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 A SHORTER VERSION WITH LESS PHOTOS CAN BE FOUND AT THE MONTEVERDE 60 WEBSITE, LINK BELOW

Morning is starting to lighten the eastern sky. It has been a starry starry night – each time I opened my eyes, there seemed to be another layer of stars sprinkled across the top of the world. All last evening, the fireflies that played throughout the valley below seemed like playful reflections of the stellar ceiling, and sometimes it was unclear if I had seen a shooting star or if it was just one of the more adventurous fireflies traveling at the top of its range. The branches above us, bobbing in the constant breeze, kept distorting the pattern of the heavens – was that star moving or a satellite or a plane or was I dreaming? On our platform in the tree up on the ridge, we were under the influence of a nocturnal mirage.

Mary Newswanger and I were excited to spend a night together on the Joyce platform which sits about six meters up a tree – but that tree sits on a steep ridge hundreds of meters up from the deep dark valley floor. The total effect is one of being securely suspended over top of a verdant abyss. We volunteered for our time on this platform, following those other tree sitters who have joined in this unique fundraising effort for the Monteverde Friends School. We listened to all those who climbed before us – expect it to get a little freaky when the wind blows, prepare ourselves for a cold night. Mary insisted that we haul her heavy thick sleeping bags – the kind used for camping in a previous century, the ones that roll up into something almost the size of round muffety hay bales (hey, those Muffets are Quakers too!) – so we lugged them down the narrow ridge path and up the ladder to the platform. Thanks to Mary, we’ve both been warm and comfortable all night.

The wooden platform feels like a raft being manipulated by a current, but the force providing the push isn’t water, it is wind. Here on my back, looking up at those stars, I can imagine our raft floating lazily down an airy stream until it hits the turbulent white rapids of wind. We are pushed into an eddy where we are held against our will for a few moments, threatening to be tossed, until we are released again and resume our tranquil floating. During the first hour or two of darkness, as can only happen in cloud forests such as Monteverde, or when you are on a river or sea, a spray of mist kept our faces moist and added to the watery effect, yet there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. Considering that in our aerie we seem closer to the sky than the land, I’m sure we would notice if a cloud was lurking above us.

I fell asleep as Mary was telling me stories of her experiences with the Peace Pilgrim and her hopes and dreams for the future. I realized I was asleep when I felt her crawling into her sleeping bag, no doubt noticing that she had lost her audience to slumber. I slept quite well through the night but woke from time to time and watched the heavens, once listening to a creature of some kind passing on the ridge below. I didn’t have a flashlight to check it out without waking Mary, so I will just think of it as the jaguarondi that Liam spotted here the other day and be pleased with the possibility.

with visiting Patricia Fogden

Of the night time thoughts that came to me, there were some that visited my drowsy mind often. One was wondering how our friend Wolf is doing as he has been struggling with his blood sugar more and more. Yesterday they took him to the local clinic believing him to be in insulin shock. They fixed him up with an IV but he also came away with yet another round of more serious antibiotics for his chronic urinary tract infections. Benito, Stefany and Wolf dropped me off here yesterday on their way home from the clinic and Wolf seemed okay, but as time goes on, one wonders if he will need some medication adjustments again soon. He often seems down, though whether that is emotional, physical, or drug-related is difficult to decide.

My mind also wandered to my homeland, Canada, this being the end of an election day. I realized that at the same time I was lounging in the tree, somewhere in that maple-flavored country one of the party leaders, a man, would be walking to a microphone in front of a room full of supporters and claiming victory in the federal election. I took two trips to the Canadian Embassy in San José to cast my vote, a privilege that I continue to take seriously. I don’t like the present right wing conservative government and the direction it is taking our beautiful country. As I finish writing this, obviously back on the ground and in cyberspace, I ache with the knowledge that the same party is back in power, with a majority and more possibilities of extending their agenda. The consolation is that the NDP, the social democratic party that has always attempted to speak for the working man rather than the ruling class, gained ground and is now the official opposition for the first time.

