BY SAM ERVIN & MARGARET MAGNUS
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire, whipped by fierce winds, raged up the steep south slopes of Meher Mount over Avatar’s Point and struck Baba’s Tree.
As the fire continued through the property, it hit the water and electrical systems, but avoided major structures and equipment. In the end, Baba’s Tree suffered the most lasting damage.
The fire burned through the central trunk of Baba’s Tree. Fire and high winds conspired to topple the already weakened tree, shattering the trunk and breaking off about two thirds of the circumference of the tree and about 90% of the canopy.
Fire continued to burn and smolder in some of the fallen limbs for almost a week.
What was left of Baba’s Tree was a shell of the trunk about eight-feet high with approximately a half circle of living tissue a couple of inches thick with jagged edges. This shell was still holding up four giant limbs up to 30-feet-or-so long.
Avatar Meher Baba sat alone under this tree on August 2, 1956, and since then it has been called Baba’s Tree. In 1956, He “…went into the tent of leafy branches and sat down on the bed of dry leaves. He signaled that no one else should sit down. His eyes shone in the half-light, and He made a sign that He was happy.” (Lord Meher)
Before the 2017 fire, Baba’s Tree had been badly burned in the October 1985 Ferndale Fire that Meher Mount calls the “New Life Fire.” Much of the interior trunk at the ground level burned out at that time, creating a long-term vulnerability that made the Thomas Fire even more devastating to Baba’s Tree. (See “Fire Burns Baba’s Tree – Twice”)
EFFORTS TO SAVE BABA’S TREE
Within a month of the December 2017 fire, there were sprouts on some of the limbs. Within days, a volunteer team guided by ISA® Certified Arborist Michael Inaba initiated multiple efforts to save Baba’s Tree. (See “Signs of Life in Baba’s Tree after the Thomas Fire” and “Fate of Baba’s Tree Is Front Page News”)
The measures taken over the past year to protect and nourish Baba’s Tree seem to have contributed to its survival and new growth so far.
These measures, as suggested by the arborist, include:
Installation of an underground pipeline 600 feet long to Baba’s Tree, with two hose bibs, hoses and diffusers to enable careful, occasional watering.
The watering of a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) is not “normal,” but needed due to the extended drought as well as the trauma of two fires to the tree.
Temporary installation of a “seclusion fence” to create an intensive care unit (ICU) of sorts to help Baba’s Tree recover.
The fence is also to protect visitors from the potential of falling limbs from the tree. (See “Baba’s Tree in Seclusion”)
Spreading 24-cubic yards of sanitized oak tree chips up to six inches deep over the entire circle of the previous canopy – equivalent to the root system – for retention of moisture and nourishment of the Baba’s Tree.
Wrapping the trunk and larger live limbs – exposed by the loss of 90% of the canopy – with Agribon ™ AG-19, a fabric providing sun protection.
This floating row crop cover will be important as long as these living limbs are exposed.
Spraying the new leaves on all the sprouting limbs with a clay mixture, Surround® WP, to protect them from the sun and pests.
Propping the four largest limbs, weighing thousands of pounds each, with custom-made adjustable steel props to reduce their chances of breaking and falling.
Any breakage would greatly damage Baba’s Tree, possibly killing any chances of survival as well as injure any workers or volunteers who could be nearby.
Baba’s Tree continues to show signs that point to survival and at the same time, caution. Most of the sprouts that have come out since the fire, on the shattered trunk and two of the largest limbs, are still green and look healthy.
There has been some significant die-back of sprouts along two other large limbs. Inaba counsels cautious optimism, suggesting that another summer will tell much more about the longer term probabilities. Fire recovery is not over and continues for Baba’s Tree at least for another year or two.
“Nobody tries to save a tree this badly burned.”
When Inaba first saw the damage to Baba’s Tree in January 2018, he said, “Nobody tries to save a tree this badly burned.” Almost 12 months later, amazed at the extent of the new growth on Baba’s Tree, he started to say, “Normally…” Then he paused and said, “There’s nothing normal about this tree.”
