I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
– From In The Garden, by C. Austin Miles
I go to the redwoods for solace. To reflect. To find peace. At dawn and at dusk I have found few people out amongst the trees. At those times people are usually nestled in their homes, cozy under blankets, or preparing a meal in the cool shadow of the sun either rising or falling behind the coastal ridge. The trees form a protective cocoon all their own. It is as if they hold time still. Their canopies rise high above all else, save for the mountains on either side. This is a valley of trees, a prehistoric respite. One fallen trunk shows by its rings it was born in this valley before the Magna Carta was signed nearly eight hundred years ago. This community of trees has been here for thousands of human years, some elders among them still standing. Today, they are alive as I am.
I am a native northern Californian. My mother was a preacher’s daughter from a family that came west from Erie, Pennsylvania in the 1800s to save souls. In northern California, where the Coastal Redwoods survive, hoards of men flooded the area from 1849 onward seeking riches. The Gold Rush set the tone of the place: hungry. The men were not only hungry for wealth but for relief from hard labor and hard living. The Old West tails of miners “a whorin’ and a drinkin’” were told in my mother’s family as our raison d’être: to save Christian souls. On my father’s side, I descended from French trappers. They came to California at the prospect of independence and a better, more abundant life. California was and is a cornucopia of living things. Fast-forward to today and much of its exploitable glory is managed by the people who have come to its golden shores. I am one of them; I am a farmer. I earn my living by working the soil through a kind of organic farming called Biodynamism. It honors the life of the plants and soil, and respects the earth. Beyond that, it recognizes the place of the earth within its celestial sphere. Awareness of planets and stars and earth’s place in the universe plays a part in how crops are grown.
Doing Authentic Movement among the trees did not come to me as an idea. I didn’t say to myself, “I’ve got an great idea! Authentic Movement with redwoods.” It evolved from my time spent in the redwood forest. I usually come alone. Sometimes in the evenings, people are still partying here among the trees. They are playing the radio. They are cleaning up their cookout while thin wisps of grey smoke curl off their grill. The adults are sometimes drunk. The kids yell to one another, take the young stalks of trees and bend them into a ride. They climb onto and jump off the fallen trunks. Yet the commotion is overcome by the stature and volume of trees. The sharp voices dissipate into muffled echoes until swallowed by the mountains. I wonder if there is a threshold. How many trees per humans until the sound is no longer quelled?
The first time I moved with the trees, I had walked for a long time. I sat down to rest, and then lay back with my hands under my head. As I looked up, I noticed I’d chosen to rest within a circular canopy of trees. Rays of sunlight passed between them, but little made its way to the forest floor. I couldn’t shake the feeling they knew I was there. I felt like a cradled baby, with loved ones looking down at me in my infantile “human” state.
I closed my eyes to rest. I want you to know, I rarely rest with eyes closed alone in the forest. But I felt held. That is when I began to move. I had a sense of great longing that my movement matched. I longed for connection. Of course, I thought, “Me, the great organic farmer. I save the earth. I’m a walking ad for sustainability. I’m in contact with nature.” But my body showed me otherwise. The movements arose from my heart. My chest yearned upward. I wanted to be one of them, a member of this ancient lodge of living beings. I wanted them to know I was one of the good humans. I wanted to share my arms and legs and voice with them, so they could protect themselves. And in exchange, I wanted access to the feeling of peace and vitality they engender by their mere existence. Then my chest rested back onto the cool earth. I felt their extensive root system beneath me.
This root-web became a hammock, holding my body, and the soil on which my body rested, in place. My mind reached outward to the other animals in the area, all, I imagined, held in this way. Birds, chipmunks, mountain lions, and other visitors like myself, had become part of the eco-collective. I knew then I could easily live in and die to such a place, allowing my body to be held in this web of eternity. I was a part of it all, moving and breathing within the redwood circle, from canopy above to root system below, on a planet spinning in vastness as intimate as the veins and arteries within my human frame.
The roots of redwoods are shallow for trees that arrow three hundred feet or so straight up. Spreading wide among them, their roots intertwine, just feet below the earth’s surface, with relatives and friends. At times the trees join together in holy union as their roots and trunks actually fuse, forming a web of interconnected life. When I left that first time, I remembered the way, so I could return again to this redwood sphere.
What was it like for northern California settlers to first see the giant trees? I imagine they felt the same awe any newcomer feels. At the same time they must have thought, “how will I ever cut them down to clear my fields?” My mother has a few old photos of men in suits with giant saws astride fallen trees, and of tree trunks hoisted and strapped onto train beds. I am thankful for people like John Muir, James Armstrong, and others who had the foresight to save the trees for future generations.
I have made a practice of hiking to the redwood circle when conditions of weather, time of day, and privacy can be met. And I have adopted a modified Authentic Movement form. I sometimes choose one tree as my partner; or I bring a friend and we move in two segments of time: humans or trees first, then the other species. I have never felt so loved as when I move within the witness circle of redwood trees. And, I have never experienced such awe and gratitude as when I witness my chosen tree partner, or the entire circle within my gaze. No church could give me this sense of sanctity.
At times, I speak to the trees whose tops tower above me. I say how, even with eyes closed, I can feel their presence around me. I tell them I feel like I am now one of them, that I have grown roots into their root system and that they have accepted me. The more I feel a part of this family, the less I feel a part of my human one, few of whom would understand why the man who rolls and crawls, howls and cries alone on the forest floor is not crazy. Before I depart, I thank the redwoods for teaching me the benevolence of stillness and of silence. I thank them for their patience and for how good I now feel.
In the evenings, I walk back along the path in near darkness. As I approach the village on the road where I’ve parked my truck, I can see the yellow glow of lights switched on in the tiny houses. My eyes lose their ancient aptitude as they adjust to the electric light. I realize how dark it has become.
From the road’s clearing I turn back to the blackened forest. I look up to see the stars; Venus has risen over the horizon, and there is Mars overhead. I feel my ephemeral relationship to the ancient trees. I cannot imagine how deep a bond they must have with their nightly visitors, the planets and stars.
Paul Herriot is an organic grower from Mendocino County in coastal northern California. He spends his free time hiking, sea kayaking and fixing farm equipment, not necessarily in that order. Paul is active in promoting local, sustainable foods in his community and in ecological agriculture. Paul is a Spanda yoga teacher who participates in a leaderless Authentic Movement group.