A Light in the Forest
Healing and Hope on the Yellow Dog
from The Howl (Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve Newsletter), 2017
By Jon Magnuson
July 1, 2017
It’s a little after 11 A.M. A clear morning. We’re several miles off County Road #510, deep in the forest near a bend in the river called Little Egg Falls. I pause, just off the trail, watch him kneel down, packing the deep rich soil around the recently planted small 18 inch cedar tree with his ungloved hands, watch his lips whisper a prayer as he lays a pinch of tobacco over the tiny seedling in a gesture of thanks. In a few hours this young man, along with his colleague, will be returning to the alcohol treatment center where he’s finishing a 28-day addiction recovery program.
I’m here this on July morning with a group of eight volunteers planting 100 Northern white cedar trees along the banks of the YDWP Community Forest. Our effort is part of the Northern Great Lakes Water Stewards, a faith-based initiative to help protect and preserve the lakes, rivers, and streams of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Before this month’s project is completed, we’ll be planting, in partnership with the YDWP, 500 trees with prayers, tobacco (a Native American tradition), and blessings. We represent six different faith traditions, participants ranging in age from 15 to 82.
Hosting us at Big Bay Presbyterian Church this morning was Sudi Layraman, the congregation’s recently arrived pastor whose original home is Thailand. After a career in the Northeast serving various ministries, she chose to come out of retirement and travel to Michigan to serve this parish which she prefers to call “a community church.” Knowing she was traveling to a part of the Great Lakes Basin where most folks have limited financial resources, she responded in an interview, not that long ago, that she came to this particular setting to help us all understand, she said with a confident smile, the “joy of being poor.”
July 31, 2017
We’ve finished the last of our planting. It’s Saturday morning. Today’s volunteers have included a pharmacist from Negaunee, an elementary school teacher, a retired social worker, a Northern Michigan University Student, a forest firefighter, a summer resident from California, and two cheerful volunteers (Emily Whitaker and Nathan Meadows) from the YDWP community The spirit of YDWP’s Kristi Mills danced with us as we made our way along the riverbank this morning. She served as a grace-filled guide for one of our earlier planting events
Over the past weeks ten youth from Faith Lutheran Church in Marion, Iowa helped us in this planting work along with their pastor John Albertson and Danny Stone, the Youth and Education Director from that congregation. Their brought with them 100 ears of Iowa sweet corn on their trip north which they shared at our Cedar Tree Institute Midsummer Celebration, held midway through the project, at Presque Isle Park Pavilion in Marquette. Newly elected Bishop Katherine Finegan of the NGLS of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, brought a blessing for us that evening together along with prayers from Buddhist priest Paul Lehmberg and Kathy Smith, an elder from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
Over the course of the project, we discovered several volunteers, prior to this experience, had never before planted a tree. It was a peculiar experience of empowerment for many of them, especially the youth among us. There were plenty of smiles.
But this summer’s tree planting effort was more than another example of environmental restoration work, however important such efforts continue to be. Carrying our prayers, bells, scriptures and tobacco among the ferns along the riverbanks, thanks to the support of the YDWP, ours was a journey into mindfulness, community, gratitude, and reverence.
There is a Holy War being waged around the planet about the future of Mother Earth. We are all part of that drama whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Against the echo of Eagle Mine’s haul trucks in the distance and the prospect of natural resource depletion across Powell Township and the rest of this beloved Upper Peninsula, kneeling on the forest floor was, for many of us this summer, an act of gentle defiance, a light in the forest.
The Cedar Tree Institute