(author’s Cottonwood Portal)
“Let me sing to you about how people turn into other things.” (Ovid)
Years ago I placed my brother’s ashes in a shallow depression that I had dug near a granite fern and moss covered boulder. The brook flowed just a few feet away and at the last minute I scattered a few filaments over the shallow waters, returning them to the sea. A week later I planted a hazel nut tree nearby. A fossilized spiral ammonite marks my brother’s grave.
Thanks to the underground highway created out of millions of tree/plant roots, the extensive net of fungal hyphae and this communal system’s miraculous ability to exchange nutrients/minerals/sugar, my brother lives on as part of this forest…The gracefully spreading hazel and all the other trees (spruce, maple, balsam, hemlock, ash) that are scattered around this hallowed woodland grove have been nourished by the bones of one I loved.
Yet only recently have I been possessed by revelation.
I want to be buried under one of these trees so I can become one too. I spent my childhood living in a tree, was sheltered, fed, and loved by them as a young forlorn mother, and chose them as my closest companions (except for dogs and bears) when I built my small camp in the woods, and later my log cabin. By mid life the deep intimacy between us had flowered into articulation. What was happening to the trees was happening to me. Trees paved the road to eco – feminism.
I long to become a tree whose context is community, whose focus is on the whole, who lives on in a sacred form that is 400 million years strong.
Trees are also my relatives. Although we parted ways 1.5 billion years ago we share 25 percent of our DNA.
Everything about trees is about living in relationship to other beings. Trees shelter, feed, protect, create life out of death and ask for nothing in return.
Well not exactly nothing. Over the course of my life trees have taught me that they love to be loved. Of course, I am grateful to them for each breath I take, and for their extraordinary beauty, but mostly I love them because they exist. A life without trees is not one I would choose to live.
I think of all the rootlets – luminescent hyphae interpenetrating, nourishing, sending impulses, singing under ground. Almost daily I touch sturdy tree trunks that have provided me with support and deep abiding joy, comfort during times of distress. Sometimes, during the warmer months I listen to tree trunks making an almost imperceptible gurgling sound. The compounds that trees breathe out at night lower my stress level. My heart beats more slowly in response, in resonance with this night rhythm. I experience unimaginable aching beauty when trees are leafing out, birthing spiky top knots, coming into bloom while scenting the air with a perfume so sweet that it transports me into another realm. I lean into blessed tree shade during intolerable heat. Trees speak in tongues that I can feel or sense and sometimes utter a word or two in my own language. Is it any surprise that I am perpetually flooded with awe and wonder when it comes to trees?
No wonder I want to become one in my dying.
Tree conversation never ceases above or below. Just now because it is winter the tree’s sap, its sugary/mineral rich blood, barely trickles, though it still acts as nature’s antifreeze. The living tissue just below the bark, precious cambium, is lined with water so pure it doesn’t crystalize. Trees lean into the dark grateful to rest quietly as frost or snow covers bare branches or bends evergreen boughs to the ground. In the spring’s warming sun sap chants as it rises, flowing upward (defying gravity in the process) to the highest branches, the most delicate twigs, the sharpest tips of needles, causing the latter to bristle with new green growth. Flowers and leaves appear on deciduous trees. Pale yellow, orange or dusky brown pollen thickens the air with scent and purpose.
With adequate water trees will flourish all summer long photosynthesizing – producing bountiful amounts of oxygen as they breathe in poisonous carbon dioxide. Made of light, they transpire, offering clouds of steam, releasing precious moisture, compounds, and minerals into the air until autumn, when their life – blood begins its annual decent. Journeying back to their Source, withering leaves and needles begin to drift earthward (some needles, others scatter in early spring). Cascading leaves flutter to the ground, peppering the precious earth with the stuff of dying, twigs, uneaten fruits, seeds, and nuts, producing a layer of detritus soon to become nourishment for next year’s growth.
Seeds take root almost invisibly, seeking Earth’s warmth, minerals and other nutrients and most important – relationships with others – kinship begins beneath the surface of the soil.
Ah, to become a tree…
I will sleep and dream away the winter, bow respectfully as I wince in raging winds. Early spring brings my willow catkins into flower; blossoms that feed my much beloved and starving Black bears. Deer, and moose nibble my first twigs and buds. In the heat of the late spring sun I become tumescent, swelling buds that will produce flowers of every conceivable shape and color, those complex structures that will eventually bear fruit or seeds. Translucent lime green leaves appear and deepen into emerald. My scent is so sweet that bees seek me out and I thrive under their buzz and hum. As summer begins my leaves shower the earth in luminous dappled light shielding tender wildflowers from a sun too bright, too fierce. With the first clap of thunder I turn my thirsty leaves and stretch out my needles towards the life bringing rains. Birds who sought out the shelter of my branches to bear their young are feeding their hungry progeny. Woodpeckers hammer holes in some of my trunks for insects, creating new homes for others in the process. Flying squirrels and owls seek my protection from summer’s harsh brightness, the kind that outlasts the night. Wild bees burrow under my bark or under my feet. A myriad of insects like cicadas find homes in my canopies and sing cacophonous songs of praise at dusk. Wailing winds cease as I listen to a myriad of voices – the forest speaks.
To become a tree in a thriving forest is an act of Natural Grace.
For me “becoming tree” means that something of who I am lives on – a “not I” who continues her work – feeding animals and birds, planting and nurturing more trees and plants – those same creatures and plants (and hopefully others) that have sustained me throughout my life. Learning. Inscribing. Evolving. Until the end. In this way “the not I” continues to serve life in a way that is meaningful to Nature as a whole.
Giving back what has been given without a price tag attached.
Just the thought brings me deep peace.
Recently, someone made a statement to me that felt like truth; “You have a pure heart.” Although I didn’t have the faintest idea what was meant by these words, some kind of resonance vibrated deeply throughout my body, spiraling me towards ‘home’. With awkward surprise I heard myself agreeing with this remark. Then understanding struck.
Every tree has a pure heart.
As long as trees continue to exist they will teach us that in every end there is a new beginning. Without Tree Presence, we are truly lost.