Grieving for a Sacred Grove

DSC02366“Let’s walk the Ravine Trail,” my son Anthony said.

This Finger Lakes National Forest trail isn’t far from my property, but I hadn’t been there this season. A killer threatens this small grove of hemlocks: Hemlock wooly adelgid, a native of Japan first found in Virginia in the 1950s. The small sap-sucking aphids spread quickly, affecting at least 50% of the hemlock forests in eleven Eastern states. I didn’t want to face it.

DSC02318We read a new sign at the entrance of the trail: Attention: Help the forest service save these hemlocks by not removing flagging.

It’s here. As I feared.

DSC02336“Let’s see how bad it is,” Anthony said.

I wanted to visit the trees the way I wanted to visit a dying friend or a sacred site in ruins. To witness and pay homage. So many trees have sickened or died since my husband Vic and I bought our land in 1972. The last of the elms, American chestnuts, beech, ash trees, and now hemlocks.

Before 2005, when Vic and Anthony opened many new trails on our land, I visited this hemlock forest often. In 1994, I had this dream:

I’m on the Ravine Trail. The hemlocks are tall and primordial. I lie on my back in a clearing on the forest floor, surrounded by a circle of ancient trees. The trees are sacred women in the guise of giant trees. I’m safe lying under their drooping branches.

DSC02329DSC02267DSC02349DSC02259-001When I felt sad or discouraged, I visited the hemlocks. I lay on my back in the clearing, looked up at the sky, and trusted life again.

Today, Anthony and his friend Jenna walked ahead of me. She’d come with him from California, so I was meeting her for the first time. He took the left fork over the bridge, the one going toward the grove. Dappled sunlight sparkled off the murmuring water. The earth smelled of evergreen needles and damp leaves. Autumn crunched under our feet.

“Look,” Anthony said, pointing toward the gorge. I saw a huge pink-ribboned tree.

“Damn,” I said. My belly tightened as I held back a sob.

“Look at the woodpecker holes,” Anthony said.

“Do woodpeckers like wooly adelgids?” Woodpecker holes went up and down the marked trees. I learned later that woodpeckers search for larva in infested trees.

“This was one of my praying places,” I said when we reached the biggest grove on a spit of land with deep gorges on each side.

DSC02352“I know,” Anthony said.

As we walked, we saw more pink ribbons. We descended to the stream bed in the bottom of the gorge and looked up. More pink. About one out of forty trees. The gorge felt solemn, like an intensive care ward where few get out alive.

We walked up to the rim trail and took a different path downhill. I wouldn’t have taken this poorly marked trail on my own, but Anthony spent his childhood bushwhacking in these woods. He knew the way.

DSC02276In fifteen minutes, he pointed to a sign. Finger Lakes Forest Conservation Easement. “That’s our property.”

We crossed the border to home ground. When we passed the only big hemlock on the family land, I sent her a silent prayer.


Have you noticed illness and decline in nature near you? Do you look or turn away? During the Vietnam War, Quakers taught me the importance of witnessing. Even when I can’t stop suffering or injustice, it matters if I show up rather than walk away. For a post about the action Vic and I took to protect our forest, see For the Love of Trees: 2005. For another post about walking in Watkins Glen Gorge, a large and spectacular Finger Lakes ravine, see My Uncoupled Life. For beautiful videos and documentaries of Finger Lakes beauty, I recommend Walk in the Park.

  1. I empathize with your words here and while there is a huge threat I sense some hope. At least the forestry service is paying attention and making an effort.

    More than 10 years ago, our woods along with small tributaries of the St. Johns River was threatened not by aphids but by a big box retailer. The neighborhood rallied, and we forced WalMart to dig up some ancient oaks and place them on the perimeter. Most importantly, our councilwoman rallied to help us place 3.14 acres of woods and wetlands close by in conservation easement with the assurance it would escape development. I wrote about it here:

    We are steward of nature. Who else can speak for the birds, the bees, and the noble trees? Yes, and we must bear witness as you so eloquently explain.

    • Thanks for the link and the hope, Marian. Fortunately this isolated hemlock grove is part of the National Forest, so I imagine it will get good care. I know they’re trying, but I’m not sure there is much to be done. There is an imported ladybug predator, but that might cause new surprises. I’ve felt like a steward of nature since buying this land with Vic in 1972–during the times of climate change oblivion and innocence.

