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The Ancient Ones

The Ancient Ones, Northern California

For some reason, human beings love wood. It could be one of the many ancestral patterns carried in our genes. We touch and rub finely finished natural wood products; it is an easy, satisfying connection.

The phrase “knock on wood” wards off evil spirits as chanting does in spiritual traditions.

The words “like a cathedral” describe our great, diminishing first growth forests.

The power of the great trees humbles and connects us to awesome strength.

In 1975, while backpacking solo in Los Padres National Forest on the Big Sur California coast, I spent a full moon night camped in a massive redwood grove. Palpable quiet surrounded my campsite. Out of respect for the ecosystem, I pitched no tent, made no fire – a dry camp. I went to sleep before moonrise, sleeping lightly, as is often the case when camping. Some time around midnight I awoke, perhaps to an owl’s cry or other night creature’s murmur. The full moon was up. The grove’s intensity filtered the moonlight, heightening my senses.

I decided to take a stroll through the trees. The power of the moment was both thrilling and challenging, and somewhat disorienting. Five minutes into my walk I realized I did not know the way back to my camp. I don’t normally get lost in the woods; my inner compass is clear and true. I decided to sit a moment; to calm down, get my senses clear, work up a plan.

Because the forest floor in a redwood grove is so soft, you leave very little, if any, trail – so backtracking was no good. I was on the verge of getting really spooked. Luckily it wasn’t cold, just the cool foggy mist of the California coast. I did not want to leave my gear unattended for too long attracting the attention of the nighttime forest dwellers.

I decided to search in small ever-expanding circles leaving arrow-shaped signs on the ground pointing back to my starting point. With the moon lighting the way – after an hour or so – I found my gear. I took a long drink of water, thanked the gods for my good fortune, snuggled up in my bag, and tried unsuccessfully to go back to sleep. The awesome forest had stopped me cold.

This type of encounter with the deep power of nature has long-term resonance.

We no longer use redwood on the east coast. We probably should not use the great cedars of the Pacific Northwest either. We can thank the spotted owl and Julia Butterfly Hill and all the Eco terrorists nailing spikes into the Douglas Firs of Oregon and Washington for at least slowing the ravages of progress. These first growth forests of our great land and Planet never come back after they are destroyed; their spirits move away to the etheric realm.

The irony of being a carpenter and a Tree Hugger are not lost on me.

The great cities of Chicago and San Francisco were built of wood before the steel age and burned out of control from natural and unnatural causes. We built them again of steel and brick and concrete – far more durable materials that stand the test of time.

In the northeast suburban and rural areas there are far more trees now than there were 100 years ago. We don’t farm every acre anymore and we have ordinances protecting larger trees from whimsical cutting. These northern forests once contained the carpenter’s favorite: white pine. So easy to cut, shape, and sand.

Imagine the forests primeval of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” – full of magnificent first growth white pine, red oak, chestnut, and elm with diameters often greater than ten feet! Walking the pathways of the Native Americans before the immigrant’s arrival would have been like walking … in a cathedral.

Oh well. Fortunately nature abhors a vacuum, and new growth – “knock on wood” – keeps on coming.

As we slowly shift in action and consciousness to a more sustainable future, think yellow pine, teak, bamboo – and a less growth-oriented commercialization. Let’s make sure the pockets of old growth will still be there for the next generation to experience a mysterious redwood grove in the moonlight.

Owl of the night’s silence

Let me hear your call

Carry me away to a dream world long ago.

I promise to sing each note of your song so carefully

That I may just fly away with you among our ancient ones

To the land beyond time

Where no evil dwells.

Anne in Redwood National Park, California – 1976

Anne among the great redwoods on the northern California coast in 1976.


  1. Jesse #

    Great post!

    May 20, 2012

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