Walking

Intertwined rootsI am feeling an paradox today.  I began this search for greener housing out of a desire to live more in harmony with all beings of earth.  It grew out of a deepening experience of our interconnection in an earth community.  Yet, the disruption and labor of moving from one place to another has chipped away at that felt sense of connection and I have been out of balance and spiritually exhausted.

What helps me to start finding my way back into balance are the walks I take most mornings near our new home.  I go out our back door, and then wander in our neighborhood, some days over to the Hall Trail near Capisic Brook, other days over to the trails at Evergreen Cemetery.  I’ve found a huge old grandmother tree a few blocks away, the oldest one I’ve seen so far.  Given the season and lack of leaves, I don’t even know what species it is, though I am wondering about Maple, since there are maple seeds on the ground nearby.

Old Grandmother Tree

Along my walks, the cardinals have been singing their most beautiful dawn songs, naming their territories and wooing their loves.  I am a tree person and a cardinal person and so I stop to put my hands on this tree, and I stop to listen to the cardinal songs, and try to catch a glimpse of them, usually bright and beautiful near the top branches.  There are cardinals in our own yard too.  So day by day, I hope to restore my strength, to reweave the threads that are torn and frayed from the move.

Cardinal at our new home

 

The Search for Greener Housing, Part One

For a long time, I have been saying to whomever might listen that my fantasy is to live in a zero-carbon home, a home that is so energy efficient that it doesn’t put carbon into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, or use energy that is based on fossil fuels.  There is more to it than that, but ultimately, I am hoping for a way to live more in harmony with the whole of the living earth, to live as if our human future holds life-sustaining possibilities.

So, my partner and I have started on a new adventure toward this greener living.  We have decided to downsize from our current home, and look for a smaller home that could be retrofitted to approach zero-carbon efficiency.  It is an adventure full of anxieties and tensions, so I decided to create a blog journal as we go.  I want to remind myself of the core values involved in this transition, and the grace and magic available to us when we take steps toward our deepest earth connection. It is also a way to honor the challenges we face as we seek to create change.

Our house with trees

Our house with trees

There are so many things we love about our current home–it is a well-built ranch-style house on one acre of land full of grand mature trees–large maples in the front yard, and tall oaks, pines, hemlocks, spruce, and birches in the back yard. We have such privacy and beauty around us when we go outside, and this place has been a teacher for my journey into deeper connection with the earth. There are birds and chipmunks and other critters who wander through. The house is full of light.

So why leave? For one reason, there are limits to what can be done with this house toward greater sustainability.  It doesn’t have the right alignment for solar power, for example. Secondly, it is out in the country/suburbs, and totally dependent on automobile transportation for every human need. So even if the house could be made more efficient, the location is oil-dependent. Thirdly, and perhaps most basically, it is more house and land than we really need, and expensive for us to maintain and take care of.  We couldn’t afford to do much more than we have already done toward greener living in this house. And as we look toward the possibility of future retirement, we realize we couldn’t afford to stay here at all on a retirement income.

One essential part of this process of change is the grief that emerges when we contemplate letting go of a home we have loved, and these trees that are older than we are. When we open our hearts to the land, we open our hearts to the particularity of a place.  This unique place.  I have taken hundreds of walks down this road, taken photos of these trees in all seasons, walked to the conservation land and the water district land just half a mile away.  I’ve cross-country skied back behind the yards and houses through little paths in woods out to hidden fields.  I know where the lady slippers bloom in the spring. We’ve planted flowers and bushes and young trees here, along with blueberries and raspberries.

Can a part of the magic of this change create protection for this land we have nurtured? Only if some new resident falls in love as we fell in love when we arrived here. Maybe someone with more resources could even take this place further on its own path to sustainability.  In the meantime, we keep our hands in the soil and our hearts open. We gather this season’s raspberries and keep going outside. Perhaps our love for this land is a part of the magic of this journey.

