I grew up in the Yellow Pine Belt on the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range’s western slope where beauty was not difficult to find. When the fierce Mono Winds blew down the slopes, they coaxed the ponderosas into song, creaking and whistling in the sky above me.
When summer heat had us opening windows at night, I drifted to sleep with crickets’ lullabies humming in my ears. And when snow fell, silent and bright, I could smell its crispness. My childhood home is gone. Oh, the land is still there - so are the house and the creek and the rugged hills and valleys.
But this year, my home died.
Years of dry winters, summer furnaces, and deadly beetles ensured I would lose the trees I loved most. Today, the home I cherished sits in a ponderosa graveyard.
My story is not unique. Over the past couple years, an estimated 66 million trees died in California, and that number is still increasing by tens of millions. What does it mean to us … and to our artwork?
For me, moving among the trees was always calming. I went into the forest to relax, re-center, and find inspiration. As I witnessed the trees die, I sought out artist friends to grieve, commiserate, and begin healing. One person I knew could help was Cherokee elder Judy DeRosa. When people asked me what kind of art DeRosa makes, I immediately think that she doesn’t “make” art, she “lives” art.
“It is such an emotional discussion,” DeRosa told me. “A lot of people experience extreme grief over the loss of our best friends … In my artwork I’ve been affected by the loss of nature.”
She is not the only one who feels that way. Steve Montalto is a photographer and fine artist who spends time at Bass Lake and in the high country. He, too, is emotionally affected by tree mortality.
“A few years ago you could look from Tunnel View over Yosemite Valley, and count the dead or dying trees on one hand. Now you can’t. For many of us, Yosemite Valley is like a cathedral; it’s sacred and it’s being ravaged.” Montalto described. “It feels like it hurts more because it’s sacred.”
Tree mortality is not new, but why such a huge loss all at once? Bark beetles are not new - they evolved alongside conifers, so they alone are not to blame. Drought occurred in the past and the strong trees survived, so low rainfall alone is not to blame. Hot years hit throughout history and the trees stood, so heat alone is not to blame. But put all of these together, year after year, and the end result is catastrophic.
“I think it’s very deeply connected,” DeRosa said, “in ways most people don’t usually see.”
Montalto’s philosophy also accounts for the interconnected nature of life. “Change is part of the ecosystem, but we do not often see it on such a massive scale. Once these large-scale conifers are all gone, other species will take over, but will the trees ever come back? Who knows?”
Photographer Frank Mlikota Gabler, who often shoots in Yosemite, also wonders about the future of California’s iconic sights.
“Last November, I was surprised to see a different hue in a familiar view - a warm cinnamon color emerging among green pines,” Gabler said. “I realized the California landscape might look quite different in the future, and some species may never fully recover.”
How can we process the death of the forest? Through artwork: appreciating pieces, making pieces, performing pieces, living pieces. DeRosa creates paintings, prints, and jewelry that address the connectedness of the world. Some of her artwork uses vines as symbolic connectors - they sprout in the earth, grow up into the air, and use the heat from the sun’s fire to nourish. As for Montalto, he tries to view the dying trees as he would any other thing in nature.
“I am really working to embrace the change … trying to find intrinsic beauty that might still be there within the destruction - because there is beauty there -and capture it,” Montalto said.
This approach shows us that in all of the devastation, positives can still arise.
“A lot of the Native people I talk to,” said DeRosa, “see it as a shift, and it’s not necessarily a bad shift. We’re in the middle of this transformation and it’s hard to witness.”
Still, DeRosa is optimistic. “I look at it as a hopeful aspect of clearing away what has massively died - I see trees that are shredded and now they’re compost, and what do you want to grow there?”
My guess is we will see a lot of beautiful artwork grow from the rich soil our dying trees are gifting us.
NOTE: Chelsea J Wilhite is a Yosemite High School graduate, who is currently working on her doctorate in psychology. This piece is published in the 2016 Sierra Art Trails (Sept. 30 - Oct. 2) catalog and is printed here with permission of Sierra Art Trails, Corp. Sierra Art Trails details: www. sierraarttrails.org.