By Margaret Magnus
In the days immediately following the devastation of Baba’s Tree from the December 2017 Thomas Fire, volunteers looked for rays of hope. One of those rays of hope was the growth of new sprouts on Baba’s Tree.
NEW SPROUTS on a limb of Baba’s Tree start to emerge within a month after the December 2017 Thomas Fire hit Meher Mount. This photo was taken on January 17, 2018. (Photo: Margaret Magnus)
Another ray of hope was the realization that there was a small Coast Life Oak (Quercus agrifolia) that had been ‘hiding’ in plain sight very close to Baba’s Tree. And this tree, most probably Baba’s Tree progeny, had only been slightly burned by the Thomas Fire.
BABY BABA’S TREE IS ‘DISCOVERED’
Some volunteers started calling this tree “Baby Baba’s Tree.” Had anybody noticed this tree earlier? Yes. But with all the focus on Baba’s Tree, this tree only captured many visitors’ attention after the Thomas Fire.
BABY BABA’S TREE is clearly visible in the background of this photo taken under Baba’s Tree during Amartithi 2016. “It was the silhouette of Baby Baba’s Tree in the light that caught my eye to frame this particular photo,” said Wayne Myers. The flowers mark the spot where Avatar Meher Baba sat during His 1956 visit. The small stump-like wood piece to the right of the flowers is a memorial to Agnes Baron which completely burned in the 2017 Thomas Fire. (Photo: Wayne Myers)
It’s likely quite a few people were aware of Baby Baba’s Tree (although not named yet) before the Thomas Fire. Manager/Caretakers Samantha and Leslie Bridger had created another opening in Baba’s Tree canopy on the Avatar’s Point side by clearing underbrush and trimming some branches. They also put a bench on that side of the tree, making the baby tree more visible.
Even before that was done, Leslie had pointed out to Wayne Myers sometime in 2010 or 2011 there was a baby Baba’s Tree. “He said that could be Baba’s Tree in another 100 or 200 years,” Wayne said. “I had the impression he was being attentive to maintaining it.”
BABY BABA’S TREE at Meher Mount a month after the December 2017 Thomas Fire. (Photo: Sam Ervin, January 5, 2018)
How is Baby Baba’s Tree related to Baba’s Tree? All the Coast Live Oaks at Avatar’s Point belong to the same ‘family,’ according to ISA® certified arborist Michael Inaba. Baby Baba’s Tree may be an an extension of Baba’s Tree through the root system or inter-connected to Baba’s Tree underground with entwined roots.
Baby Baba’s Tree has come out of shadows of Baba’s Tree and is now a cornerstone of what is becoming Baba’s Tree Grove. The tree is healthy and is continuing to produce new growth while the sections of the trunk heal naturally.
BABY BABA’S TREE more than 18 months after the December 2017 Thomas Fire at Meher Mount. This tree has benefited from the care, love and nurturing given to nearby Baba’s Tree. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, June 5, 2019)
A Spontaneous Revival Leads to a Grove
Meanwhile, in another spot near Baba’s Tree and previously hidden under the canopy of Baba’s Tree was a growth-suppressed tree stump of a Coast Live Oak that had been cut down sometime in the history of Meher Mount.
THE NEW LIFE TREE emerged after the December 2017 Thomas Fire at Meher Mount. It grew from a growth-suppressed tree stump that been hidden under the canopy of Baba’s Tree. The white-wrapped limb is part of Baba’s Tree and is covered with floating row cover (trade name name Argibon®) to protect Baba’s Tree from sunburn. This branch produced some sprouts and growth in early 2018, but they died mid year. (Photo: Sam Ervin, September 19, 2018)
The stump, now exposed to sunlight and benefiting from the care for Baba’s Tree (including love, water and the support of the underground root system), began sprouting new life. These sprouts, now small branches, continue to grow and look healthy in the two years following the fire. This vigorous growth shows indications of longer-term survival.
This former tree stump is another cornerstone of Baba’s Tree Grove.
To name this tree, Meher Mount asked for suggestions through social media (Facebook and Instagram), and good ideas were put forth. “The New Life Tree” seemed to be appropriate. The stump had appeared to be helpless and hopeless – helplessness and hopelessness being a part of Meher Baba’s New Life – and then ‘new life’ sprung forward.
