We’re in the period after the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh or Lammas, the early harvest, a time for reaping what we’ve sewn, whether it’s from our artistic practice, the story we have lived or something else entirely.
What we harvest depends so much on the choices we’ve made, including what we’ve been able to say no to. The decisions we make now will be the ones our future selves have to live with and the truer those decisions are to our deepest selves, the more our future selves will look back with gratitude.
In the exquisite and lucid poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, Robert Frost feels the pull of one place, but chooses to keep the promises he’s already made. He has his quest. Whether it is gargantuan or quotidian we don’t know, and nor does it matter. He’s made the choice and he stays with it, not distracted by the beauty or all the other possibilities because he has promises to keep.
Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Keeping faith with our rhythm
We are back in the forest and the trees have so much to teach to us about coming home to ourselves so that we keep promises that our future selves will thank us for.
In his essay ‘The Things Trees Know’ in Orion Magazine’s anthology Old Growth, William Bryant Logan talks about how persistent and imaginative trees are. He notes how the live wood refuses to give up, but if it’s cut or damaged it doesn’t grow back randomly but follows a pattern that is based on an inner rhythm of tune. Using the metaphor of jazz and particularly of Coltrane’s rendition of ‘My Favorite Things’ he goes on:
It begins with a perfectly clean statement of the tune, beautiful in itself for the richness of its tone, notes that are almost solid, so you could build a house out of them. Within three minutes, the tune has modulated into completely unexpected shapes, sizes, rising and falling glissades, stops and starts, pianissimos to fortes, but it never loses the thread of that original tune. Every tree is a jazz player, in just this way, although where a long Coltrane piece might last a quarter hour, a tree’s performance may go on for half a millennium or more.
Each tree has its own melody and notes. The botanists Francis Hallé, Roelof Oldeman, and P. B. Tomlinson have shown how a tree has sets of choices in how it grows:
- to branch (the majority of trees do this) or not to branch (palms)
- if branching, to do so at the base of the stem or all along it
- to grow new branches only upward or only outward or in a combination of the two
- to determine at the outset whether each branch will grow in a continuous upward or downward direction or will change direction as it grows
- to flower at the tips of branches or along their sides
- to grow the trunk and branches continuously or to have a dormant season.
The combined matrix of these decisions gives each tree its signature tune.
… the phrase that has characterized its kind for millions of years. No matter where its seed sprouts, each will try to play its melody.
It is jazz: take the tune, stretch it, cut it into pieces, put them back together, transpose it up or down, flatten it out, or shoot it at the sky. Each tree gets its chops, gets its charts, and then throws them away. It knows the chart by heart, and so can repeat it with a thousand variations for hundreds of years, as it grows to its full stature, lives among its peers, and grows back down to the ground. Positive and negative morphogenesis, they dubbed the cycle: growing up and growing down.
As soon as the tune is played, the initial reiteration is the first major branch. As a leafy tree grows, it will generate what arborists call scaffold branches. These are the few — maybe five to eight — very large stems upon which the tree will hang most of its crown — that is, most of its smaller branches and their millions of leaves… The skill of the tree as an organism is like Coltrane in his vamping: it brings the variations back to the persisting theme.
The decisions we have to make may be much more complex than those a tree needs to take and the complex matrix of their combinations might sometimes feel overwhelming, but each of us has a body that whoops ‘Yes’ or screams ‘No’ to the decisions we take, if only we allow ourselves to listen deeply. Each of us has internal rhythms that want to make our life and our writing a beautiful improvised and authentic song.
The trees counsel the same as Mary Oliver in her exquisite poem
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves.’ This is exactly what the trees are saying as they tune in to the rhythms that delight their own bodies.
Keeping faith with what we love
Keeping faith with our inner song, with the bodies we are, with the unique matrix of all that’s made us, isn’t about only focussing on the self. Trees are social and connected. And so are we. Our writing and our lives flourishes from being mindful of the decisions we need to take in order to thrive, but our thriving and our writing can then be a gift to others.
In a beautiful passage in Underland, Robert Macfarlane writes:
Lying there among the trees, despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism, I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love: the respectful distance of their shy crowns, the kissing branches that have pleached with one another, the unseen connections forged by root and hyphae between seemingly distant trees. I remember something Louis de Bernières has written about a relationship that endured into old age: “we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.” As someone lucky to live in a long love, I recognise that gradual growing-towards and subterranean intertwining; the things that do not need to be said between us, the unspoken communication which can sometimes tilt troublingly towards silence, and the sharing of both happiness and pain. I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings. Theirs, too, seems to me then a version of love’s work.
When we know who we are, as writers and as people, and when we feel rooted and strong in our rhythms, then what we give is enriched—whether the relationship is to the work we are writing, a partner, a child, a friend… there is more space for tenderness and generosity, for connection that doesn’t erode and exhaust us but can receive as generously as it gives. Loving the soft animal of our body or our inner song and loving others and our artistic practice become part of a continual flow.
Keeping faith with our inner life
And they can do so because we are keeping faith with our inner world not to shut the rest of the world out, but so that we develop the right boundaries whilst also being vulnerable, permeable human beings and writers.
In the meditative and beautifully illustrated book, Trees, Hermann Hesse writes:
Whoever has learned how to listen to trees, no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
He observes the trees around him with deep affection. He finds in the trees models of flexibility and determination, and particularly how life has cycles and paradoxes that give it meaning without giving us all the answers. After watching the way the copper beach clings to its shrivelled leaves long after the other trees are bare, until some moment when the all the bright leaves fall at once, he writes:
What had this surprising and touching performance revealed to me? Was it death: the easy, willingly undergone death of the winter leaves? Was it life: the urgently striving, celebratory youth of the buds making space for themselves with a suddenly roused will? Was the performance sad or cheering? Was it a sign that I, an old man, should let myself flutter and fall as well, a warning that I might be taking up space needed by the younger and stronger? Or was it a call to hold on, like the beech leaves — to stay on my feet and brace myself and defend myself as tenaciously and as long as I could, because then, at the right moment, my farewell would be easy, serene, and joyful? No, like everything we see it was the great and eternal made visible: a confluence of opposites, their fusing together in the fire of reality. It meant nothing, was a call to nothing; or, rather, it meant everything — it meant the mystery of existence and it was beautiful, it was happiness and meaning, a gift and a discovery for anyone who saw it, like an earful of Bach or an eyeful of Cézanne.
There is within each us a ‘confluence of opposites’. And our writing and lives can so often have these moments that on the surface seem to mean nothing but which take on profound personal meaning. We find these moments when we linger, when we are true to our bodies, keep faith with the people and creativity we love and make space for a rich inner life that will feed our connections to all of life.
The trees invite us to pause and come home to ourselves, and from this groundedness to sing our unique songs, write our unique stories and love body, soul and life.