Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Filled the Emptiness

I found the first few weeks at my childhood home in Pennsylvania to be a period of adaptation. Initially I felt quite disoriented and out of sorts. All of my usual routines and habits were either gone or rearranged. I was in a lush, three-dimensional landscape after years on the flat, dry plains of eastern Colorado. I was in a densely populated and built-out state after years surrounded by empty and wide-open spaces. And I was surrounded by people after living a semi-eremitic lifestyle for six years. On top of that, I was again immersed in the sleepy, hypnotic energy of the land that birthed me, after a twenty-four year absence. And I no longer had any grounded, physical work to do, not even a garden or critters to tend to.

It was too much change too fast and it agitated me at first, but I did at least recognize my agitation was only a symptom of the true malaise—being forced to confront that frightening thing called emptiness. And I knew from past experience that into emptiness something will always flow. So I waited to see what would present itself.

The first thing seemed innocent enough. It was just the thought that, hey, here in this lush abundant place I might want to really get to know all of the wild herbs growing here. I’ve been interested in herbalism since my college days (when I grew a few potted herbs and loved to take walks in fields full of yarrow and tansy and goldenrod, and to pick wild strawberries that grew in some of Penn State’s gorgeous pastures). Later, in Colorado I discovered that in order to feel I belonged to my particular spot on earth, I had to get to know the plants that grew there. When most of the plants were foreign to me I felt like I was a stranger in a strange land. To address that, in the last few years in Colorado I had begun to get to know some of the plants that had previously been strangers to me. My part of Colorado was high desert, however, and its biodiversity was paltry compared to that of Pennsylvania, so Pennsylvania presented the perfect opportunity for me to take my plant knowledge to a new level.

The abandoned pasture next to my parent’s property was the perfect place to start. It was about halfway through the process of succeeding from well-cropped pasture back to forest again. There had always been a fair amount of trees in there, but now the open places were sprinkled with young spruces and some other trees. The bulk of the pasture was a tangled mass of raspberry and blackberry thickets and huge stands of wild roses. I began to take forays in there and to learn to identify the plants. Some I already knew from childhood: poison ivy, black locust, sassafras, queen anne’s lace, daisies, self-heal, goldenrod, clover, buttercups, wood sorrel, black-eyed susans, and so on. But many I had never learned to identify: ironweed, Joe-Pye weed, boneset, St. John’s wort, lobelia, dogbane, crown vetch, pinkweed, virgin’s bower, pokeweed, etc. As summer progressed the list of plants I could identify grew longer and longer. And of course I didn’t confine myself to that one small pasture. I was roaming all over the place and discovering new plants in need of identification everywhere I went.

By acting on this one little inkling to get to know the plants, I immediately began to ground myself. My sense of agitation faded away because I had something important to do, something physical that connected me with my environment.

But not only did I study plants, I also nibbled on plants, rubbed myself with plants (poison ivy—inadvertently--and jewelweed--intentionally), sniffed plants, got stung by plants (nettles), dug roots (burdock), made twine out of plants (dogbane), hung plants in the attic to dry, made tea out of plants, cooked with plants, fermented plants, snoozed on top of plants, climbed trees, swung from vines, and more or less interacted with plants in every way imaginable.

Plants also began visiting me in my dreams and communicating with me. Poison ivy was one such visitor—a very gentle, feminine being who apparently plays some sort of caretaking role in the forest. Poison ivy was everywhere I went, covering the ground at the forest edges and vining up trees.  I noticed that although she twined up many trees, the thickest and most ancient vines seemed to be on the black locust trees. Perhaps it was because locust trees are legumes and fix atmospheric nitrogen—maybe she chose to parasitize the locusts in order to get that “fix” of nitrogen. But staring one day at the gorgeous vines, with their thousands upon thousands of aerial root hairs digging into the warm brown bark of a black locust tree, a flash of insight came to me. She wasn’t a parasite. These two species were linked up intentionally and symbiotically. The thing they were sharing, however, will never be measured by science—they were linking consciousness.

I got the sense of the consciousness of the forest and plants in other ways too. On my walks up the back road I would often pause to look at a huge dying maple tree, its trunk emerging from the forest floor twenty feet below me and its canopy towering high above me. I remember this tree from childhood and loved it then too, but in childhood I had never noticed a peculiar thing that happened when I was in its presence. Here is what I wrote in my journal the first time I noticed it:

The other experience was two nights ago on a walk up the road. It was a gorgeous evening and there was an amazing quality to the sunlight. A doe passed twenty feet from me without noticing me. As I continued up the road I stopped here and there to admire specific trees, particularly the very old specimens (fortunately no one has logged this part of the woods). I stood for awhile admiring one huge tree growing from the forest floor below me and towering high above me.
I stood there just in awe, taking its presence in, then finally started walking up the road again. But I only got a few steps before I realized—my hands were just buzzing with energy! I felt such power coursing through me, but especially through my hands.  What’s this? All of a sudden it hit me—it was the tree. I went back and felt the power moving through me, and something immense, and an emotion like the deepest grief or beauty or love. And the sense of dignity and wisdom and deep, aching memory.
And some inkling I can’t yet put into words—about the earth under the tree, and the sky, and the tree being a tower of water, pulling earth energies up to meet the sky. And where I stood I was in this powerful force-field created by that linking of elements. And the tree was not a mere conduit but a conscious being, and the linking of earth below and sky above was an exchange of information. And the tree was an individual, but not only—it was much more this something bigger, this greater field.

I continued to have this experience every time I passed the tree. At first I tried to find a rational explanation. The road began to steepen significantly shortly before I passed the tree. I thought perhaps the buzzing in my hands was just due to increased circulation because my heart had to pump harder to power up the hill. But I easily disproved that, because my hands would buzz even on the downhill journey and they would buzz when I was just hanging out in that general area and happened too close to the tree, and they would buzz when I moseyed and ambled my way slowly up the hill without getting my heart rate up. In the end I gave up trying to be rational about it and moved into that other, nonlinear way of being and perceiving, letting it become part of the myth and story of the land that was beginning to unfold for me.

I spent considerable time with that tree, sometimes clambering down the road bank to hug and sit with it (and get eaten alive by mosquitoes down there). Besides the feeling I had of being in a powerful force-field when I was near it, my other strong feeling was that this maple tree (and I believe all maple trees) really love human beings and feel protective and parental towards us. This was totally counterintuitive for me. We’re an awful species, we have utterly no respect for any part of the natural world, so how could any tree (or any living thing for that matter), feel love or regard for our species? In my mind, the plant and animal kingdoms should prefer us gone from this planet, and good riddance!

I also thought I sensed a lot of sadness and that we’ve been missed, because we no longer choose to have relationships with the maple trees. It seems they want to link consciousness with us, and like the poison ivy and the black locust tree, the sum of that connection would be greater than the parts.

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