Just as promising is the fact that an incredibly intelligent and devoted woman, Elizabeth May, also had her moment at a microphone, claiming victory as the head of the Green Party. She is the first one of their members elected to a seat in our federal parliament and she will keep the important issues of environmental and social protections on the floor. Our voting system is deceptive, with the number of party members elected not reflecting the actual numbers of people voting for each party and until we change to some kind of proportional representation, we will continue to struggle to achieve a government that truly reflects our national political desires. As Canada is dragged down a more corporate and less humane path, I consider that I feel safer, up here in a tree, suspended over the sheer cliff edge, wind shaking our little raft to the bones at times, than at the hands of any ultra-right wing regime. Oh Canada, I weep for thee.

As we passed our peaceful night, I thought about the many tree sitters who used this type of action as one of protest to draw attention to specific forests under threat of destruction by logging companies. They placed themselves physically between the harvesting machines and the remaining Abuelas, those large redwoods or pines or hardwoods that had survived all the natural forces for centuries only to be cut down in a matter of hours for lumber.

Forests and trees have been saved and others not, but tree sitting is an effective and non-violent means of civil disobedience. Perhaps it started in the Pureora Forest Park of New Zealand in the 1970s – which was saved by peaceful protest in the treetops. Famously, in northern California, Julia Butterfly Hill stayed for two years in the late 1990s in her arboreal home “Luna” – a tall redwood that is still standing amidst the ravages of barren deforested hillsides in Humboldt County. In central Los Angeles, in 2006, Julia Butterfly, actress Darryl Hannah, Joan Baez and others sat in trees in what was then a large fourteen acre urban organic community garden. They were there to draw attention to the injustice that was unfolding as a company refused to allow the neighborhood to continue growing food on this plot of inner city land – even though the community came up with the same amount of money to purchase the land as it was being sold to a developer for. In the end, the garden was moved out of the city core.

Back in 1989, in Temagami Ontario, I was one of a group who supported our friend Maryka (the same woman who later introduced me to Monteverde), who lived in a tall ancient pine for nine cold, almost wintery days and nights. The action was part of several months of non-violent protest to prevent the continued construction of a logging road through one of the last remaining old growth pine forests, which was also indigenous territory, of Ontario. We were successful in stopping the road, and for the most part saved the forest, but weren’t able to stop the chopping of that stately old tree.

In true Quaker fashion, this tree sitting exercise in Monteverde is neither illegal nor in protest, but a joyful display of a community working together, communing with nature, bringing attention to their school and hoping to raise funds from their many supporters around the world through the use of the internet. I doubt that there is a school in North America who would condone such an adventurous fundraising plan – it wouldn’t make it past the discussion of liability at the board meeting. Just the fact that the Monteverde Friends School and the Monteverde community are taking part in this month long tree sit is an expression of the kind of freedom and originality that is very much a part of life at MFS.

I’m neither a Quaker nor a teacher nor a parent, but I was raised to live carefully on the earth and I have enough love of life and love for this precious planet to hope that we will continue to survive here. The only way I truly see that happening is for children to be taught to walk softly on the earth, to respect all the living creatures as well as the inanimate ones , to make decisions based on sustainable and ecological reasoning, to learn how to solve conflicts in a peaceful non-violent way, and to be cooperative and kind. The Monteverde Friends School is a place where all these values and many more are not only taught, but expressed in a myriad of ways by both young and old, teachers and students, past and present. I am happy to support their efforts in any way that I can, but the truth is that coming up this tree and spending the night, surrounded by the treasures of the cloud forest, with my friend Mary, under a blanket of stars – well, I would do it for no reason at all.

As I write, dark feathery clouds are gathering above the eastern ridge. As they shift and move in the wind, a brilliant light peeks through, the size of five of the night time stars joined together – it must be Venus, that planet of rising love. It reminds me of last November when we were caring for our ailing friend Wolf on the Guindon farm. We would awaken in the very early morning hours to that love light shining down on the family home. It doesn’t surprise me that we are seeing that messenger of love glowing over Monteverde again this morning, perched here in our nest. For Mary, who can see her home just across the valley, where her husband and sons are probably still asleep, the light of love is very clearly rising over the eastern ridge and shining down on the house that Elias built.

