Go to the Trees (in Difficult Times)

In times like these, it's especially easy to get busy and dismiss the "luxury" of getting outside and being in Nature. But this is when we need it most. I've found myself getting wrapped up in worry and expectations about all that I should do, but for most of us, the causes that we’re fighting for are a marathon, not a sprint--so we need to take time to rejuvenate and ground ourselves. And the comfort and wisdom we find among the trees may be more than we realize.

I was at a presentation recently where a volunteer explained that the children in his class had learned to identify several trees native to Washington. “They can now tell these trees apart the same way they can tell their friends apart,” he said. Trees as friends? It’s not that I disagreed (in fact, just the opposite) but I hadn’t expected to hear it coming from a Harvard-educated lawyer who dressed nothing like the stereotypical hippie. I was thrilled that he had the courage to speak in these terms. We’re usually so skittish about using words like 'friendship' when it comes to the natural world. I always have a voice in the back of my mind cautioning me to be careful in what I say, knowing I could be dismissed as a tree hugger (gasp!). In our culture, that’s the kind of insult that somehow makes everything else you say irrelevant. Not much unlike the term ‘crazy woman.’

I read a book recently called With the Lapps in the High Mountains which was written in 1907 by a woman who detailed her travels with the reindeer-herding Lapps of Scandinavia. This true account gives you a sense of the difficult, yet beautiful life of a nomadic people living in one the harshest landscapes imaginable. At one point, the author describes gathering a resin in the forest with one of the women, Elle.

“When we’d gone a ways into the forest—we’d now migrated so far down that there was spruce—Elle passed such a large old tree that she threw one arm around it, greeting the tree and saying, Bures, bures, beachi dearvvodaid dutnje duotarsoagis ‘Good-day, good-day, mountain spruce, I bring greetings from the birch of the high mountains.’ It’s a beautiful old custom that some of the Lapps up there still have that they greet the trees as they come down the forest from the high mountains.”

I loved the fact that not only did these people greet the trees as friends, they considered them entities capable of their own relationships as well. There are some scientists who would sneer at the idea of giving trees such personality, but thankfully we have researchers who are beginning to show the complex web of connection within a forest; the communication among tree colonies and the amazing symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants. And because we are part of Nature, and not just scientific observers, I think that when we allow ourselves to indulge the feeling of kinship (and even express it in our language), our lives become richer. How much are we cutting ourselves off from life when we don’t allow ourselves to feel the joy of relationship with the natural world?

My good friend Alayne Blickle (who runs the wonderful organization Horses for Clean Water) moved from Washington to Idaho several years ago. When I asked her whether she missed being here in the Northwest, she told me that she missed her human friends, as you would expect. But what had surprised her was just how much she missed the native trees and plants in the woods where she rode her horses. There was a deeper relationship—a friendship—that had seeped its way into her being, deeper than she’d even realized until she had left.

For me, I’ve come to realize over the years just how much I rely on seeing the plants and trees each day on my walk in the woods. Each time I notice different ones, but there are a few that stand out like good friends. There’s the Maple drenched in moss and ferns, dripping with water on rainy days; the pair of Hawthorns that have magically intertwined their trunks together like a braid; and the stately Birch, craggy, rough, and full of holes that are certainly home to owls, bats and other creatures. I could also tell you about the big Red Cedar that has undoubtedly given silent counsel to generations of walkers over the years. Her giant branches spread out and arch upwards, inviting you to sit.

 Red Cedar (& Piper)

Red Cedar (& Piper)

So, even if you hesitate to admit it out loud, see if you don’t start to notice (or maybe you already have), which trees and plants do you know? Which ones bring you solace or a quiet sigh of relief when you see them? Perhaps knowing this might help give yourself the time you need in Nature for a little companionship in these difficult times. I think we need all the help and friendship we can get!

 The Braided Hawthorn

The Braided Hawthorn