“We are on death row. Try to get us a stay of execution.”
Stays of execution are eleventh-hour attempts to achieve the impossible—a reversal of decision after decision after decision made on the way to no exit for the condemned—a final hope for reprieve in a system of justice tilted toward the will and means of the powerful, often ultimately, the State. A stay attempt is rarely successful.
I understood the legal, penal language of the request. I grew up under these codes with an FBI agent father who, as a Special Agent, undercover, chased and apprehended Top Ten Most Wanted “fugitives from justice,” testified against them, so the State could lock them up. Some ultimately arrived on death row. He also ruled our home with Bureau-style line ups, using words like: criminals, liars, little bastards as his hands came down, also undercover, upon us seven children.
The request was impossible. But when the Summons came, I pledged I would try. Execution was set for six weeks hence.
This story, however, is not centrally about what was done to attempt to marshal a stay of execution for fifteen hundred ancient Oaks to rebuild the spire of Notre Dame cathedral—though it was a resistance that mattered, with a significant global response.
This story is about one woman and a relationship initiated and forged by an ancient Oak in a forest in France. At first, I did not know if this Oak was still living or an Ancestor. At the time, it did not matter.
A parliament of Ravens has just gathered outside the studio window. One is calling from high up in an Oak tree. Another four assemble on the ground beneath the window in response. It is impossible not to register their gathering or squawking. Ravens are messengers. I have learned not to ignore their call. So, I stop. Set my journal aside and wait for a message to arrive.
Without leaving my living room in Los Angeles, I am standing now at the threshold of a French forest. It is pre-dawn. Cold February. I can see my breath. Dry brown leaves crackle beneath my feet. The air is crisp and a grey mist rises from the damp earth shrouding everything in an eerie silence that pervades this place—a place I have never been before though it is uncannily familiar.
Standing still as the long-needled pine whose strong limbs held me as a young girl growing up in Colorado, I hear a low vibration traveling toward me across a vast distance. An old, old, throaty hum carrying great urgency. Such a long, deep, low moan—god-forsaken! Upon its arrival the vibration penetrates my solar plexus with a force that doubles me over.
As dawn breaks, an additional directive arrives: “Come to this forest each 5 a.m. until the execution date of March 31 passes.”
Shaken, I agree and depart the forest to mobilize a stay of execution—the Way unknown.
The Landscape at the Threshold
It is the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Death is everywhere. Species extinction staggering. A new Idaho law now permits 90 percent of the state’s Wolf population to be baited, shot, pursued in helicopters. Wolves. A keystone species whose presence or absence alters the course of rivers and entire ecosystems.
Weather patterns are wild and unprecedented globally. Fires rage around the planet—Bear, Wolf, Mountain Lion, Owl, Rabbit, Deer, Squirrel, Insects, Bees are displaced or die in the infernos—human homes and possessions devoured. There is no water—the land parched and blistered.
Ojibwe and Anishinaabe sacred lands are threatened by the Enbridge pipeline 3 replacement project in Minnesota, as are rivers, lakes and waterways of the region, including the headwaters of the Mississippi; years-long litigation and protests by tribes affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline project at Standing Rock, North Dakota continue unabated and water protectors have been labeled as terrorists and sent to prison as sacred lands and waters of the Missouri River remain threatened; bulldozers and mining companies encroach on Indigenous people’s lands and forests here in the U.S. and elsewhere globally: Oak Flat, Arizona, Apache sacred land; Bears Ears, land sacred to Ute, Hopi, Zuni tribes and the Navajo Nation in Utah.
Clearcutting is devastating the remaining 2.7% of old-growth forests in British Columbia, violating tribal lands and treaties of First Nations peoples, including the Pacheedaht, Huu-ay-aht, and Ditidaht.
In Paraguay, the tropical Atlantic forest home of the last (known) uncontacted forest-dwelling tribe in South American, the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, is being bulldozed from all sides, according to Survival International, and the Amazon rainforest—the “lungs of our planet”—is now emitting more carbon dioxide that it sequesters.