Now that the sky has lightened into blue and Venus is almost faded away, it is time to close this, have some breakfast, and await the moment the sun comes over the ridge. (As it turned out, we couldn’t get ourselves out of that tree till 10:30 a.m. and even then, we went reluctantly.) I sincerely thank everyone for the opportunity to spend these seventeen hours up this tree, especially the Joyce/Van Dusen household who are our “hosts”. Thanks to the MFS fundraising committee who facilitated the opportunities for each of us to climb various trees and continue to keep us all connected and inspired through their website.

Mary told me that it was Jude Gladstone, a dedicated woman who has worked hard on many committees helping the community, who brought the idea to the table. Searching for an effective way to raise much needed money for the scholarship fund that assists students at the school as well as those who go on to higher education, Jude suggested they create an event, something that people can join in whether here in Monteverde, or from afar via the internet. She suggested that it needed to be something exciting that would catch people’s imaginations, like Julia Butterfly Hill living high up in that redwood. Katy Van Dusen, thinking about her family’s platform in this tree on the ridge, took the idea and climbed higher. Good thinking Katy! Great idea Jude! And thanks Mary – too bad we have to go down.

Please follow the link below and donate whatever is possible to this wonderful school so that more children will be taught the values necessary to continue the good work for our earth and our mutual peaceful co-existence:

http://www.Monteverde60th.org

One last word on a very successful initiative by Fish and his team who held the first Ecofest in Monteverde. On May 1st, hundreds of community members participated in a day that blended displays, demonstrations, art, music, poetry and information in a seamless and spectacular manner. The things that happen in this small rural mountain community are truly stupendous, smart and sustainable! I applaud you Ecofest – we are all ready for next year!

PS It has taken a couple of days to get this writing to my blog and the weather has changed. Mary and I may have spent one of the last nights in the tree with clear weather as the rainy season in Monteverde begins. Hopefully others will still have the opportunity for a beautiful dry starry night during the last two weeks of the campaign, but we were definitely blessed.

As I write this from inside a cozy log cabin, outside the rain is pouring down. I can almost hear the mossy trunks slurping up the water. Every once in awhile the sun tickles the top of the clouds, giving us a glimmer of hope that before we leave the land of the Californian Redwoods tomorrow, we’ll have the chance to go for one more hike through their serene glory.

My friend, Laurie Hollis-Walker, is with me on this sojourn through these straight-to-the-sky sisters. We’ve wandered and lingered in as many redwood groves as we can, starting north of San Francisco in Mendecino County, following the Avenue of the Giants into Humboldt County, and now winding down in Jedediah/Smith River National Park in the northwest corner of California.

I’m a bush babe, but this ain’t no bush. This is a woods of silva-magic welcoming us with its tall thick souls and their multi-hued layers of soft spongy bark. Here in the Smith River area, we have been walking through lush old growth redwood forest. In the tamer, more visited groves to the south, where California is definitely parched, the understory is pure duff, thick needles and bark droppings. In most places, the stream beds were waterless indentations on the forest floor.

For much of the trip we were in the Eel River watershed and the road crossed this seafoam-coloured waterway so many times we lost count. Large pebbled beaches lined its passage and I found myself thinking of the Eel as quite serpentine, reminding me of the delicate aqua coloring of the keelback snake slithering down our stream bank back in Cahuita.

The land in the Eel watershed, however, was scarily dry considering this is all temperate rainforest. There was very little shrubby vegetation at ground level – there isn’t much greenery until you look up somewhere between forty and ninety feet into the lower part of the canopy where the redwoods’  branches begin to reach out in mutual support toward each other. Like all forests, there is much co-dependence going on. If one tree goes down here, it tends to take a few others with it. They rely on mycorrhizae, a fungus that serves as soup kitchen between the soil and the trees. This fungi has probably never been considered as important by those cutting the forest, yet 51% of the biomass of an old growth redwood forest is made up of this busy little worker that keeps the big trees healthy.  

