Saying Goodbye (Refuge)
Leaving chores behind I bundled up and grabbed a trowel and drove between still waters to my beloved forest. The premature snow had melted, cracked ice created fantastic glittering patterns in shallow waters informing me that it was probably too late to dig plants for the frog house. Al, scientist, scholar and naturalist, Owl, my friend had just given me a terrarium, someday to become a frog house… my intention was to gather moss and jagged pieces of lichen covered bark…maybe a partridgeberry or two for both of us. Coming here to Hemlock Hollow seemed like just the right place. I also had come to say goodbye to my friends the Hemlock trees for the winter season…
At first, I scrambled around disappointed that most plants were frozen in including the sphagnum moss. Not wanting to disturb sleeping plants, I lifted pincushion and red stemmed moss that grows quickly and visited an old log ripe with rich soil and rotting sides which came away easily. This decaying wood would make walls for my frogs to cling to as vines crept up the sides. Picking up lichens on old sticks, I also uprooted two tiny hemlocks growing on a log that would thrive in a moist environment. Satisfied, that a little of this forest would spend the winter with me I returned to the car with enough bounty to satisfy both Al and me. I was going to give him and his frogs more than half of what I gathered as a surprise.
After eating my sandwich sitting on granite overlooking the water my focus softened. Suddenly the sparse ground of the forest seemed to glow. Club mosses caught fire in the slanting sun. I had been mourning the end of the season and now I was experiencing a sense of abundance. Each plump pincushion, gray green lichen seemed to be trying to get my attention. Empty was full! I couldn’t explain it – a veil had parted. Winter might be coming but I was being given a gift; to witness the end of the season.
Soon late fall colors – wheat, cinnamon, rust, gray, oak brown , sage green, algae/lichen, mosses and old tree stumps would be wearing winter white, some resting, some photosynthesizing under ice or snow. I was ready to let go.
I peered around taking in the wonder of slanted silver light on rapidly flowing river water, listened to silence, celebrating the wholeness I felt in this forest. As I traversed the winding path I began my conversation…. Endearments flowed. I have been so happy here. Some force always pulls me into NOW, and each twig, lichen and rock fern has something important to say.
Last year a dream told me that my brother ( whose ashes are buried on my land) now lives free in this forest and I can feel an amorphous presence – not him precisely – but some benign force…the kind of love that asks for nothing even as it overflows.… When I reach Hemlock Hollow I stop to visit with the trees, gazing up into whirling canopies, arms outstretched, crowns thick and healthy, all bowing to the river…Someday, I will be buried here. Reveling in the bushy green hemlock children I fall into spontaneous prayer – oh please let these beloved trees live on. I lean against the rough trunk of one; grief and gratitude are woven into one fabric. And I am a part of all there is.
Afterwards I return the same way I entered so I don’t miss the club mosses the hardwood trunk topped with spiked lichen, the reversed branches of the tall hemlocks, or the deep green hedges of young hemlocks all viewed from the opposite direction. There’s joy in this place and I wonder what might have transpired here to make it so. Good Spirits live here.
The day after this visit I asked my friend scientist/Indigenous healer about this powerful sense of Presence and he tells me that what I feel is Spiritus loci. When I looked up the definition of Spiritus loci I note that contemporary ideas focus on a distinctive atmosphere or a ‘spirit of the place’ rather than a guardian spirit. I think it may be both depending on the place – a spirit of place, and some sort of guardian.
When I first came to this area 40 years ago I was ‘called’ to land about 15 minutes from here. That first summer I was out in the field picking blueberries when the field rose up around me and held me like a mother. For the first time in my life I felt loved. Shortly afterwards I visited an area that had been brutally logged. I had never seen anything like this and just the scent of weeping pines sickened me. That night I had a dream: the terrifying picture of dying trees and slash and then superimposed over it the image of my beautiful land. When I awakened I thought that the dream was telling me that loving my land was somehow helping the ravaged forest I had seen the day before.
Soon after this experience frightening tree dreams began… whole forests were being slaughtered all around me. The waters were receding in my brook and destructive uncaring neighbors moved in. Two were already living here.
I was stunned. I had no close neighbors except down the hill and they seemed friendly. I had a beloved relationship with my land and her brook was flowing, full and clear. I was happier here than I ever had been in my life. Why was I having these nightmares?
The next year the two pieces of property up the hill from me were sold. The first man cut down my trees and built a bridge over the stream on my land. Six months later the second neighbor moved in; she had a dog that bullied mine – for years. The nightmare had begun. The trees were stripped from my back borders. It took a few more years for the first neighbor to chop the crowns off all his trees. Hatred bullying, betrayal, unpredictable explosions became the norm. Another neighbor across the road created a huge pond lowering the water table permanently. The brook was no longer clear; I stopped drinking brook water. Meanwhile the logging machine was stripping whole mountains of their pines. Skidder marks carved up what was left of these foothills leaving ugly scars. Every time I mentioned the loss of trees to people they said “oh, our trees always grow back; Maine has more forest now than it did a century ago”.
Dismissed, I gave up, there was nothing I could do.
As the trees disappeared so did the bears that I had studied and loved along with foxes, barred owls, and cottontail rabbits. More difficult to explain was the increasing sense that the Spirit of this Place was receding. I felt it but I had no idea what I was responding to. What did I mean? Now I believe the Spiritus loci, the Spirit of Place was losing power. I am not certain a guardian ever watched over this land, just me, and I was not enough.
I believe the Spiritus loci is attached to the loss of trees. Finding a protected forest that was rewilding itself helped me understand this truth long before groundbreaking science confirmed that the forest was a Living Being and all parts of it were connected, above and below.
Meanwhile, I gradually adapted to the sadness that pervades the air around my home. For awhile I believed I must be projecting my own losses outward but almost 40 years later it is clear that my sorrow and the loss of Spiritus loci are both parts of the same story. Every border of my land is stripped of trees. As more forest/land destruction continues this once stunning wild place has become a Shadow of its own Past.
I survive because I have learned how to live with what is. By appreciating each bird, each tree, my small field, my shrinking brook I participate in a greater round; one in which giving thanks and protecting this small oasis is all I can do.
I also advocate fiercely for the trees writing my way through the rooftop of hell.
It doesn’t escape me that my dreams forecast every single incident that happened to me on this land. The gift was that I finally found protected land and forest I could love. For years I wondered why I was called to witness such malignant behavior and mindless destruction here. Sometimes the anguish was overwhelming. Today I understand that I live through an intergenerational pattern of loss and if I hadn’t lived it here it would have happened elsewhere. I believe the other reason is that Nature needs reciprocity. By this I mean that S/he needs humans to be emotionally present, to grieve losses with her and this was the place S/he chose for me to do this work.
Yesterday morning I discovered a little chickadee that had been mauled by something in my caged bird -feeder. It was my mother’s birthday. After I extricated the dead bird, I shuddered. Chickadees are beloved birds to me. Where should I bury him, I said to no one in particular. The place I chose was under thick needles and sticks of the Old Mother Pine. When I stood up after internment at least 40 chickadees were chirping in a nearby crabapple. Forty at least! That they were witnessing the loss of one of their relatives was obvious. I felt a deep sense of gratitude that we were together. The chickadees and I are one with the spirit of the land, what’s left of the Spiritus Loci, the shadow that remains…
2 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye Refuge”
Great article, Sara, that attests to your very admirable closeness to nature. And your photos are really well done! 😎
so glad you like the article – this one is one of favorites – I’m sending it to a number of places – well my photos are pretty simple taken with IpHone – definitely NOT like yours that are stupendous in scope! I peer at your images for so long I can disappear in them!