The redwoods are in danger—can Niall face down an army of loggers?
O Green Man, lord of the deep woods since the dawn of time
You, who hang your lime-green tresses over the river at Ostara
And shelter our revels at Beltane
You, who flaunt your finery at Lammas and stand before us skyclad at Yule
Be with us now.
“You’re determined to do this, Niall? No second thoughts?” Wise Owl bent a penetrating look at the younger man.
“I must do it,” Niall said. “We have to save these redwoods.”
“It’s a shame we only found out yesterday morning that the injunction against the Timber Harvest Plan has been lifted. Of course, we’ve filed an appeal. If we’d known sooner, we could have organized a whole village up there. Unfortunately, you’ll be doing this alone and the action might last for weeks.”
“I know,” Niall said. “That won’t bother me. I’m between jobs anyway and I learned how to deal with loneliness and discomfort when I was a fire lookout last year. There’s not a whole lot to do in a lookout post, you know.”
“Very well, then. You know the entire Save the Old Growth Forest group is behind you. It’s time to climb, my friend.”
The time was just before daybreak in the stand of coastal redwoods not far from Mendocino. The platform where Niall would live for an unknown number of days or weeks had already been constructed. Daylight would bring the opposition forces into the forest, the employees of the Emerald Point Lumber Company with their skidders and forwarders, ready to devastate the woodlands.
Day was just dawning as Niall, at the peak of condition from long hours of physical and mental training, buckled himself into the harness and, using prusiks–the two loops attached to the climbing rope with a special knot that tightened and slackened as he ascended—made his way up the tree. Reaching the platform, he turned to look down at his fellow members—especially Morwenna of the long, curling black hair—clustered at the base of the towering tree. Some waved, some gave him the thumbs-up sign, and some prepared to make themselves comfortable for the day by putting up a tent.
Niall took some of his equipment out of his backpack: a thermos of hot coffee, his cell phone, his safety connector rope, a few snacks. The other supplies would arrive later, by pulley. He checked to see whether the waste bucket and water jug were still on the platform: they were, good. The connecting rope that secured him to the tree was sound, no problem there.
As the sunlight grew stronger, he rested his back against the trunk of the tree and thought about what had brought him here.
The first time he’d ever seen a redwood forest had been when his family had flown from their home in Washington, DC, to San Francisco for a vacation. His mother had arranged for the whole family to visit the Muir Woods. Niall, then 14 and already firmly on the path to pantheism, had fallen under the redwoods’ spell. Once inside the grove, he didn’t want to leave it. His family, growing impatient, kept calling him to come out, they were about to go, but Niall stayed.
At last his father strode briskly back into the woods, following the winding path to where Niall had last been seen. He found the boy with one side of his face pressed against the tree and both arms stretched wide as if to embrace the trunk.
“What’s the matter with you?” his father asked, puzzled. “What are you doing?”
“Listening,” Niall said in a low voice. His eyes were unfocused, as if he were seeing into a completely different world. He felt as if he were in the presence of sacred beings who had chosen to shape-shift into ancient, towering redwoods. As he felt his energy mingle with the energy of the tree he also sensed messages, as if the tree were trying to tell him something.
“Come on, kid,” his father said impatiently. “We haven’t got all day. You don’t want to stay here forever, do you?”
It was on the tip of Niall’s tongue to reply, “Yes, that’s exactly what I do want—to stay here and worship Gaia forever.” But as a loving son who didn’t want to hurt his father’s feelings, he said instead, “All right, Dad, I’m coming.”
As he walked away he glanced over his shoulder as if telling the grove of sacred trees, I won’t forget you, ever. And I’ll come back one day.
When he was a little older the complex feelings the redwoods aroused in him drove Niall to study Druidism. Druids, he learned, could be bards, seers, philosophers, diviners, or healers. They underwent twenty years of training to attain the highest level of their religion, and almost all the training was imparted orally. Nothing was written down.
Among the many powers attributed to Druids were the ability to summon great storms as well as soft rains, fogs, and mists. Another was the ability to change into animals or birds at will and cause others to shape-shift as well. They were even thought to possess the power of becoming invisible to hide from their enemies.
Now, as Niall sipped cautiously from his thermos—it didn’t do to drink too much, it was no fun having to pee into a plastic milk jug even though the leaves would hide him from view were there anyone to see—he thought about the woods he was defending.