Governments are on the verge of disassembling in various places around the globe—Italy, Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan. Democracy in the U.S. is threatened as an insurrection overtakes the Capitol on the day of certifying the 2020 election.
People of Color are murdered in the streets or in their own homes. Humans are masked and locked down in our homes or on the streets in tents, or without any shelter in alley ways. There is no sanctuary but for the privileged—and this injustice has now become blatantly transparent.
It is in this moment, on this beleaguered planet whose breath is dangerously faltering due to deforestation (as the breath of millions around the world is extinguished from COVID-19 and People of Color literally suffocate at the hands of law enforcement) that it is leaked to the global public, on February 16, 2021, that an impending execution of some fifteen hundred ancient Oak trees is underway in French forests.
Execution is the termI have elected to use. Felling is gentler, kinder-sounding, but a euphemism nonetheless for taking a chain saw to the bodies of centuries-old, perfect standing beings. For me, there is nothing to parse or reframe. It is execution. The ancient Oaks who summoned me say so.
Consciousness and Sentience
I learn of a woman who grew up on a tree farm of Douglas firs in the Northwest. She confessed to being afraid of the dark spaces between the trees back then. Sixty-five years later she still lives on a Douglas fir tree farm in that region; annually logs the Douglas firs and plants new stands. She gets a check at the end of the logging season and says this about logging time: “I know the trees communicate somehow…they mourn the sudden deaths of their companions of the last forty to seventy years. Unable to run, they have to hope the chain saw will pass them by, but of course, it does not…they should have been afraid of me in 1955, not the other way around.” .
Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, a pioneer of plant communication and author of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, says, “The scientific evidence is impossible to ignore: the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience and healing. Soon I will learn this, firsthand, in the French forest I am called to each 5 a.m.
The Blasted Oak
What appears as a random dissolution or destruction of your beliefs and relationships is timely and natural. The sea swallows what was built on shifting sand…now you have a base on which your inner strength can adapt and evolve. This may happen suddenly with shocking speed…the fiery blast that sent you falling to the Earth…jolted you from a state of trance that allowed you to avoid dealing with profound and fundamental issues.
Blasted Oak Card, Wildwood Tarot
Over the six weeks of working to mobilize a stay of execution for the French Oaks, I asked myself often: “What is happening in me?” I was a woman overtaken, seized, even wild. Immediately after the Summons arrived the woman I once was left home. I told a couple of close friends because they could see it in my behavior: “I have been taken. I won’t be back.” How did I know this? While listening to a poem inspired by the French Oaks, I saw a tree in the French forest I visit early mornings. Alongside it, a sweet cottage where it seems I may have formerly lived. Tacked upon the tree was a sign that said: “I won’t be back.” A chill ran through me.
I understood the directive. In 2016, I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, an experience I wrote about in Dark Matter. The changes in me at that time were radical: I was broken down completely—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Nothing of my old life remained.
After unexpectedly surviving, and wondering for what purpose, I recall saying to family, friends and to myself: “I am not the same person. That person I was is gone.” Everything familiar in me and in my life had been undone. I did not return to my former life or self.
When the Summons from the Oaks came I asked myself: “What more do I have to learn? What more must I leave and to what end?” From the sign on the tree I understood that I must leave the life and ways I knew, yet again, at an even deeper level of surrender.
Is leaving one’s entire life a primary way to achieve a stay of execution? Is this what it will take? My entire life? Our entire lives? Could Grandfather be showing us all the Way?
All these thoughts and questions have collided over many months until I am sure enough to write these words now: Yes, it will take this. I pledge my lifeforce to protect the lifeforce of the planet. I was called back from the brink of death for this purpose. Our ways, the ways pursued until now of trying to protect a faltering planetary lifeforce, have not worked.
