TREES — The Alternative Cathedral

ancient-energyWhenever I feel shaken by the blows of life, or mired in the inertia of not caring, contact with nature helps restore me to balance. Everywhere we go, seashore, mountains, meadows, woods and desert all invite us to recover our own nature in theirs, to meet their presence with our own. And in spite of the fact that, if you are an urban dweller like me, it’s not so easy to access nature in all its glory, a simple walk in a park can fill you with a sense of rootedness in the natural world. All the more if there’s a river running close by.

Perhaps each of us responds differently to natural environments, depending on where we received our earliest impressions. I can imagine how the largeness of the sky must affect those who grew up in the western United States or near a desert. Or how the deep rhythms of the sea must continue to vibrate in those who lived by the coast in their early years. I lived in a small Connecticut country house, a mile from the nearest neighbor, until I was nine and we moved to the city.

What a shock! For years I felt estranged, out of place. I didn’t belong to this noisy, smelly environment, full of shouting people. Parks became my refuge, offering room to run and to imagine myself back home. Today, at the other end of a lifetime, the deepest call comes from trees, whether in a park or walking down the block. Even those scruffy trees on grimy city streets send a delicate message. They remind me of my own nature and their great gift to our planet, purifying the air we breathe. As I climb the subway stairs on my way home, tired and hungry, my mind still wrapped around my day’s activities, I focus on the nearest tree, consciously breathing in its freshness, and exhaling my anxieties and fatigue.

Is it the triumphant upness of their branches, or their deep-rootedness in the ground? In any case, under trees I’m back where I belong. Dwarfed by great trunks and shaded by spreading branches, I no longer clutch at the past or hurry to keep up with today’s duties. I am right here.

A few lines from David Wagoner’s poem say it all:

“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

When I queried David about his evocative poem, he told me it was inspired by a time he was lost in the woods. The experience of the presence of the trees brought him back to his own presence and quieted his fear. Such an adventure puts our fear of the unknown into a different perspective. We also are unknown, even if we forget it all the time in our efforts to stay relevant.

After a morning writing at the computer, I go out to the nearby park. As I walk the familiar path, I’m sometimes brought to a standstill, silenced by the power of the trees towering above. In winter, their nude branches are articulated against the sky becoming smaller and smaller,  just like my arteries and veins. As my eyes follow the lines of strength in hefty branches that end up as twigs far above, my whole system is invigorated.

Nature teaches, reminding us that all of life is in movement. Squirrels jump, bees and butterflies explore the flowers. Trees pour their energy upward into swaying branches and grip deep down into the earth. A birdcall touches the heart. I stare back at a squirrel—poised upright in hope of food. I bend down to tug unwanted weeds from a neglected garden. My sense of self deepens. Whatever clutches me begins to let go. All that lives and moves around me and in me brings me to a new place—at one with nature and with my own inner nature—without fear, without pressure.

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