The following is a reprint of an article about Baba's Tree and the 2017 Thomas Fire from the Ventura County Star published on February 18, 2018.
BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
An iconic oak tree that draws hundreds of people each year to a remote corner of Upper Ojai is fighting for survival after being devastated by fire a second time.
Baba's Tree, a huge Coast Live Oak named for Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba, is a key attraction for visitors to the 172-acre Meher Mount retreat on Sulphur Mountain Road. The retreat is currently closed, save for an afternoon open house scheduled later this month.
The tree, estimated to be more than 200 years old, narrowly survived severe damage from a forest fire that swept through the area in 1985. Now, the oak is once again in critical condition after a large part of it collapsed and burned in the Thomas Fire.
Meher Mount's caretakers, Buzz and Ginger Glasky, said they discovered the burned tree, still in flames, after returning from evacuation on Dec. 6, two days after the Thomas Fire started. Buzz Glasky said he believes the high winds knocked over part of the tree, which was already weakened by the 1985 fire, before the flames tore into it.
"It was shocking," he recounted. "I expected it to be just fine."
Followers of Meher Baba purchased the retreat property and selected the tree on behalf of the guru in 1946. Baba visited Meher Mount himself in 1956 and sat underneath the oak's canopy, effectively accepting it as his, said board president Sam Ervin.
Until now, the retreat – and the tree especially – has attracted about 1,500 visitors each year. Some are Baba devotees, while others simply visit out of curiosity or because they happen to drive by, Ervin said.
Visitors range from celebrities and foreign dignitaries to leather-clad motorcyclists to families. Many report having "experiences" at the tree, he said, and some visitors have come back weeping after spending time in its presence.
"When I go up there I feel an incredible sense of peace," said Cassandra Bramucci, Meher Mount's soon-to-be interim caretaker. "I've never had such a profound meditation experience as I've had up there. To me, it's like an ineffable wave that just flows over you."
Despite the immense damage, the property's caretakers are hopeful the tree can regenerate, much like it did following the 1985 fire. Meher Mount has hired an arborist to assess the tree and guide the recovery efforts, including installing an irrigation system, fabric to protect newly exposed branches from the sun, and support for the remaining limbs.
The tree is now fenced off, and the fallen wood is being preserved with an eye to converting it into benches, chairs and possibly keepsakes in honor of Baba, Ervin said.
There are no guarantees the tree will recover, but small sprouts have begun to appear on parts of the oak, spurring optimism.
"There are positive signs, so we will see," Ervin said, acknowledging that the tree will not be the same even if it does grow back. "I'm curious to see what comes next, how it unfolds. We always feel with Meher Baba, change is just part of the game. Things do change and transform, and we're not in control of that."
He said the initial cost to assess and protect the tree was $15,000, an amount already covered by an outpouring of donations from supporters. Nevertheless, ongoing donations will be required to continue maintenance and care for the tree, Ervin said.
For now, Meher Mount will remain closed except for the Feb. 25 open house. Some other parts of the retreat also suffered fire damage, and recovery efforts continue, the caretakers said.
If you go
What: Meher Mount open house, in honor of Meher Baba's birthday
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Feb. 25
Where: 9902 Sulphur Mountain Road, Ojai.
Information: 805-640-0000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM
Claudia Boyd-Barrett, "Baba's Tree, burned in Thomas Fire, fights for survival in Ojai," Ventura County Star, accessed online February 18, 2018. USA Today Network.