During a walk the other day I came upon a tree whose name was Joachim. He was an oak, the kind one meets around here in the South, with the broad crown of luxuriously spread thick branches draped in Spanish moss and fern. Occasionally in urban areas Spanish moss is replaced by Mardi Gras beads, hanging down from the lower branches and glimmering in the sun. Other times they have black and white signs with threatening red letters nailed to the trunk: PRIVATE PROPERTY. Joachim bore one of these signs and though I would have ordinarily taken this as a sign to keep moving, the tree was so tall and beautiful that I stopped to consider him and allowed myself to enter a little reverie in his shade.
Looking at the sign brought a feeling of sadness tinged with anger. What is our relationship with the living world, truly? If the sign indicates that responsibility is being claimed for the tree’s wellbeing and protection then yes, that is a worthy statement. Did the owner assist the tree by mulching the roots and pruning dead branches? Does he tend to sick wounds and chase away the insects? Does she hug and kiss the tree? Do they sit in the shade and listen to the leaves rustling, whispering stories of old and more tempestuous times? Do they hang a swing or build a treehouse for the kids? Yes yes, good stewardship is a wonderful thing.
More often than not I find that a claim of ownership is a statement of power. I see it in myself and my relationship with people, animals and things. Such has our conditioning been, that we are quick to assert power, especially when the other party is weaker, small or voiceless. Not even a saint can claim to not partake in this human power struggle, and it seems that, like most other things, the only thing to do is to remain aware.
Looking at Joachim now I contemplate how deep into the ground his taproot is sunk, anchoring this great, heavy trunk and regal canopy. How can one really claim ownership on such a free, living thing? Has it not come to life from the pregnant dark belly of the earth whence we all came? Did it not once reside there as formless possibility until it chose to germinate and sprout in this here patch of soil? Did it not continue to grow by the grace of its animating life force, a thing so mysterious and fearful to us we separated ourselves from it, labelled it God and built temples in its name? Can you or I claim ownership on Life itself?
Still, this is our present-day predicament. Exiled from Eden right in the midst of it.
It is mighty hard for us to imagine that a tree is alive, in a similar way that we are alive. It has been so difficult for me as an adult to reconnect to that realm of being, where trees and plants and insects and rocks are beings, magical and animated. Yet at this moment I share with Joachim, I sense that in many ways he is more alive than me: he is whole, and stands tall and firm in this inherent knowing.
I am whole too, and loved also, but I don’t feel it. My brain is hijacked by thoughts of lack, of “should”, of obligations, beliefs, opinions and worries. My experience is compartmentalized, my vision clouded.
The live oak tends to its needs as they arise. It wills to grow bigger and stronger, and to leave more copies of itself in the world. When water and minerals are desired, roots are grown. When sugar is needed, leaves are grown with little holes that let carbon dioxide in, and organelles called chloroplasts to gather sunlight. Water escaping the little holes into the air causes the water from the roots to be sucked up as if the trunk was a giant straw. When it is time to reproduce the tree grows male and female flowers, and the wind helps the pollen get from the former to the latter. Then the acorns grow and fall to the ground, where they are found by passing animals which eat them and then release them somewhere else, helping the oak spread and grow new saplings in other places.
You see it’s all rather simple despite the complex biology of it. And most of all, there is this lively wisdom that the oak is not a separate thing from its surroundings, as it depends so very dearly on everything to live. Where does the oak begin and where does it end? Is the soil not part of the oak system? What about the air, and the sun? What about the wind that rustles through its leaves, carrying parts of its DNA from flower to flower? And what of those little rascals that eat the acorns, the squirrels, raccoons, deer and birds, that pass them through their own digestive systems before relinquishing the seeds back to the earth?
With a little openness of heart, my vision of boundaries and labels starts melting, and a fresh sense of silence, power, intimacy and Presence surrounds me.
In Joachim’s presence, I find myself awestruck.
Then it is as if the tree itself is speaking to me.
“If the sun delivers sunlight and the clouds deliver rain and the soil delivers nutrients, I will live. If not I perish, and something else will grow and thrive in my stead. If the wind blows, if the animals come, copies of me will be left behind. I am what I am and do what must be done and collectively you call me Nature: the great dance of expansion and contraction, growth and withering, proliferation and dwindling, abundance and scarcity…it is simply Change and Impermanence, all rolled into one giant cosmic Zydeco, my friend. I don’t just know how to dance, I AM the dance!”
A question bubbles up from my depths: “What about me? Who am I?”
The wind that smells of river silt blows through the leaves and through my hair. Right this instant, I feel intensely that I too, am IT.
Later, this miracle is once more covered by plaguing concepts, intricate models of the future and the past, regrets and bitterness. I once more become space-bound and time-bound. I am human after all.
With my head cupped in my palms, I contemplate my own mind, in a familiar spiral of self-reflection. This is our burden and our gift, it’s what has made us so innovative, prolific and up until now evolutionarily successful. It is also what will cause our downfall, unless we tame this tendency to get stuck in the past and project into the future, and unless we make it serve our being instead of our being serving it.
Joachim confirmed my suspicion that we can learn from our wild brethren, allow them to give us the balm for our anxious, overbearing mind, allow them to teach us the way of Nature, to take us out of our noisy mind and into a space that is vast and full of wonder and peace, so we can hear the subtle messages sent from the depths of our heart and soul.
More and more I find myself rejecting that which disconnects me from my truth, and seek the presence of that which reminds me of who I am. It is a slow uncovering process yet I am convinced that it need not be so hard if one starts filtering the insanity of the world from a young age, with guidance from elders. It need not start with a crisis. Some people are luckier than others in their upbringings, family traumas, and societal conditioning. The stakes seem high in this technologically advanced, interconnected world. We have weapons that could wipe out entire countries from the face of the map, we have destructive ideas floating around the internet, we have really hard synthetic drugs that are decimating populations of vulnerable people, we have scores of hungry, desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of humanity and a chance in life.
Each of us must finally decide what kind of a world we want and start embodying it. Each of us must make time to search for our truth so we might become it, instead of relying on someone else’s vision of life for us, one great opportunity at a miraculous life wasted. In retrospect, I have met many happy people who lived life like Joachim, natural, free, unpretentious and adaptable, being themselves against the grain of a judgmental, cynical society. I am sure the price they pay is great, but more bearable than the price they would have had to bear at the end within their heart if they had wasted their life being strangers to their own creative power. They are the people who inspire the rest of us to be brave enough to show up as ourselves.
Many ideas are clanking around in my head after my meeting with the tree, about an alternative school in Cyprus facilitating encounters with the wisdom of Nature, about endless articles on the topic of deciphering one’s soul language and following sign posts to one’s truth, about deepening my own meditation practice and exploring my imagery and archetypes through active imagination, writing and painting…ah but inspiration is a fleeting little bird which sits on one’s shoulder for a little while singing songs of great and beneficent dreams before flying away and leaving one tired and disheartened, with a bucketful of laundry, a dirty house and a looming Monday ahead.
Such is the difficult process. There is more that Joachim has shared with me, more that I learn every day even as I look out into my back yard. There is much that I want to share, yet why settle for my words when you can find out by yourself? Find your own tree, or plant, or stream, sit down, listen and be amazed at your own vastness.