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.
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.”
The two-year, world-wide search for on-site, residential Manager/Caretakers at Meher Mount is – in hindsight – a clear example of who, when and what happening in Meher Baba’s time.
Recruitment for volunteer caretakers started in August 2017, and it wasn’t until the last days of June 2019 that new caretakers Ellen Kwiatkowski and Eric Carlson were settled in at Meher Mount.
In hindsight, it seems obvious why no new caretakers were at Meher Mount at the time Buzz and Ginger Glasky were leaving. They would have been homeless. There was some smoke damage, no heating/cooling, no power and no water in the Caretaker Quarters, thus, making it temporarily uninhabitable.
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.”
The Spring 2019 “super bloom” that is sweeping California following the generous winter rains is also gracing Meher Mount. Its appearance isn’t the massive and concentrated flowering of the desert blooms. Rather, it is the variety of wildflowers at Meher Mount that often appear only after abundant rains and sometimes specifically after a fire, such as the December 2017 Thomas Fire.
You might also say Meher Mount and the surrounding area are experiencing a “super green.” The emerald-hued rolling hills, steep mountainsides and valleys are a deep green, particularly in stark contrast to the ash-covered hillsides of 15 months earlier.
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 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.
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.
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.