Essays

The Generosity of Trees

March 30, 2021
redwood regional park
Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park. (Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash)

As winter days widen slowly toward spring, ushering in warm hours of sunlight each afternoon, I am content to shelter beneath the canopies of my tall, slim friends at Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. The sandstone West Ridge Trail gets full sun at midday, but take any one of the many trails that branch into the steep canyon and you will find yourself quite quickly in a different world. The inner corridors of the lower canyon remain cool, damp, and quiet, light-and-shadow splintered into a climate all its own, thanks to the redwoods.

During my usual trail run, I would stride past the large, still groves, footing over exposed roots and embedded rocks with no time or patience to look above me. Here for a different reason today, I have time to walk slowly and breathe deeply, to be moved by these young giants and the world they are creating. I find myself awakening to the wonder of time — the deep, slow, earth-time of trees, and dirt, and rocks — and to the aching grief of human greed and misunderstanding.

The trail beneath my feet is soft, scattered with the shed needles and wispy threads of the redwood bark that has drifted from the canopy above. The trunks tower precariously over me, their exposed roots clutching blocky boulders revealed in the terraced canyon walls.The orangey-brown duff is layered inches thick at the base of the redwoods, protecting their shallow root systems. I stoop down to sift this collection of shed small things beneath a sturdy trunk, a blanket of good stuff piled high and healthy by the concerted efforts of this tree and their close neighborhood of family members, a tight-knit ecosystem of wellbeing. 

The ancestors of the trees that I am visiting with today were logged almost to non-existence over the course of a few decades by frustrated and unlucky gold-miners trying to win a life for themselves in the mid-nineteenth century. As redwood lumber proved more valuable than gold, frustration turned to greed and entitlement, and even the old stumps of the grandparents were uprooted and crafted into cabinets, tables, and fire resistant frames for houses being rebuilt after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It was not until a few years later that conservation movements gained momentum enough to protect swathes of land from further deforestation. Embedded alongside an ethic of land-preservation in the national parks and protected outdoor spaces formed in the ensuing decades were other values held dear by the U.S. mainstream at that time, resulting in laws and an accompanying culture that excluded Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Latinx people from vast areas of forest and parkland in the United States.

As I contemplate the intertwined human-and-forest history that stretches behind, around, and in front of me, I feel grateful to spend time with these trees — an experience made possible by the choice to turn away from harvesting a certain value from the trees, toward stewarding an uncertain future.

But uncertain futures are only worthwhile once they’ve manifested, and proven themselves to be worthwhile. Deciding to risk our present satisfaction in order to do what might be best for our future selves might requires structures to prod us into such action, rather than a reliance on a spontaneously regenerating sense of goodwill — which can be tough or impossible to keep up in times of want, or stress, or anxiety. Times that befall us all. 

redwoods and stars
Redwoods and stars at Big Basin State Park. (Photo by Megan Leong on Unsplash)

I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, a working-class city about an hour outside of Boston. Though Worcester was a relatively diverse city in the early ’90s, the suburbs and rural areas bordering the state’s expansive forestland were and still are disproportionately white. During hikes with my Black, Malaysian, and West Indian family, I felt intuitively that we were outside of an area meant for us, trespassing where we did not belong. It did not take explicit signs or laws—the glaring absence of anyone who looked like us was enough to make my stomach roil with anxiety and my chest tighten with fear, waiting to be stopped and yelled at. It was almost as bad to be treated as though we just weren’t there by hikers barreling by without a glance, a smile, a friendly “hello,” or even a polite “excuse me.” It wasn’t so much the individual people who were a trigger, as much as the history of race and racism we all floundered within, the lingering threat that frustration, fear, and entitlement could lead to anyone in my family being cut down, unrooted, erased.

In the past few years, however, Worcester — like much of the country — has taken concrete steps to address racism. Driving through neighboring towns Rutland and Barre toward Petersham this winter while I was home visiting family, on our way to a snowy shuffle along the Swift River, I noticed something that I thought I would never see in places like these: Black Lives Matter placards standing, small but proud, in snow covered lawns and in downtown squares. Signs and symbols that I would normally discount as tokens, not action so much as a signal toward action that may or may not ever come. But I realized that my younger self would have been gladdened at the fixity of these markers, small though they might feel to my older, more aggrieved self. I might have seen them as a visible promise to step away from a certain past, and toward a future that might feel uncertain to some. 

It is the structure of generosity that I find myself contemplating, deep inside Redwood Regional, as the necessary bedrock for healthy, healing communities. A generosity that guides not just individual interactions, but structural decisions too — the biology of redwoods, for example, does not require open-heartedness or a daily decision to be kind; it simply is, as a matter of design. This biology, or blueprint for being, can give rise to collective wellbeing: needles drop, bark is shed, a rich duff develops that protects not only one tree’s roots, but the root networks of clusters of trees. Roots interweave with the vast mycorrhizal network beneath our feet, transmitting nutrients and messages along millions of miles of fungal highways — not always, but often, to the benefit of many plants within a forest, not only one. The crowns of healthy redwoods can likewise become embedded within rich and diverse communities, with young trunks and branches resprouting from older trunks and branches, all contributing dead material to build a layer of humus in the canopy, supportive of a variety of plants, animals, birds, and berries high off the forest floor.

I know we shouldn’t be precious about, or anthropomorphize trees, labeling what redwoods do with human traits such as “generosity.” But then I wonder whether it is traits like generosity — the willingness to share — that we shouldn’t be precious about. Generosity can be as matter of fact and unsentimental as shed leaves falling on the ground, happening to nourish what’s underneath. Individual kindnesses, such as smiles and hellos can go a long way toward creating healthy, communal outdoor spaces, but they can’t and shouldn’t do the work of more permanent structural changes — the kinds that can become a matter of design: affordable public transportation, accessible paved walkways, compassionate institutional reckonings with the legacies of systemic racism in the outdoors.

And it does require generosity to steward something new into being—an expansiveness of heart, a willingness and courage to let go of something you believed was necessary, in order to nourish something that will remain, until it sprouts — if it sprouts — unknown.

I pause before climbing back up the steep trail to the ridge, and bend to sift through a handful of duff once more. I imagine what it might feel like to let go of what I don’t need, to let it drop from my fingers like needles emptied of chlorophyll. I imagine thinking about generosity in this way: natural, unsentimental, just something one does, like drinking water. Nothing special about it, just a way to encourage the survival of the whole. 

About the Author

Endria Richardson is a writer, lawyer, and climber living on Ohlone Land in Oakland.