A week ago, I sat on a wooden bench at the edge of Elk Prairie in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, just north of Orick, California, watching the resident herd of Roosevelt elk graze. The prairie is a huge open expanse in the middle of forest dominated by coast redwood and Sitka spruce trees, some of them more than a thousand years old. The dominant bull elk watched me back, making sure I knew that the prairie was not my terrain. The elk are magnificent creatures, with massive, shaggy, dark brown heads and chests, tawny fur on the rest of their bodies, and a lighter patch under their tails. At this time of year, the males have shed their antlers; new, velvet-covered buds grow on either side of their heads. The females are heavily pregnant, about to give birth. They shelter away from the males and our intruding eyes.
As I sat on the bench, I understood that the elk and redwood trees are interdependent. The forest provides nutritious foraging and shelter for the elk. Elk droppings help fertilize the forest. A balanced environment includes apex predators like wolves to keep elk numbers in check and prevent overgrazing. In such an environment, elks benefit some trees by dining on their competitors. Their grazing patterns may also alter the course of forest fires by selectively removing fuel.
Bealtaine (May 1) is a powerful time for connecting with the spirits of the earth. On April 29, I received another message about the interdependence of species. This one came in a dream:
I overhear a researcher I used to work with having an impassioned conversation with a man. The researcher talks about the devastating impact the depletion of salmon runs will have on the fertility of the land. As animals and raptors devour salmon, they leave the remains, which add precious nitrogen to the soil. Without that nitrogen, the soil becomes poor and can’t provide enough food for people. As salmon runs dwindle, we are deprived of salmon and other food for nourishment. I picture a situation in which many people are hungry. I imagine laying a whole salmon carcass on the land to feed it.
As I wrote the dream down (a practice I recommend), I realized that I was seeing the land as alive, as a being that needs food too. It needs food to feed us.
This spring, as the weather grows drier and warmer, be sure to include some time in nature, especially in the forest, in your wanderings. The practice of shinrin yoku—forest bathing—provides deep healing on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. Take some time to sit quietly and listen. Let the spirits of the earth speak to you. You may be surprised at what you hear.