This is what I understand right now: more is required of me, much more, in order to align my lifeforce with that of the endangered planet. “I won’t be back” is my mantra and lode star now. The Summons opened this Way.
The First Executions
It was improbablethat I or anyone else could avert the executions.A global petition to President Macron, letters to world leaders including the Pope, engagement with influencers such as theologian Matthew Fox; calls and letters to Greenpeace France, a video, media pitches, a 24/7 virtual “tree sit” in the Clubhouse social media platform—these are just some of the activities that I and others undertook to attempt to secure a stay. They were not enough.
Though I also heard from the great, great, great Grandfather Oak: “You have no idea what will unfold from your attempts to achieve a stay. You have no idea what will open—what consciousness will emerge and for whom.”
The timing of the first media announcement, focused on the hunt for the ancient Oaks in France, was transparent. Centuries-old Oaks were already being culled, and had been for some time as the article went to press. It was clear no input from the global community had been invited despite the climate crisis and a Paris court having just convicted the French State for its failure to address this crisis. The public, seemingly by design via closed-door decisions and agreements, was effectively barred from even witnessing the executions. Actual locations of these fifteen hundred trees were a well-guarded secret though some were precisely known even two years ahead of the hunt article and catalogued with pride. “Each felled tree is marked with a forestry seal of the State and a small white tag bearing an etching of Notre Dame. Its geolocation in the forest is noted, as will be the place of the tree’s wood in the spire.” Since locations and times were withheld, no protests could be mobilized to interfere with the slayings.
A media story in France released March 5, 2021 touted the “felling” of specific“exceptional” Oak specimens that had been identified, tagged and brought to the ground. Celebratory images and videos of chain saws bringing down these giants were released to fanfare of state dignitaries and forest officials.
Silently, I began to count the remaining days for the Oaks. The French government had had the final word—a formidable cadre of officials and experts: foresters, loggers, sawyers, architects, the National Forest Office, the Archbishop of Paris, President Macron himself. Missing was any countering public utterance, even from Pope Francis, whose encyclical Laudato Si, Hearing the Cry of the Earthhad called on the world to recognize that, “The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
Two Weeks Remain
It is 5 a.m.again. I follow the now familiar path from the forest threshold to deep-in where the great, great, great Grandfather Oak stands. I have come to understand he is an ancient Ancestor spirit—always accessible, fierce and invested in the life of his relatives and the entire planet. An Ancestor that has reached across the veil to me.
In his presence, I feel klutzy. I don’t know how to be with or listen to such a Grandfather. But, I do remember I learned, at the threshold of death myself in 2016, to hear communications from the edges, especially from trees. Trees taught me a new language across those two life-threatening and healing years. Not a talking language or a thinking one. Something other—accompanied by signs, omens, warnings, magic, dreams. This is some of how I came to know the Grandfather is an Ancestor spirit.
I struggle this early morning to just be in the presence of this Grandfather without words, though I am welcomed and received. I communicate that I am here to listen and to learn—to receive any directions or anything else he wishes to communicate. Even this feels like too much utterance, though it is non-verbal. I am really listening but not with my ears. I am speaking but not with my lips.
Over the hours I am with him, I am aware, again, of a strange absence I have felt in this forest since first I was summoned—an absence that conveys a desolation in the overall landscape. It is not the first time this past year I have felt this, though in another landscape. Energies, spirits, beings, ancestors departed or underground, elsewhere? A withdrawal? A vast emptiness. Is it also in me? Am I feeling the staggering deaths—the life going out, of people, species, rivers, rainforests, these Oaks?
What is the meaning of this desolation all around? I try and guess but am unsuccessful. I note during this visit that I don’t see any living creatures scurrying or flying or walking about. No birds, squirrels or rabbits, no insects. The forest appears bereft of the living except for the ancient Oaks and other trees I can’t identify.
