Beyond Inspiring: How One Woman’s Poem Saved an Entire Forest

Can a few lines of verse rescue thousands of redwoods? That depends on who reads them.

may 2016 poem saved forestBrendon Burton for Reader's Digest

For the past four years, I’ve performed Poem Store: a public project that consists of exchanging on-demand poetry composed on a manual typewriter for a donation. I’ve done most of my work in Arcata, at the Arcata Plaza Farmers’ Market. I have lived in and around this Northern California coastal town for three years. The community has embraced me and treated me as its unofficial town poet.

I think of this place as the throne of the earth, where I go to wander through ancient forests; stroll the edge of the continent; and kneel along the lip of clear, cold rivers.

Here I learned the language of landscape. Here I became acquainted with a history of harvest. Everywhere I looked, the trees were owned, considered a crop, nurtured and prepared for our consumption.

Folks would camp high up in the old-growth redwoods, trying their hand as saviors, but usually to little effect.

I wanted to know more about this system. About the people who owned the trees and those who sat in them. That’s because no matter how much I read, no matter how many tree sitters I talked to, I still felt I was missing something. I still felt there was something I could do to help resolve the impasse.

Neal Ewald is the senior vice president of Green Diamond Resource Company. Green Diamond is a five-generation, family-owned, and highly controversial timber harvesting company that possesses 400,000 acres of land in California. Green Diamond has a reputation for its clear-cut logging practices, use of toxic herbicides, and issues with mass privatization of land. Lesser known and hardly celebrated are the recent sizable adjustments the company has made, including receiving a Forest Stewardship Council certification for improved and responsible forestry.

In 2010, at the Arcata Plaza Farmers’ Market, I wrote Neal this poem per his request on the subject of being underwater:

Of all the things to do in life,
all landscapes to believe in,
all ways of proving anything is possible,
with the weight of water around us,
we pay tribute to the finest possibility.
When below the surface
we take moments to look up and know
that be it waking life or not,
all the force of the world lies deep
and well in such an unknown place.

This poem inspired Neal to solicit another, this time through the mail. He sent me a package. Inside was a book. He explained that he had lost his wife to cancer and that this was a collection of her correspondence with friends and family for the five months before she passed away.

He wanted me to study the book and then compose a poem for him and his children to read as they finally spread Wendy’s ashes in the ocean. He hadn’t been able to do this, because he hadn’t found anything that he felt was good enough for such a moment. He didn’t want to choose a song or a poem from an anthology. He wanted something unique, something just for Wendy. When he met me, he felt he’d been led to me for a reason. I was to write a poem for his wife.

It wasn’t until I composed and delivered Wendy’s poem that I even realized who Neal was. He holds the key to the forest, and there isn’t much that I care about more than the forest. Neal presented a way for me to be directly in service to the earth. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that we could collaborate and create change.

may 2016 poem saved forest openerBrendon Burton for Reader's Digest

Our friendship grew based upon the inherent trust that comes from sharing such an intimate experience. Our poetic exchange about Wendy allowed for comfortable and familiar alliance. We began having dinners, we started a book club, and I was invited to Green Diamond walks in the woods. And always every encounter was full of discussion.

We mused about the future of the company, what revisions could occur, what the public needed to know, and what problems needed solving.

Neal expressed great interest in my ideas. He listened enthusiastically, and his intrinsic desire to explore the unknown was very clear. He never once seemed unavailable, never like a fat-cat businessman but a true seeker, an openhearted wonderer.

We created a shared language. We developed themes to talk about each time we saw each other: grief, activism, poetry, women, love, corporate accountability, polarity, Native Americans, environmentalism, dehumanization.

We shared inspirations and lessons: I read stories about his father. He taught me how to shoot guns and use a chain saw.

We made plans: I would help him create a permaculture homestead design for his personal land. We would swim in the ocean on anniversaries and honor Wendy together, spreading lilies in the water. And I would recite her poem.

Above all, we focused on one word: yes.

Neal is dedicated to the discovery of how to say yes. He wants to disrupt the concept that there needs to be opposition. Throughout his career in forestry, he has striven to find a way to dismantle dichotomy and meet his adversaries in the middle.

This is extremely difficult when your opponents, the tree sitters, choose not to view you as a human being but simply as greedy and power hungry.

Neal is available, although under the construct of his position running a business, and he does have a Yes Zone, as he likes to call it. He wants to experiment and do things differently.

Perhaps my experience with Neal could have ended with our deep exchange over the poems I had created for him. If that were the only outcome of this connection, I’d have been completely satisfied. To see how those poems brought him healing was enough. But because of our trusting relationship, something else occurred.

The history of the McKay Tract, a piece of land that contains a grove of old-growth redwoods in Cutten, California, is much too complex for me to tell here. Folks have dedicated years of their lives trying to preserve this forest. A young man named Farmer was the voice of this particular protest. He had been covertly living in the trees for a long time. He hated Green Diamond. Yet with Farmer I saw possibility in his passion. After various promptings and considerable conversation, with my support, Farmer took the initiative and reached out to Neal.

After a few in-depth meetings, an arrangement developed. Green Diamond was already working on plans for the McKay Tract, and Neal saw this common thread of interest as a way to connect with his adversaries. These two rivals figured out how to meet and discuss the forest while avoiding dehumanization. It didn’t matter that they disagreed about so many things. They chose to hear each other, to consider each other’s perspective and not simply make demands. Each worked within the other’s Yes Zone.

The McKay Tract will not be cut. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land is working on turning a great deal of it into a community forest. This agreement caused a new communion, no matter how subtle. Forest protesters were able to see Neal’s willingness. They can now credit his character and his obvious wish to say yes.

In each conversation I have with Neal, he likes to remind me that this change occurred because of us and our discussions.

I follow it all the way back to the fact that a single poem created a spark.

With this story, a reminder bursts brilliantly before us all. This is that age-old concept that one person can truly make a difference.

May we remember that everyone holding a place of power is still simply human. People may be grieving, they may be in need, they may be sitting with an ache that only we can help ease. They may be nothing like the picture that society paints of them, and they may want to do something extraordinary.

[pullquote]The Poem for Wendy: Everything’s a Gift[/pullquote]

Here we pay tribute to the teachers of wisdom.
All who choose to re-create the standard way of leaving,
Who carefully furl away grief in the name of celebrating
The greater weave, who allow experience to shine as it should,
The beauty of all things held high and seen well,
Even in the darkest of times.

It is these guides who recognize the fickle ways of the body,
Knowing that all life is not had in the mind, who discover
The sturdy ground is in the kith and kin, in the loves
We nurture with the simple give and take that can only be had
Through such constant connection.

It is these who settle on patience in the face of mystery
and misfortune, knowing that we are but provided with words
as explanations and everything’s a gift. And so beyond
trying to figure answers and find ends, we should instead
honor the circle we’ve been offered, allow for its turns
and delivery to come with grace and acceptance so that we
might leave it all behind knowing how perfect it was
in all directions.

—For Wendy, Neal, Zach, and Annie, and all who continue to be touched by Wendy’s love and wisdom. Written July 25, 2010, by Jacqueline Suskin, with honor and thanks.

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