How to begin...
I've had a lot on my mind this last week, to be honest, and it's hard to know where to begin. Perhaps I'll start by admitting that there have been some rough moments for me, which I'm sure many people can identify with.
I had a post going about how being easily distracted can actually lead a person inadvertently, and perhaps more authentically, to their hoped-for destination, but then I got distracted (laughing face), and then I had to go back to work (crying face). It was about Tristram Shandy and bumble bees and how they use Brownian motion, random patterns of movement in response to the environment, to forage and fertilize. I will see if I can stay focused enough to actually finish the post, but for now... this brings me to the secret life of trees.
Into the woods
So last week when I was having a rough day, I decided I needed some nature time. Being isolated not only from people but also from nature is hard on us. Not to mention the fact that my body is turning into a lump, a hairball of stress, and molding itself into my furniture. I'm pretty sure that's not my purpose in life, so yeah, it doesn't feel great. Those of you still working right now will also be familiar with the stress of keeping up productivity and probably going above and beyond while also dealing with the stress of a major pandemic.
Big emotions happen about every few days, I'm noticing, and I need to STOP doing what I'm supposed to be doing, as far as possible, and take care of my very real needs for both mental and physical health. Last week on one of these days, I decided the best thing to do for my lump of a body and hairball of a mind was to walk up to the top of the hill on my street and wander around the park. My neighbourhood is all but deserted at the best of times, this amazing park too, somehow, so I wasn't worried about social distancing.
I walked very slowly to the very top of Capitol Hill in Burnaby (a steep climb for those not familiar). We've been so lucky in the Lower Mainland here to have a lot of brilliant sunshine lately, so almost immediately the warmth and light began to relax my mind and body, but still when I reached the park at the top, I was a bit on edge and leery of seeing people in the woods (as a woman by herself in a deserted park), but I took out my earbuds (I'm listening to Anna Karenina--only 13 hours to go!), and made a conscious effort to feel my feet on the ground and air on my skin, hear the wind and birds in the trees, smell the warm forest floor loam, and see with more than just my eyes.
This sounds hokey, but I don't really know how else to describe it. The body knows what it needs, so does the mind in its higher or deeper frame. Over the years, I've developed the ability to slip into a sort of meditative state very quickly, just by making the decision and rooting my mind in my body.
It's hard to describe, but the closest I have come (coincidentally) is that I feel like a tree when I do this. I feel a solid foundation in the earth, a strong anchor in my spine, and an openness of mind reaching down through and extending up and outward from these. This is my spot, you could say. I imagine everyone has their own version of this.
So I set my intention to be there with myself and with my environment, and wow, almost immediately, I realize that my body has been tight and curled inward because it now starts to relax and unfurl.
My lungs start to take in air and my head begins to rest easily on my shoulders. I begin to see. The first thing that really stands out is the brilliant green of the forest even in the shade, and the way the sun really lights up the place where it hits leaves, trunks, twigs, dirt. I see a little rock painted into a penguin nestled into a tree trunk. It looks like a forest ambassador, seated at the juncture between the entrance trail and the path winding through the forest and down and up the back side (or should I say backside?) of Capitol Hill, there to welcome walkers. He's got his little tuxedo on and a brilliant green beak that love a lot for some reason.
Those following me on Instagram may have seen this little guy already. Hello there handsome!
Ok so I'm looking at the time, and it's already 1:30 pm, wow. I can talk forever, but I will try to get to the point here so I can get into my next paint project, which has been calling my name all week. JULIE, why are you paying so much attention to that stoopid computer? I'm right here with my blues and greens and orangey (sp?) yellows, my rich saturation and contrast... (droollie face). That's my own spelling of droollie there. I'm getting mixed messages, so I picked my own. Look! A squirrel! says my bumble bee mind.
Long story short, I happened upon a tree that sort of drew me in.
I feel a bit odd talking about it because meditative experiences are hard to put into words and sometimes trying to ruins it a bit, so I'll try to keep this simple. It struck me how the old tree is the foundation for the newer tree.
And as I stood there just contemplating that, the grief that had been pressing to come out finally surfaced. Grief around what is happening right now and the acknowledgement of the losses.
This had been an unspeakably vital and powerful creature, this old tree. It would take probably four adult people to reach around this trunk. I can't even imagine how tall it was, how much water it pulled up from the earth and released back into the sky, how much oxygen it must have exhaled. Its lung capacity must have been amazing. But it's been cut short.
I want to say it's gone, because it is certainly not there in the same way... but actually it's not wholly gone. It is unmistakably there, at the root of a strong new tree, and I do something a bit weird and I ask the tree if it has anything to tell me (I figure it can't hurt to ask), I touch one of its folds with my palm, and I feel that grief again and some anger and I am reminded that these natural and powerful emotions need to be acknowledged quite regularly at this time.
