Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance.
— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Oct 1855
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, three weeks into the Thomas Fire here in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the losses from California’s largest wildfire on record (scorching more than 280,000 acres) became searingly real, personal, and almost unbearable.
The weather was warm and blessedly clear of smoke, the fire now 85% contained and only still burning far in the backcountry. So after the Farmer’s Market, Elaine and I took a ride on our little scooter. We figured we’d recovered enough psychologically from the immediate trauma of the conflagration to be able to take a look around the perimeter of the Ojai Valley. What we saw was sobering: from East End to Matilija to White Ledge Peak (upon which we gaze every day from our home) to Red Mountain, there was little but ashen scars in every direction. Entire mountainsides had been burned down to dirt and stone.
We saved the last leg of our impromptu tour for that part of our watershed most beloved to us: the hills behind Lake Casitas. Here in 2005 we first encountered uncompromised chaparral and undisturbed old growth oak savannahs—exceedingly rare in overdeveloped southern California. Here we hopped fences and hiked off grid, sat under trees, and came to know plant communities. Here we received the deepest confirmation of our decision to move to this place.
And on one of our very first wanders, by a seasonal creek tucked out of sight, we met the venerable old tree we came to know, in the spirit of Thoreau, as “Grandma Oak.”
By all accounts—and we asked around—Grandma was the largest and oldest live oak in the watershed. One tree expert who knew of her guessed up to 500 years. Her trunk had the largest girth I’d ever seen on an oak, which long ago swallowed up a barbed wire and metal pole fence that had been nailed to it. Participants in our 2010 Bartimaeus Institute commemorating the life and martyrdom of Sr. Dorothy Stang and other forest defenders paid a visit, and it took six of us joining hands to circle her. Or rather, half of her: the other half had fallen into the seasonal creek during a flood, likely before Europeans ever set foot here.
Under the canopy of this extraordinary tree we prayed, studied, talked, and listened. We honored Grandma Oak as our most revered elder in this place, hugged her at every opportunity. And if you visited us for any length of time, we likely took you to pay respects. Herman Hesse gives voice to our reasons in Trees: Reflections and Poems (1984):
Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree…
In the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured…
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
As we came over the rise on the other side of Coyote Creek, we were stunned to realize that the fire had burned from White Ledge almost all the way down to Casitas Pass Road. I felt my stomach wrench; this landscape, so dear to us, was ash grey.
But it hadn’t leaped Santa Ana Road, I thought; surely Grandma’s OK. We pulled up to the Forest Service gate, and saw that the old ranch on the other side had been completely torched. Dread crawling up my throat, we slipped through it and picked our way through downed branches, the path no longer decipherable. Cathedral Oak came into view, still standing, though seriously singed. Our eyes then turned toward our elder, utterly unprepared for the sight.
She lay in ruins, her main branches splayed on the ground in three directions, still smoldering more than two weeks later. I burst into tears. We stood silent for a long time. Bereft. Heartbroken. Orphaned.
This tree—older than colonization, sentinel of the Old Ways, our axis mundi—was not able to survive the Thomas Fire, a beast spawned by climate catastrophe spawned by anthropogenic hubris and carbon addiction. Kyrie eleison.
I spread my arms out, hugging the phantom trunk now gone. Elaine began singing “They Are Falling All around Us.” I could not stop weeping. Christe eleison.
I felt rage rise in me. The trophy home on the hill had been ringed by fire, yet was saved. But no firefighter received instructions to defend our beloved tree. If an ancient cathedral had burned, there would be headlines and public hand-wringing and official lamentation. But in the silence of smoking branches, our grief—as the first ones to discover and mourn Grandma Oak’s demise—was hidden, solitary, anonymous. Kyrie eleison.
I tore off a small branch to take home, where I laid it next to our crèche. I was speechless the rest of the afternoon, overcome with inconsolable emptiness.
Christmas morning I asked photographer Tim Nafziger to accompany me back to the site to document Grandma’s demise. I nailed a hand-written sign to one of the fallen branches, appealing to whoever might come to “clean up” the remains to please not chainsaw her up into firewood. This was an historic and revered tree, I wrote, and deserved to lie where she fell and let nature take its course. I then left a phone message for a local Chumash elder about how one might properly mourn this loss.
I understand that wildfires are part of the natural ecology of this bioregion. I’ve seen the cycle, and know life will return. But the unprecedented conditions of aridity and drought (explained here) that caused this monster fire were caused by the unrelenting greed of our carbon-based economy. In an interview on day four of the fire, after calling this the fastest burning fire he’d ever witnessed, a top California official called it “the new normal.” Apparently that is now politicalspeak, code for climate-related weather events. But it is not normal. And the media still won’t name climate catastrophe plainly, or worse, speak of it as if it were something being done to us, rather than by us.
Discovering the loss of Grandma Oak was a very, very difficult way to conclude Advent. And it has provoked a personal spiritual crisis. When I awoke, in the early 1990s, to the power and meaning of quercus agrifolia, “el roble sagrado al centro del mundo” became the foundational trope for the bioregional turn in my theology and faith (see a summary here). And since 2005, Grandma Oak had become for me the mystical totem of our journey of “re-place-ment” that brought us to this watershed—indeed our very raison d’etre in this valley. So what now?
This loss will assuredly intensify my conviction that biblical faith demands forest defense (on this see here), and my commitment to struggle against the carbon economy. But at the moment, I can only embrace the bitter lament of the prophet Zechariah about his sacred trees falling victim to empire:
“…fire devours your cedars! Wail, O cypress, for the cedar is fallen; the glorious ones are spoiled. Wail, you oaks of Bashan, for the strong forest is come down.” (Zech 11:1-2)