In addition, the predecessor retreat center to Meher Mount was the New Life Foundation founded by Jean Adriel and Alexandar Markey in La Crescenta, CA. After finding the property now known as Meher Mount, they sold the 500-acre New Life Foundation property and purchased Meher Mount in 1946.
“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” (Geoffrey Chaucer)
“SWEET BABY OAK” by Kristina Somma, who was staying at Meher Mount in January 2019 with her husband Robert Turnage as temporary caretakers. She was doing an-art-project-a-day for the month of January and was inspired by the acorns from Baba’s Tree. She and Robert had harvested the acorns, germinated them and then planted them in pots to get their start in life.
When arborist Michael Inaba visited in September 2018 to check on Baba’s Tree, he pointed out the many acorns produced by Baba’s Tree. He suggested collecting a few of them to germinate and then plant when the time was right.
At that time, Robert Turnage and Kristina Somma harvested 19 viable acorns from Baba’s Tree, knowing that not all would sprout and thrive. Each was put in a separate bag with peat moss, kept damp and stored in the refrigerator. They took the acorns home to Sacramento, CA, in a cooler to nurture them for the next month.
In October 2018, Robert and Kristina were on a trip to Southern California and stopped briefly at Meher Mount to plant 16 of the still-viable acorns in small containers using soil from Meher Mount.
The acorns have the best chance to turn into mature oak trees if all the planting conditions are similar to their origin and final home.
Over the subsequent months, volunteers continued to water, protect and nurture the acorns, with Michael Inaba periodically checking in on their progress.
CHECKING ON THE PLANTED ACORNS are Robert Turnage, arborist Michael Inaba, and Sam Ervin. The acorns are in pots under an oak tree near the Visitor Center at Meher Mount. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, December 19, 2018)
“Let nature do the hard work…”
In discussions about where to plant the acorns, Inaba noted that if the acorns were planted near the trees of their origin, i.e., Baba’s Tree, they would have better chances of survival. The existing trees and roots would recognize the acorns as part of the family and would reach out to nourish and support their growth. “When you plant the acorns in the same area as their origin, you let nature do the hard work” of helping the them to grow, Inaba explained.
In fact, he believes that the surrounding trees have helped sustain and support the renewed growth of Baba’s Tree.
There are still five viable seedlings from the acorns of Baba’s Tree. Inaba has recommended November/December as planting time – the days are shorter, thus less intense sunshine; and the winter rains will help the seedlings get established.
Seedlings & Saplings from Baba’s Tree
BABA’S TREE at Meher Mount almost 18 months after the December 2017 Thomas Fire. The tree is wrapped in floating row cover (trade name Argibon®) to protect from sunburn while the canopy continues to grow. The red flags mark the seedlings and saplings that have sprouted naturally. Baby Baba’s Tree is in the upper right-hand side of the photo. The New Life Tree is to the left and not seen in the photograph. (Photo: Margaret Magnus, June 2019)
In Spring 2019, the tiniest beginnings of Coast Live Oak trees randomly emerged around and near Baba’s Tree. They are either from acorns (seedlings) that fell during the previous fall and germinated on their own, or they are extensions from the roots (saplings) of Baba’s Tree. These ‘volunteers’ are adding to Baba’s Tree Grove.
Baba’s Tree Survival
A CLOSE UP VIEW of Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. The round center wrapped in white floating row cover is the trunk of Baba’s Tree. It is completely hollow inside, suffering the damage of two fires — the New Life Fire in October 1985 and the Thomas Fire in December 2017. A very thin cambian layer is supporting the tree and its growth. In front is a section of Baba’s Tree that detached in the high winds that accompanied the Thomas Fire. Dead limbs and branches stretch on both sides of the center. On the right, the limb which arches over the spot where Meher Baba sat in 1956, is propped up by a steel post with a strap around the limb. Baby Baba’s Tree is to the right (hidden), and the New Life Tree is to the left (hidden). (Photo: Margaret Magnus, September 2019)
Baba’s Tree continues to defy the odds. “This tree seems to operate by different rules,” said arborist Michael Inaba referring to Baba’s Tree. “Every time I look at what was left to generate the tree, I marvel at the growth.”
