(Originally published on elephant journal on June 9, 2014)
Artwork: Lost by Emily Newman
“Pick a tree,” he says.
“Pick a tree and go to it. Be with your tree.”
I pick a tree, not with my head but with my feet (there is a difference).
My feet are walking towards this tree, the one not directly in front of me but slightly off the path, to my left. There is no thought involved, just the movement of my rubber-boot feet on wet earth, the slow and gentle tread to the tree that picked me.
(We picked each other, you see.)
I greet my tree. I know it isn’t my tree. It belongs wholly to itself, as it always has and always will. Its soul is very, very old and very, very free. It will never be anyone’s tree.
But right now, for now, it feels like my tree. I wrap my arms around its trunk and, by doing so, I let my burdens go. We are alone in the world, this tree and me.
I lean against my tree and feel the roughness of its bark against my cheek, the glass marbles of its sap beneath my fingers.
And there is a memory.
I am eight years old, wandering the forest with Grandpa. He stops next to a towering pine and uses his fingernail to scratch sap off the bark. He tells me (in that voice I hear in dreams) that sap drips from the wounds of trees, their cracks and broken places. He tells me sap can fix our own wounds and rubs a bit of sticky on my scraped and scabbing knee.
(This tree is my Grandpa—old and tall and rough and wise. He is so very much alive.)
My tree has branches. I look up—towards the blue—and there they are, like long, crooked, primeval fingers growing (but not reaching) towards the sun. These branches don’t reach for the sun or the moon or the clouds, don’t try to touch something that cannot be touched or hold something that cannot be held. They simply do what branches do: grow up and out and around, in order to feel the light.
My tree has roots. I look down, towards the ground, and sense them underneath my rubber-boot feet. There they are, ripe with water and dissolved particles of past, present and future. They wind their way into the depths of the depths, intertwining with the roots of other trees, creating a living web that holds Earth together.
Trees hold Earth together.
I listen, ear pressed against the scarred bark of my tree, to the sacred silence that exists when all is known and there is no need for noise. I hear it: the nothing, the everything, the eternal truth that simmers in the deepest and darkest part of my tree, in the holy wood that exists at its center, the one we call heartwood.
My heart beats. (I, too, am so very much alive.)
I take long, unhurried breaths, my lungs expanding to let in all of the quiet, all of the knowing, the rush of remembering.
(To remember, a teacher once said, is to put the pieces back together again, to return to a state of wholeness, to literally re-member.)
The remembering glides over me like resin, slides into me, like a sweet syrup trickle. My heart beats against my chest in a slow and steady yes-yes-yes.
That the sap that feeds my tree (yes) is the blood that feeds me (yes) is the rain that feeds Earth (yes).
That there are bits of stars in our eyes (yes) and in our flesh (yes) and in the seeds that grow people and in the seeds that grow trees (yes).
That the ancient ones returned (yes), that they are here now (yes), that they are you and me and my tree and all trees and all people and all beings of Earth and Sky and Sea (yes-yes-yes).
I remember not with my head, but with my bones (there is a difference).
I allow the remembering to seep into me, to soak into my cellular memory, which is more than a billion years old. I feel solid and grounded, growing (but not reaching) towards the sun. I feel like a tree, but I am not a tree. I am very much a human being on a journey of remembering, a journey thick with suffering and sorrow and beauty and love.
There is so much love here.
A prayer, soft as a pussy willow, buds in my mouth and tickles my tongue. I carve it on the bark of my tree with tender lips:
May I be graceful.
As I continue along this chosen human path, as I become lost and found and lost and found and lost and found and lost and found, as I dis-member and re-member again and again, may I be graceful.
As I live and give and teach and learn and hurt and heal and age and die, may I be graceful.
As I struggle to root myself in this in-between space (my home, for now), may I stand tall and strong, gently swaying in the breezes of change without breaking. And if I break, when I break, may I be graceful.
I thank my tree. It’s been a good friend to me for five minutes (or was it one minute? or was it one hour?) I’ve been a good friend to it too.
(We held each other, you see.)
Now, we let each other go and it is not easy, but it is not too hard either (because there is remembering and there is trust). I bow my head, I walk away. I feel very, very young and very, very old. I am aware of the birds greeting the spring with song.
And the forest feels like home.
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” ~ Hermann Hesse