The Trail Steward
Sitting on a bench in my beloved South Whidbey State Park, I was happy to be hiking again. Just 3 weeks after a partial knee replacement I was not moving fast, but I was relishing the return to my weekly medicine walks. Several old growth red cedar trees towered above me. Fern and salal plants were shoulder height and dense. The sanctuary of the forest surrounded me.
Within minutes of sitting there, a young family came by to admire the old cedar tree in front of me. The family paused to greet me and then the eight-year-old boy asked his father if he could go crawl into the hollowed out core of the ancient cedar tree.
“Just a minute,” said the father. “We need to read the sign posted on the fence that protects this tree.”
The father read the sign to his son, wife, and newborn.
“Please stand back. This tree needs protection. This ancient western red cedar is over 500 years old. During the 1970s under the organization ‘Save the Trees’ Harry and Meryl Wilbert and other dedicated citizens of South Whidbey, literally wrapped themselves around this and other old growth trees along this trail to save them from logging. Their efforts succeeded in annexing 255 acres of forest to South Whidbey State Park.
The old cedar now calls us back to the spirit of protection: this time people need to stop playing on or in the hollow of its trunk. Unless we all admire this ancient giant from a distance, the tree will die long before its time.”
I could see that the young boy was fidgety with the long reading. “But can I go and climb in the tree, Dad? I’ll be really careful.”
“No, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said the father. “The sign was put here to help us understand why no one should climb in and around the tree.”
I could not resist saying something. “Well done, Dad.”
The mom, who was standing close to me with her swaddled newborn, asked, “Are you a volunteer in the park?”
“Yes, I live nearby and visit often. You might call me a trail steward. Nineteen years ago I helped place that sign there because so many people were crawling in and out of the tree with little thought for what was happening to the tree itself.””
“Well, it’s really good to meet you. We’re from Seattle and have never been here before. We’re learning a lot.”
We all bid one another goodbye. After they left, I kept sitting a while longer. Nineteen years ago I was sitting in the same spot watching two young boys from the campground crawl in and out of the tree hitting the opening with sticks to make it larger. I, of course, asked them to stop. “Please don’t hurt that tree,” I had said. After they scurried away, it occurred to me that they didn’t know any better and that an educational sign might prevent further damage.
Trails and forests everywhere need stewards, and those of us who are frequent visitors can help educate newcomers in nature. A conversation here, a small action there—the natural world needs all of our attentiveness.