BY SAM ERVIN & MARGARET MAGNUS
THE 2017 THOMAS FIRE severely burned the already damaged core of Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. The interior tree trunk had burned earlier in the 1985 New Life Fire, and the hollow portion of the tree remained. (Photo: Sam Ervin, January 5, 2018)
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.
(See “Totally Random or Divinely Orchestrated? An Update on the Thomas Fire” and “Meher Mount Survives Largest Wildfire in California History”)
A LARGE LIMB and part of the trunk of Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount broke off in the high winds that accompanied the December 2017 Thomas Fire. The core of the tree is completely burned. Only a thin shell remains to support the existing limbs and generate new growth. (Photo: Sam Ervin, January 5, 2018)
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”)
JIM AUSTER creating a 600-foot long trench to pipe water from the pool/reservoir to Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount to provide for judicious watering in California’s continuing drought. (Photo: Sam Ervin, January 18, 2018)
ARBORIST MICHAEL INABA is continuing to document activity related to the potential of invasive species that could harm Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. He is also sharing this information with other arborists in the area to help protect Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) in the Ojai Valley. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, February 13, 2018)
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.
TEMPORARY PROPS for the largest limbs are being replaced by custom-made steel props supported with a concrete pad. The props protect volunteers, workers and visitors from being struck by a falling limb. They also protect the core of Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount from further damage from a broken limb. (Photo: Sam Ervin, June 21, 2018)
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.
RON HOLSEY wrapping the limbs of Baba’s Tree on Silence Day at Meher Mount with floating row cover to protect the new buds and limbs from sunburn. (Photo: Sam Ervin, July 10, 2018)
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.
ROBERT TURNAGE & JIM WHITSON are helping to spread 24-cubic yards of professional mulch under Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount to hold in moisture and provide nutrients. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, April 21, 2018)
“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.
BUDS EMERGE on a limb of Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount just weeks after the December 2017 Thomas Fire. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, January 17, 2018)
NEW GROWTH on that same limb of Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount almost nine months later. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, September 19, 2018)
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.
BABA’S TREE with the floating row cover providing sunburn protection, steel props supporting four large limbs, hoses and diffusers for watering. The new live growth is seen in the center, and the new, dead growth is to the left. (Photo: Sam Ervin, November 17, 2018).
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”)
PETER HARNISCH (orange shirt) & HAROLD GREENE (pink shirt) spend three-and-a-half days harvesting the fallen wood of Baba’s Tree and milling the large limbs into planks. (Photo: Sam Ervin, February 5, 2018)
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.
WOOD FROM BABA’S TREE - including milled planks, walking-stick-sized limbs, end pieces and assorted other chunks - are collected and stored. They are covered with tarps and sitting on an old foundation from a shed that was on the property before the 1985 New Life Fire. (Photo: Sam Ervin, April 3, 2018)
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.
A NATURAL BENCH from a section of one of the fallen limbs of Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. (Photo: Stephanie Ervin, September 1, 2018)
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.
(See “Fire Is a Creative Force – Three Benches from 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.
(See related articles “Baba’s Tree Ashes – A Keepsake and A Connection” and “Baba’s Tree – Gathering the Ash”)
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.
A BITTERSWEET MEMORY of being under Baba’s Tree about a month before the December 2017 Thomas Fire at Meher Mount. The heart rock marks the spot where Avatar Meher Baba sat alone in 1956. (Photo: Sam Ervin, November 2017)
The forecast was for rain. Still, the volunteers came. It was the day of The Great Dhuni Stick Harvest. Saturday, January 12, 2019, turned out to be a glorious day with a very special dhuni at Meher Mount.
The rain stopped, and the sun came out around 10:30 a.m. The cloud-filled skies were deep blue, and the views were picture-perfect. It was time to harvest dhuni-sized sticks from the fallen branches of Baba’s Tree.
It was only fitting that after the dhuni sticks were harvested, there should be a dhuni at Meher Mount.
On December 4, 2017, the wildfire known as the Thomas Fire struck Meher Mount. Initially, the Visitor Center/Caretaker Quarters seemed to have the least amount of damage. In the end, the majority of the expenses, time, and effort has been expended on the Visitor Center.
In hindsight, there was a “perfect storm” of events that led to the unintended – but needed – upgrade, repair and refurbishment of the building that doubles as a Visitor Center and Caretaker Quarters.