One can only imagine what is going on in the upper branches three hundred feet or more above us. There are many species that are part of the ecology of this forest – the spotted owl, the marbled murrulets (fog-larks as they are called by old-timers), flying squirrels – but as the largest and wildest stands of the redwoods disappeared, so has the habitat for healthy sustaining populations of its inhabitants and so they move permanently on to the Endangered Species List. Maybe imagination is all that remains up in the heavens at the top of the redwoods.

The bark is so thick that it protects the trees from forest fires and provides refuge for small critters like salamanders to survive as well. Although the trees are called redwoods for their rosy inner core, the bark glows with every shade of purple, pink, orange, green, brown and grey. The fact that these rugged giants have this soft skin is one of the biggest surprises for me – I can feel my mother’s tender hands responding as I caress them. It is as mystical to me as the fairy-rings, the circles of trunks that sprout out from around the base of the dying madonna, keeping the soul of the being alive, turning one tree into four or six or more.

We camped for a night in Richardson Grove, choosing a campsite that was protected from the cold wind by a downed sister, her Georgia O’Keefe-inspired root mass standing vertical while her long, wide body lay sleeping like a gentle giant in repose.

It was a chilly but gorgeous clear evening spent in the shadow of this beauty. We had time to wander through the grove which was eerily zoo-like in comparison to the much wilder old growth forest that we are near now. There is a hard tale of greed that accompanies the story of the destruction of the old growth redwoods. In the case of the Richardson grove, the struggle continues as the government wants to cut the grove to widen Highway 101 to smooth the way for the large trucks, this being one of the few areas where the road remains narrow and winds respectfully around the large trees necessitating slowing down.

Many companies have taken their turn at profiting from the lumber that comes out of these woods, but in northern Humboldt County, for over one hundred years it was Pacific Lumber. Up until a hostile corporate takeover in 1985, PL cut responsibly, selectively and sustainably. Then a Texan by the name of Charles Hurwitz and his corporate claws took over, with the intention to clear-cut and liquidate as much of the redwood forest in as quick a time as possible. The story involves incomprehensible business dealings, illegal logging and government-compliance, but ends with the evil man being charged with defrauding the forestry service though not before he had raped the land, taken down the giants, made homeless the resident wildlife, and polluted the local salmon streams with the silt released when a hillside is left devoid of root mass and vegetation. It is easy to understand why people were enraged, devoted their lives to the protection of these forests, and chose to get arrested or live in treetops – anything to save them.

As it is April and off-season, we’ve had most places to ourselves as well as very little traffic to contend with. In fact, we seem to have shared the road more with cyclists and their bike/trailer rigs than with cars, buses or trucks. They looked idyllic in that sunny dry weather, but I feel for them as the rain continues to pour down quite heavily at times.

On that rather barren golden ground to the south, redwood sorrel, brownish ferns, and verdant mosses are present, but the most prolific greenery is the poison oak. It sprouts all over and grows as ivy up the tree-trunks. Where it is dry, the oak ivy seems more successful than most other leafy forest vegetation. One shouldn’t be lured into a sense of false security provided by these giant peaceful grandmothers – instead, if they could really talk, they would no doubt warn you to consider carefully where you are squatting.

It is reassuring to be here while it is raining. We’ve watched the Smith River, directly below our cabin, rise dramatically in the last twenty-four hours. This land can definitely use this moisture before they settle in for six months of summertime dryness.

We have driven backroads that wind through the groves, the path asking permission to brush past these benevolent hosts, making long trucks or trailers unwelcome but allowing us to continue as privileged visitors. The soundtrack on the car stereo has been coming from local community radio station KHUM – as we drove down the Avenue of the Giants, they were playing The Lumberjack Song with its chainsaw solo – couldn’t have been more appropriate.

In Jedediah/Smith River National Park, we are where the last of the wild stands of ancient redwoods are, where you can see the understory is much more varied and vibrant than what we saw along the hauntingly-beautiful but comparatively barren Avenue of the Giants.

