We are surrounded by red.
Against the flank of mountain the pine trees wither.
Within them the pine beetles flourish and as they eat their way through, the trees become incapable of moving water up from their roots.
So now, after a long siege, the forest is filled with thirst-ravaged pines whose choke is shown in shed bark and a fading red.
You can hear them die.
Standing at the base of them there is a steady, relentless fall. Needles hurtle to the ground like they were ejected. The cones drop heavily, begrudgingly, and roll sullenly to a stop in the bed of ousted needles. Even the wind has changed its tone through the branches, singing a lesser song — a dirge, a keen, a wail.
In our yard we’re losing five of them. We fought hard to save them. Ever since we came here, we battled the relentless push of the beetles.
We’ve sprayed, found a science that claimed to work and applied that, watered and fed them. They are all more than 100 years old, stately, refined, elegant in their sway. When they leave, we’ll be lessened, a clear-cut path through the soul.
I remember being in the forest once with Jack Kakakaway. It was the late ‘80s. Jack was a veteran. He was a well-respected elder, powwow dancer and teacher. He’d survived a war, alcoholism and despair.
He’d transcended racism and bigotry. He was rooted, settled, with a big laugh and a wild sense of humour.
I’d come to him with questions and he would point me in the right direction. He would never tell me outright. He’d always allow me to find my own path to the answer that was right for me.
If I stumbled along the way, he was always there to encourage, affirm and validate my efforts. He was a great friend and a tremendous teacher.
We were in the foothills gathering rocks for a sweat lodge ceremony. We wandered through the trees and he talked about the Plant People and the teaching that trees are grandfathers and grandmothers with stories to tell if we can learn to listen.
He pointed to a large oak tree. It was nearly clear of leaves and it stood on a hillside against the hard blue sky. Trees are more like us than we realize, he said.
Then he pointed to its limbs and branches and shoots. They are like the network of veins and capillaries in our bodies he said. They are alive, have a spirit, a history and very much to say to us.
He told me to go for a walk. When I came across a big old tree that appealed to me I was to sit under it, lean against the trunk of it and listen.
There was a teaching for me there if I was patient and intent enough to hear it. So I left him and began to wander through that foothills forest.
I found an old ponderosa pine that was tall and wide with thick roots that anchored it in the hardscrabble earth. There was a natural cleft in the spread of roots and I settled into it and leaned back.
At first I stared upwards at the branches, watching the clouds through them. Then I closed my eyes and breathed, long and deep. I could feel the bark of it against my back and the slight sway of it in the wind.
I leaned my head back and listened. It was the tail end of summer and I could hear the rustle of leaves. Beyond that I heard the bawl of cattle on the rangeland a kilometre below.
There was traffic noise from the highway a long way off and the sound of a jet somewhere to the south. In the trees I heard songbirds, and higher the screech of a hawk.
Then I pulled my hearing in and listened for the sounds of the tree itself. There was a soft soughing of wind through the branches.
A squirrel skittered along a branch. A bird twittered. A pinecone clattered branch to branch, and higher, nearer the top, I heard the claws of a porcupine or raccoon against the bark.
But the harder I tried to focus, the more my mind wandered.
Then, as I struggled to maintain my attention to the tree and my mind busied itself with a hundred thoughts at once, I heard a voice. It said, very softly, very assuredly, “Shh.”
That’s all. Shh. Grandmotherly, grandfatherly. Calming. Soothing. Settling. Shh. Be still.
I must have sat under that tree for a few hours with my eyes closed. When I finally opened them and went to find Jack I felt rested, filled with energy and a pervasive sense of peace I had never encountered before.
When I told him and asked him what the teaching was, he only smiled and said that it would come to me.
Jack passed away nearly 16 years ago. He was leading a sweat lodge ceremony for inmates at a federal prison and had a fatal heart attack. Even at the end he was giving, teaching, leading. When I heard I went for a long walk in the trees.
Oh, I know today that it was only the wind, that it was only the empty part of me reaching out for contact with my history, my people, my tribal self. But back then I really needed to believe that there are voices in the trees, grandmothers and grandfathers with something vital to say — and the truth is that there are.
We are connected. We are a part of everything. The web of life is a fragile thing and every strand is vital, equal, and necessary to the full statement of our being, we humans.
If we choose to believe that the voices of our ancestors speak to us through the trees, we will fight to protect them.
Standing here, watching my friends die, I know that it’s the struggle that saves us, that beetle trees should be a symbol of what we gained, not what we lost.
Shh. Be quiet. Be still.