I recently went up Red Mountain Road to drop off some jam for friends. Their driveway being an impassable pile of snow, I parked below and followed a trail up the side of the mountain through a tract of mature forest.
I felt those woods before I really saw them. Something made me stop, take in the girth of the trees, tip back my head and stare up through the canopy: sacred space. Aspen and cedar and hemlock too thick to be spanned with two sets of arms; overstories forming a separate ecosystem; lungwort lichen everywhere; the air so sweet you could taste it. That forest was steadfast, “holding its post,” as a teacher of mine says. You could feel the deep secret roots drinking from the underground creek. You could see the flexible, sturdy trunks upholding the breathing crowns. You could sense the web of animal communities sheltering in and around those trees.
I was thinking about that Red Mountain forest this week when I walked a trail near our house. I couldn’t help comparing the woodlands on my path to that sylvan site. Many of the trees are spindly, too crowded, or bent over with a wasting disease. The larger ones often have cankers bursting their bark, or dead crowns. Pines drip sap tears, rusted needles. Recent windstorms have toppled big hemlocks with root rot; last year’s deep snow snapped off the tops of healthy firs. As I looked, I felt my heart turning away from these diseased, scrawny specimens. I found myself bemoaning the sickly forest.
Then something inside me said, “Who are you to judge?”
It came to me, as soon as that voice spoke, that these trees, too, were holding their post. They provide what shelter they can for birds and small animals. They spend their days breathing in and out so that others can breathe. They attempt to stand both flexible and steadfast. Within the limitations of the place in which they find themselves, with diseases in the soil, and fire and logging and drought, with invasive species borne on the boots of walkers like me, they live out their purpose as best they can.
It’s easy to think that healthy and prominent trees—be they human or arboreal—will save us. Such giants are critical, of course. But individuals alone will not save us. In evolution, change comes through collective magnitudes, not outliers. There is a post for everyone. Everyone is needed.
Some of us might be rooted in thin soil or lack underground water sources. We might be slammed by economic and political issues over which we are powerless. We might struggle with the same diseases that infect the community around us.
I just want to say, our effort still counts. It is critical to hold the post we have been given, regardless of how slender that post might feel. Even if we’re saplings barely holding on, the work that we do to stand steadfast, to support the community to which we belong, to breathe in and breathe out: it counts.