Loving and Grieving a Tree by Stephen Altschuler (copyright protected)
Excerpted from my book The Mindful Hiker, available at Amazon
I am not certain how intimacy with a tree begins. But I have always found myself more comfortable around some trees—more familiar, as if we were related, as if my blood and their sap were flowing at the same pace in the same plane of consciousness. As Martin Buber wrote in his classic I and Thou after describing all the objective ways we can relate to and perceive a tree, “It can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness.” The concepts “tree” and “I” disappear. The spirit of the tree and the spirit within me are the same.
I have felt this intimacy with several trees. One was an old pine in the forest near my cabin in New Hampshire. This wise grandmother, thick in girth and handsome in shape, had birthed many of the young pines that sprouted about. Another was a tall, lanky, straggling tree that towered over the cabin. It had just a tuft of branches near its top, which made botanical identification difficult, but I called it Ol’ Herc, and it provided comfort and companionship throughout the sometimes harsh seasons and lonesome days. A battered loner, it stood out among the others and felt to me like a friendly neighbor, always there with support and a willingness to listen to my kvetching. When I met the second largest tree in the world, Big Buck, which has been standing magnificent stature and age in a forest south of Yosemite since before the birth of Jesus, it did not speak or listen to me in the tree whispers that intimacy requires.
Many handsome trees—Douglas firs and Pacific madrone and California laurel and an occasional California live oak—grace Sky Trail, but only one ever called to me in ways that led to intimacy. I never named it but it had character, that tree. It was the Bishop pine—the only one of its species on that part of the trail—that rose, nicely crowned and standing separate from other trees, just off the trailhead. Maybe it was the simultaneity of that standing apart from while being a part of the whole that bound our characters together. In any case, what resulted was camaraderie— a connection that deepened over time into a core feeling that I experienced as intimacy.
Time and attention. Perhaps these, along with the mysteries of attraction, are among the essentials that lead to love and intimacy. Still, something more, something unknown, ancient, and primeval existed between that Bishop pine and me. Perhaps I had once been a tree myself, and that pine a person who had sat under me and written me poems full of endearments and gratitude. In olden days, trees were certainly held more sacred than today. They were noticed and blessed, acknowledged as part of life rather than just props in the background. We were linked, that tree and I, in a bond that had been created well before the supposed Big Bang beginning. I could not understand it intellectually, but I knew that before the before the before, that tree and I had embraced in eternal love.
Thwarted by changing winds, increased humidity, and 2,000 firefighters from all over the state, the wildfire only brushed Sky Trail. Few trees died, but all it takes is one ember in tall, dry grass to burn a tree at the stake. And that is what happened to the Bishop pine.
When I finally saw it, weeks after the fire, it still looked alive, though blackened, with tufts of green needles near its crown, and I prayed each time I walked past that it would survive. I had seen other trees come back from supposedly deadly burns. I refused to believe that it was dead. But eventually I could not deny it. My old friend was gone.
Dead. What in the world is dead, my intellectual, rational self asked? I had dealt with death before—my grandmother, a favorite aunt, a boyhood best friend, my ex-wife, my father. But it still threw me. Did it mean gone forever? Was it something other than alive? How did being dead affect my relationship with the dead? With those I had loved and lost? Was I not still best friends with my childhood best friend, Manny Fein, who died in a car crash shortly after graduation from high school? Was I not still in relationship with my ex-wife Donna, who committed suicide soon after we divorced? As Stephen Levine, the spiritual teacher and writer on death and dying, asked in his book of the same title, “Who dies?” Does anything die? Can matter be destroyed? Can it be created? Or does it just change form? Do all living things return to God? Or to love? Or to nature? Or just to dust? Who is the who within the who? And is there a form, beyond the physical plane, where the dead still live? The answers to these questions move into the realm of belief, a realm that my Zen training reacts against. One of my early teachers, the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, based his teachings on the instructions, “Don’t know!” and “Always go straight ahead.” “When you die, just die,” he would have said. “No thinking.” And my Zen head finds comfort and wisdom in that: a teaching of No Teaching. Nothing to cling to. Nothing to separate me from the experience. Nothing to launch me into the future, where I and almost everyone spend much too much time.
