The Living Forest
Backpacker|May - June 2020
We know our forests are special places. But for the Native Americans who have lived among them for centuries, they are more than that. Trees are family members that give, heal, provide, protect, and nurture. Trees are sacred. Listen to the trees.
By Leslie Hu Oh

Years ago, my family hiked into the Navajo Nation forest with a medicine man in search of a tree that could act as an intermediary to the Creator. It had to be sturdy enough to match our prayers for positive growth and young enough to have time to mature so its protection could last a lifetime. The medicine man selected a young Douglas fir that had no blemishes, bends, or twists. It was perfect.

We offered the little fir gifts that signified our gratitude. My husband and son placed turquoise while my daughter and I laid a white shell near its trunk. We sprinkled corn pollen on its needles to honor our lives as part of nature.

When I was 21, my birth mother died of cancer. Seeking grounding, I turned to the natural world, and soon, to the indigenous people most connected to it. In this way, I met Ursula Knoki-Wilson of the Táchii’nii, who adopted me as the daughter she never had and hired the medicine man for my Blessingway Ceremony. Later, I was adopted by Elaine Abraham’s family of the Naa Tláa of Yéil Naa, K’inéix Kwáan from the Tsisk’w Hit of Yakutat, Alaska, who named me Guna Kadeit Seedi Shaawat. My relatives taught me that everything has a spirit and needs to be respected.

Trees are people to be negotiated with and lived with on shared terms. Their lessons are available to anyone who hikes among the forest with an open heart, and listens.

FORESTS GIVE

MOUNTAIN CAHUILLA

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, CA

Even in drought years, when hot desert winds dessicate the fan-palm oases that pool in the desert canyons, there is still the agave. The Mountain Cahuilla people harvest the base of the stalk, which is considered the heart. It can weigh several pounds and tastes like a sweet potato, pineapple, and molasses when roasted underground. Lorene Sisquoc (Mountain Cahuilla/Fort Still Apache), culture traditions leader at the Sherman Indian Museum, says roasting agave hearts the traditional way is still practiced today. “We go out into the mountains to harvest, to collect them for sustenance, and for our gatherings,” she says. “We feel like we’re put here to take care of the trees, plants, and land for the next generation and utilize these gifts that were given to us.”

SEE IT BEAR CREEK OASIS

Follow a sandy wash to a palm-fringed oasis at the edge of the scrubby hills. The 9-mile outand-back starts on sun-covered flatlands at Cove Oasis trailhead before climbing almost 2,000 feet starting at mile 1.9. Turn around to take in the desert views spreading out below your feet and scan the hillsides for bighorn sheep foraging among the agave plants. (Note: no shade, no water.) INFO bit.do/sanjacinto

FORESTS HEAL

CHEROKEE

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN/NC

Eastern hemlocks once fringed the Atlantic seaboard from Nova Scotia down to North Carolina, creating vast understories beneath their 150-foottall canopies. Because they can germinate in low-light, eastern hemlocks build a stratified forest with a depth of shade that cools streams for trout and slows rhododendrons from overtaking rare native ferns.

Today, these forests are threatened by the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect that arrived in the country in the 1920s and spread inexorably south, arriving here in 2002 and starving the ancient hemlocks. Isolated pockets in the park still hold nearly 800 acres of old-growth, some of the last great stands in the country (conservation efforts are underway).

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