I live in a big white farmhouse beside a river that runs into the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I have been living here for twenty years. As Edward Abbey says in the opening lines of Desert Solitaire, “This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places.”1
I once met a river guide who lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He told me how beautiful it was where he lived, and I told him how beautiful it was where I lived. “The way I see it,” he said, “is you find a beautiful spot and you stay there for as long as you can.” Exactly. He didn’t own his spot and I didn’t own mine, but we were bonded by the power of beauty and the notion that occupation can sometimes mean more than ownership.
“My” farm was owned by a man who had never occupied it. One year he thought he might sell it to raise funds to build a new fast food restaurant, so he had a developer draw up plans. The plans split the farm into strips that ran from the road to the river. It was heartbreaking simply to look at that blueprint. I was near tears thinking the farm would end up that way, but I didn’t have enough money to ensure that it would not.
The owner came out for one last visit before signing the papers. It was a beautiful afternoon, and we talked beside the pond, remarking on the abundance of muskrat dens; they were very numerous that year for some reason. The red-winged blackbirds were singing in the marsh, and there were many types of wildflowers in bloom. Don’t let anyone say that I talked him out of selling the farm; it was the farm that did the talking that day. The owner, bless him, decided to find the money for his new restaurant elsewhere.
I was determined then that the farm should remain intact and, ideally, accessible to those who would be renewed by the strong spirit of nature present here. It should never become bacon-strip lots with McMansions, fences, and private docks.
Several years later, in another “be careful what you wish for” scenario, county government officials approached the owner and asked if they could buy the farm for a public park. My feelings about that were mixed. My small self mourned that if the land became a park it would never belong to me and I probably wouldn’t be able to live here much longer, but my big self knew that it was right that the farm should become a park accessible to everyone for all time. The only problem was the sort of park the county was planning: A marina? Athletic fields? Clear-cut the forest? The park czar seemed to be totally out of touch with this piece of land. He admitted that he had never walked through the forested part (“too wet”); and yet he was planning to cut it down. The plans he submitted called the clear-cut a “wildlife management area.” He wanted the money from the timber to “develop” the park. I wanted a forest that would be left to mature.
We have many “wildlife management areas” (my new euphemism for clear-cuts) in our county, but very few mature forests. I want the humans who come after me in this part of the world to be able to experience the incomparable feeling of hiking through a mature forest. I want the plants and animals that can live only in mature forests to have a home here, too. Economists call my reasons “altruistic,” and my views do not fit neatly into any of their equations. Although this particular forest seems like a scrappy young thing to me now, it will mature nicely if given time. I do not try to fool myself into thinking that the saving of this one forest will do much to counteract the ecological destruction happening everywhere around me, but it is a gesture, and we all must gesture in the direction we hope to see the world go.
AT THE PUBLIC HEARING the county council held before deciding whether or not to buy the farm, I was my big self and spoke in favor of the acquisition; but I also shared my feelings about the forest … it should not be logged. The deal was done, and the park czar became my landlord. I was now walking the thin line between preserving the farmland and forest for future generations (my big self) and not wanting to get kicked out of the farmhouse I loved so much (my little self). How could I save the forest without angering the czar? Legally, and without any warning, the logging machinery could show up any day. I lived in dread of that day. What would I do?
JUST AS THE FARM saved itself, so too a forest will save itself if you can only get people out into it. I offered to take some friends on hikes through the forest, and soon others shared my concerns about the county’s plans for it. My journalist friend wrote a newspaper column that criticized the czar’s plan. In response, the czar promised not to do anything to the park without public input. Whew. We had bought a little time and a little control. But as the years went by and the county’s economic condition worsened, I was fearful that the estimated quarter million dollars the county would get for the timber would prove too great a temptation. And by then everyone had forgotten about that promise in the newspaper article so long ago.
THEN SEPTEMBER 11TH HAPPENED. As I lay on the couch unable to tear myself away from the horror on the television, my new little kitten climbed onto my chest to cuddle and purr; pain and pleasure in the same heart, at the same time. Sophy Burnham, in her book The Path of Prayer, describes feeling similar emotions while holding a three-week-old infant to her chest and watching the towers collapse again and again: “I hoped that just holding her, loving her, would count as prayer.”2 During the week that no American will ever forget, I identified especially with the women who had lost husbands or lovers but had babies (born or unborn) that deserved and demanded their love and joy. I grieved for us all.
IN OCTOBER, Duncan Williams came to my university to talk about Buddhist approaches to nature. He showed some photographs and told the story of a group of Thai monks who were trying to save an ancient tropical forest from logging. As you might imagine, this piqued my interest. The monks decided to ordain the trees as monks. It is a grave sin to kill a monk, and if the workers, who were all Buddhists, knew that the trees were “monks” they would never dare cut them down and kill them.
Hmmm. If loggers respect what the trees represent they will not cut them down. But what do American loggers respect? Most wouldn’t care if the trees wore saffron robes and had been ordained as monks. In fact, they would probably laugh and be more likely to cut them down. The speaker went on, but my mind was elsewhere. What, in this nation of many races and religions, do our loggers universally respect? And then it came to me: the victims of the September 11th tragedy.
