Saturday, June 4, 2016

Shedding Bark

Shedding Bark
for Bernie Sanders and everyone trying to change the world.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. Herman Hesse

The heat has come to Chico. It feels oppressive almost, but I like the heavy weight. I came home to see my sycamore tree (it most likely actually a London Plane, a hybrid of plane and sycamore) had exploded the bark from the trunk and it littered the yard. A few days earlier I had to identify a silk tree because hundreds of swallowtail butterflies danced on the thread-like stamen of the flowers like fiber optic lines projecting black butterflies. It made me think of a scene in 100 Years of Solitude when Remedios the Beauty is carried away by butterflies. I expected the tree to lift from the ground, roots dripping dirt as butterflies carry it away. I knew it was Fabaceae because of the pea-pod seeds that remained still in dried pockets on the tree. It looked like an acacia, and the common name hints to that, though it isn’t.  I wanted desperately to impress the woman I was with by knowing the name, but I didn’t know it. I couldn’t easily find it with my phone. Instead, I gloried in my knowledge of the black swallowtail butterflies flirting with the flowers against a setting sun.

A Bernie Sander’s Rally is outside of my office today. People have begun to line up as the heat comes on again. Everybody I know assumes I am going. This movement means so much to me. I could probably hear the whole thing from my office, almost see the stage even, but I decided to go home and to the river. He wouldn’t speak until about 7:30. I have read and watched and argued every last bit of information I could for Bernie. I will still volunteer time to help knock on doors. But when I talk with people who support Trump or Hillary, it has amounted to no change at all. I fear that we have put a face in front of a movement that isn’t about the person.
I now have photo proof that my head is not up my ass, despite what many have told me. But I am confounded to understand why people, sane people, people close to me, would support Hillary, and even more confounding is friend’s support of members supporting Trump. I am not sure what happens next. When you know you don’t want the other candidates, you don’t want the current system, then the time has come. I can’t imagine toppling an ancient redwood. I can’t fathom felling trees older than our constitution, but it happens. It has happened. It still happens.

Trees have always amazed me. I can name trees of my life, or remember times with trees, memories are peppered (peruvian peppered) with them. I don’t always have a clear idea of the type of tree. I can think now and try to rationalize from what I know now, but I do know we had a large pine tree in our front yard and I would play with hotwheels and army men around the roots. I can’t place the type, I think black pine, or knobcone pine, but I can’t remember the cone. I can’t remember the fascicles. The tree is gone now. We had, what my mind thinks was an elm tree in the backyard with an old cotton rope that the tree grew around. I remember being amazed at realizing the tree had ate the rope, enveloped the cotton fibers. I didn’t understand how that could hurt it. I remember the Santa Rosa plum in the backyard I would climb and eat and feast on the bitter skin, explosive flesh, and sour again pit. We had, what I now think was a camphor tree in the front yard on the side that I loved to climb because of the open canopy, no sap, and smoother bark. That was very young, there are other bushes that populate memories too. Plants of my life. Sycamore’s are in the old part too. Random potlucks at Bidel Park where large specimens with hollowed out insides were nature's best jungle gym, we would chimney up the hole. That specific tree is gone now. I went back looking once. Many others still remain there in the floodplains of the Arroyo Grande Creek...the watershed of my life.

I am genuinely concerned about all watersheds. I am terrified of fracking and Bernie is the only candidate informed on this. At what point do we realize that water and food, the ecosystem services of our world, is what sustains up.

There was a tree at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but I can’t place it in my current knowledge of trees. I can’t see the bark or leaves well enough, but I know it is there in the southwest corner of the backyard. Were there others? Too vague.

In another house, after divorce, living with a stepfather, there is an japanese plum tree, we were told was poisonous to eat, but I would once again gorge on them. They were mostly sour, unless ripe and then really sweet, but lacked the complexity of the Santa Rosa of my youth. I saw those again last weekend at a friend’s house. Trees hold memories like carbon.

There was a line of pine trees at that same house, not in our yard, but on the edge of the neighbors and I would climb and try to swing from one tree to the next out on the branch ends, my mother upset with the sap and maybe using the sap as an excuse to keep me from their heights.

My Dad’s house was all too new. They had a young coast oak that was slowly growing up. It is a proper tree now, though the house was long sold and he moved to Idaho. The tree still stands as a memory of what could have been, for him, for me, for us. It is now.

There are a lot of oak trees in my life. I can’t remember them all specifically. There are moments when I am in them. Like the time I was in one when the earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989 during the World Series. Me, I was out climbing a tree in a small oak woodland next to my father’s new house. I never noticed the ground shaking from inside the tree. World shaking, a tree gives enough I think. It is what I have learned to love about trees. They too have migrated and moved and had families and lineages that go beyond the dendrochronological rings we can find. I look for seed trees when I hike, mother trees, and think about the knowledge and wisdom that only a tree can know about the world around us. I wish I had that stillness inside of me.

I have revelled in the age of trees. I tell people that one of the greatest parts of California are our trees: the oldest, tallest, and biggest trees in the world are all within these state boundaries; however, the trees were here long before boundaries. They are survivors, but their ecosystems are now relegated to partitioned parks on the borders of human populations.

