Once upon a time, I lived in an apartment where I was unhappy. Unlike my previous home, where I could walk out the back and wander meadow and forest for miles, this apartment was in an industrial town next to the stripped hillside and constant booming of a quarry. In our second floor apartment, the concrete postage stamp of a yard behind the house was really only accessible by the downstairs neighbors, but it was only a little fenced in garbage depot anyway, so we were cut off from that much-needed connection with something green and living. Except for the single big beautiful tree that grew there.
That tree helped keep me connected during that time. We didn’t know how long we’d be stuck in that place, but over the course of a few years, I watched the tree out of the back window as it transformed that small space into another world. At my second floor height, I felt like I was in its canopy during the warm months, enveloped in a lush green ball of life. Each branching pattern created a three dimensional world which filled the space with a neighborhood for urban wildlife. The birds and squirrels did not move side to side, they moved between different levels of their living skyscraper, tending to their important daily matters. In the winter, after the leaves had fallen and I could see through to the apartments behind, it took some imagination to envision the huge world the tree occupied during the summer; it had been reduced somewhat to scaffolding, but it was still beautiful in its skeletal elegance, and I knew that its secret world would return again. That tree was a keystone, a safe space, in a place where I needed it the most. When we finally moved, I knew I would not see it again and said goodbye, knowing that like the squirrels and birds, my time with it was a small part of its lifetime.
In my work as a naturalist, I found the words to describe things I intuitively knew about forests and trees. When I knew nothing about them, I could still tell you how a forest “felt” to me, without the designations I learned: the look of an upland oak/beech forest, or the quiet of a hemlock grove, with the sound muffled by the soft duff of needles underneath your feet. I was able to go from a holistic emotional feeling about a group of trees, to identifying how the individual species differed, back to how they all interacted to form a forest ecosystem. In effect, I learned to read the forest like one learns how to read words, and it enriched my understanding. But I never, ever, want to forget how they feel, even when you don’t know their names.
Each of the writers in this issue, and each of you reading, has some connection to trees like this—I’m sure of it. Unless you live in Svalbard, or a desert, its highly unlikely that you haven’t felt the pull and magic of trees. (Besides, living in a treeless environment doesn’t mean you’ve never heard of or seen a tree!) It’s universal, and likely built into our DNA the same way that the sound of trickling water soothes us. Trees make a small world big, and put our human concerns in perspective: when human stuff seems like the most important thing in your world, try going outside and listening to birds in trees. The meaningless chatter supplying the background to your day is a whole culture happening right above your head, as different individuals share the news of the day, create relationships, and live life to the fullest. Meanwhile, the ‘neighborhood’ under their feet is a living partner, witnessing generations of comings and goings as it provides everything they need.
Trees live their lives on a different scale, and we poetically imbue them with traits we examine in ourselves. This does not, by any means, imply that they lack these traits. When our story trees talk or move, express feelings, wrestle with immortality, nurture others, or hold the secrets of life, they may not literally do it in the same ways they do in what we perceive as ‘regular life’—the stories just help us to see ourselves a little better, and imagine the ways that they can. And make no mistake, they can. Look for them the next time you spend time with a tree, on the tree’s terms. Take time to think three dimensionally and over a lifespan longer than ours.
And now…enjoy this issue, perhaps while leaning up against a tree, or twirling a leaf between your fingers.