Writing Out Loud

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Trees: A Conversation



A friend told me recently that the acronym “LOL” doesn’t carry the same meaning for her that it does for so many others. “For me,” she said, “it means ‘Labor of Love.'” She told me this not long after I’d given her a few dishcloths that I’d knitted as a birthday gift, and I realized that her interpretation fit that occasion as well.

I’ve written often about how much I love trees, a love that has, over time, grown to unreasonable proportions. I don’t know why I love them so much, and as much as I’ve thought about and tried to describe it, I cannot adequately sum up what it is about trees that can actually distract me from what’s going on around me. For me, it’s always been a question of not seeing “the forest for the trees.” Sure, a forest IS a lovely thing to behold, especially from a distance or a great height…all that lushness, that density that, depending upon the light, reflects every shade of green imaginable, is a formidable thing to see. But there is so much more to it than that, and it all has to do with what each and every single tree contributes to the bigger picture.

For, without trees, there’d be no forest. There’d be no great swatches of green across the landscape, no habitats for wildlife, no sanctuaries for the rest of us. And that cannot help but impart great value and importance to even the lowliest of seedlings that protrudes from a decaying acorn.

So yes, this book was indeed a “Labor of Love.” For I cannot stand beneath a single tree and not hear something it has to say, not feel the need to respond in the only way I can…through words…which are essentially the trees that, together, form the forest that is a piece of writing…


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The Case of the Talking Trees



Being the tree-lover that I am, I already knew they talk because I’ve heard them. No, I’m not crazy. I’ve actually heard them talking. Not in words, mind you, but in other ways, including simply in how they behave together, communicating when it’s time to bend a certain way and to straighten up again, and when to stand perfectly still. Trees speak many different languages, and it can be a veritable Babel to most people. But to someone who understands them, theirs is the most comforting voice in the world, far preferable to that of humans that almost always portends bad news of some sort or that has the ability to grate on the nerves.

Recently, I decided on a whim to research trees and to see if anyone else out there believes they communicate, and I was both surprised and delighted by what I learned. According to at least one researcher, it seems that a vast network of tiny root fibers produced by fungi that attach themselves to tree roots actually do communicate by sending nutrients from tree to tree. Perhaps the most fascinating fact I discovered was that the oldest and largest trees in a forest are indeed, as I’ve always suspected, the most important ones, as their root networks extend the farthest and involve the most trees around them, and at sometimes great distances. Not only are these considered the patriarchs and matriarchs of a woodland simply by their size and stature, but they also are responsible for keeping many of the younger trees in their “families” alive. If nothing else, this system produces yet another lovely metaphor for the importance of cooperation that is the hallmark among families or other groups of people whose lives intertwine much as do tree roots.

Known as a mycorrhizal association, fungi, the same type that produce the mushrooms we see pop up along a forest floor after a wet spell, multiply rapidly beneath the soil where they attach themselves to the roots of everything, including trees, that grows there. This greatly improves the trees’ ability to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil, but also creates a system by which these are distributed to whatever grows within the fungal network. The fungi help feed the trees, which in turn help to feed them. And this exchange, which also conveys information about soil conditions from tree to tree, is how they communicate. In some cases, the micorrhizal filaments are so small, they can be likened to the millions of similar threads that connect everything going on inside our own bodies. Hence, another wonderful metaphor for life!

I didn’t need to read the statement that “trees communicate.” I knew this. I like to take that one step further by saying that, not only do they talk to each other but to us, too. Don’t listen for words or even for distinct sounds. Listen, rather, with your heart and your other senses. Smell the air around trees. They’re telling you about how their very presence there produces that scent. Touch the bark of an old pine and feel its energy course through your own veins. And then, the next time you are in an old forest, close your eyes, clear your mind, and listen for that humming sound, very subtle but very much there, that only trees can make. It’s there. I promise.



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Not quite a year ago, I moved to a senior living complex on the outskirts of Saco, Maine. Up till that time, I had spent the better part of 30 years of my life living in places where I was never far removed from nature. That said, it’s never really mattered where I’ve lived, for I’ve managed to connect with the natural world in the unlikeliest of places. For I’ve learned that there is as much nature in a weed forcing its way through asphalt as there is in an entire forest.