There are the oaks of Camp Natoma. That acrid smell mixed with Bay Laurel still takes me back to this escaped camp where the rest of the world seemed to fade away except for letters we would write, and receive, packages from family where we would sing to get them, candy and trinkets. My mom more than anything would make sure we had those, even though she was right there with us. I think now about the kids that didn’t get any. I wonder how aware I was of them back then. Here I learned to write love letters to a camp crush that would last a lifetime. Pencils of wood on paper of wood tucked into envelopes of wood.

Money is made from trees. Money has leaves on it. Money has become how and why we move in the world. We hold onto the past, we grasp at them. It defines who we are, but it can limit how we move forward. What would I sacrifice? A sane death, the poet rings out to me, a sane death.

There is an avocado tree at the small apartment my mom rented after having to leave the condo we lived in after the second divorce.

There is a spruce in front of Sonny’s house in Alaska, I barely knew him, but the memory of him looms. He is a presence because of all Alaska meant to me in my early 20s so lost to the world and wanting to run. He was a man rooted in land, rooted in routine. He had 5000 years of history to his land. He would sit at his window and look out at the lagoon, and never spoke a bad word to me. And his sons would become characters in my story. One, a good friend. Though his house is slowly being reclaimed by the land, the tree still remains. His body buried on the hill just above the tree line that looks out over the whole lagoon. Rather than a headstone, I would prefer a tree planted over my body in the hopes that I too might reach up into the sky.

Sonny was a casualty of climate change. He is a catalyst for my own action. His death, while devastating for the tribe and for his sons, was caused by paralytic shellfish poisoning. Never seen by the tribe in almost 5000 years. I remember as Dale would sit with a gun to ward off the bears that smelled death and wanted to dig his father’s grave up. For me, this was climate change, this is what happens when the oceans have been polluted. Innocent people have died and will die. How are we to be prepared for this?

In San Diego, there were less trees. But there were jacarandas that would drop purple petals on the sidewalk, paint them as I would ride my skateboard down the surreal streets of the largest city I have yet lived in. It seems perhaps one of the most foreign memories now. Amongst all the other places and trees of the world, like Baobab trees in Madagascar, stopping under one lone tree on a trek out to the desert and eating the fruits while we rested and another small group from another village stop, rest, and move on too. Their faces are lost to me now, the clothes they were wearing, gone, but the tree stands above the flat terrain, the shade worth sharing.

Madagascar has been an island in peril. The red island bleeds iron soil out into the rivers from erosion because the trees are gone, their roots unable to hold back the relentless onslaught from water dragging the land back out to see. I often think of the ocean as a cleanser, as a god out to destroy humanity. I often wish for it to raise up. When I surf large waves, when the tempestuous swell racks the sea cliffs, I want to see destruction. I am still an anarchist at times. I hold deep seated love for the eco-terrorists of the world, the monkey wrenching. I think often of Hayaduke, swinging his penis in the desert sun.

The mangroves of Guatemala, Yille climbing the coconut trees for us with machete tucked into his pants. Mangroves are buffers to storms, filters for rivers, a system also in peril. When I volunteered for Katrina, I already knew that one of the problems was that hurricanes didn’t have to deal with mangroves as buffers against the ferocity of the ocean. Trees have stood to protect all that is humanity and yet we have neglected them.

A pine forest in Germany is vague and covered with memories of a girlfriend unable to even speak to me for some inexplicable anger of which I was surely the cause.

Outside of San Diego there are Joshua Tree and Ocotillo from the desert trips we would go to to get out of the city. They say Joshua Trees will be a casualty of climate change. The large ground sloth that once helped move the tree over large distance, the relationship it once had that allowed the tree to move and adapt as tectonic plates shift, as sand moves in longshore currents, is long gone now. As the climate changes, the Joshua Tree doesn’t have a way to move as easily. Will we help it? Will we carry the seed or just the memory of what once was?

Bernie is the only candidate to tackle climate change head on. No deals with pipelines, no deals for coal, no compromises for fracking. Climate change is real and a threat to our existence. I know this has little to do with Bernie really. This is about us. In fact, if we make it about Bernie then we have already lost. This is about a movement towards understanding and caring. This is a movement about becoming active and engaged citizens in communities where you learn, and listen, and talk, and act, and solve, and there is not stagnation. A single tree might seem rooted to landscape, but they migrate too. They cast seeds to the wind, to birds, to animals, and work together to move with the earth, listening to the earth. Bernie asks us to listen again. He has been there with his ear to the ground for so long now.

And in the Chico there are the sweetgums, later I would learn the latin names for them and love the way it slides from the tongue. Liquidambar Styraciflua. I can hear my professor saying the same on one of our jaunts into the “field” of Logan street trees and the campus arboretum.

