Memorial Trees and Rites of Passage at Earth Sanctuary

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Chuck Pettis, founder of Earth Sanctuary, has been creating a nature reserve the past 20 years. He plans to create an old growth primeval forest that lasts 500 years and more into the future. — photo shared by Chuck Pettis

Our spirits are revived when visiting the serene Earth Sanctuary. There is another dimension to the nature reserve these days: One can plant memorial trees for life events such as birth, death, marriage, and anniversaries. Now cremated ashes may be planted/scattered as well in a setting that cultivates compassion and connection with nature.

Sitting with Chuck Pettis in his home’s great room a little while ago, we talked about trees. Writer Fred Bixby had donated a baby sequoia tree to the Earth Sanctuary recently, and it was planted near the reserve’s Infinite Tower sculpture. The tree can live up to 3,000 years. For as long as I’m around, I plan to visit the little tree and think of my great friendship with Fred. The tree will witness and record history for a long time to come.

Fred Bixby received this Sequoia as a 6-inch stick; more than two years later it’s a 3-foot tree planted near the Infinite Tower. It can grow to be 3,000 years old!

Fred emailed the tree’s backstory: “A few years ago I mentioned to my good friend Kate I had never seen a sequoia tree. Two years ago or so, she and her husband Bill returned from a trip to Redwood National Forest with a gift for me. It looked like a tiny stick, about six inches long, and was a sequoia. Really? I knew I could never plant such a huge tree in our yard, but began growing it in a pot anyway, trusting I’d find a forever home for it. Later I saw a sequoia, which was over a hundred years old and more than a hundred feet high. It was wonderful. As my little sapling grew, I remembered how much I loved the Earth Sanctuary and asked Chuck Pettis if my small tree might come to live there. I was happy when he said, ‘yes.’”

Over the years visitors have asked about planting memorial trees or creating other types of place markers to connect with memories of loved ones lost or recollect life’s significant moments.

Chuck Pettis designed this infinite tower, which symbolically connects earth to sky.

“A family who lost a son to suicide planted a tree for him,” Chuck said. “They brought an Oregon ash, which we planted. There’s a woman who wanted to do a memorial for her brother. She commissioned artist Chris Moench, who does custom prayer wheels. He installed a beautifully created one with a pedestal. People can write a note with their intention, put it inside, and spin the wheel.”

Tibetan prayer flags, carry the message of compassion, peace, strength and wisdom to the wind.

Tibetan prayer wheels are believed to spread the contained message out into the universe with every spin. A powerful prayer often placed inside is Om Mani Padme Hum. Chuck practices Tibetan Buddhism and its influence and art are evident in homage throughout Earth Sanctuary. He installed prayer wheels, prayer flags, and a Buddhist stupa designed to promote peace and healing within the reserve.

Chuck mentioned a tree planted in memory of his friend John Castle at the Earth Sanctuary. “John was one of my oldest friends,” Chuck recalled. “After John passed away, his brother came up and he placed some of his ashes beside the tree.”

Being approached more and more to plant memorial trees and have Earth Sanctuary be a place where one’s ashes might be scattered, Chuck contacted Lucinda Herring, author of Reimagining Death: Stories and Practical Wisdom for Home Funerals and Green Burials.

Lucinda Herring has helped families and communities create meaningful ceremonies for life and death thresholds for over twenty-five years. She is dedicated to helping others connect with nature, land and the earth, as a source of comfort, inspiration and guidance at times of transition and change. In her work as a minister, home funeral and natural burial guide/consultant and a “green” licensed funeral director in Washington State, Lucinda is skilled in helping those who are grieving the loss of a loved one find authentic and healing ways to say good-bye. — photo and caption courtesy of Earth Sanctuary website

Lucinda is an ordained minister who shares a deep appreciation of the Earth, Celtic wisdom, Buddhist practice, and reverence for sacred spaces with Chuck.

“Chuck read my book last summer and asked to meet,” Lucinda said last week. “The idea of having memorial trees at Earth Sanctuary was on his mind. More and more people have been contacting him with that kind of request and need.

Chuck wanted to meet that need in a good way and support the Earth Sanctuary. He felt that I was a good person for people to call if they wanted to create some kind of ceremony while planting a tree. Because I work with families who have experienced death, and for years celebrated life and festivals with families and communities, in relationship to the Earth and nature, I am a good fit. So it’s a win-win. And it’s a gift to me, because I love Earth Sanctuary and go there whenever I can.”

Chuck said it is a natural progression to work with Lucinda and expand the purpose of the Earth Sanctuary: “Lucinda is my partner in this. I’ve gotten a permit for cremated remains to be scattered/planted here.”