Next time, I will share our particular dreams for the new home we are seeking…

In the tree I am held by God

Beech Tree Leaves 133650004There was one more communication I experienced with the four directions tree which was not about writing or speaking or even thinking. Sometimes I merely sat, my body balanced between the sturdiness of the main branches, my eyes resting in the translucent green softening the sunlight.

Even then, the tree and I were involved in a sacred exchange. When I breathed, the tree was my intimate partner. The tree breathed out the oxygen that I needed to be alive, and I breathed out the carbon dioxide that it used for nourishment. Our physical bodies are designed to need each other. We give and receive the very substance of our lives. We have been giving and receiving this way for millennia.

We and the trees are neighbors on this planet, but more than that, we are sacred partners, we are kin. We are genetically and spiritually related to each other. If we are open to respecting the trees, if we value the inherent worth and dignity of the trees, it then becomes possible for us to experience in the trees the presence of the divine Mystery.

Breathing and writing, dreaming and remembering, in the sacred arms of the beech tree, I knew I what it felt like to be held by God and to be one with God. The trees teach us that all of us are related; their quiet language sings the song of the marvelous interweaving unity of life on Earth. Remember this, the next time you walk by the trees near where you live. Listen. And then remember to say thanks.

The Partnership of Human and Tree

When I write in my journal, I do it on paper, and what is paper but very thin slices of wood? Each time I write, I enter this old partnership of human and tree. We join together to create a magic of exploration and memory which neither of us could do alone. Think of the vast store of human wisdom and history found in libraries around the world. All of it would have been impossible without trees to hold our words in their keeping.

Beech Tree Close Up 133650001Many years after I sat in the beech tree, I discovered another link. According to Gilbert Waldbauer, the ancient Germanic peoples would carve their runes on thin slabs of beech wood. These were sometimes laced together with thongs to create what they called a Buch, which is the German word for both beech and book.

The tree is our original text, the bearer of all text. When I sat in the beech tree, I was face to face with that perennial yearning of humankind to leave our mark. I too had a yearning to leave my mark on paper, writing my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and memories, creating something new with the magic of words.

Trees have been the foundation of so much human life and culture. The first fuel of many of our ancestors was wood. Our houses are made of wood. The floors, the walls, the ceilings, the window frames and doorways. We are surrounded and held up and sheltered by the gift of trees. Our musical instruments, our tools, our boats, many of our foods and medicines, all are possible because of trees. No wonder we say “Knock on wood” when everything is going well and we wish to protect ourselves from bad luck.

Trees also play a significant role in the crisis we face today for the health of our planet. Deforestation has contributed to global warming, and planting new trees can contribute to reducing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere. I am inspired by the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, founded by Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Beginning in 1977, she organized poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees, and learn small scale trades that benefit the environment while providing a living. Over 40 million trees have been planted in Kenya in the last thirty-six years.

Sometime I wish we Americans could go back to the old European pagan approach to trees. They didn’t believe it was wrong to cut down trees or use their products for their needs. But the old pagans taught that before cutting a tree one must ask permission of the tree. To request its consent acknowledges that we have a relationship of mutuality and respect. Some might say that asking wouldn’t alter the act of cutting the tree. But just compare how consent and respect differentiate acts of lovemaking from acts of assault.

To relate to a tree with respect will change the nature of the use we make of it for our survival needs. I believe that a tree is not merely a tool and resource for human needs. The tree is a sacred Other, with its own inherent value and meaning. How do we know that the tree does not have its own sentient life? Recently I learned that trees emit low frequency vibrations that human ears cannot detect. My lack of knowledge about its language, does not determine that the tree is without a language of its own. 

Writing as Dialogue

Along with journaling, another form of writing that has been a part of my spiritual journey is to write to someone I care about—not to be sent to that person, but to express what I need to express to them. This can be especially powerful when we have lost someone we love to death. My first romantic partner, Gary, and I were together for six years. After we had been separated for a few years, he was killed in an auto accident. I still loved him, and my heart felt broken at his passing. There was much that had been left unfinished in our connection. I found that I could write to him in my journal—I could tell him all the things that had not been said between us. It was a way to find healing and bring closure to our relationship.

