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Ruth in the Redwoods

04/12/2022 08:52:03 AM


September 18, 2021

A year ago, when the light of the moon was blocked by the earth and the distances had grown their greatest between low and high tides, I rode my bike the three miles from Muir Beach along Frank Valley Road, following the path of Redwood Creek to Muir Woods National Monument. The scorched land was still everywhere up and down our coast, redwood trees at Big Basin had burnt from within. We had just spent weeks in air that we were told to keep away from our lungs, after months of having to keep distant in all our contacts with other humans, especially in enclosed spaces. Now here we were, about to begin our celebration of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana.

That day, because of COVID and the new parking restrictions, there were none of the usual crowds who would come here from around the world. It felt like I was entering my own private sanctuary among the towering old growth giants. And because trees in redwood forests store more carbon per acre than any other forest in the world, the cleanest air was now entering my lungs. I was overflowing with gratitude.

Practice saying thank you, the writer Anne Lamott said.  So, I began. Thank you sun, rain, soil, fog. Thank you deep shade and river. Thank you moist earth and the golden light of late afternoon beaming through the upper branches of these trees. Thank you Huimen triblet of the Miwok who stewarded this land for so many years. Thank you William Kent who bequeathed your property back in 1908 and saved these ancient fire survivors from the axe and the lumber yards. Thank you redwood trees who remind me how small I am and how at the same time I am capable of reaching such enormous heights, in this capacity to see, hear, smell and grow towards the light.

On this day there was an exhibit of posters along the trail, celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage and the great women in this movement. I had stopped in front of one that said FIGHT over the picture of Ida B. Wells Barnett, an African American “reporter, investigator, instigator, suffragist.”  It was there, as I was reflecting on how remarkable it was to find Barnett’s picture among the redwoods, that I learned of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death. 

A couple from Florida with a young child in their arms received the alert on their phone and felt compelled to tell me. “It is something we thought you would want to know,” they said as I burst out sobbing right there with their curious daughter looking on. The couple assured me it was okay, reacting like this. They understood, because they came from a very conservative area where there was no way to safely vocalize another point of view, that even a tiny bumper sticker supporting a Democrat could lead to a reaction of violence.

Everything in me was screaming no, this could not be!  After all we had been fighting the past four years of unthinkable undoing of our democracy and the life of our planet. After we had been unable to turn away from what has been captured: the violence against Black lives, the inhumane treatment of children at the borders. I could not bear what could happen next, our justice system destroyed, more selling off of our protected spaces and our freedoms, women’s rights over their bodies, civil rights, workers’ rights, transgender rights trampled down, everything on the verge of collapse, burning from within.

Then I looked up. All the way up the two hundred fifty-eight feet of thick and twisted bark, threaded with purples, lavenders and greens amidst russets. Almost every one of these resilient redwoods with their bulbous burls were scarred by fire. Yet still they drank so deep the horizontally moving fog that they had grown even taller than when I had been here last. In that moment, as the light shown through the highest branches in great long beams it felt that RBG was right there with us, standing amidst the pictures of all those other women who had come before, who had said RESIST, on the same path as the redwoods of upward lifting.  

I knew the sun would soon be setting, and I would be Zooming the Jewish holiday services, which would be speaking of the scales of justice. We would be singing Avenu Malkenu and I would imagine standing in court, imagine how RBG stood for everything this holiday represented.  The ram’s horn would be blowing in a call to action, again and again and again. Justice we shall pursue as you taught us.

There was so much to learn from these redwoods, how the tannins in their wood have protected them from pests and pathogens, allowing the wandering salamander to lead a symbiotic relationship, breathing through its skin way up in the canopy, burrowed into the bark. While almost all of them bears the mark of fire, as miraculous as what Moses saw in the desert, they had burned but were not consumed. And even with their shallow rootedness they do not fall but hold each other up, branches twisted among branches. There were Anne Lamott’s words again:  You never get rid of beauty.

Saying Ruth’s name for Kaddish would be raw and real. There would be so many other names too, those I had lost this year, who I would have to look up towards the stars to see. They would remind me that the battle was never over and never lost. “Hope is invented every day!” wrote James Baldwin. There is not just one fight for justice. For RBG, for all those I loved, I would have to keep fighting, even if the headlines were worse tomorrow. 

                                                                                                            -Karen Marker

Mon, December 5 2022 11 Kislev 5783