A few years ago, I preached a sermon on the Cedars of Lebanon, the famed trees of the Bible that stood for strength and endurance and beauty and steadfastness. It was a sermon on the climate crisis and I asked the congregation to consider our own coastal redwoods. They really are most incredible. I remember learning in 6th Grade Science Camp at Camp Hammer in the Santa Cruz mountains that redwoods reproduce in three ways: cone, burl, and “fairy rings.” Redwoods are resilient, adaptive, and responsive to the environment of which they are a part. For so many of us, redwoods stand for longevity, fortitude, and grandeur like the cedars of Lebanon stood for the Israelites and their neighbors so long ago.
“Who here has been to Armstrong Woods State Park?,” I asked in my sermon, “Who has felt the holy quiet walking among the trees there?” Then I pushed it. “Imagine those trees gone, wiped away by storm or fire or drought.” There was an audible moan from the congregation. It was an unthinkable thought. Later that year, the Walbridge Fire crept into that sacred grove, and burned through it, all the way up to the entrance of the park. As it was happening, more than one person commented, semi-jokingly, that I should more careful what I preach about.
Yesterday I went to Armstrong, to see for myself the effects of the 2020 fire on the redwoods and to listen to the voices of a recently burned forest. Entering the park, everything looked the way I had remembered it. It had the same quiet peace that makes you want to whisper, like when you walk into a dimly-lit cathedral. Something important is happening here, and it can only be aprehended in the silence. A few hundred yards in, however, I started to notice the burn, and as I kept walking I noticed the burn scars 100 feet up on some of the trees. I noticed other, younger trees, that had succumbed to the fire. The redwood sorrel, which looks like clover but isn’t, had returned to the forest floor giving the place a green sheen, but on the whole it looked and felt like the forest had been through an ordeal. To me, it felt like visiting someone in the burn ward, someone who had survived but was healing, the scars still noticeable, scars that would likely show forever, a part of the survivor’s story.
I hiked part of the Pool Ridge Loop Trail, all of which had been part of the burn area. The signs of trauma were all around, trees that had survived and trees that had not. I touched the burned bark and the black char came off on my fingers. At one point, I came across a pair of tall coastal redwoods that had clearly grown up together over many decades or centuries. They leaned into each other and it was not always possible to know where one tree ended and the other began. Looked like intimate friendship to me. Their mutual base had burned hollow, perhaps from this fire, perhaps from another one long ago. I walked over, into the hollowed (hallowed?) opening and looked up. The burn scar disappeared into black far above my head. I leaned into the glistening wall of the inside of the tree, as close as I could without touching it, and I listened for a good long time.
I cannot yet say what I heard in that deep, dark silence, but I discerned a presence, a holiness, a being, that spoke to me of pain, of survival, of patience, of beauty, of companionship, and of something else I don’t have words for. I may never have words.
To anyone who has read this far, I will simply say: Don’t forget to love what is in front of you. Love with your presence. Love with your attention. Love with seeing and listening. This planet we are a part of is so precious and fragile, and so worthy of being saved.