Putting Down Roots with California Trees

Nine of Coins

Nine of Coins

After nine intense months at a university teaching gig, nine months of pregnancy, and nine months of mothering a newborn, I’m happy to announce that I am returning to astrological practice at a new location, my home office in Long Beach, California.  I happen to be making this announcement as NASA’s New Horizons mission completes its historic fly-by of what was once considered the ninth planet, Pluto, an epic journey which commenced nine years ago.  Students of esotericism know that the number nine is an emblem of completion, culmination, and fruition.  When I ponder what this proliferation of nines signifies in my own life, I have to conclude that I’ve been gifted with the unprecedented feeling of “being at home.”  In honor of this past week’s Cancer New Moon, I’d like to consider how Cancer, the sign of the Great Mother with all the related associations of home and family, is nourished and sustained by Capricorn, the cold and distant All-Father who demands our worldly best.  

In June I made a trip to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks with my husband and infant son.  I was delighted to be able to share my love of Big Trees with my little sprout of a boy, and I hoped our snug stay in a cozy cabin would grow into a family tradition.  My husband granted me a morning off to commune with the elder trees, and somehow I wound up in the Converse Basin, the most egregiously clear-cut grove in Sequoia country.  I was seeking the Boole Tree, ranked as the sixth largest tree in the world, and a wrong turn landed me in a preternatural necropolis of Sequoia giants.  All the way down the pitted, washy road to the grove I experienced a sense of perilous foreboding.  Were my car’s dodgy tires going to catch on stray boulders?  Was I about to be accosted by a relict California Grizzly?

My Little Sprout at the base of a Big Tree

My Little Sprout at the base of a Big Tree

Finally I parked the car and made the short walk to the “Chicago Stump,” the remains of what was likely the largest tree ever cut down.  No other hikers, or distant passing cars, accompanied me in the 9am stillness.  Sequoia stumps stood out sorely in the unregenerated meadow.  All was outward tranquility and birdsong, and yet I was overwhelmed with absolute horror.  My heart raced in my chest.  By the time I stood before the epic remains of the General Noble, I could barely compose myself to take a photo.  Other than this titan tree’s desecration dating to over a century ago, nothing tangible appeared to threaten me.  Yet a sense of fundamental wrongness, a trauma that was fresh and vibrant in spite of the passage of time, drove me from the barren grove. 

The remains of the General Noble, now called the "Chicago Stump."  I hung my stripy wrap on the stump (right) for scale.

The remains of the General Noble, now called the "Chicago Stump."  I hung my stripy wrap on the stump (right) for scale.

Upbeat rangers at the National Park’s Visitors Center failed to fill me in on the Converse Basin’s shameful and waste-heavy logging history, and so I conducted my own research, which for me is a type of devotion.  I learned, among other things, that the appalling clear-cutting of the Converse Basin eventually led the U.S. Government to invest in living Sequoias as national treasures or monuments.  The pioneering conservationist, John Muir, led a public outcry following the shocking destruction of 8,000 mature, multi-millennial trees in the largest Sequoia stand in the world.  Only one elder tree in the entire grove was spared – the aforementioned Boole tree, named for the loggers’ foremen.

Though such large-scale massacres as those that occurred in the Converse Basin are technically under the rulership of Pluto, both trees and their wood fall under the general rulership of Saturn.  By definition, trees are plants that are stiff, sturdy, slow-growing, and long-lasting, all attributes of Saturn.  In Rex E. Bills’ rulership book, “trees” comma “old” appears under the Saturn heading, as well as words like "timber," "lumber," and "razing."  It’s almost as if the mercilessly pragmatic Saturn won’t let us forget that a tree has a dual potential as both sacred plant and natural resource.  Ancient etymologies of words meaning “tree” also blur the distinction between the living and the dead wood.      

I once had the unique opportunity of reading the natal chart of an arborist.  Fittingly, he has the Saturn-ruled sign of Capricorn rising, and the South Node in Capricorn to boot.  His chart’s ruler, Saturn, appears in the “I yam what I yam” First House, in another sign traditionally ruled by Saturn, Aquarius.  I’ve never met anyone so completely consumed with trees.  A sort of vision quest led him to his chosen career, and his passion for the arboreal borders on personal identification.  Yet his job often involves killing the trees he loves when they are too diseased, damaged, or inconveniently placed to remain standing.  His quandary reminds me of that of so many animal lovers I’ve known, whose compassion has been forced to evolve into pitiless stewardship when faced with the reality of the legions of unadoptable cats and dogs that fill up shelters.  On a stormy night in central Oregon, my arborist had the tables turned on his life-and-death power over the trees when a partially downed Black Oak sheared his spine.  Miraculously, he survived a broken neck and later returned to tree-work – though a little more gnarled and stiff than before.   