The plan for creating a memorial tree reserve dovetails with the Earth Sanctuary’s long-term plan for the future. A paragraph from the Earth Sanctuary’s web page describes this proposal:

“Because mature old-growth forest fosters the greatest biodiversity, we have devised a “500-Year Plan” to acknowledge that the ecological communities of the Earth Sanctuary will take hundreds of years to recover from past land use practices and develop into their fullest expression as a diverse and mature ecosystem. Also, the 500-Year Plan acknowledges the human commitment necessary to preserve, protect, and restore the Earth Sanctuary landscape over the long term.”

With his background in design and inspiration learned from American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, and inventor Buckminster Fuller, Chuck is committed to creating lasting environments that unite body, mind and spirit.

Over at Martin’s bench facing a fen, one can see turtles sunning themselves

“From the very beginning I wanted to create an old growth forest,” he said. “We’ve put in more than 3,300 trees and 15,000 native plants since 2000. I’m not getting any younger, so I want to get all the right trees planted in Earth Sanctuary while I’m still alive.”

The preserve for wildlife, birds, trees, plants, wetlands, and the ground itself, has been renewed in the twenty years since Chuck purchased the logged and neglected land and and began restoring its vitality.

With the Earth Sanctuary as a place for cultivating memories of loved ones, combined with Lucinda’s experience as a minster bringing deep meaning to ceremonies, including end of life experience, the memorial tree idea is taking hold.

“I sent out a first email and had a woman call,” Chuck said. “I just received a request for a memorial tree. In addition I’ve been very fortunate to know the young couple next door. Richard Alexander loves trees. He’s planting his own orchard. He’s planted over 60 trees at Earth Sanctuary. Through monitoring which trees have survived and thrived at Earth Sanctuary, we have found that drought-resistant trees are best, given the dry and hot summers we have been having over the past 20 years. It is more cost effective to plant one-gallon trees. The trees need to be cared for—a year or two or three of tender loving care. Richie is my tree planter and caregiver. He’s done an excellent job. He has plotted GPS coordinates, species, and created a database to track what works and what doesn’t. I’ve asked him to go through the entire property to plant the best trees for the best old-growth tree foundation in place. In my will is a plan set up a fund for Earth Sanctuary, with conservation easements as appropriate. I’ve got a plan and a really good estate attorney who helped me figure what to do and how to do it.”

Simple lines of harmony between stones at Earth Sanctuary’s Dolmen Megalith. Its design dates back to 3,000 to 4,000 B.C.

Meanwhile, Chuck wrote in a later email: “I got a call from a college friend who wants six memorial trees for her family members! This makes me happy!”

Lucinda is known in the community for helping people connect with nature through ceremony and festivals and learning to view the Earth as their foundation.

Festivals are the art of celebration,” Lucinda said. “Art in relationship to land and the turning seasons of the year. The festivals we did over the years were deeply rooted in Earth wisdom and a connection to the natural world, both seen and unseen. Chuck really understands that. We have that in common. Home funeral ceremonies, where families and communities can craft their own unique good-byes, are actually a kind of festival too, when we can bring art and beauty and life to death’s threshold. I have learned how helpful it can be for people to be creative and participate in crafting their own ceremonies – ones that come from the uniqueness of who they are, rather than simply having a funeral director do the memorial service for them. What I envision with planting trees is to help a family create a very authentic ceremony that comes from their wishes and heart in relationship to the tree itself and to the Earth Sanctuary land.

Canadian goose family floats by in tranquil fen waters at Earth Sanctuary

“I like the idea of celebration trees, as well as memorial trees being planted at Earth Sanctuary,” Lucinda added. “And I love thinking that times of joy will be honored there as well as times of sorrow. How wonderful, that a special tree could always be part of an important time in our lives –  a birth, a marriage, a death. Think how joyful it would be to plant a tree when a child is born, or when we marry, and be able to return to that tree each year. Or how comforting to return to a tree that has sheltered us during our times of loss and sadness. Having this living relationship with a tree and land is part of the gift of Chuck’s vision. When I walk the land and trails there I talk to the trees and feel that they are listening. Trees are far more intelligent than we give them credit for. Asking them to be part of our joys and sorrows affirms our interdependence with all living things. It’s easy to feel that at Earth Sanctuary.”

This Dolmen Megalith, inspired by B.C. monuments, is one of the meditation sites at Earth Sanctuary

Along with the emotional and spiritual benefit of planting trees, Chuck’s response to climate change is reflected in an updated webpage. Memorial Trees explains a new program suggesting donations for planting longer-term trees to replace red alder, which has a short lifespan. Cedars, spruces, firs, pines, redwoods, sequoias, and other varieties will be planted. On the site, it is mentioned that trees “combat climate change and global warming,” as well as “soaking up CO2 and creating oxygen for healthier, cleaner air,” and, “healthy forests create and sustain wildlife habitats and diverse balanced ecosystems.”

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