My first tree was a climbing tree. In the yard of the house of my early childhood. It was a perfect tree. A giant maple. Limbs stretched out parallel to the ground before turning upward to tickle the sky. The lowest bough hovered five feet above the lawn. Regular-sized kids could run, leap, catch its bulk then hoist themselves onto its sturdy breadth. Although six, I was puny. I would have needed a ladder to reach that branch. Or, a bigger person to hoist me up. But, kids can be mean. If the others ran away, how would I get down?
I don’t know why my brother scaled the tree. Maybe the others dared him. Gordon was only fifteen months my senior but he was a proper size. Up and up he climbed. No one had ever gone that high. Was he being taunted? Most early memories are fuzzy. Maybe it’s better that way. Too many details would be harder to erase.
At the time, I didn’t know how it happened. I gazed up into the branch-maze. Watched my brother disappear. First, an eerie silence. Then, the clatter of breaking things. The tearing of wood. The ripping of leaves. A hideous thud. My brother on the ground. Inert. The uncanny emptiness. The others ran away. I ran for our parents.
That afternoon, in the upper branches of the big maple, my brother had his first epileptic seizure. Is that why he did not scream? Is that why he escaped with only some scrapes and scratches and a broken arm? Did he know how lucky he was? Probably not. When young, we are immortal. Just like Bugs Bunny who crashed through walls or disappeared beneath a steamroller and emerged unscathed.
As for me, I learned respect for trees that day. When I grew big enough to climb them unassisted, I
stayed a safe distance above the ground. Left the loftiest branches to the birds.
A year after Gordon’s accident, we moved across town to a new home. I played among the weeds and the wildflowers that crowded the empty lots next to our property. Two trees dominated that vast realm. A climbing tree very much like the one with bad memories that we had left behind. And, a toppled tree, broken but alive, just like my brother. The second, its limbs lush with leaves and bowed to the ground, furnished a perfect hideaway.
One summer afternoon, I crawled inside the ragged green dome. I was hidden. I was safe. Still, I trembled. How long would I have to wait, this time? This time had been the worst. I had run from my brother before. But now my words sparked vengeance. He came at me with a knife. A butcher knife yanked from the kitchen drawer. I had teased him. I was mean. From where did such cruelty come? From example, I suppose. Parents, siblings, peers.
In high school we read Lord of the Flies. I refused to believe that children, left on their own, ceased to be good. Embraced evil. But, who had provoked my brother? Some part of me that I didn’t want to believe was there?
He never found me. My brother. Inside my emerald igloo. One hour. Two hours. I thought it safe to emerge. It was. I never told my parents. I never again tormented my brother.
A few decades later, a native teacher told me to go into the forest. Wander until a tree called my name. Sit at its base, back to its trunk. Observe my breath. Empty my mind. Wait for a message. How silly. Trees don’t talk. Not English anyway.
I am often not good at following rules. They get in the way. They slow me down. This time, however, I did as I was told. Perhaps because of the undisputed authority of the elder. Or, perhaps because it was a warm afternoon in June and I had nothing better to do.
I rambled. Followed no path. Allowed my intuition, and the trees, to lead me. Mossy ground moulded to the shape of my leather soles. The whistle of a warbler sweetened the air. Twigs snapped. Leaves kissed. After a small eternity—stillness. A solitary oak beckoned me forward. “Come. Sit
beneath my canopy. Lean against my rugged bark. Rest in my strength and in my wisdom.”
No, the tree never spoke those words. But, if the tree had been granted speech, that is what I imagined it would have said. As it turned out, my tree was far more eloquent and succinct than I was.
I sat. Bathed in leaf-dappled sunlight. Breathed and pondered. “What knowledge could a tree possibly give me?” Another eternity. I may have slept. The words came as they do in dreams. Not as language
but as a knowing. An absolute truth conveyed as a wordless thought. The words come later. There must be a special part of our brain designed to decode such truths.
“Keep your consciousness in your feet.”
There was no possibility that I could have said that. I didn’t know what it meant. My surprise gave way to speculation. Just how was I supposed to “keep my consciousness in my feet?”
I never acted on the tree’s wisdom. How could I act on something I didn’t understand? But, neither did I forget the message.
Some years later, mindfulness found me in the guise of a book—Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. At last I understood. I could not be present in the moment if I was always in my head—remembering, regretting, apologizing, planning, arranging, fantasizing, formulating, arguing, writing. If I focused on my feet, on the softness or solidity of the ground beneath them, or, going deeper, on the earth energy moving up and through me, or, on the fragrance of crushed grass or sun-
softened tar that enveloped me as I ambled, then, all worry, all troubles would fall away and my life would unfold in the most effortless fashion.
Now, when I walk my dog, or tend to the gardens, or vacuum the house, or scrub the dishes, I try to remember my feet. To put my attention there…on the ground. Connected to the earth. Connected to my self. It is not always easy. In fact, I am not especially good at it. Even so, every time I do remember, I think back to the elder who taught me to be still and to listen. I smile and thank that long ago tree.