Like our human elders, trees should be treated with respect

Nov 9, 2021 by

A person stands in front of the base of a giant redwood tree
Francis Mendoza with an elder coast redwood tree on Wiyot land in Redwood National and State Park. Photo: Mya Mendoza

Honor your elders. As a first-generation immigrant from the Philippines, I know this proverb well. We were always taught to revere anyone older than us; even those just days older, like my kuyas and ates (pronounced coo-yahs and ah-tess), which means older brothers, sisters, and cousins. Arguments were always solved by whoever was older, often infuriating me because it didn’t allow for any discourse or critical thinking. As the bunso (pronounced boon-soh) or youngest in my family, I was never right about anything. From my choice in friends and who I hung around with, to my coming out as gender nonbinary and my decision to become a naturalist, park ranger, and advocate for equity in the outdoors—none of it was good enough to satisfy my family’s expectations.

Nevertheless, I still honored my elders dutifully, especially my Lola Nanay (grandma), whom I loved dearly. She was the one elder who would listen to me, comfort me when I was sad, and cook me arroz caldo (chicken and rice porridge) when I needed some Filipinx food to warm the ventricles of my heart.

Never did it enter my young, anthropocentric mind that my non-human relatives are also my elders. The trees that stand tall, like the coast redwoods, are as much my elders as my own Lola. They’re all our relations, as the Indigenous peoples who have lived here since time immemorial have known from the jump.

A park ranger kneels on green grass in front of a sweathouse with a redwood bark roof
Naturalist Francis Mendoza in front of a re-created sweathouse with a redwood bark roof, in Tuibun (present-day Fremont), on Chochenyo land

Over the last 50 years, the conservation focus in California has shifted from planting non-native eucalyptus trees to preserving and restoring native trees like the coast redwood and its relative, the giant sequoia.

To be clear, humans have always had a relationship with these colossal elders—from the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation to the Wukchumni Yokuts. Unfortunately, the narrative of colonization, environmental degradation, and climate change has dominated the conversation, especially over the last 200 years. “Leave no trace” doesn’t consider that Indigenous Californians have left every bit of themselves on the landscape, through horticulture and agriculture, sacred pictographs and petroglyphs, bedrock mortars and cupules, and a fire regime that promotes the health and sustainability of the land; not to mention fishing and gathering processes that ensure a healthier watershed for generations to come. All the while, these elder trees stood tall while humans struggled to deal with the ravages of colonization.

A group of people stand in front of a buckeye tree on a golden hill
California Indian Conference hike on Bay Miwok land with Indigenous elders and youth and a young California Buckeye tree in the background

As fires threaten large sequoias called monarch trees in Sequoia National Forest and Sequoia National Park, I can’t help but imagine what the land and water would have looked like if Indigenous burning was not outlawed; creeks and rivers weren’t dammed to satiate our voracious appetite for energy, causing whole villages to be submerged; or huge agribusiness farms didn’t dominate the Central Valley, most of which is on Yokuts land. We have definitely left a monumental trace on the land, and to deny it is myopic at best and negligent at worst. It weighs heavily on many of us as we collectively mourn the deaths of hundreds of monarch trees, many of which were more than a thousand years old, due to fire.

Four images of two children standing together in front of the base of a giant coast redwood, with a black border along the sides of the images.
Francis Mendoza’s daughters Mya and Keira Mendoza snuggling up in front of a coast redwood tree on Wiyot land.

My own teenage daughters have had a special relationship with the trees of Califas (as California was possibly once called, alluding to Queen Califia). They’ve hiked, camped, and fished much of the state. When they were younger, we visited Redwood National and State Parks in the northern part of Califas, and they were astounded by the sheer magnitude of the standing elders, as was I. We chose not to drive through any of the trees that were carved out for that purpose, nor visit any felled trees because my daughters questioned the harm done to them for the sake of novelty and our human propensity to dominate nature.

We visited the Grace Hudson Museum on Pomo land in present-day Ukiah and we were all astonished by the beautiful basketry on display, weaved lovingly by the women in the tribe. We also visited Yurok country and saw how Yurok men would painstakingly make dugout canoes from redwood trees, and how they would use them to navigate the waterways and coast to fish for salmon and lampreys.

Panoramic shot of a desert landscape and a mountain in the distance.
Payahuunadü, where the water flows, with Tumanguya (Mt. Whitney) in the background. Photo: Francis Mendoza

From the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada to the coast redwoods in Northern California, our state offers the unique and oldest, largest, and tallest tree elders in the world. Despite their resilience to anthropogenic climate change, logging, misguided tourism, and conflagrations in lieu of a more sustainable fire regime, they are still susceptible to our mistreatment of them.

As elders, they deserve better. They deserve protection and preservation, and it’s up to us as conservationists to provide that. They deserve the equivalent of a warm bowl of arroz caldo, much like my Lola used to make to make me feel better. They deserve honor, respect, and love, borne from being a dear family member, keeper of knowledge and carrier of the sacred fire. They deserve good medicine and healing in the form of Indigenous prayers and ceremonies by the Native people who have also been displaced, marginalized, and oppressed. They deserve their lands to be rematriated, finally giving solace to their ancestors and elders, both human and tree.

About the author

Francis Mendoza (he/they/sila) is a first-generation Filipinx immigrant, JEDAI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Accessibility and Inclusion) Consultant, and Manager of Community Development, Engagement and Leadership for the Children & Nature Network

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