Monday, January 30, 2006


Last spring, the Shuford Boys were coming to our place on Snake Ridge to cut hardwoods to further open southern exposure to the garden and winter greenhouse. I thought I'd get a headstart, and commenced chainsawing a big chestnut oak. As I struck heartwood, I was suddenly showered with a fine spray of brackish brown liquid. It was still March, maybe early April, shy of the seasonal sap run. But feeling that spray, which continued to gush after I pulled back the saw in horror, I thought it was sap, the lifeblood of that old oak. So I laid down my saw until all the fluid had stopped flowing, deep golden brown, like tannin. Feeling like an assassin, I took out a rag and wiped the brown stain off my forearm, then off the chainsaw blade.

Thinking it over, I realized that the vein I had struck was not sap - for one, it was not sticky or sweet, but watery. I went ahead the next day and finished felling the tree. After cutting it into sawlogs I looked more closely and found evidence of a small crack above the butt. The pressure of the bind produced by my cut had released the column of rainwater that had collected in that little tube, and what I had been sprayed with, the saw chain fanning it into a fine spray, was chestnut oak tea. If I'd been cool and collected, rather than sentimental and overemotional, I'd have sat down and tried to taste it, for surely that golden brown rainwater was a tisane of oak tannins.

How carelessly we cut these big trees, without prayer, without even a moment of silent respect. When I stood at the bottom of the flagged road into the forest with my brand new chainsaw almost thirty years ago, I hesitated, admiring the big oaks, hickories, poplar and maple that would have to be felled to make way for our quarter mile drive. But then I forged ahead, seldom looking back, though we have had to fell trees shading the house or garden three more times, since we tried to save too many.

The highland Indians of Chile taught some Catalan Buddhists I met in Barcelona at the Parliament of World Religions to pray throughout the morning for permission to enter the forest, praying again for each tree soul they release. This is the ritual they follow in clearing for teaching-demonstration facilities in the forest near their monastery in northern Spain. Now that's noticing human impact. That's respect. And it finds a practical focus for meditation other than the prized black curtain of no-mind. Whatever our religious practices, we are animals making our home in the biosphere where we share habitat with a rich network of other species. The anthropocentric logger forgets this all too easily.

My mentor Sunderlal Bahaguna, a Hindu from the Garhwal Himalayas who has devoted his life to helping empower the highland villagers, is loathe to cut any tree. Instead, this green Gandhian plants native oaks and cherries to grow up amongst the alien shir pine the British foresters imported from Australia in the nineteenth century. And he plants apples and guavas, trading the quavas for pulses that are hard to grow on the mountain slopes.

Walking along Sully Lane this summer I was almost overwhelmed by the scent of fresh pinesap, sweet and full on my nostrils. I quickly realized that the source was an adjacent field of carelessly planted pines, with thoughts of digging for resale, which had been bulldozed for a "starter castle" for folks from Florida. The scent of sweet pinesap was like smelling blood, also sweet and rich. This brought me back full circle to my chestnut oak, now at the mill. If only the trees did bathe us in blood, letting out a scream as we cut out their hearts. Maybe we could at least sit down and commune with out own native forbears before sawing. What would they do? Then we wouldn’t have to go to Chile or practice Buddhism to learn respect for the tree neighbors upon whom we Appalachian highland folk depend.

NEXT: Hungry Ghosts: the Future Human Planetary Presence?

oh bob i really like this one. i can see it and smell it all the way. and it's a personal way of raising a much bigger issue - but without shoving that issue in our faces. very well done. i like how you use such collaborating or collective words - it ties things together that i wouldn't normall tie together, and gives them a new meaning. and yes, i still learn a new word just about every time i read your page. finally having a chance to catch up here on my blog reads and i'm housesitting this weekend so i'm on high speed. onward to your next post.
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