I’m just returning to the forest that has been my home for a mere twenty-one months, and yet speaks to me abundantly. It’s a place of lush greenness, birdsong, vocal owls at night, deer and wild boar. It’s a place where the foxes (that eat the mice on which deer ticks breed most) are so over-hunted that Lymes Disease has become endemic. It’s a place of contradictions, like most places, but always a place of growth and change. I’ve thought a lot about change over the last two years — not only in the wake of the ongoing pandemic but also because of the seismic waves still going though my life from an international move. And also because new things are happening in my life. Training as a yoga nidrā teacher last year has transformed by view of the urgency of rest and lingering in our lives. And completing a second apprenticeship in community herbalism and being about to embark on training as a medical herbalist, has transformed by thinking around healing and well-being.
So I’ve been thinking a great deal of how we constantly grow and change, how we are always becoming a different story. And thinking about how learning that is organic and embodied is particularly transformative. But as with any change, to move forward, to grow, there is always something that is left behind. Growth in one area often involves withdrawing energy elsewhere. Regeneration also involves shedding and recycling. Where do we find our models and mentors for such change?
Learning change and stillness from the trees
Humans often find this process painful, or even confusing. How we do we make decisions, what should we let go of, what will happen if we make a particular leap? The trees in the forest around my home have no such angst. They embody a cyclical wisdom that moves from blossom to leaf to seed to letting go, that is completely in tune with the soil they are rooted in, that trusts their own bodies and the body of the earth. They know how to turn towards the light and how to withstand the darkness.
The forest is a place of ceaseless change and yet it is also a place where time seems to run differently, where we can learn to linger and put ourselves in the way of kairos, ripe time rather than the relentless chronos of clocks and productivity.
In the course of Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book, Orwell’s Roses, she takes a detour to visit six eucalyptus trees that were planted by Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was born as an enslaved person and became a key figure in the Underground Railroad and a civil rights activist. Solnit comments:
There’s an Etruscan word, saeculum, that describes the span of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about a hundred years. In a looser sense, the word means the expanse of time during which something is in living memory. Every event has its saeculum, and then its sunset when the last person who fought in the Spanish Civil War or the last person who saw the last passenger pigeon is gone. To us, trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longer time scale and deeper continuity, giving shelter from our ephemerality the way that a tree might offer literal shelter under its boughs.
The trees made the past seem within reach in a way nothing else could: here were living things that had been planted and tended by a living being who was gone, but the trees that had been alive in her lifetime were in ours and might be after we were gone. They changed the shape of time.
Trees are an invitation to think about time and to travel in it the way they do, by standing still and reaching out and down.
There’s a dual lesson here. Yes, everything changes. And yet change and growth don’t have to be about striving, pushing and exhausting ourselves. We can process change, like the trees, by rooting ourselves (even if only for a while) on a piece of good earth and trusting the rhythms and cycles of time. We can grow and we can let go of what needs to be composted by lingering and listening, just as the forest does with its endless cycles of new growth and decay that keeps it alive. And in doing so we also we learn about the stretch of time that is so much more than our lifespan, time as what links us with those who’ve gone before us and with the ancestors we will become.
Learning authenticity from the trees
We live in a performative era in which people are encouraged to have brand identities. There’s a wonderful line in the film You’ve Got Mail, a film modelled after Pride and Prejudice, when Tom Hanks’s character notes that:
The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.
The atomised cultures we exist in often don’t give us time to linger long enough to develop the tools to trust our bodies and our interior lives. In an age when each of us is commodified by huge corporate entities, we’re also sold identities—from the coffee we drink to the brand of jeans we wear, from the music we listen to to the model of smartphone we become loyal to. Tom Hanks’s comment is both funny and sad. Humans need to belong. We need to trust our intuitions and imaginations. But too often these are replaced by products. The trees, despite our harrowing and commodification of forests, still show us a different way of being.
Convalescing from a severe stroke over a period of two years, Walt Whitman immersed himself in nature as a way of healing and revered the trees for their authenticity, for being rather than merely seeming or performing. In Specimen Days he writes:
How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.
Yet this saying nothing speaks volumes if we will linger and listen. He goes on
One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes.
Learning our connectedness from trees
‘The word for world is forest’ Ursula K. Le Guin insists in her eponymous novella in which humanity wreaks havoc on another planet, introducing slavery that results in the planets’ inhabitants taking on the human propensity for violence. Any ecosystem is a delicate and complex balance. Just as hunting foxes almost to extinction in the local forest where I live has resulted in an explosion of Lymes Disease and in an explosion of mice ransacking the crops so that the farmers (who ironically are often the same people as the hunters) spend more and more on chemicals to protect their yields, so introducing colonialism and violence to a habitat is bound to produce more of the same.
Forests are extraordinary models of the connectivity that involves every scrap of life on our planet. Trees are more obviously rooted than us restless humans, as Ursula Le Guin points out in her poem ‘Kinship’, yet none of us can escape the fact that everything we do makes a difference to a other lives.
Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.
Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.
Growth is often a matter of perspective, of processing our lives at depth and our kith and kin, the trees, have a great deal of perspective to offer. Writing too is often about offering a perspective, witnessing to long time lines and different viewpoints, lingering with intuition and finding the still point of our authenticity in a world that too often only wants us to perform and produce.
Trees make good models of resistance to giving in to the shallow, the fast solution, the playing a role that cuts across our inner integrity. If the word for the world is forest, perhaps the word for growth is tree.
When I am Among Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”