In a related note, when Billy and Pamela Goodrum were Manager/Caretakers from 2000-2002, they consulted with an arborist on another matter. They then asked the arborist to look at Baba’s Tree. At that time - almost 15 years after the 1985 New Life Fire - that arborist said, “There’s no way this tree should still be alive.” And that was after being burned by only one fire.
All the efforts on the ground, the prayers from around the world, and the Avatar’s Divine plan combine to continue to make Baba’s Tree a symbol of Meher Baba’s Presence.
Phase II of Baba’s Tree Care
Meher Mount is moving into Phase II of Baba’s Tree Care. Over the next few months, Inaba will carefully prune the current tangle of new growth. He will splint selected branches to help direct the tree’s energy into rebuilding the canopy, especially directly over the central trunk. In addition, the splints will help the new growth gain a stronger foothold and prevent the small branches from breaking off and further damaging the weak limbs.
Inaba will continue ongoing assessment of the risk of new pests to Baba’s Tree, particularly the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (PSHB) that is currently moving into the Ojai Valley. The PSHB arrival threatens the health of this vulnerable tree. The team will determine what measures are needed to protect Baba’s Tree.
The remaining twigs and small branches from Baba’s Tree will be chipped and spread as a new layer of mulch under the tree and extending to the former canopy.
As an added bonus, there is the continued cultivation by volunteers of the 16 acorns that were specifically harvested from Baba’s Tree, germinated and planted to produce direct offspring.
Harvesting the Fallen Wood from Baba’s Tree
The initial focus for recovery a year ago was on saving Baba’s Tree. Once the plan was in place, attention turned to saving the fallen wood from Baba’s Tree. (See “Baba’s Tree – Saving the Fallen Wood”)
Within weeks, a team of volunteers and professionals, including Harold Greene of Antiques of the Future and miller Peter Harnisch, worked for three-and-a-half days harvesting, milling and storing the wood from the fallen parts of Baba’s Tree.
Harold Greene, an artisan woodworker, guided the milling process working with Peter Harnisch who brought two different portable mills on site to saw the wood planks.
Inventory was taken, and the wood was carefully stacked for curing in a short-term storage area on the property to be ready for future use.
Additional short branches, small logs, end pieces, and walking-stick size branches were also harvested and stored.
USING THE WOOD FROM BABA’S TREE
“Future use” soon became “present use,” and the wood from Baba’s Tree is being used and shared.
In April 2018, Greene returned to Meher Mount to create three outdoor benches from half logs from sections of the larger limbs of Baba’s Tree.
In December 2017, volunteers collected ash from the burned heart wood of Baba’s Tree. Meher Mount has shared these ashes with donors and volunteers since the fire as a memento of Baba’s Tree.
In January 2019, volunteers cut about 1,500 dhuni sticks from the smaller fallen limbs and twigs of Baba’s Tree and shared them with 35 Meher Baba centers and groups. (See “The Great Dhuni Stick Harvest – A One-of-a-Kind Dhuni Day”)
Phase II of Baba’s Tree Wood Preservation
Meher Mount is moving into Phase II of Baba’s Tree Wood Preservation. The temporary storage – using an existing concrete pad and tarps – has been fine to date. Now it’s time to identify a longer-term storage option to protect the wood for many generations to come. A team of volunteers is exploring the most practical, cost-effective and feasible option.
Baba’s Tree is an Even Stronger Symbol of the Avatar’s Presence
All that has been accomplished over the past year was due to the help of dozens of volunteers and dedicated professionals, all of whom were inspired by the opportunity, and by the donations from those whose hearts were touched by the plight of Baba’s Tree.
Volunteers who have been associated with Meher Mount for years express a feeling that Beloved Baba has sacrificed His Tree, where thousands have come to feel His presence over many years, to release a powerful wave of loving and invigorating energy touching every aspect of Meher Mount.
So many hearts around the world have responded with prayers, good thoughts, donations and direct service in His Name. So many who knew nothing of Meher Baba or of Meher Mount have come to hear His name and to learn something, due in part to several newspaper articles about the unique efforts to save His Tree.
All those associated with Meher Mount appreciate deeply the heartfelt support for the efforts to make possible the survival of Baba’s Tree and the preservation of the fallen wood.