Skyline, Summer - 2002

By Diane Pendola

A Common Household

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As most of you who have been receiving EARTHLINES know, in the fall of 1999 we had a wild fire burn through our forest and come within yards of igniting our house and other buildings. As painful and devastating as it was, the fire has brought me many gifts. First and foremost it has brought me Home. Literally it brought me home from constant traveling for a network marketing business I was building. (In fact I was away from home at a convention in Los Angeles when the fire started). But more significantly it has brought me home to values I was losing sight of: connection with place, with family, with community, with sustenance and the sources of sustenance- air, soil, water, sunlight. It brought me home to an enhanced awareness of the gift of life and the inevitability of change and of death. It brought me home to an acknowledgement of what is truly precious in my life and to a rededication of my life to preserve that preciousness for the next generations. It brought me home to Self, both in its soul dimension and its spirit dimension. By that I mean it brought me back into the depths of my own interiority, my own soul, and through the loss of the woods I loved, into a deeper understanding of the interiority of the world soul expressed in all its multiple manifestations. Enkindling all of this soul life is the Spirit who moves in and through all things.

The word “thing” is paltry to what I truly mean. Is the yellow finch feeding on wild thistle a thing? Or the wind moving through the trees, or the leaves enlivened by the wind? Is the great backbone of the Sierra-Nevada mountain range a thing? Or the Juniper tree tenaciously emerging from a crack in a granite face? Is the granite itself a thing or is it the geological and ancestral memory of eons?

Spirit moves in all life, in the animals and birds, the earthworms and tree frogs, the rocks and waves of the sea. Spirit moves in all things. It moved in the forest-fire that changed the landscape of the place where I live, as it forever changed the inner landscape of my own psyche. Spirit, through the agent of fire, brought me “home” physically and spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.

I was pleased to discover that the word “eco” means “home”. It means a place where all of the inter-connected forms of life come together into one common household, one unified web, one micro-cosmic center within the macro-cosmic whole. It’s a word that honors the diversity of life as essential to a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves, something that holds us as part of a family, that makes us kin.

I live, with Teresa and Mike and our dogs, cats, horses and goats, within the particular household of Ponderosa Pines, Douglas and White Firs, Incense Cedars, Black and Tan Oaks, Dog-wood trees and Sweet Birch. Deer live here, and bear and cougar. So do gray fox and wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks and robins and wrens. Bridger Creek sings to me as I fall asleep at night. It joins a chorus of birdsong to waken me in the morning. The north and middle forks of the beautiful Yuba River flow some miles to the north and south of us. They flow out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at whose feet we find our home.

The fire has re-ordered my priorities. It has provided a context for the work of the second half of my life. The 200 acres I am privileged to care for wants to be a forest again. I want to leave it well on its way to being a healthy forest eco-system of human and non-human relationships, a healthy home for all the members of my household to live and grow and prosper.

Last spring a crew of people planted 60,000 pine and fir seedlings over those portions of our land left virtually treeless by the intensity of the fire. An unseasonably warm spring, a long hot summer and no rainfall until the end of October left only about 10% of those trees surviving. Drought conditions combined with competing vegetation and poor seedling quality from the nurseries who grew our trees has left us with many challenges.

A current challenge is dealing with the brush fields of Ceonothus, already shoulder high, covering acres and acres of our land. There are no seedlings trees whatsoever surviving in these brush fields of what is otherwise known as Sweet Birch. The standard procedure for most timber companies, as well government forest improvement programs, is to treat vegetation that competes with newly planted conifers with herbicides. After many conversations and differing opinions, personal research and contemplation (and having compromised with the use of “Round-Up” on about 40 acres of invasive, non-native blackberries) Teresa and I have decided herbicides are no longer an alternative for us. The simple question I ask myself is: “Does the use of poisons enhance the quality of life for my household?” Does it increase bio-diversity? Does it increase the long-term health of the soil? Does it contribute to the health of the watershed? Is it good for our Bridger Creek which empties into Bullards Bar Reservoir, which in turn provides water for people in the San Francisco Bay area? As much as I would like to answer, “yes” to these questions, I cannot. I suspect that our dependency on herbicides and pesticides for managing our forests, our crops and our gardens will leave future generations with lifeless soil, shrinking forests and poisoned water.