But my Jewish heart, that untidy place that insists on remaining in the realm of beliefs, knows something that my Zen head misses. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but it has to do with my Bubbe, my grandmother, and her blintzes, and Zeyde, my grandfather, and his thick hands holding me on his lap, and my father cracking jokes until I was rolling on the floor, and Donna’s lovely smile and contagious laugh, and Manny asking my mother if she could take us to City Hall so he and I could become blood brothers. On some deep level of existence that my Western mind pays little attention to, all of these are alive and with me every time I conjure up their memory.
And so to with my old friend the Bishop pine. Slowly, a black blood sucked the life out of each limb, twig, and needle, making the old pine vulnerable to the coastal winds, until one day a winter storm wrestled it down. I came upon it lying on its side, its roots exposed, grotesque, and tangled, like the victims of the Nazi death camps. But as I walked beside it, attending to it and whispering words of love and gratitude, I still saw it in its original shape. Sentimental? Too precious for these steely times? Maybe, but a beloved friend was lying there, and wouldn’t I have acknowledged any dead friend or close relative that way? Was I any less related to the Bishop pine than I was to my closest human friends or relatives?
Nearby, I saw small saplings, little pines born of this fallen parent. They were straight and supple, bending like willows, branches and needles tossed in all directions by the wind but going nowhere. The great gnarled trunk of the old pine was already rotting. Chunks of bark had flaked off in the first phases of decomposition. It was spring, and the earth was green with shoots of wild grains and grasses, lupine and blue-eyed grass, yarrow and clover. Dead. The sound of the word slaps hard, then breaks off like a dog’s single bark at 3 a.m. Was the old pine really dead? I was grieving for it, but had our intimacy also died now that its form had changed? What had changed? The tree was still there but in another form. And even now that it has rotted away completely, I still remember it, as I do my loving grandmother 40 years after her death.
Death and life forever play hide-and-seek with us as they create a Great Illusion that something just seen is now gone. Life, as the old pine and its offspring proved, is continuous and eternal. Where only one tree grew before, a new grove of Bishop pines is taking root.
Tree man that I am, I sometimes imagine myself being a tree, as I suspect snake people try to picture themselves crawling and devouring fat rodents, and birders flying to a nest and feeding fledglings. I find it easy to visualize being permanently rooted to the same spot, growing, breathing, swaying, feeling songbirds or raptors perching upon me as a fly might alight on my nose during sitting meditation, sensing a bobcat or a human passing by, bracing myself against a Pacific storm, healing after losing a limb or being seared by fire, holding fast against stiff spring winds and soothed by the first baby-blue forget-me-nots and wild purple irises. It might be boring at times, and I might wish I were elsewhere, wish I were something other than a tree, but a tree must put those thoughts aside and accept its tree-life.
Still, if my human life is any indication, I think I would have a hard time, if it came right down to it, being a tree. I would be restless, always leaning this way or that. I would be critical of myself for not being enough of a tree, and perhaps critical of others for peeing on me or carving initials in my bark. I would despair at having what I thought was no control over my life. I would grow anxious with nothing to do, nowhere to go, with having to content myself with a lifetime of tree-ing.
Then again, with life distilled to its simplest and noblest terms, I might be a happier tree than I imagine. If I were tree-ing in a protected wilderness like Point Reyes, I might enjoy the silence. Except for the occasional discordant human voice, distant chainsaw, or raucous crow’s caw, silence reigns. Things grow and things are eaten, things die and things decay, all without much commotion. The sun glides through the sky soundlessly, as do the moon, planets, clouds, and stars. And though the wind blows hard and destructively at times, it does so as a jazz saxophonist might delve into harmonic dissonance—it may be unsettling at times, but it’s still music.
