How the friendship between a poet and a timber baron kept a grove of California redwoods from clear-cutting.
What can a single poem inspire?
What can one verse induce?
One poem can offer an outlet for healing.
A distinct lyric can allow connection to occur.
One poem can lead to the most unlikely friendship.
I’m Jacqueline Suskin.
The past four years I’ve performed Poem Store:
a public project that consists of exchanging on-demand poetry
about any subject, composed on a manual typewriter, in trade
for any donation.
I’ve done most of my work in Arcata at the Saturday Farmers Market.
I’ve lived in and around this northern California coastal town for
three years. The community embraced me and treated me as their
unofficial town poet.
I think of this place as the throne of the earth.
Where I go to wander through ancient forests, stroll the edge
of the continent and kneel along the lip of clear cold rivers.
Here I learned the language of landscape.
Here I became acquainted with a history
of harvest. Everywhere I looked the trees
were owned, considered a crop, nurtured
and prepared for our consumption.
Folks would camp high up in the old growth
redwoods trying their hand as saviors, but
nothing can stop the might of human need.
I wanted to know more about this system.
I wanted to look the whole of it in the eye
and ask it to transform. No matter how much
I read, no matter how many tree-sitters I
talked to, I still felt a huge section of the
equation missing. I still felt there was
something I could do that wasn’t being done.
This is Neal Ewald.
Neal is the Senior Vice President
of Green Diamond Resource Company.
Green Diamond is a five-generation family-owned
and highly controversial timber harvesting company
that possesses 400,000 acres of land in California.
Green Diamond has a reputation for its clear cut logging practices,
use of toxic herbicides, and issues with mass privatization
of land. Lesser known and hardly celebrated are the recent
sizeable adjustments the company has made, including receiving
a Forest Stewardship Council certification for improved
and responsible forestry
In 2010 at the Arcata Farmers Market
I wrote Neal this poem per his request
on the subject of
Of all the things to do in life,
all landscapes to believe in,
all ways of proving anything is possible,
with the weight of water around us
we pay tribute to the finest possibility.
When below the surface
we take moments to look up and know
that be it waking life or not,
all the force of the world lies deep
and well in such an unknown place
This poem inspired Neal to solicit another,
this time through the mail.
He sent me a package. Inside was a book.
He explained that he had lost his wife to cancer
and this was a collection of her correspondence
with friends and family for the five months
before she passed away.
He wanted me to study the book and then compose
a poem for him and his children to read as they
finally spread her ashes in the ocean.
He hadn’t been able to do this because he hadn’t
found anything that he felt was good enough for
such a moment. He didn’t want to choose a song
or a poem from an anthology. He wanted something
unique, something just for Wendy. When he met me,
he felt he’d been led to me for a reason.
I was to write this poem for his wife.
– Everything’s A Gift –
Here, we pay tribute to the teachers of wisdom.
All who choose to recreate the standard way of leaving,
who carefully furl away grief in the name of celebrating
the greater weave, who allow experience to shine as it should,
the beauty of all things held high and seen well,
even in the darkest of times.
It is these guides who recognize the fickle ways of the body,
knowing that all life is not had in the mind, who discover
the sturdy ground is in the kith and kin, in the loves
we nurture with the simple give and take that can only be had
through such constant connection.
It is these who settle on patience in the face of mystery
and misfortune, knowing that we are but provided with words
as explanations and everything’s a gift. And so beyond
trying to figure answers and find ends, we should instead
honor the circle we’ve been offered, allow for its turns
and delivery to come with grace and acceptance so that we
might leave it all behind knowing how perfect it was
in all directions.
It wasn’t until I composed and delivered
Wendy’s poem that I even realized who Neal was.
He holds the key to the forest
and there isn’t much that I care about more
than the forest. Neal presented a way for me
to be directly in service to the earth.
I was overwhelmed with the feeling
that we could collaborate and create change.
The Most Unlikely Pair:
The Poet & The Timber Baron.
Our friendship grew based upon the inherent trust
that comes from sharing such a intimate
experience. Our poetic exchange about Wendy
allowed for a comfortable and familial alliance.
We began having dinners, we started a book club,
I was invited to the Green Diamond walks in the woods,
and always every encounter was full of discussion.
We mused about the future of the company, what
revisions could occur, what the public needed
to know, what problems needed solving.
Neal expressed great interest in my ideas.
He listened enthusiastically and his intrinsic
desire to explore the unknown was very clear.
He never once seemed unavailable, never like
a fat-cat businessman, but a true seeker,
an open-hearted wonderer.
We created a shared language.
We developed themes to talk about each time
we saw one another: Grief, Activism, Poetry,
Women, Love, Corporate Accountability, Polarity,
Native Americans, Environmentalism, Dehumanization.
We shared inspirations and lessons:
I read stories about his father.
He taught me how to shoot guns and use a chainsaw.
We made plans:
I would help him create a permaculture homestead
design for his personal land. We would swim
in the ocean on anniversaries and honor Wendy
together, spreading lilies in the water,
and I would recite her poem.
Above all we focused on one word: yes
Neal is dedicated to the discovery of how to say
yes. He wants to disrupt the concept that there
needs to be opposition. Throughout his career
in forestry he has strived to find a way to
dismantle dichotomy and meet his adversaries
in the middle.
This is extremely difficult when your opponent
chooses not to view you as a human being,
but simply as greedy and power hungry.
Green Diamond is a business
and Neal’s job is to run this business.
If only objectors could form requests that he
could say yes to instead of far fetched
demands that fail to leave room for his connection
to his career. Neal is passionate about living
outside of the box. He is available, although
under the construct of his position, and he does
have a Yes Zone as he likes to call it.
He wants to experiment and do things differently.
Perhaps my experience with Neal could have ended up with the deep
exchange we had over the poems I created for him. If that were
the only outcome of this connection I’d be completely satisfied.
To see how those poems brought him healing was enough.
But because of our trusting relationship, something else occurred.
The history of the McKay Tract, a piece of land that contains
a grove of old growth redwood in Cutten, CA, is much too complex
for me to tell here. Folks have dedicated years of their lives
trying to preserve this forest. A young man named Farmer was the
voice of this particular protest. He had been covertly living in
the trees for a long time. He hated Green Diamond. Yet, with
Farmer I saw a possibility in his passion. After various promptings
and considerable conversation, with my support Farmer took the
initiative and reached out to Neal.
After a few in-depth meetings an arrangement developed.
Green Diamond was already working on plans for the McKay Tract
and Neal saw this common thread of interest as a way to connect
with his adversaries. These two rivals figured out how to meet
and discuss the forest while avoiding dehumanization. It didn’t
matter that they disagree about so many things. They chose to hear
one another, to consider each other’s perspective and not simply
made demands. They worked within one another’s Yes Zone.
The McKay Tract will not be cut.
The nonprofit Trust for Public Land is working on turning
a great deal of it into a community forest. This agreement
caused a new communion, no matter how subtle. Forest protesters
were able to see Neal’s willingness. They can now credit his
character and his obvious wish to say yes.
In each conversation I have with Neal he likes to remind me
that this change occurred because of us and our discussions.
I follow it all the way back to the fact
that a single poem created a spark.
With this story, a reminder bursts brilliantly
before us all. This is that age-old concept
that one person can truly make a difference.
May we remember that everyone holding a place
of power is still simply human. They may be
grieving, they may be in need, they may be sitting
with an ache that only we can help ease. They may
be nothing like the picture that society paints
of them and they may want to do something
This post originally appeared in Yes!