This great disturbance sends shivers through me now. It is the deaths of the Oaks already executed now lying on the forest floor, severed, unwitnessed, I am present to. Who will see this, note it, mourn them properly? I feel the deaths and am groaning with them as their lifeforce flows out. Like when my brother, Steve, breathed out his last breath. Same sound. Same leaving of the lifeforce. An ending. Like when my daughter, overdosing alone by the lake, released her last breath—unwitnessed, unaccompanied, uncherished at this profound moment of exit. Not even light accompanied her. She left in the Dark of the Moon.
All I can think of right now is bodies in a morgue, like the one my daughter was taken to after she overdosed, bodies with white toe tags… impersonal identification of a living soul. The trees slain in France are in a forest morgue waiting repurposing.
A flood of grief begins to issue from great, great, great Grandfather that is palpable and not separate from my body. I leap up and place my hands first on his wide trunk. Grief is rising up from his depths—some underground depths— that same god-forsaken sound that entered me with the Summons, and now again enters my belly and floods my chest. Energy surges while my hands are on his trunk and later when they are at the base of the tree, on the ground above his roots, the many converging roots.
I ask myself under my breath kneeling before him: “What are you doing, Sharon, with your hands on his trunk and over these roots?” Was I following an energetic pathway? Instinct? Grandfather in another forest visit told me clearly: “This forest is not a place to ask for anything nor is it a place to offer something unsolicited.” So what am I doing with my hands? A vivid memory, a whole intact scene from the past, drops to the right of this ancient Oak. I can touch it. See it clearly.
It is my twenty-one-year-old self in a college physics lab in 1966, Detroit, Michigan. There is an array of wires and knobs in a pile before me. The assignment is to assemble this pile of wires and knobs to “complete a circuit so a current can flow.” Instantly I understand. Hands on the tree trunk then on the ground at the base of the Tree: I am not praying for the Oaks. I am not asking something of them. My hands are completing a circuit!
The live current, the lifeforce circuitry restored.
A profound energetic reconnection is taking place between me and Grandfather. The circuitry that was long ago disconnected is re-established in these instinctual gestures. An initial severing is being repaired: the primary separation from Earth, Matter, the Mother, whenever it took place. I feel the truth of this and say under my breath like a mantra: “We are all connected. We are all related.” I don’t mean just me and the Oaks, but We.
What I experienced is nothing new to Indigenous Peoples. It was however a new, felt, penetrating knowing for me.
It is dark when I set foot on the path at the threshold to the great, great, great Grandfather Oak. Stars are twinkling in the blue-black sky through the forest crown. Dawn in the distance is barely raising her skirt. It is so quiet. No birdsong again. I arrive at the ancient Oak and see a fire pit with a fire beckoning. I am so happy for the fire and put a log on collected from naturally fallen branches and limbs in proximity of Grandfather.
Suddenly, the desecrated landscape at the former Camp van Dorn, a U.S. Army training base during WWII in Centerville, Mississippi, descends and is right before me. Mississippi, the site of terrible stories, yet to be written, about my father’s likely involvement in the ultimate brutalization and disappearance of a Black man while he was assigned to the Natchez, FBI office, an office that also had jurisdiction over Camp van Dorn.
Mr. AJ Byrd was twenty-eight when, drunk and lost, he entered my parents’ home in the middle of the night in Natchez, Mississippi on February 26, 1944. My father searched him and held him at gunpoint until City police took him to City jail. Thereafter, he disappeared from the records, literally disappeared. In 2015, he came to me in a dream and told me he was a character in a story I was writing. I have yet to write that story; his appearance in the forest today is a sign to begin.
The scene that dropped in also reveals burned tree stumps organized in a wide circle as if a secret ritual had taken place; bones of dead and charred deer skeletons and dog skeletal bones lie strewn across this landscape. The burned patches of foliage, the charred ribcage and jaw bone lie there in the midst of all this desecration. Something terrible happened here. Then railroad tracks come into view. I see the logging truck piled high with cut trees all stacked up barreling by us on the narrow dirt road in the middle of the deserted forty-thousand acres of this former military training base.
