Faced with the daunting challenges of the present age, many people feel lost, unsure of what can be done – if anything can – to move toward a way of life that’s harmonious without and within and balances the requirements of life on a finite and fragile planet with the human needs for meaning, purpose, and relationship.
~John Michael Greer
I recently traveled to Los Angeles, California with my best friend and our daughters for a spring break trip. One of our stops was the Griffith Observatory, which sits atop the south slop of Mount Hollywood and boasts a wonderful view of LA. My best friend, who grew up in California, was our tour guide. She explained that Griffith Observatory is one of those must-see places in LA. As we drove into the neighborhood near the observatory, I was struck by the enormous trees with silver, smooth bark and shiny leaves. I kept pointing them out to those in my company, and they all agreed the trees were magnificent. I was captivated. They seemed ancient and wise, as though they were ready and waiting to communicate with beings willing to slow down for a moment.
I felt quiet inside once these trees touched my heart that day. I had a terrible cold and didn’t much feel like being a tourist. But those trees changed my day completely. If I had not been part of a group, I probably would have stopped the car, gone to them, and had a long conversation. I usually notice trees more than anything else, both in the place I live and also when I am traveling. Anyone who knows me can vouch for this. My children have lived their lives with me pointing out beautiful trees, and I am proud to say they have picked up the practice themselves.
I still remember all of the trees in the yard of the house where I grew up in Garden City, Michigan. Two huge pines in front, plus a silver maple and a beautiful birch tree. The back yard had a proud blue spruce tree, a lilac tucked in the corner, and a large elm providing shade to the whole yard. Then there was the tree next to the fence that we used to climb up on top of my neighbor’s garage. Our house was kind of known for how many trees were in the yard. When we would give people directions, we would include the tip, “look for the house with all the trees in the front!” I believe I was meant to grow up there with those trees, those lovely beings that brought us shade, comfort, backdrops for pictures on Easter morning, hiding places, quiet thinking spots, and piles of leaves to jump into. My house was in a city block a few miles from Detroit, but it was a type of forest nonetheless, with all the qualities I needed to cultivate a connection to trees. I remember a flowering tree in the park a few houses down from us. I used to climb that tree when it was in bloom. I would just sit there on a perfect branch, smelling the blossoms and watching people, sometimes in silence, wondering if anyone knew I was up there. Trees have always been special to me. A tree was my first tattoo when I was 21 years old. I didn’t have the words for it when I was a child, but by the time I got that tattoo, I knew a strong spiritual practice rooted in my connection to the earth. I wasn’t instructed in this practice. It grew within me as I grew.
As I look back over my lifetime so far, I can remember so many moments with special trees. I remember the time when Sycamores became special to me. I was living with my grandmother at the end of her life, caring for her in her final months. Each afternoon, my grandmother would take a nap in her chair, and this was my chance to get outside and take a long walk. I did this every day, and every day I would find trees to listen to, spend time with, and, yes, hug. My spirituality was blossoming at this time in my life. My body was young and strong, and I would walk for miles, just looking at the trees, stopping when one seemed to beckon, and spending mindful moments conversing with them energetically. One day I walked farther in one direction than I had before. I came to a humungous tree with a beautiful silver and white bark that was peeling, and huge green leaves. The tree seemed almost too big to be on a suburban street of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, but there she was! I approached slowly, absolutely in awe. I looked up into her beautiful, curved branches and felt I was seeing the most beautiful tree in existence. I was filled with joy as I felt the strength of her body under my hand, and felt the smooth bark against my skin. There is something about smooth-barked trees that is very special. The experience of touching them feels so much more intimate. Because there is not a roughness to them like with other trees, I feel like I am actually reaching them immediately on contact. I feel happy that this all happened at a time before cell phones came into my life. I am glad that I didn’t have the ability to look up what kind of tree she was or take a photograph. This made it so important for me to connect with her enough to remember her. I took my time. I felt her and listened to her. I visited her many times that autumn. Sometimes during a silent time of connection, she would press a message into my heart and mind – simple things like, “go slower” or “life is now.” After my grandmother died, part of my grieving was to go back to her neighborhood a few months later, take a walk, and go see my sycamore friend.