  2. I’ve often passed little foresty patches on drives north of the city and witnessed many old trees slumping over in their deaths from facing some terrible wintry storms. It’s sad to see, but I look. Gosh Elaine, I can’t get over the size of those Woodpecker holes in the trees. Truly sad.

    • Thanks for your reflections, Debby. It’s sad to see damaged old forests. Then again, it’s natural for old trees to die and make room for young ones–if there are healthy young ones and if all the middle-aged trees aren’t dying, too. May we take care of our trees and the rest of nature.

  3. I grieve with you about this terrible loss, Elaine. I’ve always had a special affinity for the hemlocks on our North Carolina property. Our property is rife with them. We’ve had more than 100 of the ones closest to our house treated, some of them twice. And these, while still showing signs of infestation, are still standing strong and bearing cones. Unfortunately, the ones we couldn’t treat are mostly dead now, some of them were real giants. It hurts every time I walk past them.

    We had to start cutting some down after several fell; one on our neighbor’s cottage across the creek! And we’re slowly taking down others to protect the healthy trees nearby. We leave the stumps and roots to prevent erosion, and have found some fun, creative ways to use some of the stumps. We also had a gorgeous table made out of some of the lumber. But still, this is a hard reality to swallow.

    I find pleasure and hope by watching for the new growth, much of it oaks, in the sunny places that used to be shaded by the hemlock canopy, and by imagining how beautiful those spaces will be 20 and 30 and 50 years from now. It feels good to know our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy them.

    • Yes, a hard reality and, as with so much else in life, we build something new on what is lost. Sounds like that’s just what you’re doing. I’m inspired. There haven’t been hemlock cuttings here since the critter just reached the national forest. I have few hemlocks on my land. Only one big mama that I know about. Yes, something new will grow. Here, soft red maple is taking over in many places, but the oaks (prevalent in my forest) and hickories (a good number of these, too) are strong. I have a forest management plan designed by a conservation forester (and Vic). It gets updated next year, so he’ll likely suggest removing a few sick trees. If they’re healthy, they stay. The object is to make the forest healthy and strong 100 years from now. May it be so.

  4. Showing up to witness is just so hard. But so important. Thank you.

    • It is hard, but I learn something every time I make the effort. I learn about mortality and the fragility of life. I’m reminded to appreciate what I still have.

  5. Thank you Elaine for this heart felt post. The trees know you are witnessing and they take nourishment from that. I read about trees never really dying, as when they seem dead there is so much life still within them – the insects and gnu gnus … and the woodpeckers visiting must mean something? Good I hope?

    Dear heavens, it is so important to give our trees the honour they deserve – on so many levels …

    • About 15 years ago, a neighbor died and left his large family property and mature oak forest to his wife. She sold the trees to a lumbar company that decimated the forest that bordering our forest. Every day, I walked through the trees that would be cut–and, yes, I hugged them. The next day they were sappy stumps. I visited their neighbors until all the big trees were gone. This upsetting experience prompted Vic and me to sign a conservation easement with the Finger Lakes Land Trust so this could never happen to our forest, even when we weren’t there to protect it. So I agree it matters to witness. I’m a lucky one and have never had to witness human war.

  6. ‘I wanted to visit the trees the way I wanted to visit a dying friend or a sacred site in ruins. To witness and pay homage.’ Simply expressed in such beautiful, poetic words that speak directly to the soul, while the heart smiles. A deep, joyous read Elaine … I shall be ordering a copy of your book ‘Leaning into Love’ at once.

    ‘I lie on my back in a clearing on the forest floor, surrounded by a circle of ancient trees. The trees are sacred women in the guise of giant trees.’ Wow, again such fine writing. This is a truly wonderful article that speaks to all nature lovers. My heart grieves for the loss of these magnificent trees. Blessings, Deborah.

    • Thank you for your encouraging words and for your interest in my book. You’ll see it’s a story of my love affair with my husband as well as my love affair with the land where I live.

      My hemlock women dream was a gift. It came when I felt lost in life (most of us have plenty of times like that) and didn’t know where to turn. It was an early lesson in turning to nature for peace and receptivity. I’m glad to say the old trees on my land are protected from human damage. It’s hard to do anything about the infestations and declines that come through and wipe out whole forests, but at the moment, my forest seems quite healthy. May it stay that way.
      Blessings to you, too. Elaine

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