Somewhere near the top of Mount Tamalpais, in a shady grove of tanoak trees, masked people gather in a circle. Fox. Woodpecker. Moth. Silk flags dance high above their heads, their bright colors flashing against the dark canopy. In the center is an altar of candles, stones, acorns, and oak leaves.
Smiling children raise their voices in a simple song: “Thank you to the oaks, you’re beautiful and we love you!” The children shake their handmade rattles to the beat, the surrounding oak trees tremble their leaves in response, acorns drop at their feet. Silence.
Oak Moth flitters to the center of the circle and speaks: “We gladly give our lives to sustain others. We want to know: what will you die for?” Opossum takes the floor: “There are too many people. And they have too much stuff. There’s not enough room for us anymore.” The pathogen for Sudden Oak Death waves her green arms wildly: “We love the oak trees to death and if you don’t love them more than we do, then we will take them down!” The circle responds: “We hear you.”
Welcome to the first annual Mount Tamalpais Oak Ceremony and Celebration, organized by Jolie Egert Elan, Director of Go Wild Institute, an ethnobotanist, and a self-proclaimed oak lover.
“For thousands of years, oaks were honored, cared for and celebrated with annual ceremonies” says Jolie. “Legends foretold that if we stopped caring, praying and singing to the oaks they would go away. Well, guess what? We stopped caring for the oaks and now they are leaving.”
Over 20 species of oak trees are found in California. Oak woodlands once covered a third of the state, ranging from high desert to Pacific coast. But now these oaks are disappearing at an alarming rate.
The number one threat is development: agriculture, vineyards, housing and tree cutting for firewood. Sudden Oak Death (SOD), caused by the plant pathogen Phytophthera ramorum, is another growing threat. SOD has killed millions of oak trees over the last 15 years, and millions more are infected. Livestock grazing also impacts oak communities by suppressing sapling growth and compacting the soil.
While there is a movement to protect and regenerate California oak lands, they remain at risk because the vast majority are found on private property, and are vulnerable to land development.
Oak trees are a keystone species. That means a disproportionate number of other organisms depend on them for survival: 60 species of mammals, 80 species of amphibians and reptiles, 100 species of birds, and 5,000 species of insects. When oak trees disappear, so do these other life forms. Arboreal salamander. Black bear. Oak treehopper. Least Bell’s vireo. Mule deer. Dusky-footed woodrat. Ring-neck snake. Acorn woodpecker. Oak moth.
Jolie believes that one way to address the problems facing California oaks, is to hold ceremonies that honor and celebrate them. Two hundred years ago, such ceremonies were commonplace among California Native Americans. Acorns were a staple food for most of these peoples, and oaks played a significant role in their culture and myth. Native people tended the oaks with fire, song and ceremony. These practices tied them to their place. Under their care, the oak trees flourished.
Acorn is still a valuable food for many California native peoples. “When the acorn does come, there’s dances and songs” says Julia Parker (Kashia Pomo). “We take from the earth, we give back to the earth, and we say thank you.”
But today many native peoples have been separated from their ancestral lands, and the oak communities – predominantly held in private ownership – have long been neglected and devalued. The oaks, once nourished by a reverent, reciprocal relationship, are diseased and dying.
The Mount Tamalpais Oak Ceremony wants to regenerate native oak lands by restoring an indigenous relationship between people and oaks, but as Jolie is quick to point out: “this is NOT a Native American ceremony. We are not pretending to be anything other than a group of oak lovers who are indigenous to the planet.”
Nearly a hundred oak lovers have come to this inaugural gathering to make art and music, eat acorn foods, learn about oak ecology, and participate in a masked ritual known as the Council of All Beings.
The Council is central to the celebrations, a communal ritual originally conceived by Buddhist activist and eco-philosopher Joanna Macy and deep ecologist John Seed. It is designed to change the way people see and think, by giving other beings a voice, one that calls humans into account.
“The Council awakens us to our interconnectedness and interdependence with the earth’s natural systems and living beings.” says Constance Washburn, friend of Joanna Macy and Council facilitator. “Participants have the opportunity to grow their ecological selves, find solidarity with all life, and gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing other species in our damaged environment, in this case the oak trees.”
Participants in the Council lie down in the circle with their eyes closed. Constance drums a steady beat and guides them through a meditation: “Listen for what being wants to speak through you on behalf of the oak trees” she says. “Become the voice of a non-human being.” Pause. “Then hold these questions: What do you love about the oak trees? What are the oaks telling you? What gifts do you want to share with the humans?”
In slow silence the people rise to make their own masks from supplies on nearby tables. They put these masks on, and become a non-human, ready to express their concerns and share their wisdom with each other and the wider world.
“When we develop empathy for the Earth and our fellow species we realize we are not alone. We also realize that their pain is our pain and their fate is our fate,” says Constance. “By expanding our sense of self to include other beings we find new inspiration and commitment for the healing of our world.”
Not everyone participates in the Council. Some people decide to make ephemeral mandalas in the soil from acorns, leaves, sand, rocks – whatever they can find in the surrounding lands. They work in silence, their creativity both a prayer to the oak lands, and a reflection of their relationship with the land.
Another group hikes out to the nearby hillside to find a song from the land. The children scamper off on an adventure of their own, led by nature mentors who play games and tell stories, and who guide the children to find their own song inspired by the oak trees. Later all these different oak loving groups bring their experiences and songs back to the circle to share with everyone.
A number of supporting organizations have tables clustered around the circle. Asked what she thinks of the Council, Janice Alexander, Outreach Coordinator of the Oak Mortality Task Force, laughs and says: “It’s not exactly my thing, but whatever gets people out into nature to take care of the oak trees is fine by me.”
Back in the circle, Oak Moth removes his mask. Opossum and the other beings follow suit. They lay their masks around the altar. Constance speaks: “As we move back into the world, let us not forget that we are also part of our greater body earth. When we speak in human councils may we remember to speak on behalf of the oak trees, and on behalf of all animals, plants and elements of the earth.”
Jolie hopes that next year there will be a longer acorn ceremony, paired with a holistic oak conference that brings together unlikely oak allies, such as mythologists and plant pathologists.
Developing a holistic understanding of oak trees deepens our relationship with them. We start to understand that the health of the oak trees is tied to our own. To come into right relationship with the oaks, is to come into right relationship with our selves, and the web of life.
California Native peoples have much to teach us about this. While we should not appropriate their ceremonies, we can begin to create new ones that reconnect us with each other and the natural world. Rituals that repair our broken relationships. Rituals that build community with humans and non-humans. We are meant to tend these lands in which we live. We are meant to live in place. We are meant to make this place our home.
“We all need to find home. It doesn’t matter where you come from, where you live now is your home, and that’s where you take responsibility for these trees, these waters, this land,” says Edward Willie (Pomo, Walaiki, Wintu, Paiute). “We all need to come home, and one way to do that is to create rituals that deepen our connection to place. Ceremonies like this one bring us home.”
Looking around the circle, faces seem brighter. More animated. Alive. Voices join in a final song: “this little oak of mine, I’m going to let it shine!” A potluck feast is announced of acorn breads and sweets. Some people start to make acorn jewelry. Others pound acorns on the ground, learning to make flour in the old way. The sense of connection and joy is palpable. Even the woods seem more alive, as they shimmer and sparkle with shafts of golden late-afternoon light. Yes. This feels like home.