My belief is there is no feeling of greater warmth and security in nature than sitting beneath a ponderosa pine. These wise old trees are indescribably beautiful, gentle, and majestic. They provide shelter, a sturdy backrest, and the sweet smell of peeling vanilla bark. The shedding of their bark and needles provide a soft bed of ground, decorated with fallen ornamental cones; they sacrifice themselves. As I become encapsulated in a ponderosa pine forest in eastern Montana, I realize that these old trees have seen more than I have in my lifetime. Their mere existence is a metaphor for timeless wisdom and grounded spirit. If the age-old ponderosa pine could speak, what would it say? Perhaps its virtue lies in its silence. Perhaps humanity couldn’t handle the truth of its visions, for these old trees have seen how the land has fought for survival. Sometimes the land has lost at our hand.
We must be the voice for these silent warriors. We must use our gift of verbal communication to defend that which is so important, yet cannot defend itself. In eastern Montana, people have chosen to fight back against those who wanted to destroy the land. The threatened invasion of the Tongue River Railroad and proposed mining of the Otter Creek coal tracks have plagued a community for over three decades. The railroad would have cut through the precious land and forests. The mine would have sucked the land dry of its resources, offering nothing in return but money and energy that was destined to be shipped off to be used elsewhere. If Otter Creek were mined, the trees and wildlife inhabiting the area would have been decimated, completely wiped out forever. Through reclamation the land and forests might eventually return to a shell of its former self. Dry, dead, torn up and soulless soil would coat a place that once breathed life. The plants and grasses would have been placed there, the hills carved into the landscape by machines. It would be unlikely that trees would ever be able to grow in this kind of wasteland. Years of reclamation can never return the earth to its true state; it desecrates the place. In this particular case, Otter Creek and the surrounding area was rescued through a twist of fate. The people took on the task of defending the environment and community. They said no to the railroad and the mine. They used their voices to protect what belonged to them and what belonged to the land, and they were able to stop this development project by persistence, passion, dedication, patience, and voice. This required the binding together of diverse groups of people, from ranchers, to farmers, to the Northern Cheyenne. When people believe that they have the ability to speak out against government intervention that they believe is wrong, then they are able to defend the wildlife, landscapes, and forests that cannot speak for themselves; those who would have so much to say if they could.
If the ponderosa pines of eastern Montana could speak, they might speak of the battles they have seen as humans fought for their rights to the land and to existence. They might speak of the changes to the landscape that occurred from these battles. They might express gratitude and respect for those who have dedicated their time to learning to understand them and to protect them from harm. The ponderosa pine that I sit beneath today almost did not exist to see my lifetime. I like to imagine a world where future generations might be able to sit beneath the same tree long after I am gone.