Even now, whenever I pass this old, fallen friend, I feel a kinship that comes with intimacy. Others pass and take no notice of it. A passing glance tells them that it is dead, and, as such, useless and no longer worthy of attention.
But in the woods death and life are inseparable and complementary. One leads to the other leads to the other, and neither comes first. Did death exist before the beginning? How could life start if matter cannot be created? Science can’t answer this, nor can religion. It’s too much a process for religious dogma to explain. The more I walk the trail and wander the forest, the less I realize I know about any absolute beginnings or absolute ends. Nature simply creates, cares for, and accepts or adapts to what is. Yes, the Bishop pine is dead. I do not deny that, but can anyone say that it is no longer part of the forest? Are its charred remains any less essential for the growth of the forest than the harrier hawk that keeps the rodent population in check? I will never again see the pine’s unique form again, reaching in all directions, filling the sky with needles and cones, providing support to songbirds and owls, giving shade to bobcats and beetles. That saddens me. I am a human being, and humans grieve for the loss of what we love. But I am also more than a human being. I am fuller, part of an infinite universe that defies definition or categorization.
I know that because when I look at that tree now, I feel love, which is to say that I feel no separation between the tree and me. Zen students spend tough, cross-legged hours on the cushion enduring physical and emotional pain to accomplish something that is already, on deep psychic levels, true—that experience of complete unity with all forms of life. Can such love be sought after? Can the thinking mind, trained to learn, plan, rationalize, and produce, give itself up and commune with something other than itself? The very nature of mind is to seek, to desire. Chasing intimacy is like trying to grab hold of a handful of water with one hand. “The Thou meets me through grace,” to quote Buber again, this time on the primary divine force that embraces all life, “it is not found by seeking…The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation with it…All real living is meeting.”
My relationship with the Bishop pine had nothing to do with my thinking mind, or with knowing its botanical name or its processes of photosynthesis, nothing to do with photographs or prose or poetry, or any other concept. My relationship had to do with love—not romantic I-can’t-live-without-you love, or New Age follow-your-bliss-hug-and-kiss love, or love-thy-neighbor dogmatic-religious love, but the love you can feel without needing a word to describe or sanctify it. Such love dwells in everyday things: a kitten dashes to the door to greet me; a wildflower holds its ground against a strong wind; the warm, open smile of a kindred spirit greets me on the trail; a sparrow hawk perches at the top of a tall fir and preens its wings; a thousand ants work a two-foot plot of land in communion and community; a great horned owl calls to its mate; a young neighbor child, filled with innocence and trust, calls my name.
When love is present, God is present. In that moment, the neighbor child is God saying, “I see you. I like you. Listen to me. Come and talk with me.” It takes awareness, an appreciation of small matters and of their true essence, to transform the mundane into the miracles they actually are. We seek out gurus, read self-help books, attend religious services, and go on lengthy retreats to find our truth and how to live this truth. But the answers lie before us in nature every moment of every day. Answers are revealed every time we give or receive love—not codified in a catechism but discovered anew each time like a parable.
Answers to important life questions cannot be pigeonholed into basic principles or 10 easy steps or so many inviolable laws or truths. Answers are not frozen in perpetuity. Answers flow, blow, fog out, flood, and get caked in mud. What answers does my dead tree friend give me? That death is good? That decay grows? That fire is good, so everything should eventually burn? That everything alive finally dies? No, it gives no direct answers. Where we are as a species, living far beneath our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capacities, is the result of our efforts to concretize the laws of inner and outer nature, to take what is organic and elegant and to imprison it in dogma and theorems.
Has the Cyber-Information Age brought us closer to the truth of ourselves and our relationship with all things living, dead, animate, or inanimate? Has our cataloguing and categorizing and naming and experimenting and studying nature helped us to understand our own nature—that sine qua non of understanding everything? Have we any true wisdom to offer our children, our future generations, or ourselves? Can we put aside naming just for a moment and come into complete relationship with the universe?
