Writing Out Loud

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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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Second Nature




Much has been written about how important reading is to the writing process. That might seem to some like putting the cart before the horse; but in the case of writing, it makes perfect sense. Of course, it’s entirely possible to read simply for the sake of reading, to soak up the narrative in search of the moment when the mystery is solved or the infidelity discovered. This type of reading does not take much into consideration beyond the story; and that’s fine, if one reads merely for pleasure.

For writers, however, reading is different in ways that can’t be adequately explained. Yes, writers also read for pleasure. But something else happens along the way that has nothing to do with the destination and everything to do with the journey there. Writers tend to notice things, usually unintentionally, that have to do with voice, style, sentence structure, and even the more mechanical aspects of a text such as punctuation and spelling. But what came first, the writer or the reader? And is it accurate to say that, for some, the seeds of the writing craft had already been planted and it just took the fertilizer in the form of thousands of written words to feed and nourish it?

I’m not sure how many writers would agree with this, but I have decided that writing, at least in its early formative stages, is more mimicry than anything else. A budding writer remembers what he or she has read in such a subliminal manner that it works its way into whatever he or she writes. This is a totally involuntary reflex, and yes, it comes from long years of reading that involve many different authors using a multitude of writing methods in the many different literary genres. To write poetry and write it well requires long years of reading poetry before an author finally finds his or her own mode. What started out as simply copying another’s style evolves eventually into a totally new one once the author finds the courage to speak in his or her own voice. The same goes for fiction or any other type of writing, for that matter. The first tentative baby steps involve imitating someone else, while the subsequent larger more assured strides are taken through new territory but that lead directly back into the writer’s own psyche.

In my own reading and writing life, I’ve noticed that it’s also possible to take that a step further. In my case, my love of nature impacts and transcends just about all that I do. Not a day, or even a few moments, go by when I’m not focused on some aspect of nature or not being distracted by something going on outside the realm of the human experience. And now, I find myself even looking for it in my reading, and when I find it, it’s almost a reason to celebrate. At such times, I say to myself…there it is, that reference, direct or subtle, to nature or to some aspect of her personality, or how she relates to our experience or to her influence on our perceptions of life and the world around us. I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t much writing, if any at all, other than the most technical sort, that doesn’t touch upon nature at some point or at least gives her a passing nod.

Right now, I’m reading Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis,” a long letter he penned, while serving a short prison sentence, to a friend and alleged lover in which he mentions nature many times. I would not have expected to find such references within those pages. But Wilde, as so many other classical writers, routinely inserts mentions of the natural world in the form of gardens, flowers, woodlands and birds, in nearly all their works, because they knew instinctively that there really is true division between us and nature, and that no matter what we think, where we go, or what we do, it somehow and in some way, has to do with nature.

It’s thus a serendipitous joy for someone with a great love of nature to come upon these references and allusions in her reading. I’ve gone beyond wondering now if it will happen to almost being sure that it will, which makes my travels through the writings of others all the more pleasurable.



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Where Nothing is Expected

b25aa-img_0393Nature doesn’t ask your permission; it doesn’t care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You’re obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’ve taken so many walks in the woods that now, when I move through any other aspect of my life, be it a personal interaction or when I’m “out there” in the big chaotic peopled world, I adopt the same mindset, the same stance, and it is as if I am merely walking through woods of a different sort. I close my eyes to those things that irritate my vision and my ears to those sounds that grate on my spirit like fingernails across a chalkboard, replacing them in my mind at least with scenic beauty and pleasing sounds. Most of all, I close my soul off from all those things I don’t understand. Because in the woods, in the secreted places that few know about or venture to, I understand it all and can move forward without a single question other than perhaps who might have passed this way before me…

It follows then that I am most comfortable when writing about nature, for it is the source of all things to me, the place where all my comforts reside, and the fount of all the knowledge I could ever hope to possess. In its vast and forgotten places, I am most at home and where I belong. I understand now why some are haunted all their lives by a sense that they’re in the wrong place, and I also comprehend now what a struggle life can be for such people who literally must step outside themselves to function in the world of human interaction that, all too often, becomes more emotionally strenuous and stressful than they can bear.

How often have I heard someone say how much they enjoy the solitude and serenity of a week spent at the seashore or at a cabin or in a tent in the woods, how much they prefer that experience over that of their daily lives? The more complex and draining the human experience becomes, the more naturally some of us tend to gravitate toward that place where none, or very little of that, exists. It’s not a regression but more a stepping off the assembly line…for we are all, like it or not, products of the system we alone among all species have created, and we continue to move along allowing ourselves to be shaped by whatever forces exert the most power over us.

Once off that line, we are then free to turn to nature, and I immediately feel the difference between being propelled forward by societal pressure or simply standing there surrounded and towered over by forces that couldn’t care less whether I exist or not. And there’s the difference: society and the world of people do care to the extent that they exploit what I have to give, while nature ignores me and allows me to blend in and not worry at all about being appropriated for its use. That is so liberating and, I think, one of nature’s more abstract qualities that many people miss: in the woods or in any isolated place, we can let our guards down, be totally ourselves, and no judgment will ever come to us from the trees or other living things around us. There, we are never ridiculed, poked fun at, criticized or demeaned. We simply are, along with everything else, in a place that puts us into the proper perspective and where everything–tree, flower, or wild creature–is simply trying to move through its life as best it can.



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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…”