The rank energy of destruction that I experienced at the Converse Basin has been keeping me up at night.  I wake up feeling the urgency of the disembodied, sentient beings that haunt the murdered grove.  Is there any way to tell the story of the Sequoias that doesn’t leave us totally defeated, full of rage and regret for the sins of our father Californians?  Jared Farmer does a decent job of this in Trees in Paradise (2013).  This extraordinarily well-researched book performs a social history of California through four species of tree: Sequoia, Eucalyptus, Citrus, and Palm.  Notably, Sequoia is the only native species among the four.  Though no one could possibly defend the rash behavior of pioneer loggers who blew up ancient giants with dynamite and let their massive bodies shatter on the forest floor, harvesting on average less than thirty percent of the usable wood, Farmer highlights the protected status that old-growth Sequoias and Redwoods currently enjoy.  His book traces the emotional attachment that Californians have to an adopted, mildly invasive “alien,” the Eucalyptus, the commercial exploitation of another naturalized foreigner, the Orange Tree, and finally the aesthetic appeal of the iconic but mostly non-native Palm of Southern California.  Ultimately, Farmer’s book is about how humans live with trees, and he points to a tree-dotted California landscape that is anything but “natural” in a drought-prone country dominated by scrub and native chaparral.  He makes a modest plea for conservation management that balances the human need for tree cover and the cultural appropriation of favored species with the recognition that California’s native flora is, like its native people, brown.     

When contemplating the Cancer New Moon and the feeling of “home,” I was struck by how much that feeling of safety, security, and rootedness depends on immovable Saturn structures.  The Saturn-ruled sign of Capricorn is Cancer’s polarity, and though Saturn is often held up as the great bogeyman of the astrological pantheon, we build our intimate, family lives on the skeletal frameworks provided by Saturn.  Like the wood frame inside your house, the financial commitments you keep to sustain your home fall under Saturn’s domain.  And though concepts like “work” and “duty” make most of us frown in anticipation of the daily slog, without those Saturn engines constantly firing, Moon-ruled Cancer’s gifts of comfort, nourishment, and intimacy will likely lack the resources to flourish. 

I’m emphasizing Saturn’s rulership of trees, especially old ones, as a way of viscerally connecting to the concept that structures (Capricorn) shape our attachment to home, land, and place (Cancer).  Is there a human being alive who has not formed a relationship to a particular tree, even if it’s one as simple as noting an arboreal landmark in your morning commute, or appreciating the shade where you take your daily lunch-break?  The trees we keep on our home properties bear witness to life’s fervent joys and inevitable disappointments, and we are conscious of the fact that, unlike the inanimate structures that house us, trees are dynamic organisms that respond to their environment, just like us. 

I’ve formed many connections to individual trees over my life, trees that have anchored me in space and time and contributed to a feeling of being at home in the world.  Last year, my husband and I were seeking a site where we could bury our infant son’s placenta, a site that would offer both meaning and permanence, and where the landscape would remain wild but still recognizable into the unknown future.  I didn’t have to think long about where to go.  In 2012, during a period of personal crisis, I encountered a magnificent Valley Oak in the Santa Monica Mountains.  As I descended from the hilly terrain into a charming valley, I saw her – Queen of the Oak Savanna.  Her generous expanse of branches formed rather a perfect circle around an alligator-hide trunk and, after crossing a small stream, I ran up to meet her.  Or did she reach out to meet me?  Her energy filled the whole valley.  I hesitated perhaps a moment to climb onto roots that formed a perfect seat, then all at once I was in her arms.  To sit within the shelter of that Valley Oak was to feel the embrace of the Cosmic Mother, an all-loving, all-nurturing, all-forgiving knowingness that quieted my anxiety over the tangled threads of my life.  

Two joggers stopped in their tracks before me and the glory of the tree.  “You just – belong in that tree,” the woman said.  She was so impressed with this conclusion that she said it twice more.  But the tree didn’t just belong to me.  Other pagans had also found it, I saw by the faded ribbons and tiny scrolls and medicine pouches that dangled from the branch canopy, which made a radius of 20 feet from the trunk.  After that day, I visited the Valley Oak often.  I poured ceremonial water on her roots and said prayers for her continued survival.  I took family and friends to bear witness to her splendor.  And I wrote a wish on elk-hide and tied it to a west-facing branchlet, and vowed to return when it came true.  

Last fall, when I carried my son's placenta in a tupperware container to the site of the sacred tree, my mother asked me how I would remember which tree it was.  I laughed.  “You’ll see,” I said.  She did see, and she tended my son while my husband and I dug a hole on the east side of the Queen Oak.  When it was time, I quailed before my feminine viscera, its smell and look of liver and the white hose of the umbilical cord.  “Maybe I’ll just leave it in the container …” I ventured, but the friend I had enlisted for just such purposes put her hand on my shoulder.  “You have to take it out of the plastic, otherwise it’s not a gift for the earth.”  After we buried my son’s placenta, I felt like my feet touched the ground.  I felt my son’s anxiety about this new incarnation simply release.  And I knew that we had given him a priceless gift, a place that we could point to and say, “This is your California, where you came into the world and where you belong.”

I worry about my tree.  I worry about all of us in this densely populated land in a time of intense drought.  I know that my gifts of water and the nutrients out of my own body are not enough to keep even one tree alive.  But still I make the offerings. 

My sacred Valley Oak is easily fifty-feet high and several hundred years old.  Four humans couldn’t hold hands all the way around her trunk.  Though the spirit of this tree is female, she yet fulfills the Saturn archetype of being old, sturdy, resilient, and wise.  This is probably a good time to remind astrological newbies that the planetary archetypes are genderless, yet it’s easy to forget this when the Greco-Roman names we’ve inherited for the celestial pantheon are almost exclusively male.  But next time you’re tempted to hate Saturn, and its force of limitation, conservatism, and inexorability, go hug an elder tree.  Think of what this arboreal entity has had to withstand from both Nature (insects, disease, wind, fire, flood, and drought) and the encroachment of civilization in order to stand before you today.  Or, if you’re so inclined, listen