The Sacred Nature of Trees

By Jessica Shepherd

Trees are a bridge between the past and the future.

An ancient apricot tree, limbs twisted as if with arthritis, shades a path bordering a creek.  This old sentinel, a stone’s throw from my childhood home in Boulder, Colorado, is all that remains of an orchard that thrived on this site 100 years ago. I have a relationship with this tree. Once, when I was small, my grandfather hoisted me up to a lower branch and spotted me as I picked the tender fruits and dropped them into my grandmother’s outstretched apron. Later we savored apricot jam on fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven. Each time I return to Boulder to visit family or attend a funeral, I visit that old tree, leaning my cheek against its rough bark as if greeting a family member after too long gone. It is a touchstone for me where little else remains.

Trees have always provided a stage for the storyline of my life, from the ponderosa pines I climbed as a child, hands blackened with sap, to the spruce and birch that grace the Alaskan landscape where I now reside. I am most at home in a forest, finding comfort in the shelter and screen they provide. I delight in the birds and animals they harbor, admire the ways they present themselves according to the season, and am grateful for the house logs and heat they generate after they die. To my eyes, a landscape without trees is barren.

Something about trees; their towering height, their longevity, the way they define their setting, elevates them to the spiritual realm. A walk in an old-growth forest is akin to the hush and holiness one feels in a towering cathedral. Among them, I experience the sanctity of nature, and all things, from ecological rebirth to harmonious human relations, seem possible.

Over the years I have planted aspens and apple, spruce and hemlock, cherry and chokecherry. I’ve culled them from powerlines, dug them up from friends’ yards, and received them as gifts. Their metamorphosis from a delicate sapling to stately guardian within a decade is a marvel. Planting a tree is akin to a sacred pact – I choose a location, add compost and water, and Mother Earth takes it from there.

Long ago, during my first drive to Alaska, I was lured into the woods by an ascending, bewitching melody I couldn’t place. Like tales of a maiden seduced by a magical lute, I left our campsite hoping to catch sight of the singer. Farther and farther I walked, eyes upward, as the trees closed behind me and any suggestion of a path petered out. At last, I spotted him, a diminutive Swainson’s thrush, aloft in the tallest spruce. Tilting his head back with his beak open, his throat quivered and a liquid song poured forth. After he flew away, leaving a melancholy silence behind, I turned back toward camp. I have always had confidence in my ability to navigate woodlands, and before long I was back in the sunlit clearing, my heart forever bound to this avian minstrel and the boreal forest in which he lives.

I moved to Homer in 2009 and settled on a small plot of land east of town. The property had previously been forested in mature Lutz spruce (a natural hybrid of white and Sitka spruce) until the massive bark beetle infestation of the late 1990s which killed upwards of 95% of the spruce on the Kenai Peninsula. Now our land is home to discontinuous stands of young trees amid a graveyard of stumps. I can stand atop a stump the size of my dining room table and imagine a dark woodland filled with the songs of shade-loving birds. Now there are distressingly few Swainson’s Thrush but a sparkling view of Kachemak Bay has emerged in the wake of dying trees.

According to Global Forest Watch, Alaska lost 11% of its tree cover between 2001 and 2020, due primarily to fires in the interior. Closer to home, the Swan Lake Fire burned 170,000 acres between Cooper Landing and Sterling during the summer and fall of 2019. Caused by lightning strike – once a rarity in this part of the state, the fire gained momentum amid the vast stands of beetle-kill. Firefighters hit it hard and had it largely contained when, on August 17th, high winds in combination with an exceptionally hot, dry summer whipped it back to life.

Hal and I were camping in the little town of Hope that weekend and I remember commenting on the preponderance of crispy ferns and brown-edged aspens and birch leaves.  We woke in the night to howling winds and wondered aloud about the fire, just a tendril of smoke in the hills when we drove by the day before. On our attempt to return home, we were turned back at Cooper Landing and camped a second night while the fire jumped the Sterling Highway and burned south to the shores of Skilak Lake. We were allowed through the next day and drove past a blackened landscape, fire flaring on either side of the road.

I know we should create a buffer between our house and the spruce that shade the east side of our lot. But I can’t bring myself to sacrifice them. We have so few trees on our land, and I think about how each tree is breathing in excess carbon dioxide and exhaling precious oxygen. Globally, forests absorb 30% of the CO2 released by burning fossil fuels. Deforestation, driven by impoverished farmers in the third world, is responsible for the greatest share of this devastation.  If anything, we should plant more trees.

We are witnessing a crisis. The world’s forests, once a vast mosque of diversity, are under attack due to a warmer, generally dryer climate and resulting insect infestations. Woodlands are timbered and scraped down to bare soil, replaced with houses, shopping centers, and soybean fields. Those that do remain are often no longer suited for the rapidly changing environment in which they find themselves. Unlike birds and animals (who escape hotter, dryer summers in just a few generations by expanding their ranges northward or upward in elevation), trees can’t evolve quickly enough to accommodate such rapid ecological change. We have to help them.

By planting fire-resistant trees like ponderosa pine and western larch, along with deciduous varieties like aspen and birch, we can add diversity for our own pleasure and resilient habitat for wildlife.

As for fruit trees, climate change could work to their advantage. Apple trees now thrive in Fairbanks on southern slopes with permafrost-free soils. Here in the Homer area, numerous apple orchards are producing, and even cherry trees, which are less cold-tolerant, yield fruit during those warmer, longer summers. In time, plum, pear, and others suited for zone 4 and above will surely flourish in our northern clime. The trees we plant now are a gift to those who follow.

I have in mind to plant a copse of experimental trees on a sunny slope down by our ponds. For the sake of nostalgia, I could include a pair of hardy apricot saplings.  While I may not live long enough to harvest their plump, tender fruit, I like to imagine some future child standing among the lower branches, dropping golden orbs one by one into grandma’s apron.