Pearl – by – Pearl

We went because we’d been promised a party. Orlando Mongalo, a post-rave activist who organizes tree-planting events under the auspices of the Tree Huggers’ Collective, had sent out the DJ lineup and directions for a legal weekend of music in the mountains, preceded by a day of planting trees as volunteers with the U.S. Forest Service on National Public Lands Day. We were to meet at the end of a long dirt road high up in the San Bernardino Mountains above Fawnskin, several miles above Highway 38’s tour around Big Bear Lake and its various resorts and cabins. We packed warm clothes; it was a drizzly day in Los Angeles, which likely meant flurries in the mountains.

Around 10 on Saturday morning, we arrived at the ranger station, where we were given directions to Linda Stamer’s group, just off Route 3N14 in the Holcomb Valley. As I carefully maneuvered my beat-up Jeep along the barely maintained road’s hairpin turns, Stamer, a Forest Service biologist, went hurtling past me in a big pickup truck loaded with coolers. We were late — Stamer was bringing lunch for the day’s volunteers.

Sixty-four thousand acres burned in the September 1999 Willow Fire (so called because it grazed the banks of Willow Creek), nearly 40 percent more than were destroyed by last September’s Williams Fire. It was one of the worst disasters in forest history. The fire stripped the area clean of vegetation, leveled structures, obliterated archaeological treasures. Habitats were emptied, off-road vehicle areas cleaned of their tracks.

We were here to assist the forest in its recovery from the ’99 fire; miraculously, however, it had already begun to regenerate itself. As we sat on the tailgate of Stamer’s pickup washing down sandwiches and chips with soda, Stamer, a rosy brunette in her late 20s, pointed out long ridges of goldenrod, its spindly yellow blossoms squirming in the breeze. Like the purple fireweed that covers post-blaze hillsides, she told us, goldenrod is an opportunist — it sprouts in the charred soil almost as soon as it cools. Only in the staging areas, where the ground was compacted by the firefighters’ equipment, or where off-road vehicles continue to disturb the soil, is human intervention necessary to remedy what humans have disrupted.

In their greenhouse up in the mountains, Stamer and her husband had seeded most of the native shrubs and pines we were to plant today — deer grass, Jeffrey pine, desert sage. With exacting patience, they demonstrated for us the process of restoring wild plants to the forest. The holes had been dug already; the hillside was dotted with them, but the plants had to be placed so that their own soil was flush with the ground, which meant digging by hand and refilling several times until the depth was precisely right. Next, the hole needed to be filled with water, which had to be fetched with a bucket from a far-off hose. Then the sleeve holding the plant in place had to be wiggled free, and dirt lightly packed around the perimeter of the plant. One final watering, and the planting was finished off with fluorescent green “vexar” fencing into which volunteers had already woven bamboo gardening stakes.

I did some of the work assembling the circular fences, chatting with firefighters who’d come up from nearby San Bernardino and volunteers from other groups, such as Tree People and the Boy Scouts. But mostly I planted trees, following to the letter the procedure the Stamers had laid out, alternately borrowing water from other people’s buckets and letting them use up what was left in mine. By the end of the afternoon, I had planted seven trees; my friend Lisa, who was visiting from New York for the weekend, planted eight. Our backs were weary, our legs tired from squatting. And yet we had affected only the tiniest fraction — so small it’s hardly worth estimating — of that devastated forest.

Or so it seemed. When I surveyed the day’s work, I looked up the side of the hill where we’d worked and saw a miniature Emerald City of vexar — hundreds of plants dotted the hillside. I did the math: If each of the 40 of us planted eight seedlings, that meant 320 new plants had been set in the ground. (In fact, I learned later, that was about right.) By the next spring, the day looked like a success; the plants were adapting to their habitat, and no one had vandalized the site.

The Hasidic Jews have a proverb for this: “While I was brooding over my sins,” it says, “I could have been stringing pearls for the glory of God.” Though I’m not an especially observant Jew, I still find in the proverb a powerful metaphor for activism. A pearl on its own is an object of only minor beauty, but by threading pearl after pearl one can create a startlingly lovely thing. The image comes up other places: Elvis Costello, in his cryptic anti-war ballad “Shipbuilding,” sings of “diving for dear life/when we could be diving for pearls”; in Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, it’s having seen the pearl in one’s dreams that sets the believers apart from the heathens. It takes a long time, of course, to string enough pearls through tiny holes with a fine thread to create a necklace, just as it takes a lot of individual plantings to re-create a forest after a fire, and a lot of small gestures piled on each other to change the world. My seven pearls contributed that day to something much bigger than myself.

We camped that night at the Coon Creek jump-off — a group campground that ends in a spectacular, unbarricaded drop of a few thousand feet into the canyon below. An open-air stone lodge housed the DJ’s equipment in preparation for an onslaught of kids with high-clearance vehicles, but the party wasn’t happening. With our host, Orlando, we waited and wondered, but it finally dawned on us that no one else was headed up. As the sun lowered into the mountains and we studied the blanket of white beneath us, we understood why: People on their way up the road were slogging through rain turning to snow and back to rain again, and giving up with the conviction that the weather would only get worse.

They were so wrong. At 8,000 feet, the weather would have cleared, and they would have been here, with us, looking down at what Thoreau called “an undulating country of clouds.” And so the one DJ who’d braved the weather played anyway, and we opened a bottle of wine and made a pot of pasta, and we danced. Under that mountaintop view of the stars and planets, we decided that the metaphor of the pearl didn’t apply to everything: It may have taken many hands to plant a hillside in the mountains, but we only needed each other to make a party.

The Big Bear Greenthumbs Native Plant Restoration Volunteer Program has several events scheduled throughout the year, including seed collection, cleanup and tree planting. For information, contact Linda Stamer at the U.S. Forest Service, (909) 866-3437, Ext. 3301.

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