“Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.”
(Mary Oliver ~ Swan: Poems and Prose Poems)
How is it you know me, Mary Oliver? The idea carried aloft by these words holds reverence for me. There are moments when I am in the woods I cannot tell where I begin and end as a member of the universe. At these times I feel like a seamless part of everything with only a thin membrane separating each entity. But of course then I remember as I am hearing a bird sing or a twig snap or the sound of an acorn falling to the ground that I am somehow separate and distinct in form—otherwise how is it that I could hear and see it at all?
No matter where I have lived I have found a place to be in communion with woods, even if only a small patch that encapsulates trees, the scent of the earth, gentle leaves, birds, dirt! All of these elements are essential for (my) survival. Even when I lived in Boston I would sometimes go to a cemetery in Cambridge, a huge place that had trees from all over the world, many of them marked with their genus and species and native location. That is where Frederick Douglass is buried, which somehow seems quite fitting. The place is beyond description. I felt a kind of communion there that was elemental.
A CHANGE OF SCENERY
After moving to the West Coast, California in particular, 25 years ago, I was shocked at the difference of the oddness of palm trees, scattered often independent of another. And yet, I was aware of their significance. How singular they appeared to be and yet they beckoned, magnetic like, standing stalwart as if guarding some secret place in the heat of their very existence.
But it is the mighty pine and evergreens that grip me every time. Their fragrance seems to reach to the core of the earth and to my core as well. I swear, when I breathe them in I feel my cellular structure has been rearranged if only for a moment. The redwoods and sequoias nearly stop my heart when in their presence. At times when I am among them I feel almost as if I’ve violated their sacred space, feeling utterly humbled, awed.
A number of years ago my old friend Magie and I had a good laugh about an article telling about a woman, I believe it was in India or Pakistan, who had recently died. She had been married to a tree for decades. They had a picture of the tree and the woman in the WSJ, with her beside it. She had it adorned altar-like, smiling blissfully. Magie and I laughed and laughed, perplexed and yet, and yet—bizarrely I think—there was a kernel of the story we understood, oddly enough.
Magie used to tell me about the Bristlecone Pine, a stunted looking tree that grows in the high Sierras. I had never heard of them until she introduced me to one. She and her husband used to backpack, as if pioneers, as she was long ago introduced to them too. The Bristlecone Pine looks as if it could never survive, often situated in craggy rock areas with little soil. It’s as if they are insistent on surviving in that very spot in which they reside.
Trees are something I understand and yet not entirely and I suspect she did as well in her own way. There’s a kind of recognition, a wordless interspecies communication of sorts, a bond. There is an elemental quality about trees, in their very roots possibly. Primal. It’s almost as if I’ve recognized trees have been a prior “mother” to me in a previous life, as if I could not be here if not for their existence. How odd that sounds as a write it and yet it has brought tears to my eyes reaching someplace deep nonetheless.
So when I read the Mary Oliver poem above, zeroing in on the first ingredient of the woods, I am aware she somehow knows me and I her. While there are words that she has used, there exists an a priori energy that has contained and carried them to me, from one beating heart to another.
And it is good.
Heartfelt, personal, primal, truth, inner peace… Just perfect for a late afternoon in England as I contemplate life.