There is manzanita everywhere. Rafting on rivers brought to me madrones. Climbing Mount Lassen brought me whitebark pine and the symbiotic relationship with Clark’s Nutcrackers.
And the redwoods and sequoia are embedded too deep to even begin to tell their story. I often think of the sequoia as an already extinct tree in purgatory breathing smog filled air from the valley below. The redwood story is fairy ringed and burled into my life. I have taken so many students out into their forests and shared this experience with them. Students have become my helicoptering seeds spinning to winds.

Everywhere there are eucalyptus. The urine smelling dreidel tops seeds that were a skateboarders hell. They also shed their bark. I never had much love for them. I remember, playing in them, bb gun wars up on the Mesa, mostly I remember the butterflies their too. Learning that the habitat for monarchs is disappearing, and their wintering grounds the numbers have seen decline. I can remember watching the counts for each year precipitously decline and learning about habitat loss. Normally they would winter in the cypress trees, but those too are few in numbers. Instead, they cluster and cascade in the Eucalyptus trees off Highway one in Grover Beach. Will we lose the Monarch? Is it, too, just a three-inch fish? The hubris of humans humiliates me. I helped build a butterfly sanctuary for my mom in her yard recently. And they are there, the beautiful big caterpillars spinning chrysalis. Here is Bernie again for me. He is asking us all to spin the chrysalis inside of ourselves. If Leopold taught us anything, it is that while we can destroy the earth, we can also create conditions conducive to healing.

In Utah, I studied trees, both dendrology, but also the human connections to trees, from spiritual to economic and biological and metaphorical. I loved the limber pine on the mountain tops. I would melt into the aspen and bigtooth maples in the fall. I would watch the sunsets over the Wellsville Mountains from Dry Canyon Ridge under Mountain Mahogany and Juniper.

It was here where I “owned” my first tree. I planted more, but one hundred year-old elm towered above my yard and the whole neighborhood, and it was mine. I never actually felt like I owned it. From my jaunts above the city to refill my broken heart, I would look down to my tree in the valley. I planted the yard with trees and left them there: apricots, peaches, redbuds, juniper, pinyon pine, apple, cherries, plums, dogwood, and more. I sold them to another person. As I was leaving, he asked me about a couple of them. I told him, they are his now and his decision. He cut some of them down. I don’t want to go back and see it.

I walk Chico’s campus. There are trees I love here. Some I used to know are gone now.

It doesn’t actually matter the reason the sycamore sheds its bark, they are all positive adaptations towards survival. It doesn’t do from waste, but from necessity; it might be buried deep in the DNA; it might be improvising--survival is both. It is action. My action is to write and to teach. My life is my action. My work is my advocacy. I want so badly for Bernie to be elected that my mind obsesses about the ways I could turn my life towards such advocacy. Lately I have been trying to realize that my work is enough. That my life is enough. How do you love when your mind is filled with such fears for the earth that sustains us? How do you let love sustain you? Is love enough?

I looked at the long lines, the throngs of crowds with such hope; I have heard all his speeches, read his stories, looked at his policies, watched all the videos. Bernie hasn’t changed. That is what I like about him. I have already cast my vote for him. He has a way he fights, and people for whom he fights, and that hasn’t changed. The people have, the problems have, but not how he fights and the side he takes. He is always with the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, the poor, the underrepresented. The river always has something new. I walked passed the crowds of people. I saw students and friends in line. I wanted badly to go because of a beautiful woman somewhere in the crowd holding her signs because the trees around her can’t, because the murmur of the river isn’t listened to by enough. She is there speaking for them.
I understand that this work is needed. That these speeches don’t change anything, but they give people the energy to go do the work that is needed. My job is to get students civically engaged, ecologically aware, community-focused, and motivated to make change happen. Crowds of people are gathering under the redwood trees. There are magnolias in the free speech area. There used to be a leaning grey pine I loved so much, but they took it down. And there is the sycamore. I am guessing that tree too is shedding its bark. Some say they shed their bark because they grow too fast for it to keep up. Others say that doesn’t work, but that they do it to shed fungus and bugs that might harm them; still others say they have adapted to photosynthesize with their bark and shedding the bark reveals the chlorophyll to the sun. The shade makes waiting for Bernie bearable for the people. Everyone is under the shade. As people chant for Bernie, their voices are consumed in the carbon of the tree, through the stomata of the leaves. The trees around them are breathing them in. Inhaling them. Their lives and the stories of their lives written in the lines of their rings. I wonder, when people remember hearing him speak if they will remember the trees above them.

Tonight, the nighthawks murmur to each other as they dip and dive across the sun faded sky. There is something magical about the movement of all this water. It isn’t wasted. We aren’t “shoving it out to sea” as Trump seems to think. I have read articles where people think the problem is in the value of water. It isn’t the value of water, but the value of ecosystems that needs to be readdressed by our culture.

Four pelicans follow the river back out to the sea. They turn with each bend of the river until they fade into the night--to use a friend’s words, they are cursive across the sky, lines trail off into twilight. I stop to watch a heron hunt. I admire the slow steady movements, the concentrated eyes, the complete presence in the moment.

This is why I like Bernie Sanders. I hope you get out and vote. I hope I see you in the voter’s line.

Nate and Chico (aka: Prancis)