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  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Taking Root by Wendy Peterman, Ph.D

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

I can’t say I was born in the woods, and that’s how they got into my soul. I was actually born in the Mojave Desert with ancient, twisting Joshua trees looming like the disembodied spirits of spindly old men in the surrounding whiteness of a rare snowstorm. Now a ghost town of dilapidated buildings, the Air Force base of my birth is preserved only in the stories told to me by my parents. Nestled amidst the bland, beige buildings of a remote Air Force base in an endless expanse of sand, sat a small, simple clinic, Spartan with its stucco-clad sides and oddly diminutive, with the officers’ quarters, hulking on either side. In the harsh fury of a storm, the late-night air was cold and bitter. Thinking back on the stark, tumultuous setting that was my birth, I find it no surprise that I crave the tranquility of a lush, temperate rainforest. Though I do have certain awe and appreciation for the open, desolate expanses of the desert, it doesn’t call to me like the deep, dense, soothing woods of the North.

The majority of my youth was spent in the mountains of Northern California, surrounded by giant oaks, Douglas firs, and ancient redwoods. The oaks were my playground, the firs my constant support, and the redwoods my cathedral. In my early childhood, my sister and I ran free through grasses taller than our heads, waded in creeks and ponds in pursuit of slimy critters, and hid in the branches of redwoods so tall, they blocked the sky.

In their mid-twenties, my parents risked everything they had to buy eight acres in the foothills of forested mountains owned by the US Bureau of Land Management. On the south end of their property, there was an oak tree whose branches reached all the way to the ground. It looked like a huge, green, leafy ball, resting in a small depression of the gently rolling, foothills, covered in grasses, blond like the tangled mass of curls adorning my wild-child head. Once, when my parents were picking sun-sweet blackberries in the creek, I saw a small opening under the oak branches and invited my sister to explore what we might see inside. To our surprise, beneath all that foliage, a magical world of moss-covered branches extended over a trickling brook. One branch of the tree dipped down to the ground, offering a horseback ride for two. We climbed aboard and our stout little legs propelled us into the air, caught us on the way down, and sent us back skyward, as we cantered across the open plains of our imaginations. We made friends with the little girl on a nearby ranch and spent countless hours playing house in our secret mansion under the canopy of that tree. Each branch was a royal bed-chamber. The cold, gravel-bedded creek was a mote, deterring intruders and allowing us to wash our imaginary dishes. The enshrouding sphere of oak leaves was the veil that made us invisible to the outside world in our protected realm of childhood heaven.

While the oaks dappled lower elevations, separated by fields of grass and red manzanita bushes, the redwoods hugged the coast in pockets preserved for old-growth. The landscape in between was blanketed by the stalwart Douglas fir. Each year, on Arbor Day, children received Douglas fir seedlings in plastic tubes. The yellow-Twinkie school bus would be full of wiggly children, tickling one another’s cheeks, mock sword-fighting, or sitting silently with their baby Douglas fir trees. Not a true fir, the Douglas fir is the most common conifer tree in most of the western United States. It is constant, steady, adaptable, and ever-present. Its sturdy boards framed the walls of my house. At any given time in my youth, I could walk out of any building and see a mountain coated in Douglas firs, breathe the fresh oxygen they exhaled, and feel the reassurance that life was flowing along as usual.

On hot summer days, our grandmother would take us to the foggy Mendocino coast to scramble around on the rocky headlands, play in the icy waters of the Pacific Ocean and soak in the calm, cool stillness of the redwood forests. Chilly, moist fog and ocean spray caressed the exposed skin of my face and left droplets dangling from my hair. Deep layers of dry, decomposing needles padded the ground beneath my feet. A jagged gray rock or rotten log made a chaise lounge, perfect for receiving the quiet gifts of the woods: the rich smells of tannins, wet soil and multitudes of forest molds and fungi, the deep purples of wild irises and lupines, the soft yellows of wild mustard, bright oranges and reds of watercress, and fleshy bodies of ice plants. Most memorable of all, there was the massive, humbling presence of 300-foot redwood trees, some of the longest-lived organisms on Earth.

I felt the reverence of those magnificent giants who survived hundreds of years through raging wildfires and countless, coastal storms. I learned how they drank water from the fog with their leaves and bark and transported it down to the forest floor. I saw pure, clean water pouring from the ground under a redwood, ten feet in diameter, and marveled at how it wetted the soil for the trillium, oxalis, and ferns at its base. Organic soils form high in the joints of redwood branches, becoming small ecosystems full of life - habitats for spotted owls, marbled murrelets, salamanders, and me. I learned that redwoods’ shallow roots are connected to one another as a solid foundation to keep their community healthy and strong, and their shaggy bark can be a foot thick to protect their inner core from fire and disease. When a redwood dies, its roots sprout up to form a ring of trees, honoring the life of the noble ancestor who once stood at their center.

These are my roots. This is how the woods got into my soul.

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Mar 06, 2021

yes!!! My sanctuary!

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