One day while working at Meher Mount during recovery and renewal from the 2017 Thomas Fire, I noticed that the window and door frames needed to be repainted and spruced up. Then I looked more closely. Some of the wooden frames and door sills needed actual replacement.
Then taking a walk through the building, it was clear that many of the 25-year-old wooden-frame doors and windows were damaged due to time, use and weather. Sam Ervin pointed out – particularly without any furniture “hiding” parts of the building – that there were gaps between and under the doors.
The gaps invited dust, rodents, snakes and other critters inside. One night in the kitchen, former Manager/Caretakers Buzz and Ginger Glasky found a baby rattlesnake that had crawled in under the door.
Baba’s Fireplace was part of the living room of the guesthouse at Meher Mount where Avatar Meher Baba met with His followers and gave darshan (blessing) on August 2, 1956.
Now, as Baba’s Tree’s remains in seclusion for several years while it recovers, Baba’s Fireplace and courtyard area are a more integral part of the visitor experience.
As a result, there is a greater sense of urgency to finalize and implement the plans to preserve Baba’s Fireplace and enhance the courtyard area.
When the Ojai Raptor Center sent out an email after the December 2017 Thomas Fire encouraging landowners to install perches and box homes to support the raptor population in the area, Meher Mount responded.
The center said the fire had destroyed raptor (eagle, hawk, falcon, owl) habitat in the area, and putting up boxes and perches was one way to help the recovery of these birds.
Meher Mount was also motivated to install the boxes to create a natural form of rodent control. A simple walk to Baba’s Tree and Avatar’s Point demonstrates the abundance of small rodents (such as gophers, voles, and mice) at Meher Mount. The ground is pock-marked with their holes.
By helping raptors thrive, Meher Mount is helping to keep the predator-prey balance in the ecosystem. The Ojai Raptor Center calls raptors and owls “free, natural and abundant rodent control!”
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire hit Meher Mount. Within a few days, the damage assessment began. At first, it seemed straightforward: Document the damage. Make a list for insurance. Begin to repair the damage.
There was some thought that in 90 days the fire recovery "to do list" would be complete, pending insurance reimbursement. As fire recovery progressed, the to do list never seemed to get shorter. In fact, each newly completed or half-completed task seemed to generate several more related tasks. The to do list was never ending.
Then it dawned on us – draw a line through the task list. When all the recovery projects before that line were completed, declare victory.
Now, seven months - 207 days to be exact - after the Thomas Fire, Meher Mount is declaring victory. The task list is still long, but every operational aspect related to fire damage has been fixed.
Break out the champagne, it’s a celebration.
On December 4, 2017, Manager/Caretakers Buzz and Ginger Glasky evacuated with their Airsteam travel trailer to Oceano, CA, because the Thomas Fire had forced them to leave Meher Mount.
Buzz and Ginger continued to stay in Oceano even during fire cleanup and recovery, often traveling three to four hours to and from Meher Mount. Before they left Oceano in late May, a number of followers of Meher Baba visited them and the Dunite museum with Gavin Arthur's house, where Meher Baba had spent the night in 1934.
On December 11, 2017, Buzz posted this story on Facebook about their stay in Oceano.
After the Thomas Fire fire struck Meher Mount on December 4, 2017, help in the form of time, energy and money, began trickling in and then streaming in.
It was inspiring for all who were on the ground, day-to-day, to feel the love and caring from around the world. The support made recovery and regeneration practically and energetically possible for Meher Mount.
It was suggested by Cassandra Bramucci that Meher Mount find a way to thank all the donors and volunteers. She thought sending a keepsake with the ashes from Baba’s Tree would be appropriate.
When the December 2017 Thomas Fire hit Meher Mount, it only skimmed the corner of the outside trellis of the Visitor Center/Caretaker Quarters. The damage was minor. Estimated cost to make the repairs was $1,200. All that was needed was to replace three beams and apply some paint.
When attention moved to the burned trellis, this “minor” damage became a major repair with a final cost of $22,200.
The fire damage turned out be a blessing. It drew attention to the trellis – which would have been totally ignored in the focus to take care of other fire issues and ongoing maintenance at Meher Mount.