To many of Gaia’s creation, the redwoods, sequoias, and Douglas firs were home. In the higher elevations of the trees lived the spotted owls, the falcons, the ospreys, the flying squirrels. On the ground the coastal redwoods provided habitat for the black bear, the salamander, and the fisher, a small mammal that flourished only in the environment created by the redwoods. The forest provided food and water for animals that otherwise would be driven to seek sustenance from human settlements outside.
The platform on which Niall was sitting rocked gently as the wind blew through the forest. Although it was near the end of April, it was cool up here, which made him glad of his tough waterproof jacket and trousers. His backpack contained extra woolen socks and gloves for when the air turned colder as night fell and the temperature dropped.
A chittering sound made him turn his head; sitting to his left was a flying squirrel who looked indignant to find a human being in “his” domicile. Niall listened as the squirrel scolded him for his effrontery.
“Look, I’m only trying to help you,” Niall said. “If they cut this tree down you won’t even have a space to share with a roommate, let alone a place to live.”
Was he crazy? he wondered. Why was he listening to a squirrel and talking back to it? No normal person would. But then, he acknowledged, he wasn’t normal. Normal people didn’t care as much as he did about trees.
The squirrel uttered one final chitter before it disappeared. Niall lifted a hand in mock salute. “See you later, Chatterbox Charlie.”
Something bothered him about the flying squirrel but he couldn’t seem to put his finger on it. As he tried to work it out he fell into a half-dream state until full daylight arrived. He woke with a start as a sudden increase in the noise level penetrated his brain. A quick glance over the edge of the platform at the ground confirmed his suspicions.
They were here.
As the Emerald Point Lumber Company trucks, with their chainsaws, their generators, and their floodlights stopped at the beginning of the redwood grove, crews of workers jumped out.
Niall’s cell phone rang. When he answered it, Wise Owl said breathlessly, “Emerald Point has sent Gideon Hook to talk you down. He’s going to reason with you first, then resort to force if that doesn’t work. Remember to be polite, no name-calling. Try to video or at least record everything he says. And most of all, Niall—“
“Don’t let him get anywhere near you and don’t believe anything he tells you. Not a thing, do you understand? Good luck.”
Niall breathed deeply to calm the rapid beating of his heart as he waited, for the name “Gideon Hook” was one to strike fear into the heart of a tree-sitter. Gideon had been known to slap handcuffs on a tree-sitter, slip a harness over him and climb down with the protestor uncomfortably bumping against the tree for every foot of the descent.
Peering over the edge of the platform to where Hook, wearing a yellow hard hat, was climbing, he noticed the extractor was using spikes rather than prusiks. His heart sank. Spikes wounded the tree so they were used only when a tree was slated to be cut down.
The yellow hard hat came into view and in the next moment Niall found himself looking into the cool gray eyes of Gideon Hook. Hook appeared to be a few years older than Niall, perhaps thirty-five to Niall’s twenty-nine. He was tanned, clean-shaven, and looked disturbingly fit.
“Good morning, Niall,” Hook said. “How are you today?’
“Good morning to you, Gideon Hook.”
Niall edged away from Hook who, however, made no effort to hoist himself up onto the platform.
“It’s all over, Niall. You know the injunction’s been lifted. The crews are here, ready to begin work. Come down with me and nothing will happen. You’ll be free to go, no hard feelings.”
“You lie, Gideon Hook. I’ve heard about you. The very name ’Gideon’ means ‘tree cutter.’”
“Yes, it does, in Hebrew. And what does ‘Niall’ mean?’”
“Champion,” Niall said.
“So you’re the champion of these woodlands—is that how you think of yourself?”
“We’re trying to save them from you and the other destroyers.”
“This is private property. You know perfectly well you’re trespassing.” Hook was beginning to look annoyed.
“This is old growth forest. It belongs to everyone, not just to Emerald Point.”
“You have no sense of responsibility,” Hook said.
“And you have no sense of reverence. Have you even a soul?”
That hit home, Niall saw. Gideon’s mouth tightened. “The company paid for this property and has a right to cut down the trees.”
“Why don’t you listen?” Niall shouted. “You’re supposed to know about trees. Why don’t you listen to what the redwoods are telling you?”
Gideon smiled faintly. “What do you imagine the trees are saying?”
