In the Tree

By William Everett | 2024-02-22 | 4 min read

In the past year Sylvia and I have become fans of Baratunde Thurston’s ”America Outdoors,” which airs on one of our local PBS stations. Others may know him for his wit and humor on Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show.” We know him only as the wise, curious, adventurous guide to the human and natural ecology of our American life. Fully aware of his African ancestry, he plunges into the immense variety of human experience in our vast land. We have watched him talk with people who are aware of their wider environment whether in the boundary waters of Minnesota, the inner banks of North Carolina, or the upper reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. In each visit he introduces us to people who love the land around them, people in all their diversity and humanity.

In an episode last fall he took us to Sylvia’s home state of Oregon. We tuned in with special interest to catch a glimpse of Crater Lake, to visit an indigenous garden in Portland, to talk with a father and daughter on an ecologically sensitive ranch, and to walk with truffle hunters in the forests on the Cascades. And then he introduced us to an arborist named Dustin Marcello, who invited him to inch up some ropes into the canopy of one of Oregon’s famous pines. Baratunde is always open to adventure, whether mountain biking, snorkeling on Oregon’s Pacific coast, or rafting down a white river. And so he suited up in tree climbing gear and began to ascend, with Dustin’s attentive supervision, into the limbs of the tree.

And then he froze. He said he had reached as high as he felt safe going. He was not there to prove a point but to experience the life of the tree and the arborists who tend to them. His companion sensed his need to descend, coupled their lines, and glided with him back to the floor of the forest. It was there that Baratunde opened up to what had seized him in those moments in the tree. It was the tree. The ropes. The ancestral memories of Black bodies hanging in the trees, trees that were innocent and powerless to stop the murder in their branches. And he was overcome with waves of tears for all that had been lost, for all who had suffered, for the innocent strength and suffering of the trees. Dustin put both arms around him as they waited for the storm of emotion to pass. It was a moment of profound intimations of traumatic memory and reconciliation. We witnessed in silence a kind of sacramental moment of revelation and healing.

Baratunde must have wondered whether to include this in the episode we saw. We are profoundly grateful that he did. He enabled us to see through the costumes and facades of our hard-won civil unity to sense the immense suffering out of which we have come and which still reaches out to catch us when we are least expecting it. Amidst the callous voices that would try to erase our tragic past we must do as Baratunde and Dustin did—live into those experiences, weep for them, cry out for release and forgiveness, and then embrace one another.

After they had shed their climbing gear, Dustin led Baratunde and a group of people in a ritual of “forest bathing” to renew their selves in the healing presence of the trees that had also been the bearers of profound grief. It was a time of cleansing we will never forget. It will always light our way as we journey once again this Lent to the tree of Calvary. It is rare that a “show” can offer us such a holy moment. If you have a PBS Passport you can retrieve the episode from their library at https://www.pbs.org/video/oregon-new-heights-tpq3p0/. Thank you, Baratunde, for your sensitivity and courage.

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