When we bought this house in the woods 17 years ago I admired the house more than the woods. Rather, the woods was the lovely setting for the lovely house. But at the closing, the previous owner told me with a smile, “Remember, this house belongs to the woods.”
Over the next months I thought I could see what she meant. Flying squirrels nested in our attic, centipedes seeped into the basement, spiders were omnipresent, raccoons and deer dug up the so-called lawn for grubs. We learned to live with some of our forest co-owners and tightened our boundaries against others.
For a while the woods itself remained unknown territory. We bought the house in the summer when mosquitoes abounded. Winter was for staying indoors by the fire.
But the following spring brought an amazing carpet of wildflowers and I began to venture forth. Over several springs I learned to know every species of wildflower that bloomed here. We carved a walking path through our five acres and sometimes ventured deeper to the surrounding woods.
I usually looked down when I walked. What’s this little flower? Is that an invasive that we need to control? Any morels this year? Is it time to harvest shoots of those yummy woods nettles? Get out the rubber gloves!
After several years of looking down on my woods walks, I began looking up. I began getting to know the main inhabitants of this land, the trees. At first it was a matter of identifying species. Yes indeed, this is a fine example of a Midwestern beech-maple habitat and here are the companion ashes, walnuts, hackberrys, and more. A wild cherry or two.
A few years ago, however, I began to make the acquaintance of individual trees. I can’t say I set out to do this deliberately. Yes, there were landmark trees that marked where the path turned, the slanting trunks the cat liked to climb, the sentinels that marked the spring-blooming hepatica patch. But there was something else. Certain trees began—how can I say this—calling to me.
In particular, there was a circle of trees that stood next to the path on the downslope farthest from the house. One of the trees was dead, several were maples, and two others were common American hackberrys. One day as I was walking the path this circle seemed to invite me in, and so I stepped into it. As soon as I did that, one of the hackberrys showed itself to be the “leader” of the circle. I stepped over to it, placed my hands on it, and felt a strong surge of peace and happiness that went directly to my gut.
I stood this way for a long time, then sat down at the tree’s base. I meditated. I had not been inclined to meditation much before that. I had tried but felt I didn’t know how. In the presence of this tree, however, I slipped effortlessly into meditation.
Now here is the thing. Ever since then, this tree has never failed to do that for me. I may walk into the woods upset, tired, preoccupied, or just bored. If I stop and spend time with this tree I am immediately set right. I may meditate for a time, I may focus a specific prayer, or I may just pause for a greeting but something shifts. Always.
And this shift, this power, this sense of companionship surprises me every time. I dare not expect it or count on it but it happens.
It is so powerful that, although I make daily pilgrimages to the tree during some periods, I usually allow some time to elapse between visits. I had not gone to the tree for several months. I went yesterday, so dulled by the day's work that I could hardly drag myself outdoors. She blew me away again, reviving my battered spirits.
I am blown away, too, by the thought that we may be surrounded by allies in the natural world. We just don’t know how to connect with them. Sometimes, though, if we stand still, or live in one place for a long time, or pay attention to the subtle shifts in our feelings in certain surroundings, we may find a language that flows between us.