Artwork by Helen Chester

I used to work in the forests of northern California when I was in college. To this day, I still crave the smell of pines every summer. I love the old Patagonia Grade School because the big pine tree greets you with that cool smell. Now I hear that big tree is a hazard and may have to be cut down. I feel the loss of my friend. I’ve been hugging him every time I go past.

When I was in the California forests, I saw an old picture of early loggers. A giant tree was lying on its side and ten men stood side by side on the stump. They were proud of themselves, but all I could think was, “They should have been worshiping that tree.”

I still have tree friends and worship them. One of the earliest studies of comparative religions, from 1922 by Sir James Frazier, is titled “The Golden Bough.” Trees are central to many old religions. Druids and sacred oaks. Buddha reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in India, or Eve plucking the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

When I visited Oaxaca we saw ancient ruins, bacanora fermentations, and local arts and weavings. One of our stops was in a little town called Santa Maria del Tule, with the fattest tree in the world, a Montezuma cypress said to have been planted 1400 years ago by a priest of the Aztec storm god. You could see El Arbol de Tule from far away and it inspires all who see it. No one has cut it down – yet, but it is in danger as the water table in the town is sinking lower each year from human use.

I have my favorite trees. The first one was an old wind-blasted juniper in the high desert of New Mexico. I was a kid, playing under the tree while my family had a picnic nearby. This was the place where I received my enlightenment, because I felt the tree’s essence or being. I realized that it was alive and aware as I was. It had a soul. Since then I talk to trees, and yes, I hug them.

Have you ever visited the oldest trees in the world, the bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California? They are remnants from the last Ice Age. Their mountaintops are barren and their trunks are half-dead, emanating an ancient, timeless vibe.

My first home in Patagonia was under a huge oak tree out Harshaw Road, just past where the Spirit Tree Ranch is now. I was living in my car and it was the spring of 1984. I parked there every night and slept comforted by the Mother Oak. Once it rained and the flood waters came up over the bottom of my car doors. I was envisioning having to float away with my two Australian shepherd puppies but the water receded and I was safe. They cut down that Mother Oak about 15 years ago.

Now I live in Flux Canyon where I have several tree friends. There’s the Branding Iron Tree below my house, a huge oak by Alum Creek with a branding iron stuck long ago into a hole in its trunk. We had two teenagers visiting us who tried one day for an hour to pull it out, but the tree held fast.

There’s also the Acorn Tree that is visited by a Native American family every year to pick acorns. The Scary Spider Tree guards the first crossing, with most of its limbs dead but still hanging on. There’s another Teenage Tree in the Flux drainage that has spiky hair.

My favorite is the Serengeti Tree. It stands alone in the Alum Creek floodplain and looks like African giraffes have trimmed its lower branches. There is a troop of blue jays that I see often when I’m near Serengeti. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

We’ve lost a lot of the big cottonwoods in Patagonia since I moved here 35 years ago. One by the park, one by the library. There are no new ones planting themselves since the river no longer meanders and a baby cottonwood must have its “feet wet” while growing.

Our trees, our water, our place in this world – it matters.