My companion on this journey, Laurie, is a scholar whose concern and calling is the living experience of non-violent activism. Her PhD research brought her here, to the hardcore activists that fought for the future of these forests. I’ve been introduced to friends of hers in the area who have been deeply involved in the struggle to save the redwoods since at least the 1980s. Laurie has fallen in love with the redwoods while doing her research, but she also works with Joanna Macy in Berkeley, the renowned teacher of “The Work that Reconnects.” Being a facilitator of that method of spiritual activism is perhaps Laurie’s strongest motivation.

Laurie and I met in 1989 on the blockade in Temagami (I’ve mentioned this in other posts or read Walking with Wolf). We know the depth of the actions we went through in that area of northern Ontario to bring some protection to the last stands of old growth red and white pine (as well as support the local native band’s struggle for justice).

I’m finding everything here in California comes super-sized – these gigantic trees, long vistas of ocean, big colourful characters, and epic tales of activism. I’ve witnessed the adrenalin rise in the story-tellers as they relate their personal experiences from that Redwood Summer of 1989, sharing stories of campaigns maintained for years, held in remote forests in the dark of night, and of the incredible power of crusaders such as Judi Bari and Julia Butterfly Hill who are legends from the time. Our friend Maryka lived in a big red pine for nine days in our Temagami story – here, near the community of Scotia, Julia lived in a tall redwood named Luna for two years! You can still see that survivor tree, graceful amidst the gash of a clearcut, standing like a beacon of justice on a high hillside.

We spent a night with Kay Rudin, her son Clovis and friend Rex, in an old recycled playboy mansion bursting with artifacts and memories from the years of redwoods’ activism. I’m always intrigued to meet another K, as I don’t meet many, and this woman – film-maker, activist, clown, artist – is a fine example of someone I’m proud to share my name with.

She shared with us her early edit of a documentary about her friend Judi Bari, who, along with Darryl Cherney barely survived a bomb explosion in her car on the eve of Redwood Summer. Much of the footage in the doc is from an interview with her as Judi lay dying of cancer in the late 90s. Watching this woman from earlier footage as she stands up to the liquidators and inspires the warriors, you know that it is a great tragedy that she died so young, in her forties, as she had the spirit and power to connect and convince. We need people like her and they so often go too fast.

It is noticeable how many women have been involved in the protection of these redwood groves. Many of the groves were preserved by women’s garden clubs early in the last century – the early activists of the Save the Redwoods League – or by the wives of forest barons to honour their husbands when they died. Their husbands may have been supporting their families by making money off the incredible amount of lumber these large woody mammoths provided, but their wives seemed to realize that the protection of these forests was more important for the future of their children and grandchildren.

To try to catch up to what has happened here, I’ve been reading Joan Dunning’s captivating book, “From the Redwood Forest”. It’s giving me the history of the struggle to protect forests throughout the area, the history of the local logging industry, some natural history of the redwood forests, and the author’s personal experiences amongst these gentle glorious giants.

But there is nothing like wandering through the silent groves, touching the thick soft bark that becomes a sponge in this rain, leaning back until you almost topple over just trying to see the tops (something that is generally impossible), recognizing faces in the burls that bubble like facial moles on the trunks, being awestruck each time you think you’ve seen the biggest tree yet.

That happened for us in the Stout Grove close to this cabin. Laurie and I, meandering slowly through this old growth redwood grove, with the first drops of rain landing gently on our cheeks, turned a corner in the path and knew we were in the presence of a great-great-great-grandmother. I was so moved by the survival of this beauty, who must be one of those who has endured close to 2000 years that I had to implore the “youth” in the forest to hold on and follow the example of this wise abuela.

Keep growing. Stand tall. Continue to prosper in your communal embrace with each other. If you don’t succumb to the forces of nature, perhaps those who stand in awe at your base will manage to keep the forces of societal greed, corporate evil and governmental stupidity at bay. Hopefully you will stay safe.

 Heed the grandmother for as long as you are able.

July 2020
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