Feeling the feelings
I share this personal story and benefit from the secret life of trees, in part, to encourage others to do the same, not necessarily to talk to trees, but to feel the feelings. There are a lot of feelings around this, and holding them in (which the best of us do) is both exhausting and fracturing, in a sense. I liken the effect, in myself anyway, to being that drowning person who tries to climb on top of the person trying to save them when what they really need to do is trust and let the person support them and pull them back to shore.
I start working harder, answering more emails, preparing more lessons and materials, planning this and planning that, focused outward and reaching without even realizing it for what I could have if I just slowed down long enough to be present to myself. Fear, check. Sadness, check. Anger, check. And out they come, and standing in front of this tree, which is starting to look pretty wise and benevolent at this point, I feel more alive (though feeling pain for sure) and I feel comforted.
The wisdom of trees
I also gain an interesting insight or two. Messages from the secret life of trees?? Who knows? But I do know I like these ideas.
The first is that while what has passed and can be no more must certainly be grieved and anger around it given space and expressed healthily, I would do well to look to the new tree for my own way forward. Where is this new vitality coming from? What makes it strong? Where is it going?
This reminds me of a shift I've been progressively working on since I discovered I was a(n angry) feminist: there is time to call out injustice, but then a person needs to move on in order not to become consumed with anger, fear, and mistrust. One needs to look less for the unjust (though definitely not ignoring it) and more for what feeds them. This is what I started to do, and I began to find what I needed.
I found veneration of the feminine in Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her personally soul saving Women Who Run with the Wolves, for example. I started to connect with ways of thinking, being, and relating that pulled me out of the dark place that waking up to gender injustice can create. It still hurts me sometimes, but I am not stuck there like I was before.
I was able to move forward like that new tree, nourishing myself on the good of what has passed, building a strong core sense of self and reaching with new life and creativity into the life I wish for myself and for women and men in general, one that venerates both equally.
The renewal project
Let's not get too distracted by gender politics here. That's just one example from my life that really started my lifelong lesson in the wisdom of this new tree. So here I am now, and I look back and realize that this is what I have been trying to apply to other aspects of my life as well, in particular, my health and my art, which go hand in hand actually.
Exhibit A (haha): sprouts coming out of stumps.
No wonder these trees caught my attention, and they're everywhere actually. Take a walk in any of our forests where logging has been done in the past or even where standing dead trees or fallen ones lie. You will see new life coming out of them. This is how it's done. The secret to the life of trees, I think, is that they do what is natural to them. They adapt and grow from what has come before into their own, new forms.
And some of them are really interesting. Check this one out. It's got a dancing, twisting, fingers crossed kind of thing going on.
So I realized in this odd but cool interaction with these trees that a lot of my art is focused on this kind of renewal. My art has in large part been a renewal project. More to come on this as I process it.
And I realized that I can apply this attention to renewal extending from what has passed to how I cope and respond to our global pandemic, and this was not only comforting but also inspiring. Who knows what is to come, but perhaps this forced halt will allow many of us to reevaluate what is important to us and where we really want to be. I'm getting old, so I don't have much time left. 😉
A tree is a community
The second insight is that a tree is a community, not an isolated creature, not an island. There is not just one tree growing out of this old gal but a plethora of critters (I'm calling them critters because they're not as passive as we like to think).
We are the same. This social distancing is so hard because we do not stand alone. We need each other. We thrive together, and we will make it through this difficult time by enriching our connections with each other in any way we can.
I hope this little foray into the secret life of trees (my limited experience of it anyway!) encourages people to tap into their own depth of feeling and need to reach beyond their limits. May you find yourself, your own vision for life, and your "tribe" in your own way.
Aaaaand I think I've made it!
I probably forgot something I felt was important, but I'm going to decide that's ok and call it a day. The secret life of tress cannot be captured in one blog post or even a whole library probably, so Imma humbly pack it in. I think I took a pretty good crack at it.
Have a good one, friends! And hooray for laying-on-the-ground season!
This is me after doing some lawn yoga and before coming inside to write this post. Yes, I am part hippy and part nerd.
I remembered something haha.
No exit, no way
When life keeps telling you there's NO EXIT, not once, not twice, but three times! and so on, this may be true, to a point. When it says STOP, that is definitely a good idea, for a time, but maybe add to that smelling the roses or the cherry blossoms.
I say this in the tone of advice, but I mean it for myself as much as anyone else ;). Try a different path, look beyond the signs, or turn around and look the other direction. Like whaaaaaaaat? How did I miss all those cherry blossoms? Because I was too busy focusing on the stop sign. Pfft.
And... aaaaaah 🙂