I see the blood running in the culvert, the machine-gun bullets pummeling the barracks while twelve hundred soldiers of the 364th Black Infantry slept. The White MPs on a killing spree because the Black soldiers were resisting Jim Crow treatment on the base. And now, I see the twelve hundred gunned-down Black soldiers on this base being loaded into refrigerated train cars, barreling down those railroad tracks (eye witnesses vividly recalled stacks of dead soldiers’ bodies “piled up like logs” in train cars then hauled away, disappeared).
I trust the juxtaposition of these killings that have dropped into the forest this early morning—the twelve hundred murdered Black soldiers, the desecrated deer and dog bones, the charred tree stumps and the ancient Oaks in this forest now dead. No separation. The terrible stories colliding. The urgent responsibility to give them a place to live.
Mr. AJ Byrd
Mr. AJ is an Ancestor. We first encountered each other in my parents’ home in Natchez, Mississippi during WWII in 1944.
He came in a dream in 2015 saying he had come to help me set something right from long ago. I believe this man and his story that I am carrying has a great deal to do with why I did not succumb to pancreatic cancer.
A week before I learned of the trees’ plight, he communicated with me through a Live Oak tree in Sebastopol, CA. His message was: “Let everything go—all the ways you think about your life and work and this story we are in together. Let it all go.”
Four months prior to that, he dictated a letter to me (this Ancestor is intimately involved in my life and communicates in such ways). I now see that his message and the inner self-scrutiny it required served as critical preparation to answer the Oak’s Summoning.
“Dear Ms. Sharon:
It is a matter of urgency that you realize how alive we Dead are. I have waited every day for your head and heart and ear to turn toward me. I do not believe you realize you are involved with us disappeared Dead in a matter of repair that is urgent—to us and for your life purpose.
We agree now, prohibitions within you exist that you do not want to loosen. If you yield to a deeper partnership with us there is a possibility of mending what has been violently torn apart. I beg you to relent. We wait.”
The final executions loom large over me as March days elapse—over all who know what is coming,
All day long, all night long the doubling-over feeling persists in me—like an auger drill boring deeper and deeper into the core of me. I am being gutted, reamed out. A boring through to essence.
For days on end, I am quiet. Barely speak. Silent and not moving a soul muscle, bracing for the inevitable. I know these Oaks, especially the Grandfather. I am no more separate from them than I was from my first-born daughter who at thirty-three years old plummeted, hell-bent, to her death from heroin. A gutting, for me. For her. For her daughter, her siblings. Her father.
There is something akin to this in this gutting, this hollowing out I am experiencing in the face of the imminent demise of the Oaks. Is it impending death of a violent, unnatural kind that constellates this feeling?
I Do Not Want to Leave
I have been here three hours this morning. I don’t want to leave this ancient Grandfather and the forest today and say so.
“Then don’t leave. Why do you have to leave?”
I name a litany of things I must do elsewhere which require me to leave the forest.
“Practice being here and there at the same time today. It is all one place,” he says.
My reply: “This will take some time. I have been programmed for separation.”
But, this day, I do practice staying—at my desk, at the doctor’s, on Zoom and before the ancient Oak in the forest. Old faulty sets of by-pass circuits are scrambled and disconnected, the most critical one re-established. All one place, one life being lived, no separation.
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About the Author
For most of my life I dismissed my Celtic lineage. It was not until the ancient Grandfather Oak summoned me in February of 2021 that I learned that Druids focused their energies and attention on the natural world, held trees as sacred, particularly Oaks, and engaged in shamanic healing practices. I have returned to the forest having been summoned home.
I am a Diviner, Seer, Healer and a believer in magic. I acknowledge the Great Mystery that has held me here on this Earth until such time as I can offer back to the Mother what I have been given—including magic, healing, divination and seeing. My attention is now focused on the endangered planet—my lifeforce in Her service.
For other credentials, the usual ones, visit: http://headwatersproductions.com/biography/