Naming the Bishop pine describes it, but love does not arise from the naming. In fact, naming often results in a proprietary relationship, another “notch” on the namer’s list of objects possessed.
When Julia Butterfly Hill perched atop a thousand-year-old coast redwood, she did so not to study it but, in an act of civil disobedience and divine obedience, to save it. Those who “own” the redwoods in northern California may have developed “integrated forest management,” but they have no Tree Wisdom to pass on. Instead, they have dutifully named and classified and mapped, consigning trees to so many board feet or fence posts or pieces of garden furniture, forgetting that nature grew trees in the garden well before humans arrived.
Julia simply loved redwoods, and, as a result of that love, followed a higher law and occupied a tree that science calls Sequoia sempervirens, and she called “Luna.” God in the guise of a 24-year-old woman sat atop another divine manifestation and told us that Luna was part of our collective family and that we must love and care for all its members. Anytime we remember our eternal fabric, God abides in some form or another. Julia expressed this connection in a poem she wrote after the Pacific Lumber Company clear-cut a section of trees near Luna and the shaken tree wept tears of sap as if mourning the desecration. It’s called “Offerings to Luna”:
a life so many years gone by
history bound in each new
ring and every scar
I lay nestled in Her arms
I listen to all She has to say
She speaks to me through my
bare feet…my hands
She speaks to me on the
wind…and in the rain
telling me stories born long
before my time
as only Ancient Elders know
passed to me through
Nature’s perfect lips
Her overwhelming grief
sap that clings to me…
to my soul
I wrap my arms around Her
offering the only solace
That I know
giving myself as the only gift
I have to give
a pitiful offering
to a Goddess such as this
but of myself
it is all that I have to give
Julia transformed her love of redwoods into environmental and political action that got the attention of people like me who would never go to such extremes but who would act in our own impassioned way if educated and inspired enough. Her action, spawned from love, inspired me to write about the Bishop pine that I had come to know and love, and I hope that I in turn will inspire others to consider what in nature they love and how they might act to preserve what is left. According to Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First! and the author of The Big Outside, two million acres of wilderness fall to development every year. Although nature is still creating new land and wilderness via earthquakes and volcanic activity, it is doing so at a slower pace than we’re destroying it. What do you love? What will you do to save what remains?
The Bishop pine lies on its side like a huge reclining Buddha awaiting Parinirvana, his final journey of no return toward deep abiding calm. After years of upright service, in death the pine still serves the land and the living. In the Jewish faith, the spirit of the dead is kept alive by remembering, by piecing back together all the characteristics of a person that are seemingly scattered by death. At their core, all breathing things are but spirit—indeed, the holistic physician Andrew Weil points out that in many languages the words for “breath” and “spirit” are the same—wrapped for a relatively brief time in our clay garments, as the American spiritual sojourner and teacher Peace Pilgrim called the body. Whenever I remember my Bubbe, I again feel awash in her love and caring, and grateful that she passed them on to me and the rest of our family. The Bishop pine shows me that as well, for all around it I see the legacy of life that results from love—through its seed, the tree lives on, growing the forest.
By acknowledging and loving the Bishop pine (though it could be any tree or plant), I meld with its spirit and ensure my own place in eternity. Love fills the black holes, Stephen Hawking, and love is where we all return—trees, butterflies, skunks, rats, people from the most pious saints to the vilest of villains, petunias, pythons, and my old, lap-loving cat who died last year. Love receives us all, love chews us up and gently spits us out again and again until we finally understand and remember from whence we came and finally etch love into the foreground of our lives…as that Bishop pine did.
Knowing this changes everything. Whenever I’ve lived a moment of love, I’ve never been afraid in that moment. On the contrary, I’ve always felt fully alive and fully in touch with life. If death and love are inseparable, one flowing from the other, then in life we have the opportunity to love deeply and, in so doing, to approach death without fear. Death stops being a vast, frightening unknown. If love is the original material of the universe—and if you’ve ever truly felt love, you know this to be true—what is there to fear in returning to it? In death we will be enveloped by love.