When my first child was born in 2001, my parents gifted me a blue spruce that we planted outside the side of the house in which I gave birth, so we could watch it grow along with my child. Long after leaving that house and continuing my life elsewhere, I went back just to check on that tree and see how large it had gotten. Moving to Kentucky in 2005 meant learning new trees – paw paws, persimmons, dogwoods and so many redbuds lining the roads I traveled for the seven years I lived there. I discovered the fast growing, flowering catalpa tree there in Berea, Kentucky. My neighbor had a towering catalpa in his front yard, and I was the lucky recipient of many budding baby catalpas in my yard each year when it dropped its seed pods. I moved them around the yard, trying to create a small forest beside the house on the slope. It worked, and when I drive by that house to this day, I see the forest of my labor of tree love – tall and shading the house on those hot Kentucky summer days. One of those catalpa trees ended up in my parent’s yard in Farmington Hills, Michigan. My mom sends me a photo of it in bloom every year. It is radiant.
I recently began looking at houses with a realtor, and one day we saw a house that was in need of a lot of repair. I wasn’t interested as I walked around the inside, but then we went out to the backyard. There she was – an enormous red cedar tree. Red cedars are extremely special to me. I was welcomed by a red cedar to the apartment I lived in when I first moved to Oregon. When I got out of the car after that long ride across the country and saw that tree, so gigantic that it would take 5 adults with outstretched arms to reach around its trunk, I could breathe deeply again. I greeted that tree every morning and spoke to it in the night. She watched us play badminton on the grass that summer and the next spring. Important conversations and life events happened under that tree. Someone dear to me has that particular red cedar tattooed on his skin. Also in Oregon, there are 7 super tall red cedars around a corner near the place where my daughter takes martial arts classes. I walk and visit them often and find support in their strength on a regular basis. I call them the Seven Sisters. In a very real way, red cedars have been my closest friends in Eugene, Oregon, a place that has not been a great match for me in terms of community formation. So, when I saw that large red cedar in the backyard of this house for sale, I exclaimed, “Oh my goddess, look at this red cedar!” I ran to her and touched her soft, red bark. It was as if she called out to me in return, “Oh hello! I have been waiting for someone to recognize me!” I gazed up into her tightly grown branches in glee. I looked at my realtor, who may have been taken aback at my pagan-like behavior and said, “Amy, would it be wrong to buy a house I don’t like because of a tree I love?!” She very sweetly replied that everyone has their priority list and she wasn’t there to judge. (She really is a great realtor). For a moment I imagined what it would be like to have a daily relationship with that magnificent tree. Sadly, the house would have just needed too many repairs to be practical for a single working mom, and I knew I had to say good-bye to my red cedar friend. But I definitely honored her and gave her some rightful attention before leaving.
“Those of us drawn to the earth-based and pagan paths are
drawn to building and establishing that sacred connection.
Our sense of the sacred emerges from the interaction between
ourselves and our surroundings.”
I could write pages of stories about the trees I have connected with in my life. It might be more important to try to describe the influence of trees on me as a person on a daily basis. Have you ever noticed how trees just ARE? They stand strong and tall, and observe everything around them. They adjust. They sway. They are homes to animals. They drop their seeds. They see countless sunrises and sunsets. They exist through any and all kinds of weather. They are the epitome of mindfulness. They witness everything! Can you imagine the wisdom they contain after all of that life lived and all of that observation? We don’t have the ability to understand the particulars of their perception, but intuitively, we can sense that they know much – and differently than we know.
Over years my earth-based spiritual practice has been fed with action and intention and has taken root in me and blossomed as a whole life perspective supported by quarterly rituals, altar work, daily intentional walking practices, mindful noticing of the details of the earth around me, macrobiotic food preparation, gardening, and a continuous energetic conversation and dance with the earth of which I am a part. I consider myself extremely lucky that my family did not indoctrinate me with strict religious practices as I grew up (not that this phenomenon isn’t a blessing for some people – it just wasn’t what I needed). They left me the option to not make my confirmation in the Catholic Church; an option I took without hesitation. Additionally, I had an uncle, my god father, who was a “hippie” in the 70’s, and exposed me to some different ways of thinking about life, spirituality, and the earth. And how wonderful that my mom met my step father when I was 18 and he is a practicing druid! My mom, step dad, my daughter and I all join for quarterly rituals rooted in earth-honoring practices – even virtually at times. As a white person in the United States, I think it is remarkable how things lined up in my life to support earth-based spiritual practice for me – the most natural path for me to walk in this life.
