In mourning for 10,000 trees Environmentalists lament clearing for BG&E lines.

CEDAR, SMOKE, PRAYER

February 17, 1992|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Staff Writer

What Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. calls tree-clearing for a new transmission line, a group of ecology activists mourns as a massacre.

About 50 people gathered at Loch Raven Reservoir yesterday to honor what they believe to be the spirits of 10,000 trees that BG&E is cutting through seven miles of its nearby right-of-way.

An altar over a painted horse skull, smoking with burning bundles of plants, attracted environmentalists, local American Indians and a few curious cyclists and roller bladers from Loch Raven Drive.

Trees "have a right to exist because they do exist. They don't exist for people. They don't have to exist for birds. They have a right to exist because they're here," said Lisa Nowakowski, director of Rain Forest Action, offering her words as a spontaneous prayer.

Stepping back from a circle formed by the group, Ms. Nowakowski said she feels physical pain at the loss of individual trees.

Can the cutting of trees be compared to the killing of people? "In a deep ecology sense, I feel it's as tragic," she said.

The "deep ecology" shared by those gathered for the ceremony is a spirituality that borrows from traditional Indian beliefs about the kinship of spirits among human beings and their natural surroundings. Deep ecology goes beyond the reform of human use of environmental resources to question all notions of human supremacy in life. In the deep ecology philosophy, life is not an ascending hierarchy with human beings at the top. Rather, it is a circle that includes all forms of life.

In the philosophy of BG&E, the energy demands from suburban population growth over the last 20 years require removal of 10,000 trees to make way for improvements to the Northern Ring transmission line running from a substation near Cub Hill in Baltimore County to another one near Finksburg in Carroll County. The company will plant 10,000 trees in a 28-acre tract of Gunpowder State Park, next to the clearing project.

Company spokesman Arthur J. Slusark said some of the clearing started last month. But of all the projects BG&E does in the greater Baltimore area, he said, "this is the first request we've had for anyone to pray over the trees."

Lisa Jacobson, a biologist with Rain Forest Action, said she organized the ceremony "because no one was acknowledging the trees" and because she hoped they still could be saved. And if they aren't saved, it's important to "mark the slaughter in time and in space," she said.

Leading the sacred pipe ceremony for the spirits of the doomed was John Moore, a Baltimore school teaching assistant who is of Plains Indian heritage. The ceremony is "a regular part of my life," he said, a thanksgiving for benefits derived from nature.

"It's just like giving grace," Mr. Moore said. "I offer prayers for people I know that are having problems. That would include the trees here, in the Indian sense."

Mr. Moore built his altar near the water's edge, down a slope from Loch Raven Drive and Morgan Mill Road. From a black duffel bag, he pulled out small sticks, a horse's skull and bundles to be burned. He knelt and chanted a prayer in tribal language, thrusting the long sacred pipe outward, in four directions. Everyone else formed a circle around him.

The bundles were of cedar, to dispel guilt; sage to ward off bad influences; and sweet grass for calling on the spirits. Women held the burning bundles in the faces of each person gathered in the circle. The people fanned the smoke into their faces and let their gazes drift toward the tops of the tall fir trees swaying in the freezing wind.

Finally, they passed the sacred pipe. The tobacco smoke from the pipe was to bind the people to their prayers and to carry those prayers upward to the Great Spirit, Mr. Moore said.

He prayed to a spirit of Indian name, and sometimes in English to "grandfather," for new medicines from the earth to heal the ills of pollution of the land and of all beings living on it. "Every blade of grass is a person. Every rock is a person," Mr. Moore said, in spontaneous prayer. "If we're truly going to preach conservation, let them stop the right-of-way."

Anneke Davis, president of the Baltimore Environmental Center prayed: "All of us who use electrical equipment, are we willing to give that up to save the trees?"

She explained later that she herself uses electricity, though "as little as I can. I'm always conscious that I'm killing things in the process. The trees die for my convenience."

Ms. Davis and others said they didn't want to swear off electricity, but to encourage a wiser use of it.

For Ms. Nowakowski of Rain Forest Action, the sacred pipe ceremony is a way of converting despair over environmental damage into healing activity.

But on days of particular despair, such as when Ms. Nowakowski saw the cutting of a great poplar in Harford County, believers in deep ecology comfort each other. People sometimes call her, she said, with this exhortation: "Regardless of what kind of day you've had, rain forests have had a far worse pain."

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