Christmas 2021

(For Sam & Lauren, with Love)

My son and daughter-in-law love to go hiking, particularly in areas that have lots of trees. Redwoods are of great interest and grab Lauren’s heart in particular. While I think Sam’s draw to hiking is also about the trees, I sense it includes elevation, providing sweeping vistas to the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

When I was much younger—and fit—I used to love to hike and run in the woods. Living much of my adult life in Iowa before moving to California more than two decades ago, there were fewer trees and certainly no Redwoods. Growing up in Michigan, however, the land was peppered and clotted with firs and pines. To this day, the fragrance of evergreens restores me to something primal, pure, even spiritual.

As a child, some of my deepest experiences and memories restore instantly some fibrous ingredient to my soul, like wood pulp to tree trunk strength, a venous stalwart delivery system feeding my very core. There is a quality about nature, at once essential, restorative, binding to all life.

A memory from age five renders such an evocative energy and life force. Our family was renting a cottage on Indian Lake, a vacation spot in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was a short distance from Manistique where we would move in a few months once our home was purchased and readied for move-in. 

It was winter, cold and thick with snow but I was safe and warm inside, though still longing for the out-of-doors. As I gazed through a foggy window to the thick woods across the road, I thought I saw a bear making its way through the branches. I felt startled yet envious, close to fearfulness yet safely tucked inside, buttressed by a longing to be out among the trees as well.

Even now just relating this experience brings the longing back, wishing for an instant transport to the vapors that are at the core of the physical expression of pine, mammal, and the drive to some sort of movement to a nameless and unseen destination operating as a homing device.

Transfixed, I felt helpless to extricate my interior emotion from that visual field for a time. At some point the bear was no longer in view. I have no idea how long this observation happened in minutes, maybe even seconds. But there are experiences in nature that are timeless, that enrich our lives, refueling an unstoppable forward momentum when time seems to have slowed or halted altogether.

Hiking for me (and likely my son and daughter-in-law) is such a mechanism for all of it, whether internally described for themselves or not, where this nurturance on One Strange Rock aptly named Mother Earth resides. And while I still walk a lot these days, it’s rare I’m free to do much of it in the ruggedness of nature; rarer still to do it in my physical condition. So when Lauren and/or Sam “go a hiking” I am reverent at their very act while also envious I’m unable to participate with the mechanical breakdown of an aging body. 

Still, Lauren and Sam’s pictures take me back, even if just a little, to that all important whispered fragrance that fuels and propels us all magnetic-like to the divine, to our very source. And I feel resurrected if even for an instant. It is a kind of Grace, one I do not take for granted.

photo by Lauren Mendelsohn

“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.


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.