For now, the attached dead limbs of Baba’s Tree remain. All the burned parts of Baba’s Tree are part of the tree’s ecology and tell the continuous story of fire (October 1985), renewal, fire (December 2017) and renewal. There’s a value in keeping damaged trees — they provide habitat, educate us on the cycle of life, and reflect nature. In the instance of Baba’s Tree, these limbs were at Meher Mount in some form when the Avatar of the Age, Meher Baba, visited in 1956.
Many times I heard Agnes Baron, Meher Mount co-founder and lifetime caretaker, tell the story of Avatar Meher Baba’s visit to Meher Mount on August 2, 1956.
She said that when she showed Meher Baba around the property, one of the key sites was a large Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) forming a huge natural canopy at the far edge of the meadow in the southwest area of the property. This spot, which looks out on the Pacific Ocean, the Channel Islands and the Santa Monica Mountains, is now called Avatar’s Point.
When representatives from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) arrived at Meher Mount on August 15, 2019, to release an American Kestrel and a Red-Tailed Hawk, Jaclyn DeSantis, wildlife rehabilitator and ORC supervisor, warned all of us to have our cameras ready.
Her 11 years of experience in doing bird releases taught her that these gorgeous creatures take their chance at freedom very seriously. “This will be over in ten seconds once I open the box,” she said, “so don’t anybody blink.”
Baba’s Tree continues to grow healthy new branches — aided by the winter rains, the extra measures of care given over the past 18 months, and the love and prayers from around the world.
Consulting with ISA® Certified Arborist Michael Inaba, Meher Mount put in place a care plan starting in early 2018 for Baba’s Tree recovery and regeneration. One of the steps in the plan is sheltering the limbs with a fabric to help protect them from sunburn and pests while new growth creates a protective canopy. More than a year later, it was time for a new ‘sadra’ for Baba’s Tree.
A sadra (also sadhra) refers to a thin muslin shirt traditionally worn by Zoroastrians. Avatar Meher Baba adapted the sadra into an ankle-length garment which He regularly wore. Meher Baba said, “You have no idea what just one scrap of My sadra will mean to the world in the future.”
Caretakers of a beloved oak tree in Upper Ojai say they're cautiously optimistic the tree will survive.
Baba's Tree, on the property of the Meher Mount retreat, at 9902 Sulphur Mountain Road, was shattered by the Thomas Fire, which consumed the main trunk of the tree and destroyed 90 percent of its canopy.
But now the iconic tree is coming back to life. "It's looking good, so far," said Meher Mount President Sam Ervin.
The giant coast live oak, named for Indian spiritual master Avatar Meher Baba, overlooks the Pacific Ocean from the brow of the mountain, 1,200 feet above the Ojai Valley. Meher Baba sat under the tree and sanctified the property during his only visit in August 1956.
The following is from the Ventura County Star published on February 11, 2019, about the recovery of Baba’s Tree from the 2017 Thomas Fire. See the full article, “Baba’s Tree springs back to life after being nearly destroyed by Thomas Fire.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Recovery from the December 2017 Thomas Fire is a step-by-step process. Each completed task seems to generate several new task offspring. The restoration continues.
On February 15, 2018, just as Buzz and Ginger Glasky finished their four-and-a-half years as Manager/Caretakers, former Caretaker Ray Johnston (2002-2005, 2006-2010) arrived for a week to help with the recovery.
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.
The following is a reprint of an article about Baba's Tree and the 2017 Thomas Fire from the Ojai Valley News published on February 2, 2018.
When setting up the first meeting with ISA® Certified Arborist Michael Inaba to make a preliminary assessment of a "special large oak" at Meher Mount, he asked, “Does that special tree have a name?” Margaret Magnus smiled to herself and said, “Yes, Baba’s Tree.” Then she asked why he had asked.
Inaba said he had had dinner soon after the fire with some people who live on Sulphur Mountain. They were recounting the fire damage in the area and mentioned the tree. He later referred to Baba’s Tree as a landmark tree.
On January 5, 2018, Meher Mount met with Inaba to evaluate Baba's Tree and to start drawing up a survival and regeneration plan.