We could honor the victims with a memorial and at the same time save the forest. It would be the September 11th Memorial Forest. We could dedicate a tree for each victim. The trees would live for many years, representing the lives that had ended so abruptly. The forest would be a place to remember them and a place to heal, because forests are healing places. And no one would want to cut down a forest dedicated to the victims of 9/11. It felt right to me.
As I began to share my vision with others I got two common responses: one, they thought the idea was brilliant; and two, they worried that others might perceive what I was doing as “using” the victims. Was I using the victims? In spite of their concerns about how others might view the project, every person I talked to about it wanted to help.
From then on it was just a matter of details: where to get the names and what materials to use as markers. In these marvelous days of the Internet, getting the names was fairly easy. I had only to search for “September 11th” and a beautiful Web site came up that was created as a sort of electronic memorial wall with the names of all the victims on it. I e-mailed the creator of the Web site and explained my project to her. She was very supportive and most gracious and sent me the files containing the names. She only had one request: since starting the project she had become close friends with a father of one of the victims, and she requested that his be the first tree dedicated.
The list was fifty-four pages long, front and back. Merely looking at those pages brought a sense of reality to an event that had formerly been distant, unreal. Instead of a mass of unfortunate strangers, the victims became individuals with names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and place of death—World Trade Tower or flight number. These details gave my formerly amorphous grieving a much deeper and more personal nature.
I had accumulated a list of people who wanted to help with the project, so I distributed a page of names to each volunteer along with aluminum tags and instructions about how to prepare them. Simply looking at the list of names had given us all a deeper experience of the individuality of the victims, but making the tags deepened that sense of connection further. Now we were spending at least a minute in silence with each person, writing their names and ages in block letters with hard pressure on the tags. And most were so young! We could imagine the young man who had finally gotten to the top of the financial heap—how proud he was to be working in the World Trade Towers! And the hardworking custodian whose daughter also worked in the same building. And the sous chef who had finally gotten the béarnaise sauce just right. Of course we didn’t really know these stories, but the hints were there and our active imaginations generated the rest. Because we knew that behind every name there was a story— whether or not it was the one we imagined. Tears were not uncommon during the tag making. As tag makers we now had an experience of the September 11th tragedy that was different, deeper, than if we hadn’t been part of this project.
After some thought about how to attach the tags— nails seemed too violent, strips of cloth too problematic—we finally settled on red yarn. By the end of the summer all the tags were ready to be hung. I had assumed that September 11, 2002, would be observed nationally in some way, that everyone would be excused from work and school, and we would have a massive tag-tying effort on that day. But as the date drew nearer I realized that it wasn’t going to be recognized in that way. I was scheduled to teach all day, and I struggled with the correctness of canceling my classes to complete the project. In the end I decided that I would teach my classes and that the tag tying would start on the first of September and continue until it was done, whenever that would be.
So on September 1, 2002, I walked into the forest with some red yarn and a bag of inscribed aluminum tags. I dedicated the first tree to Waleed Iskandar, age thirty-four, as requested; the rest of the tags I tied randomly as they were pulled from the bag. Over and over, in silence, the process was repeated: find a tree, check the canopy to be sure it is living, recognize that the tree has a life that you would like to protect, tie a piece of yarn around the tree— loose enough so the tree has room to grow—pull a tag from the bag, read the name and the age (always too young, never to get older), attach the tag to the yarn with the recognition that the dead human is now represented by a tree that will live for many years— that the death may preserve a life of a different kind. All sizes and species of trees were tagged—small ones that one hand would fit around and larger ones that took a big hug to reach around; for the very largest trees I had to walk the yarn around. On some days I had volunteers helping: friends, family, students; on other days I was alone in the forest for hours. Even when I had help we usually wandered off in separate directions; tag tying turned out to be a silent and solitary activity. But, surprisingly, it wasn’t solemn. The birds were singing; there were lots of different insects and plants to enjoy; it was nice being in the forest tying tags. The forest was a place of solace, a healing place— and isn’t that the purpose of a memorial forest, after all? A place where we have the opportunity to recognize that we are grieving, yes, but also to recognize that our very grief is a small but natural part of this tremendously large, complex, amazing web of life. “How even the lamenting of sorrow resolves into pure form,” wrote Rilke (61). This is how nature heals us. This is why we have sacred groves. This is just one of the many reasons that humans need old forests.
WE HAD FINISHED tying the tags by the end of September. If you walk through the forest today, as I did, you will see many, many trees circled by red yarn with shiny tags hanging from them. You may walk up to one of the trees, as I did, and read it: “Marlyn Garcia 21”; and you may think about that life for a moment. It has been almost two years since we dedicated the forest. I don’t think the park czar knows yet that the county has a memorial forest; he’s not too connected with that forest, you see. But if he tries to cut it down, I think he will find out in a hurry.