Our electric company shut the power down in our neighborhood one day this week. Even though it was just 9 – 5 and we had no particular need for electricity, we took it as a permission slip to get out of the house and go on an adventure into the forest. It was a warm day and the shade of the trees was so pleasant, the air so gentle and welcoming. We picnicked looking up into the canopy. There were few people and all wore masks, social distanced and greeted each other. It felt safe to be there. There was a reverence that the trees inspired. This community of humans has shown that we have the capacity to be like trees in the way we care for each other.
I have been reading Richard Power’s novel The Overstory each night before sleeping. The book made me long to be in the forest, not necessarily 200 feet up in the canopy but at least in the presence of the trees living in community, a community that does not exclude me.
As we walked the trails a deep silence settled in me. Will’s occasional comment fell on deaf ears, and he sensed we weren’t on the same page, as we usually are after over fifty years of marriage and four cozy months of sheltering-in-place. Maybe we would have been on the same page if we had been reading The Overstory together, the way we read Winnie de Puh every day to practice our Spanish, and if we were in the Hundred Acre Wood instead of a redwood canyon. While he was just glad to be out in nature, I was caught up in a complexity of deep emotions ushered forth by my many weeks of nightly reading that had been reminding me of who I am, who we all are.
At one point I stopped in my tracks, awestruck by the way the sunlight filtered through a particular stand of trees. I could tell that for Will this spot seemed not so very different from any of the other beautiful spots we had been in. Everything was awesome. And it was! But for me this spot was a homecoming of sorts, a powerful unitive experience I cannot explain even to myself, let alone to you. Or to him. Especially in the moment. I was speechless. So I stood there, feeling as rooted as the trees themselves. I could have stayed there for hours, just looking, listening, and feeling the gentle warmth of the air. Following my cue, Will settled into the silence too. Even after we continued on our meander and eventually returned home, the sense memory of that moment lives on in me. So I’m taking this time to let myself slow down and let it all sink in.
To do so, I need to revisit some of the words that so moved me in the book. One character describes her joy in what her scientific research revealed: “…how trees talk to one another, over the air and underground. How they care and feed each other, orchestrating shared behaviors through the networked soil. How they build immune systems as wide as a forest…how a dead log gives life to countless other species. Remove the snag and kill the woodpecker who keeps in check the weevils that would kill the other trees.”
She talks of how there are no individuals in the forest, no separate events, how much of the food a tree makes feeds other organisms, and how different kinds of trees form partnerships. “Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…”
“Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses. And in shaping themselves, they shape, too, the tens of thousands of other, linked creatures that form it from within.” She suggests it might be useful to think of forests as “enormous spreading, branching underground super-trees.”
Though I can’t share more of the contents of the book here, I hope it inspires you to read it if you haven’t already. In class those who have read it encouraged others to give it a try, to stay with it even though sometimes it can be confusing with the disparate story lines and confluence of characters. But it is worth it. At least for me, for them, and perhaps for you.
This dharma discussion brought up some poignant sharing from my students, who spoke of their own unitive experiences and deep sense of connection to redwoods specifically, especially at moments when they were most in need. And then, not just trees, but all of the natural world—our world as well if we can only sense our integral nature and not hold ourselves apart with the narrow dysfunctional view of alien spectator or overlord.
Reading The Overstory and spending time in the forest has made me more at ease and less afraid to share my own feelings. Many of the poems I write are nature poems. Here’s one to the live oaks in our garden that I wrote a few years back:
Three oaks entwine on the hillside:
Minoan snake goddesses with burled breasts.
I, with the good fortune to sit below them,
rarely bow in gratitude,
while they bow to the wind, the rain,
the sun and the moon.
I am footloose, but rarely dance,
while they, despite earthly constraints,
sway together in ecstasy.
I imagine underground a mirror dance
of roots rollicking round rock,
deeper and deeper into the soil of being. — Stephanie Noble
Years ago, when I used to be the main gardener of our hillside yard, I had occasional conversations with the trees. One I remember was with the Japanese maple who screeched when I was raking leaves at its base. “Leave those leaves alone!” Winter was coming and it wanted that natural insulation for its roots. I explained that rotting leaves could cause disease. (Could they? I don’t know. I was really just tidying up for my human idea of how an attractive well-maintained garden should look.) The maple surprised me by asking, “What do you have against disease? It’s just another life form, is it not?” I mentioned something about death, and the tree was equally a champion of that important process in the cycle of life.
Oh my! I put my rake down, took my gloves off and went in for a cup of tea. When Will retired and I had more physical limitations, he took over as main gardener. Oh good! Let him take the rap! He doesn’t hear the trees’ complaints, but by his labors, he has made many bees and butterflies happy. Is that enough for those judgy trees?