Friday, June 28, 2013

Gary Knowlton: Man of the Trees

By Christopher Nyerges

[Nyerges is the author of “Enter the Forest,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” and other books.  He teaches regular self-reliance classes and does a weekly podcast on Preparedness Radio Network. He can be reached at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

Gary Knowlton is standing next to a young redwood tree on his hillside property. He says, “Treat everything as if it were sacred, and lo and behold, you’ll find that it is.  We need to completely re-evaluate the way we interact with nature.”  He looks at the redwood tree and adds, “If trees are treated in a non-sacred way, it offends and disrespects our very source of the breath of life.  We should never vandalize and mutilate trees due to some perceived hazard, or because of our perceptions of order and neatness.  The new paradigm that we need is a deeper respect for the tree.  If we respect the trees and treat them properly, they will give us their bounty of oxygen, and fruit, and leaf.  But if we ignore their health and safety, it is always counterproductive.”

Knowlton is not an evangelist nor a shaman.  He’s a La Crescenta man who’s been concerned about the proper care of trees his entire life. By profession, he does restorative work on valuable old native trees, such as oaks and sycamores, and is considered to be one of the best among fellow arborists. 

He’s concerned that most of us underrate the tree, regarding it as a commodity, or worse, as a nuisance. But Knowlton sees it differently.  Trees are valuable because their root systems hold the soil together, they create windbreaks, they produce massive amounts of oxygen, and they give us fruit, leaf, and wood for countless purposes.  Trees provide homes for myriad forms of wildlife, making them an integral part of what Knowlton calls “the circle of nature.”  When the circle is broken, he points out, nature sometimes rebels.

As part of his work, he regularly prunes trees, seeking to discover the tree’s natural shape and needs before making any cuts.  “We often have to convince our customers to allow us to do what is best for the tree,” he says. “Often a homeowner will want a tree pruned in a way that is not beneficial to the tree. The homeowner may be concerned about neatness, order, lines, and appearances, but not about the needs of the tree.  If we did what some customers asked, it would damage the tree and set into motion a series of unwanted responses, such as branches falling, or even the tree falling over.  But a healthy tree, properly pruned to its natural shape, is actually very reliable and will be better able to survive high winds, heavy rains, frost, and drought.”

Knowlton explains that the tree fits into the intricate cycle of nature, and that most of the actions of typical “gardeners” are in ignorance of the ecology of the tree.

Knowlton prefers minimum interference, accepting the fact that nature knows what is best.  “I prefer the benign neglect management style.  No rake, no weedwacker, no blower.  It is better to feed the fallen leaves back to the tree than to rake it up and throw the leaves away.  After all, the leaves are the tree’s food.  If you all allow all the leaves to remain around the base of the tree, they create a thermal barrier, and moisture stabilizer and they gradually decompose and feed the tree. This is what happens in the forest.”

He regards the use of blowers to “clean up” yards as almost entirely unnecessary since it completely ignores the cycle of nature for the questionable goal of order lines and cleanliness.  “Those guys with blowers are strip-mining the soil. They are hauling away the productivity of the tree and merely discarding it as if those leaves were trash.  The influence of leaf blowers on the quality of life is so great with noise and dust and the unnecessary remove of leaves that it isn’t worth having them.  Leaf is  not litter. It is the life of the soil.  When you simply throw that away, you are taking away nutrients that should be allowed to feed the tree.”

“Too many people assume that gardeners know about trees,” says Knowlton.  “Some do, but most do not.  Your yard can receive a tremendous amount of damage and even dollar depreciation from such individuals. The trees’ value is based on species, location, health, and size.”

Knowlton explains that the number one cause of death of urban trees is root damage, caused by a number of ways. For example, painters will clean their brushes and pans and dump the water near the base of a tree.  Sometimes trenches are dug for water or gas lines and these damage the roots.  Another big culprit in the death of trees is the weedwacker. “Many gardeners trim unwanted plants from around the base of trees, and typically cut the tender trucks of the trees.  This is one of the easiest ways of killing trees. I’ve seen it happen frequently,” he says with dismay.

“The leaf blower and weed-wacker are two gas tools that we can do without,” says Knowlton.

“I try to integrate everything I do with the idea that every thought and action has an outcome.  We need to take responsibility for what we set into motion.  That is the way to know whether or not to take an action,” shares Knowlton.  “What is the outcome if I plant this tree?  What is the outcome if I cut down this tree?  Am I looking forward seven generations to the consequences of my actions?  This is all part of being aware of the circle of life, and being able to act with a sacred mood.  We cultivate this sacred mood not simply by thinking about it, but by the way we take action,” he says.  By now, he’s sounding more and more like an evangelist or a shaman.

Knowlton chooses to be a living part of the solution.  He doesn’t regard any tree prunings or chips as “trash.”  He uses it all.

On his backyard hillside with its 60 degree angle, he created a pathway entirely from mulch from his tree work.  “There was no hardscape, no bricks, no foundation,” explains Knowlton, pointing to the hillside covered in fine wood chips.  “And there was no erosion.  This is how we put the mulch to work.  The mulch not only completely absorbs the water from the heaviest rains, but it becomes food for earthworms as it decomposes.”

Knowlton wants everyone to see themselves as part of the intricate web of life.

“We should not break the circle of life,” he says. “We need to learn to see the circle of nature.  We can interact with nature in a productive way, but we should not do so in an interfering way.”

He points out that he has used many truckloads of mulch to create his hillside pathway, and that there is also less of a fire hazard because of the mulch.  In general, Knowlton advocates at least 3 to 4 inches of mulch for hillsides.

Besides chipping up wood for mulch, Knowlton tries to utilize as much of the prunings as possible. He saves hollow log sections for drums, and he has a pile of straight branches which he uses for fence staves.

Knowlton, who has some Iroquois ancestry, also has a small sweat lodge in his yard which he and his wife Angie occasionally use.  The sweat lodge is a dome-shaped structure made from thin branches.  They first cover it with tarps and then bring in hot rocks.  When you enter the sweat lodge, it is dark, hot, and said to be very therapeutic.

“The sweat synthesizes the ancient worship and healing practices that have existed globally in the past,” says Knowlton.  “Going into the sweat lodge is like a return to the dark womb, or a rebirthing of awareness of higher consciousness. We seek and find our spirituality through myriad paths. The sweat lodge is one such path.”

Knowlton and his wife experiment with solar devices and other technologies as ways to “live lightly on the earth.”  They also use a wood stove which is fueled with tree prunings, and then the ashes are returned back into their soil.

Knowlton pauses and looks at his redwood tree where we began.  He takes a deep breath.  He puts his hand on the tree. “The tree is a great transducer of energy, of prana,” he declares. “Our salvation lies in our recognizing the value of trees, and not ruthlessly killing them,” he tells me.

You can learn more about Knowlton by going to