the aphoristic "you've seen one redwood you've seen them all", but how much? We still mass clear-cut forests for cheap furniture and wooden trinkets. We still cannot stop subsistence farmers from engaging in destructive slash and burn techniques. We still allow wholesale razing of rainforest for cheap subsidized animal flesh. We still wipe out venerable groves to make way for construction projects or for athletic stadiums (viz., the controversial decision by UC Berkeley, notwithstanding a year-long tree sitting protest, to cut down centuries old oaks that were “in the way.”) We keep hearing, "it's all about trade-offs," bu t what's forgotten in the calculus of "resource management" is the poetry of just leaving trees be, letting them exist for the sake of their own magnificent, solemn, noble, wise selves, to serve as guardians of our ecosystems, and as resplendent, statuesque beacons of transcendence to aid us in meditation, provide us inspiration and guidance, enable wisdom seeking, knowledge, and enlightenment, to help us become better, more evolved (like the teacher trees) human beings. Will we not ever grok Wordsworth’s booming pronouncement of the “Solitary Tree! A living thing produced too slowly ever to decay; of form and aspect too magnificent to be destroyed”? Alas, and not with standing "offset emission" projects the new economy has created in the wake of global warming's onslaught, given humans' propensity for destruction of the natural environment, we may someday have only artificial trees or trees in arbor-museums, and we will then reflect and rue mournfully on John Muir's wasted threnody, "God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools."

The conflict , though, resides in humans’ need to place economic value on everything – a mountain is not just a beautiful rise of earth, a feature of the environment to admire and draw strength and solace from, but instead is a reservoir of natural resources to tap and strip mine; a stream is not just a beautiful creation of nature existing for its own sake, but instead is a source to harness and extract energy, power, wealth. Likewise, poor trees, rooted, helpless, powerless from the chainsaw, cannot escape from the intrinsic human greed and need to capitalize and monetize their value. I suppose if done in a sustainable, thinking forward seven generations manner, trees can be our friends and benefactor s. After all, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has calculated (in 1994 dollars, but the theory holds) that one tree over fifty years will contribute nearly $200,000 worth of “service” to the community. This includes providing oxygen ($31,250), recycling water and regulating humidity ($37,000), controlling air pollution ($62,500), producing protein ($2,500), providing shelter for wildlife ($31,250), and controlling land erosion and fertilizing the soil ($31,250). Lord knows how they came to these fiduciary conclusions for just one tree, but the point being – trees are o f inestimable value! Three well-placed mature trees can enhance property values by up to 25%! Even our decidedly non-environmental 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, said (quite wisely for mere lip service), “Trees can reduce the heat of a summer's day, quiet a highway's noise, feed the hungry, provide shelter from the wind and warmth in the winter. You see, the forests are the sanctuaries not only of wildlife, but also of the human spirit. And every tree is a compact between generations.”

Perhaps the ultimate compact, however, is something poetic and metaphy sical beyond the ken of human knowing. Pablo Neruda, in his impeccable voice, gleaned something of this mystery when he wrote, “What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?”

Trees! Ah! Please remember to plant a tree! Many trees! Volunteer with the Arbor Day Foundation ( http://www.arborday.org/ ). Be sure to read the parable The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, an allegorical tale of one man, Elzéard Bouffier, who devoted a lifetime to reforesting a desolate valley in the Alps. My mother, the great tree lover, Ora Lora Spadafora, bought the 4000 word story for me and it changed the way I think about how one person’s simple and solitary actions can be a force for transfo rmative change. When every citizen, along with every politician, president, potentate, prime minister, and plenipotentiary on the planet reads the inspiring story of Elzéard Bouffier, only then might we come to understand the true depth of meaning in the Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Trees glorious trees! AH! May we forever have trees to cast our gazes upon, forever be blessed with their presence and company, in order to hug and love and worship them, so that - religion be damned! - spiritually we might all experience God together in a profound way!
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