Yoni Stadlin does more than just talk about honoring trees on Tu B'Shevat — he devotes vacations to "speak" for them. A month ago, the 33-year-old Bala Cynwyd native flew to Northern California for his fifth stake-out high in the boughs of an ancient Redwood that would have been chopped down years ago if not for the continual presence of guardians like him.
"It's a spiritual practice for me," Stadlin explained. "I grow a lot when I'm in the trees. It's where I have my deepest prayer and where I feel closest with myself and my friends."He and his wife, Vivian, celebrated Shabbat, Havdalah and the turn of the New Year without ever setting foot on solid ground.
When they're not perched in Redwoods, the Stadlins direct Eden Village Camp, the first and only Jewish organic farm-to-table overnight camp. The couple opened the camp two summers ago in Putnam Valley, N.Y., with a $1.1 million seed grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
The campers, about 240 and counting, know all about Stadlin's passion for trees. He's told them about his tree-sitting experiences in hopes of inspiring them to take action for the things they believe in.
"Going 150 feet up in a Redwood tree is clearly not for everybody," Stadlin said. "I teach them to find their own 'tree.' "
Adding up all his "tree-sitting," Stadlin estimated that he's spent about two- and-a-half months aloft. The longest stint lasted more than a month.
This trip was special, he said, because it was the first time he went up with his wife. They also coordinated with two friends who work at Urban Adamah, an organic farm and Jewish environmental education center in Berkeley, Calif., to arrange their six-day stay in the McKay Tract near Eureka.
Grass-roots environmentalists have taken shifts protecting an older grove of about 50 Redwoods there for more than three years, Stadlin said. With zip lines connecting the trees, fewer than 10 sitters can watch over the whole area by dashing to wherever loggers might be looming; or they can zip over to visit each other. At times, Stadlin recalled, there were more people than branch "seats" in a given tree so they simply dangled from their safety-harness ropes.
Previous sitters have built platforms, hammocks and systems of suspended buckets into some of the trees for growing food and waste disposal. Even with those structures, Stadlin said, "you're basically living on a dining room table."
To avoid dropping items or falling, "everything kind of slows down. You only do one thing at a time."
From their vantage point, they could see clearings where loggers had chopped down trees to make swing sets or other products, a "desert wasteland" reminding them why they were there, Stadlin said.
Though Redwoods could be considered renewable resources because they grow back, "clearly a 100-, 200-year-old tree is not coming back any time soon, not in my lifetime," Stadlin said. "Some of these trees were around at the time of the Temple of our Bible."
"Mystics pointed to a parallel stirring inside ourselves during this holiday," said Vivian Stadlin, 32, from a suburb of Chicago. "It was incredible to connect our inner journeys with the lives of these ancient Redwoods."With Tu B'Shevat approaching, the camp directors had extra cause to think about Judaism's relationship to nature and the springtime buds that will soon emerge on trees in Israel.
Just having a holiday that sets aside time to appreciate trees is amazing, Yoni Stadlin said.
"We pass by thousands — sometimes dozens of thousands — of these trees and how many trees do you actually stop and know?"
He makes that point in a camp game where the children get led, blindfolded, to a tree. They use all of their senses except vision to get to know the tree. Then, back at their starting point and without visual impairments, they're tasked with finding the same tree.
Since Tu B'Shevat occurs well before camp season, the Stadlins plan to bring related activities, slide shows, games and songs to nearby synagogues and Hebrew schools.
Campers and their families get an opportunity to join in the tree-themed fun during maple syrup workshops in March and April. The event was a hit last year, Stadlin said, with families coming all the way from Massachusetts to extract sap and make syrup.
Though the couple has plenty of trees surrounding their home just a few minutes from camp, Stadlin said he misses the treetops, especially the quietude.
It's always jarring "how fast the world is outside of the forest."
In the Redwoods, "you can hear wind coming through the valley," he said. "The trees literally hold us up at night. It really felt like we were living in the gills of the planet."