The December 2017 Thomas Fire completely burned the wooden entry fence at Meher Mount. Only the metal gate with the heart in the center was left standing.
In April 2018, the former, burned wooden fence was upgraded and replaced with a new metal fence. A more fire-resistant metal was used to help protect Meher Mount in the event of future fires.
The heart gate is again welcoming visitors to Meher Mount.
It took a concentrated team effort to accomplish the mission: get ready for the June 1, 2018, fire abatement inspection by the Ventura County Fire Department.
Behind the ostensible fire clearance goal is giving Meher Mount tender loving care and a welcoming appearance. It is honoring Avatar Meher Baba's presence at Meher Mount.
"The work to clean, maintain and 'beautify' Meher Mount is like dressing Meher Baba's Samadhi [tomb shrine] for the day," said Board President Sam Ervin. "It's preparation for inviting souls into His Presence."
The following is a reprint of an article from the Ventura County Star published on April 30, 2018, about Baba's Tree, the 2017 Thomas Fire, and re-purposing the wood from the tree.
The following is a reprint of an article about the making of three benches from the fallen wood of Baba's Tree. It is from the Ojai Valley News published April 27, 2018.
When the December 2017 Thomas Fire struck Meher Mount, it set in motion a regeneration and renewal process that is more than just fire recovery. On the surface, the fire damage seemed to be modest. Below the surface, the fire stirred a new creative energy that is moving in all directions.
Only Baba's Tree suffered major, irrevocable change. Winds and fire shattered the tree's crown and burned most of the trunk. Major limbs broke off and toppled to the ground.
But, the creative energy and the energy of Baba's Tree persists. The wood from Baba's Tree has been salvaged, milled and stored for future use.
For immediate use, Meher Mount worked with artisan Harold Greene to create three outdoor benches from Baba's Tree to be placed near Baba’s Fireplace – the only remaining man-made artifact from Avatar Meher Baba’s 1956 visit to Meher Mount. All other buildings, memorabilia, and machinery were destroyed the 1985 New Life Fire.
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire struck Meher Mount burning the stand of 16 eucalyptus trees by Baba’s Fireplace and the Visitor Center along with the large eucalyptus by the pathway to Baba's Tree.
In assessing the fire damage and the future fire threats to Meher Mount, the question was put before the board, “What to do with the eucalyptus trees?”
After the initial shock of Baba’s Tree being struck by fire for a second time – the first time in 1985 and now again in 2017 – the community expressed its desire – through social media, email and personal contact – to save the wood from Baba’s Tree. The board of directors agreed.
Within two months after the December 4, 2017, Thomas Fire, a team of professionals and volunteers was at Meher Mount for three and one-half days harvesting and salvaging the burned and fallen wood from Baba’s Tree. The immediate goal was to mill, prepare and store the wood before the winter rains.
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire – the largest wildfire in California’s history – burned Baba’s Tree leaving large deposits of ash from the tree.
Ten days later, Cassandra Bramucci emailed, “I'm feeling a sense of urgency to preserve the ashes from the tree as soon as possible - I sense rain will be coming soon.”
The forecast was for rain. But with some luck and planning, it was hoped the group could work around the rain. Despite the weather forecast, Meher Mount went ahead with Restoration Weekend – March 10 & 11, 2018.
It was a good decision. A number of tasks were completed as part of the ongoing recovery from the December 4, 2018 Thomas Fire. And as usual, a few more tasks were added to the "to do" list as a result.
The news coverage started with Perry Van Houten, who had written an earlier article “Ojai’s Trees” for the Winter 2014 edition of The Ojai Valley Visitors Guide, which included Baba’s Tree as one of six trees featured. He approached Meher Mount for a story for a story about Baba's Tree after the Thomas Fire. His article, “Group mounting significant effort to try to save Baba’s Tree,” was published on February 2, 2018, in the Ojai Valley News.
Later, Claudia Boyd-Barrett, an Ojai resident and journalist who had visited Meher Mount before, contacted Meher Mount to set up an interview. She talked with Board President Sam Ervin, Manager/Caretaker Buzz Glasky, arborist Michael Inaba, and Interim Caretaker Cassandra Bramucci. Her story for the Ventura County Star, “Baba's Tree, burned in Thomas Fire, fights for survival in Ojai,” was published on February 18, 2018.