Another side to this writing is to write in the voice of the other person or being. Here is an example of what I mean. I ask a question, whatever question is deep in my heart. One of my perennial questions is “How can I learn to live in harmony with the earth?” I write it down. Snow on Branches DSC05758Then I let the voice of the trees answer the question. I do this literally. I write, “the trees say:” and then keep writing. Here is what came out when I asked this question most recently: “The trees say slow down, stop running everywhere, feel the wind on your face, feel the sun on your skin. Don’t be afraid, you can do this. You belong to the earth.”

It wouldn’t have to be trees. It could be birds, the ocean, the moon. It could be myself at the age of eight. It could be my old love Gary. On a psychological level, in all of these exercises, what I am doing is tapping into parts of myself that hold wisdom. On a spiritual level, we are not separate from trees, birds, the ocean or the moon—so who is to say that if we open our souls we can’t hear the wisdom they might have for us? Writing connects us to the depths of our own hearts, and our hearts connect us to all that is.

Anne LeClaire, a writer I met while living on Cape Cod, said we must take up our pen “like a heat-seeking missile… aiming it for the territory of truth.” We must go to the places we are afraid to go. We so often try to keep our hearts hidden, afraid to expose our secret selves. But LeClaire challenges us: “The heart of the universe is always within our own hearts if only we can be brave enough to expose it.”

Writing is a journey we take to discover who we are and what in us is true. Writing will surprise us. We don’t know ahead of time what will come out on the page, what will emerge within our souls. Like the magic of the ancient runes carved in trees, writing reveals secrets to us.

Quote from Anne D. LeClaire, “Writers and… Risks,” in The Cape Codder, Nov. 3, 2000.

The Four Directions Tree

I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.              Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Beech Tree 133650000When I lived in Boston, during the time I was preparing for ordained ministry, I used to visit a certain copper beech tree in the Forest Hill cemetery. It was about a ten minute walk from my home in Jamaica Plain, situated next to a small pond. I called it the four directions tree. This was because its giant trunk divided into four huge branches at about the level of my waist, and then reached toward the sky in opposite directions. One of the branches bent off a little lower, so it served as a step, up to a spot where a person could sit, right in the heart of the tree.Beech Tree Perch 133650003

Almost every day I would climb up to that perch, and lean my back against the smooth gray bark. From within, the purple leaves of the tree appeared a translucent green as the sun’s light filtered through. Some of the branches bent downward to almost touch the earth again, creating a shady yet glowing canopy. On the gray bark all around me were carved initials and messages—ragged names and dates, hearts and promises of true love always. I used to be upset that people would carve on trees, but then I began to wonder if there was something about these particular trees with their smooth elephant-like skins, that invited us to leave a permanent record.

When I was feeling tired or overwhelmed, I could sit in the four directions tree and give it my worries. Sometimes I felt that if a moment were important enough, I too would want to carve my tale in letters in its bark. My sisters and I, when we were little, would take turns writing words on each others backs as we lay in bed at night. The one whose back was being written on would try to read what message was being spelled out. I wondered if maybe, in a very important moment, the tree might read my words like that.

I went to the beech tree when I was looking for something to root me, something to rely on: When my days got too hectic and it seemed that I would never finish everything I had to do. When I was anxious about my future and wondered if I would find my calling as a minister. When I grew discouraged about the struggle and pain of the world around me. Whenever I found myself speeding up—as if I were on a frantic chase that left me breathless, as if I were trying to catch up to something just out of reach.

Then, I would go to the four directions tree. The tree didn’t speak in English words. But it seemed to bring me answers in a more subtle language. I would trace its bark with my fingertips, and remember who I was. I would remember that speeding up never brings me more time; only slowing down can do that.

I never did carve my initials there, but it seemed as if my deepest identity could be deciphered in its patterns. Sitting with my back against one of the branches, I could feel myself growing roots again. I would become as common as soil. As precious as water. Worthy of the sun. Perhaps that is the secret of why we write on trees. So that our truest dreams and memories might be found there again and again.