What It Means To Plant A Tree

October 4, 2021

When I read yesterday’s obituary for the ivory-billed woodpecker — called the “Lord God bird"because of its tremendous size — I had to pause for a moment of silence. The extinction of a species of any creature cries out for deep reflection, especially if you are the species that caused its demise.

Eight hours after the EPA’s pronouncement that this lofty  woodworker is no more, I could barely sit through NPR’s coverage of the wildfires entering Sequoia National Park. An exhausted ranger was pleading for a more aggressive response to the climate crisis. Behind her stood a threatened redwood, silver foil wrapped like a band aid around its 30-foot base. The more she shared of the tragedy unfolding there, the more she choked up — not from smoke but tear-burning grief. How could she not? She is caretaker of one of earth’s oldest and largest species. They survived centuries of natural disasters. They may not survive us — creators of too many untold, unnatural disasters.

I woke up this cool fall morning unrefreshed, still unnerved by an endless summer of bad weather and bad news. I asked myself once again: what can I possibly do at this late hour? What difference can little me make, one among seven billion? What real impact can I measure from having planted a couple hundred trees, farmed without chemicals, reduced the miles I drive to deliver our vegetables? Have I mitigated anything other than my guilt over a lifetime of overconsumption?

I asked this question of the hour and in the awkward silence of my hesitation, all I heard back were echoes of that last “Lord God bird” — the tap tap of its ivory bill, the nasal toot of its lonesome call. I heard it calling to a mate no longer answering, to an old-growth forest no longer growing, to a “Lord God” no longer listening.

My thoughts returned to this summer and the advice I gave to the unusual young woman who stayed on our farm for a month. She was unusual in that she had taken a leave of absence from a university most only dream of attending. COVID figured into that hard decision but something else, too, something she had trouble explaining, much less defending. Yet defend it, she must, for she was about to ask for an unlikely second deferral.

“How can I sit in a classroom for four years knowing what is happening to this planet?” she asked while cracking garlic in the barn to escape the heat, “I can go back to Columbia, to New York City, as far removed from nature as it gets. Or can I go to California and tree-sit for a redwood.”

I was careful in my response. Torn by my own conflicted nature, I ping-ponged between rational and radical, practical and bold. What came out was the safe answer — whether a compromise or a cop-out, I wasn’t sure back then. Get two years of college under your belt, I said. That experience will give you a more informed argument for withdrawing. The redwoods will still be there.

This young woman, an accomplished photographer, spent most summers visiting family in Hawaii, home of three other bird species now officially declared extinct. She will never take their picture. Will three more species vanish by the time she graduates? Three hundred? How can our children’s decisions on career, marriage, family, or faith not bend and wobble when they hear that a million species could perish in the next decade? Or hear the Sequoia park ranger throw on the table this terrifying miscalculation: the unprecedented, drought-intensified flames, now capable of making a deadly leap into the redwood canopies, were not predicted for another 50 years?

“It’s happening now! Right now! Right here!”

One more hot spark tossed on our withered conscience.

This was when her tears seemed to carry the collective grief of all the fortunate park visitors who have found their mecca here. Who have stood awed and humbled, felt that rare diminishment of our own grandiosity. We snap the photo. We thank the tour ranger for her passionate talk. We head back to feed the beast that slayed all but these last few giants, as if to remind future generations how great this conquest. We, the men against nature, the God-anointed Goliaths of the Forest.

Today, I was relieved to hear the very real, unmistakable tapping of that close cousin of the Lord God bird. Its rapid drum roll filtered through the woods along the river. I slipped down for a closer look but keener eyes saw me first. High in the ash tree canopy came the agitated yacking of a pileated woodpecker. Putting more distance between us, it flickered away, a red carnation with wings, and continued its search for another meal in another dying tree.

Tap tap tap. Am I next? Am I next?

The first loblolly pines I planted seven years ago have grown 20 feet tall. I visit them regularly — 23 all in row bordering our dirt lane. They are like my college-age children, well-established, no longer needing my attention. I still need to check in on them. My own little tree sitting. I breathe in their turpentine incense. I find encouragement in a new crop of tight green cones sheltered under thick long needles, living ornaments of hope.  

If linger here longer than usual, it is because I have also discovered the best gift these trees can offer, a tiny nest, too high for me to reach, which is as it should be. The nest is empty now, as empty as I feel on days when the world seems gone to hell.

I must be okay with lingering in these vast spaces of life gone missing, absorbing the ugliness of a beautiful world beaten down. I must stick with the painful reckoning of my own collusion, like resin from these pines left on my hands — hands that have contributed to the creatures gone missing from my own fields and meadows and woods. Entering unarmed and naked into this warren of guilt and despair is akin to what author and former University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen calls “going apocalyptic.”

Writing an essay under that title in 2013 for Yes! Magazine, he prefaced his argument by clarify the word’s original, literal meaning — a lifting of the veil. “In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage,” he wrote. “A deep grief over what we are losing — and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered — is appropriate. Instead of repressing  these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp.”

Going apocalyptic is a more radical and collective imperative for what the poet Robert Bly called ashes work. Sooner or later, he said, you will find yourself “holding the ashy hand of the Lord of Death or the Lord of Divorce” and “realizing how much you have already lost in the reasonable way you chose to live and how much you could easily lose in the next week.” Here and only here, in this dropping through the floor of disillusion, can you find truths about yourself you couldn’t find or face elsewhere. Here you shed your old skin. Here you feel “the sorrow of the world.”

Sooner or later, you must step back out into that world. In the words of poet Antonio Machado, you will ask yourself more intently now: “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

We must each find our own answer. Embrace it! Proclaim it! And if you are like me, you must plant more trees.