It was about this time last year when I got the call asking me if I’d be interested in taking a look at this apartment. After blurting out “Yes!” into the phone, I hung up and thought…I should at least go look at this place before signing my life away…what if I don’t like it? That fear, though, was to prove to be completely unfounded, as my first view of it confirmed that Providence had once again smiled down on me. For what I found was not what one might at first imagine such a place to be, but rather a collection of small low buildings tucked neatly against a dense wood. Considering the circumstances I was dealing with at the time and the pitiful resources I had at my disposal, I could have found no more perfect a place had I tried. And if I didn’t know any better, the thought did occur to me at one point that it had been sitting here waiting patiently for me to arrive, me, who would insist on inserting nature into every thought or between each pair of sentences.

And now here I am, almost a year later and still marveling at my good fortune. Now, though, there’s been a wrinkle, and not a small one at all. For one of the people I’ve met here, a woman just slightly younger than I am, is in the process of moving out for health reasons over which she no longer has any control. During this last week, I have watched as she dissolved into tears more than once, and it hasn’t taken me long to understand why. There, but for the grace of God…

I’ve devoted many hours pondering this situation since the day I found out she would be leaving. While I haven’t known her long, it’s been long enough to know what a dear and kind person she is, and what stores of courage lie in her deepest reaches. She is not a large woman, standing at just around five feet tall. Yet, there is a strength and determination in her character that I pray will serve her in the coming weeks as she adjusts to her new life in a local assisted living facility. Her health issues are such that they have not incapacitated her yet. Not by a long shot. So it is doubly tragic and sad to see such a still-vibrant woman bid farewell to a way of life she will never again have, and I shudder in my own core to think that could be me walking away from this place. I cannot, of course, relate to the full impact of what she is going through right now, but I certainly have some idea.

We spoke again this morning, and once again, she cried, and once again, for what it was worth, I put my arms around her to impart to her some of my own strength that is, of course, easy to manufacture because that’s not me walking away from MY life. It’s her, and there is, I am ashamed to say, some perverse comfort in that. She cries because this is it for her and because she will now be sharing a much smaller space with a complete stranger in a complex that will most likely never feel like home. I am seeing now that this is probably where the whole concept of “home” ends for us as we age…when we leave the place where we had control to go to a place where we have next to none, where it is taken over by those more capable or presumably more qualified to make the decisions they are convinced that someone old and sick should no longer be allowed to make.

What will it be like, though, when it finally happens to me? Looking around this place earlier, I realized how much more I will leave when it is “my turn.” For when I am in a place, any place, I am inextricably bound to the natural world and it to me. To be torn from that, to be told that I have to go live in a tall brick building that smells of antiseptic and urine and the other smells associated with people who need extra care, well, how will that affect me? What will that do to me? And how in God’s name will I deal with that?

I’ve joked often with friends and relatives that, when my time does draw near, I will simply walk into the woods and not look back and allow the elements to claim me. I’ll find a niche somewhere at the base of a tree and wait there until my time is up, and then, well…But how logical and practical is that? It’s not a  joke anymore, or at least not a very funny one. And me, who hates things crawling on her…it’s easy to see how that just would not, could not, ever be an option.

Yet…yet…whatever will I do when the time comes and I can no longer feed birds or curse at squirrels or put pots of plants outside or walk in the woods and take pictures of trees and flowers? What in God’s name will I do when I am ultimately placed in a cage for safer keeping, where those who know better will care for me…and will know nothing at all about where I’ve been or what I’ve seen or what I’ve felt, and of the magic that my life once was, simply because I made it so…

And that is it, all of it. I will have to make it so again, if only in my mind and in my memory. And when someone someday finds me in a daze or faraway in thought, lost to the world they know, it will probably not be at all what they think…and when they see me with my arms around myself and think I’m cold and run to get me a sweater or an extra blanket, I’ll say “No…no…those are just the trees hugging me back for all the times I hugged them…”