“They tell us how vital they are to the environment. They form a carbon sink that captures carbon dioxide and other gases that would otherwise contribute to the greenhouse effect and cause climate change. The forests collect and store water. They provide food and shelter for animals. It’s all connected, don’t you see? The trees tell us that you and I and they—everyone and everything–are connected in the web of life. We all depend on each other.”
Hook jerked his chin impatiently. “I know all that. I’m a professional arborist. That doesn’t change the facts. I’m giving you one more chance to surrender of your own free will.”
“I will not.”
“All right, then.” Gideon looked grim. “I’ll be back. And when I come back I’m going to take you down.”
For a space of time—perhaps half a minute—the words “take you down” hung in the air while Niall stared into Gideon’s eyes.
Before Hook disappeared from view Niall could see that he was looking very thoughtful.
Sitting back against the tree trunk, Niall dialed Wise Owl’s number. “Niall here. Hook is going to climb up again and try to take me down.”
“If only we had a village up there!” Wise Owl lamented. “You could have traversed out one of the connecting lines to escape him. You can still use your escape rope to go down the dark side of the tree if you want to.”
“If I use it, what would be the point of my being here in the first place? No, I’ll have to wing it, Wise Owl. How’s everything down there?”
“Okay. If you manage to stay where you are, we’ll send up food and another cell phone, fully charged. Send down your current phone on the return journey.”
“Thanks. Talk later.”
A chittering sound overhead made Niall look up. It was Chatterbox Charlie, scolding him again. Suddenly Niall realized in a flash what had bothered him before: flying squirrels were nocturnal. Why was this little creature awake at this time of day?
Charlie chattered again. “You trying to tell me something?” Niall asked. “Are you the Green Man, shape-shifted into a flying squirrel?’
The squirrel looked at him with bright eyes, then disappeared.
Niall got to his feet. Suddenly a current of energy flashed through him, starting at the top of his head and streaking down to his toes. He lifted his arms in the summoning position, looked upward and called out:
O Green Man, now I summon Thee
Bring the mist-banks from the sea
Bring the fog and mist to me
Stop those who would evil do
Hide these woodlands from their view.
Desperately, Niall chanted the words of the feth fiada, the fog-summoning spell he’d learned from a practicing Druid in Snowdonia last winter, again and again.
A curl of mist passed against his cheek, leaving his skin damp. Turning, he saw mist swirling down from the treetops as if poured from an invisible giant scoop. Mist swirled whitely in front and behind, making him feel disoriented and very glad of his connecting rope.
Cautiously he lowered himself once more into a sitting position against the trunk of the tree. It was rather like being inside a pearl, he thought. Were pearls full of shimmering white mist? It was a nice idea.
He felt around the platform until his hand connected with his backpack. Drawing out his blanket, he settled it around his shoulders. It looked like being a very long day and night.
When the noise of his cell phone ringing woke Niall he could see by the time on its face that it was early morning. When he answered, Wise Owl said,
“You can come down now. Our lawyers have won the appeal so the injunction against the Timber Harvest Plan is back in force. The next hearing will be in July.”
“So the grove is safe—for now.”
“Yes. The police have left and the trucks are about to depart.”
Niall gathered his belongings and prepared to climb down. The mist had gone and day was dawning. Looking upward at the forest canopy he uttered a prayer of thanks.
I thank Thee, O Green Man, lord of the forest, protector of the trees. Blessed be.
On the ground again Niall looked round at the group—Wise Owl, with his white hair neatly tied into a ponytail, Morwenna, Cathbard, and the others. Morwenna gave him a smile, her dark eyes shining with affection.
“Merry Beltane, Niall,” she said. “Glad you’re back, and thank you.”
“You did it, Niall! You held Gideon off, the mist came, and when the mist dissipated we heard the news about the successful appeal.” Cathbard shook Niall’s hand.
“Quite fortuitous, that mist,” Wise Owl said, his head cocked to one side as he looked consideringly at Niall.
Niall smiled. “Yes, wasn’t it?”
“You know, if you had come down with Hook he was going to have you arrested. He had a couple of police cruisers here.”
“I know.” Niall rubbed his hand over his stubbled jaw, thinking of a hot shower and a shave, a hot meal, and a night’s sleep in a real bed. “Well…we’ve won for the time being. The trees are still here.”
He looked up again at the soaring redwoods. “The trees are the guardians of our world,” he said. “When they vanish, so will we.”