Finding Your Tree—Taking a Stand—on Thanksgiving 2016

When asked by young activists where they should direct their energies, Julia Butterfly Hill responds simply, “Everyone has to find their own tree.”

2049891Julia, you may remember, is the woman who in 1997, at the age of 23, camped out at the top of a thousand-year-old, 180-foot-high California redwood named Luna, to save her and others in her grove from death by logging. She stayed up there for two solid years, through winter snowstorms, attacks by helicopter and constant harassment from the company goons holding siege below.

She eventually returned to the ground when her mission was accomplished—she had persuaded the logging company to leave Luna and her stand of old-growth trees alone. It was an important battle on the way to having the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest protected as an ecological preserve.

This week we witnessed another brave young woman warrior, Sophia Wilansky, standing up to the attackers at Standing Rock and getting her lower arm blown off by a grenade.

Compared to the scale of the harm inflicted by the U.S. military in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, a young woman losing her arm seems relatively minor. The water protectors are being hit with water cannons and mace, not cluster bombs.

But by the standards of what is considered acceptable behavior for American law enforcement against unarmed citizens, what’s been going on at Standing Rock is totally outrageous.

Without in any way undercutting the incredible sacrifice that young Sophia Wilansky has made, I want us to notice that when one white woman gets hurt, suddenly the outrage of the onlookers jumps up several notches.

Native people have been getting injured with rubber bullets fired at close range; elders are being beaten up; water protectors have been thrown into dog kennel cages and kept there in inhumane conditions; they’ve been attacked by drenching water cannons in 20-degree temperatures, with no way to get warm.

And there has been outrage and solidarity from onlookers: marches and rallies in many cities and towns, an outpouring of donations of food, warm clothing, camping supplies and money for legal fees and other expenses. The indie media and social media have been out in force, covering the scene.

But still, here we are on Thanksgiving, 2016, and Native Americans are being forced to fight, David vs. Goliath style, to defend their land and water from the rapacious appetites of the colonizers.

screenshot-2016-11-02-at-1-44-54-pm

On this Thanksgiving Day, please take a moment to say a prayer for the water protectors of Standing Rock, who are standing up for the right of every American to clean water.

And please take a moment to think about Julia Butterfly Hill’s advice.

What is your tree? What is the cause that is calling to you with such passion that your heart leaps in response? Where will you stubbornly take up a stand, vowing not to give ground until the battle is won?

1492528_orig.jpg

Respecting Our Elders

I was fascinated to learn recently that trees, especially big old trees, can communicate with each other and with their entire grove or forest of younger ones.

Apparently they do this through a network of fungi that grow in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots.  The larger the tree, the bigger the root network, and the more other trees the old one is in contact with.

What do they talk about? According to forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, trees share nutrients and chemical signals through the network.  A big old tree can help the younger ones who may be less able to withstand drought, for example, or an insect onslaught.

That’s what we know for sure now, but who knows what other wisdom the trees may be sharing?

IMG_3928 copy

I was reminded of this forest phenomenon this week as two things happened simultaneously: the news broke that folk music giant Pete Seeger had died, and I started discussing with students in my Women Write the World class the first book of the semester, The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill.

juliahillLuna, you may recall, is a 200-foot-high California redwood that Julia Hill single-handedly saved from the chainsaw by obstinately camping out on a platform high in the tree, for more than two years.

In the book she wrote later, Julia describes how she came to regard Luna as a living consciousness, a kindred spirit with whom she could connect.

I thought the students in my class would pooh-pooh that idea, but many of them were willing to entertain the notion that there might have been some actual cross-species communication going on between the massive old tree and the young woman perched in its branches.

What is certain is that living in Luna taught young Julia Butterfly Hill many lessons that she never could have learned elsewhere.

If Luna had been cut down, as so many of the great old trees have been in forests around the world, all her accumulated wisdom would have been lost too, an incalculable loss to the younger trees around her.

We are fortunate that Pete Seeger and other great old ones like him—Nelson Mandela springs to mind, and Wangari Maathai and Rachel Carson, both of whom died of cancer far too young—have been able to leave a written and recorded legacy to us younger ones coming along in their wake.

We will be listening to Pete sing, watching Mandela give speeches, and reading the books of Maathai and Carson for years to come.

But when we cut down a wise old tree, we silence its network entirely.

Forests can  regenerate—if they are not sprayed with herbicides, if their topsoil doesn’t wash away and if they’re not turned into artificial factory-style plantations.

In many tropical countries the natural forest is destroyed and replanted like this.

In many tropical countries the natural forest is destroyed and replanted like this.

But even in the best of circumstances, the younger trees will be more vulnerable and less resilient without the oldest trees to shelter and guide them.

During the European colonial period, it was an accepted strategy for would-be conquerors to kill or enslave the tribal leaders first, under the theory that their followers would be less able to resist.

The Americans took a page out of the same playbook in their treatment of Native Americans, trying to demoralize the tribes by killing, imprisoning and humiliating their leaders.

It has been no different with logging.  The big old trees are the most highly prized, and are chopped down first, with longstanding and poorly understood consequences.

IMG_4053 copy 2

Dr. Simard is arguing for a different kind of forest management plan, one that is respectful of what she calls “the mother trees”—those old survivors who can help the regenerate the forest after the loggers have moved on.

Just as we honor outstanding human elders like Seeger and Mandela, we should be honoring the most ancient living things among us, the old trees.

It makes scientific sense (older, larger trees trap more carbon and hence help reduce global warming) and it also makes moral sense.

It’s the right thing to do.

Photo by Patxi Pierce

Julia at the top of Luna
Photo by Patxi Pierce

%d bloggers like this: