I have been thinking on and writing about the value of memorials and grief ritual for years. In February 2007, community grief ritual, facilitated by Francis Weller, freed me of chronic low-grade depression that would occasionally become full-blown despair inspired by a profound sense of loss and loneliness. That spring, I created a memorial to cetaceans as part of my graduate study. These years since, I have been pondering who is next for remembering and how?
I received my answer loud and clear recently after reading the story of giant sequoia cut in 1853, as told by Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest. My next memorial envelopes the story of the big tree. Paul writes:
In the spring of 1852 August T. Dowd, a contract hunter hired to supply fresh meat for laborers digging canals, discovered a grove of mammoth sequoias in Calaveras County, California, while chasing a wounded grizzly bear into the backcountry. The trees were so massive Dowd thought he was dreaming, deluded by some quirk of light or perception. When he returned to camp with stories of his discovery, his campmates scoffed at what they thought were tall tales. To lure disbelievers, Dowd concocted a story the following Sunday about killing the biggest grizzly he had ever seen. Nearly the whole camp followed him across ravines and flats of sugar pine and manzanita, through canyons and ponderosa, until they at last beheld what became known as the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees, a park-like setting with nearly mythic botanical towers rising from the valley floor. The trees were immense, their crowns towering over three hundred feet, their bases thirty feet in diameter. The raised ridges of the bark could enfold a child; caverns that could hold ten people had been carved at their bases by ancient fires. And as is the case with sequoias, the grove was cathedral quiet, because the trees are insect resistant and thus virtually birdless. These were living organisms unlike anything anyone had imagined. An article in the Senoma Herald soon reported on Dowd’s discovery, and the story was quickly picked up by newspapers in San Francisco, London, and Edinburgh. Although it was not the first sighting of giant sequoias-the Miwok Indians had lived among the big trees for many centuries-it was the first published account of them.
The astonishing report soon brought curious journalists, adventurers, and visitors to the site, as well as entrepreneurs, loggers, and most notably George Gale and his business partners, who saw show business in the natural wonder that was the tallest of the trees: a 300-foot-tall creature that could be exhibited as a sideshow for “a trivial fee.” Of course, Gale couldn’t display the whole tree, but he was determined to get it on the ground and remove part of it. The quest to fell the sequoia did not go easily. After boring holes in its trunk with long augers, the loggers who had been hired laboriously sawed through the spaces in between. Concerned that a 300-foot sequoia might fall without notice at any time, the men worked cautiously. After being cut all the way through, however, the tree remained upright. Wedges were pounded in from all sides, and the crew made a battering ram from nearby lumber to knock it over, but the tree stayed perfectly still. More than three weeks of effort passed, and finally it took a gale to blow it down, which took place in the middle of the night. The noise of its felling woke people in mining camps fifteen miles away; mud a rock dislodged by the impact flew ten stories into the air, spattering the trunks of neighboring trees. The Big Tree was estimated to be 1,700 years old and remained green for several years because its trunk contained so much water. The promoters removed some of the bark, cut a few cross sections, and left the bulk of the tree where it fell. The trunk was later made smooth and was used as a bowling alley, and the stump became an outdoor dance floor that could comfortably accommodate sixteen couples.
It took me an hour at least after reading this story to come to terms with the magnitude of the violation. When I did, it was as if my soul had shattered in order to become whole. Paul goes on to share that the cutting of this giant, which has come to be known as “Discovery Tree” or simply the big stump, was met with outrage and helped to spur the establishment of our National Parks. Dowd himself was deeply disturbed by the cutting. Yet still today, our society proclaims the right to cut big trees and massacre whole forests and peoples.
The big trees memorial will contextualize the big stump's role in the long line of wounds we have endured as a result of original disrespects. After a month or so visualizing the memorial, I felt the need to visit the big trees for an understanding of the grove as it is experienced now. I’ve just returned to Livingston from that visit to Calaveras County. This is my first attempt to translate the fullness of my experience with the grove and my gratitude for lovely people who enabled me to get there with incredible ease, comfort and joy.
Early morning February 16, four of us walked from a cabin up Love Creek to the North Grove of Calaveras Big Trees State Park to initiate me for the memorial and confirm our resolve to help restore reverence in full for the big stump. All my gratitude goes with Erin Ross who so generously hosted Mark Dubois and me in her sweet home up Love Creek, for Mark who served as my gracious guide from time of arrival through to departure, and for Trish Noble who joined us from Sonora. I am so grateful for and in love with these dear dear friends and the many others who were present with us in spirit.
Up until just a few days prior to visiting the big trees, I felt what can best be described as sacred rage. Sacred rage has no target but pain itself. I have held rage in my body for most of my life stemming originally from incest early in my childhood. My rage has only very recently turned to the sacred as I have let go of the most intimate and long-standing resentments.
To my amazement, this newly found sacred rage shifted quickly to deep and overwhelming sense of gratitude within forty eight hours before our visit to the grove. This gratitude, which I've contemplated for years without embodying, is for the lessons that pain teaches and the spiritual growth inherent in healing our wounds as we awake again to the gift of life. This shift from feeling sacred rage to being gratitude was a relief for my entire physiology, most striking in a joyful state of mind.
My attitude has always determined the effect of any happening. The profound shift has been a seemingly simple change in my attitude to one of appreciation and curiosity. As well, I am free to express how I feel and move gracefully from one emotional state to the next without getting stuck. Even deeply entrenched thought patterns are changed when we realize that painful thoughts are the root of suffering and we can choose whether or not to pay attention to them.
When I arrived and tucked myself into a small darkened cavern of teh big stump, I touched sacred rage and let out a wail that must have resounded throughout the grove. So cleansing was this sounding that a softness in my throat and chest lingered three days after.
From that wail, I moved between stillness and a well of tears as I walked around the stump and touched where the long augers had cut through on a low mid-section that lies damp and nearly petrified in place where it fell. A young tree now stands between the stump and this mid-section, as one in a group of young trees surrounding the stump in a perfect circle.
When the initial impact of the visage passed along with other visitors to the Park, our group gathered to create an altar and perform a formal offering.
Earlier, when I was tucked in the darkened cavern where we placed the altar, visitors walked on the stump above me, chattering, some stomping as if to test the stump’s integrity.
I found myself hunkering down, clinging to the stump, and holding my breath, just waiting for them to be finished doing their thing and go away. I do not recall feeling any judgment of these people at all, only a slight sense of fear and definite sadness. That feeling of holding breath to become so still, so small and so silent is just as I recall being as my grandfather molested me that morning on the davenport when I was no more than three years old.
We closed our offering to the big stump with a song of forgiveness... you are forgiven, I open all my doors, you are forgiven, what a heart is for...
While the Park has truly done an amazing job with the language used to tell the story of the big trees in an educational pamphlet and on signs scattered throughout the grove, the stump site still feels much like the place of show—the circus—it was converted to in 1850's. The cost of cutting this giant has yet to be fully measured by the culture that inspired the cutting. As well and most critically, we have yet to acknowledge and expiate the ignorance and cruelty of severing a whole people—the MiWuk—from their roots as was and still is justified by the Doctrine of Discovery.
Extinction Witness invites a long look at how we relate to the big trees with want to restore to fullness the sense of reverence and awe that August T. Dowd expressed when he first stumbled upon the grove. Beginning as a small group gathered in grief and gratitude, we now open the conversation to you and all who respect the first people and the big trees. Such respect lends naturally to remorse for the trespasses of men blinded by their culture and the perpetuation of these trespasses as we continue to annihilate first peoples and virgin forest.
During my visit to Calaveras County, I learned that cuts are planned most near the grove. It’s time to bring the lesson of big trees home. When we do, we will be that much closer to creating the culture of equality and peace for which our heartache compels us to strive relentlessly.
Please be in touch to join the conversation and/or to help support production of the big trees memorial. Thank you.