So what is the alternative? Over the last 30 months, as I have struggled with decisions that are clearly intrusive in our forest world, I have found comfort in something that Thomas Berry has said: “In the future almost nothing will happen in which humans will not be involved. We cannot make a blade of grass, but in the future there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless we accept it, protect, and foster it. These are the three basic human functions in the future as regards the natural world: to accept, protect, and foster.” We have clearly intruded. We are certainly involved. We have logged the dead timber. We have piled and burned slash and standing dead brush and trees. We have replanted with nursery stock. We agonized over our decision to use the least toxic herbicide recommended for eradicating the non-native blackberries that were taking over, out-competing natives and conifers alike. We are not letting the forest come back naturally. But acknowledging the human element that is pervasive throughout these foothills, my intention is that we intrude consciously, accepting, protecting and fostering, always asking the question: “How can we participate in enhancing the quality of life for our household, our bio-region, our home?”

Last summer Teresa and I visited the Olympic National Park in Washington State. It was a disturbing trip. The contrast between clear-cut “managed forests” and the protected old growth forests was stark. The old growth forest of Spruce, Hemlock and Fir preserved in the National Park felt like cathedrals of the Holy. Driving out of the park through acres and acres of clear-cuts and tree farms I experienced a profound sense of the meaning of profanity, of what it means to profane the sacred.

Inside the Park one of the last wild herds of Elk roam freely. At Park headquarters I read how browsing Elk keep down the brush and vegetation. They are an integral part of the over-all balance of their particular household, their eco-system. I began thinking about how our forest was probably browsed much more heavily by deer and other herbivores before the intrusions of miners, loggers and homesteaders 150 years ago. I began to wonder how we could replicate this balance of browsing and brush reduction on our land. This issue of fuel reduction is a major issue right now for forests across our country. This is due to decades of fire suppression and logging which have left our forests out of balance and loaded with what are called ladder fuels which, given the reality of global warming and ensuing drought conditions, readily explode into catastrophic wild-fires. Naturally balanced forests, on the other hand, tend to be fire resistant. So I began to inquire how we could manage our bit of forest in such a way that brush and fuel reduction could be accomplished without herbicides or the use of heavy equipment. The answer? GOATS!

I refer to myself these days as a reluctant goatherd. I entered reluctantly on this path of maintaining, containing, chasing, cajoling and otherwise entering the lives of cantankerous goats! And yet it seems to me one of the truly sustainable alternatives for my human participation in the restoration of our forest health. Goats need to be managed. They can be destructive. But managed properly they can reduce fire danger, increase bio-diversity, improve soil health, bring back native plants that have been overwhelmed by non-native species and even improve watershed quality! So I am becoming a goatherd, moving from reluctance to enthusiasm, with a lot of help from my friend, Mike, and assistance from a very knowledgeable woman named An Peischel who has a PHD in rangeland management and loves her goats!

So, in a way, I haven’t chosen this line of work. It has chosen me! Or maybe I could say Love chooses each of us, places us square in the middle of life, with our own unique tragedies and joys, and asks us to learn the meaning of integrity. Love asks us to learn the meaning of fidelity to the web of relations that holds us, sustains us and makes us whole.

I have always felt that the word “whole” and the word “holy” must be related. Thomas Berry suggests that a truly developed person is someone who realizes that we form one body with heaven, earth and all living things.” This seems to me to be a wonderful definition for both human wholeness and human holiness. Did you know that the word “salvation” is derived from the word “salve” which means to heal? It seems that as a culture we are much more comfortable with the words “wholeness” and “healing” than we are holiness and salvation. Yet I feel my path to wholeness is my path to holiness. My path to healing is my path to salvation. I know it’s not fashionable to want to be holy these days. But I do. I do want to be holy. I do want to be connected to the whole. I do want to learn the meaning of integrity. I do want to bind up and serve the sacred web of life. I guess that means I want to save the world. And I do. Oh, how I do!

©Diane Pendola, Summer 2002. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author. Thank you!

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