In Los Angeles last week, walking up the road toward the Griffith Observatory that day, I was truly in a state of wonder as I came upon tall, silvery smooth trees. They welcomed me with their presence, so glorious and outstretched. I felt an excitement as we approached the building. Earth is my home and is what comprises my body and this existence I live. The earth is a tiny piece of a small solar system that is part of an incomprehensible Living Universe that expands through time and space. To me – this is sacredness. When I walked into the observatory, I felt as though I was walking into a grand cathedral. The Living Universe is Goddess to me -and this place was made in Her honor. The ceiling inside the entrance was painted with a rendition of the personified astrological constellations. The detail work on the building was exquisite. I felt my body relax as I took in the energy of the place.
As a Trekkie, I was of course delighted to see certain areas named after Leonard Nimoy, including a wormhole staircase and a theater. We went in as a group and everyone quickly found things they were interested in seeing and reading about. I found my way to a large room with a scale model of earth’s solar system and an extensive display of the Virgo Cluster. As a Virgo sun sign, my interest was piqued. I was delighted to read that the Virgo Cluster is a collection of more than 2,000 galaxies distributed across 10 million light years! I stopped, trying to grasp the size of what was being described. The museum sign stated that each galaxy is a massive object with billions of stars. Gravity holds all of these galaxies together. Even though it might seem obvious to people more versed in the astronomical sciences, I was stunned at the thought that everything in the universe has gravity – even entire galaxies, and groups of galaxies. I stood there thinking about that mysterious force of gravity. I imagined gravity in the Living Universe, holding things together. I wondered if it is anything like our skin and tissues holding our body together. This thought made me feel the microcosm of my being in relation to the great Being of the Living Universe.
Continuing to read, I learned that the Virgo Cluster, which neighbors the Milky Way, is a sort of gateway to an expanding universe, full of galaxies as far as we can see. The constellation that is my sun sign, Virgo, contains a gateway to endless galaxies! As I digested this information that is actually beyond my comprehension because of its magnitude, I felt joy rise in my core at being a part of this magical living being around me. I attempted to share with my best friend what I was feeling by saying, “This is church for me.” She explained that she had just last week looked up at the stars from her hot tub in her backyard, and that she began to feel the large scale of the universe above and around her. For her, this was not soothing. Rather, she felt near a panic attack at the realization of how little we have control over, and how anything could happen. That seems reasonable. Just like every moment contains signals of safety and signals of danger – every moment can be perceived as a signal of safety or as a signal of danger. It all depends on one’s perspective in that moment. My best friend doesn’t always feel like that when she looks at the stars!
For me, the expansive Living Universe and my experience of it being far beyond my comprehension was soothing to me while I stood there trying to wrap my mind around the idea of thousands of galaxies and layers of gravity. It felt like I could actually just surrender and let go of the idea of being in charge of anything. I felt nestled in, and this gave me the impression that I could never fall out. I began to imagine myself as a cell. Just a cell in the body of the Living Universe. Much like a skin cell or a cell in the lining of my stomach or heart. I began to wonder about things I will never have answers for like, what is breathing on the scale of the universe? How does a galaxy digest? Where is the heart of the Living Universe, and how does it beat? If I accept my body as a microcosm of the macrocosm, these questions make sense. I don’t need to know the answers in order to feel the sense of awe and curiosity that brings lightness to my being. Similarly, I don’t need to know the perceptive abilities of trees to wonder what it would be like to have a lifetime as one – deep in a forest, maybe where no human ever walks. What might I see? What might I hear? How many animals would live on my branches? How might I experience all of those thousands of sunrises and sunsets? What would it feel like to fall and die after centuries of standing tall with my tree family? Would my death feed the forest floor and make soil for new trees? All of this opened an entire thought train in my mind about Time, and my everlasting question about what it is and why humans don’t worship it, seeing as it is another thing that we can’t actually explain, but experience every single moment of our lives in this dimension. But that is for another essay…
Our world is facing a daunting time. Astrologists say that we are entering a new age. Technology is advancing so quickly that artificial intelligence is likely running most of our systems even now. And even with all of this, we still have not figured out how to take care of one another, how to feed everyone even though we have enough to, how to house everyone even though we have the structures to do so. We still haven’t committed seriously to dismantling white supremacy or making the changes needed to save our own habitat from our destructive impact. And, still, even with all of this uncertainty and reasons to fret, grieve, and feel confusion and dismay, the Living Universe reflects our expansive potential. It’s Being, in which we take our being, is remarkable, regardless of the messes humans have made. Perhaps the way we slow our perception to the speed of a tree has its own influence on things. Perhaps the peace we find in moments when we feel connected to the Living World around us matters. Perhaps our moments of connection help the entire Living Universe feel more connected. These ideas give me peace.