Tree Hugger   16 comments

An entry in Encounters

One of the challenges of attempting a life in the margins is the sense of alienation it can, at times, produce. Granted, a life lived within the confines of society’s dominant ways and thoughts can be alienating as well—even more so, in many ways. Still, the simple fact is that in divorcing oneself of the myth of progress, spurning a great deal of material wealth in efforts toward voluntary poverty, believing that society is in the beginning throes of contraction, and limiting your intake of the newest and shiniest technologies, you tend to alienate yourself to some degree from a good many people. If, like me, this is a somewhat new project for you, then it’s likely that you’ll find yourself navigating tricky ground with at least some of your friends and family as you try to live your life in accordance with your beliefs while not becoming completely inscrutable to those you’ve known for years.

I’ve struggled with these challenges, though I’m blessed in that most of my friends and family seem to have taken my odd behavior in good stride. I suspect some of this is due to a sympathy toward my core beliefs, even if the expression of them skews somewhat radical, while some is due to the fact that I’ve always been at least a bit odd and contrary. Whatever kick I’m on at any given time is typically suffered with good nature, and for that I’m grateful.

What I do miss in my attempt to live a life of less is a partner. While I’ve done some dating over the past four-ish years that I’ve been farming, I find it a bit of a challenge to find people who understand the sort of lifestyle I’m trying to live and are either interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle or who simply are sympathetic to it, even if it’s not exactly their ideal. It’s not that I can’t find people who believe we live unsustainably as a society, but that it’s more of a challenge to find people who are interested in or are already taking the next steps of living with much less. I can’t help but feel that the term “voluntary poverty” is a bit scary to a number of people out there, though perhaps this is as much my own sense of self-consciousness as anything else.

It’s within this context that, just shy of two years ago, I found myself hiking the trail up Neahkahnie Mountain, not long after moving out here to the coast for my third farming apprenticeship. I hiked alone, climbing the mountain for the first time, shouldering a backpack with some water and food in it. It was a spring day and the sun shone, though I hiked mostly in the cool shadow of trees. I kept a steady pace with matching breath.

Hiking is something of a meditation for me. I’ve written about this before, in The Rhythm of Contemplation, but as I fall into a steady pace of hiking and breathing, my mind tends to wander and explore various corners within itself, tracing out paths much as my body follows the forest path, though not with such a singular focus. Sometimes I find myself thinking out some new bit of philosophy or insight, while other times I fall into a contemplation of lingering personal issues or frustrations. Hiking up Neahkahnie that day, my mind took the latter path. I focused in on a complex and somewhat unresolved relationship from a year ago, allowing the frustrations that had arisen from the relationship to pull me toward depression, even mild despair. Wandering through the trees, engrossed within my own mind, I felt an intense alienation and loneliness, wondering if I would ever find a settled place and a partner, good and meaningful work, a life which felt right.

I had only recently moved out to the coast, relocating for the third time in two and a half years. I made these moves in service of broader goals: learning to farm, finding meaningful work and a meaningful life. But that didn’t change the fact that each move proved a challenge, further heightening my sense of alienation and divorce from the social world, and further unsettling my life. I wanted desperately to find a place to stay and familiarize myself with, but that place continued to elude me. I wanted a partner, and she also continued to elude me. In that moment, then, out on the trail and surrounded by intense beauty, by an incredible amount of life, I couldn’t help myself from falling into the confines of my own mind, blocking out the abundant world around me and indulging in a great loneliness. I felt I might never have what I wanted. I questioned my decisions, this life I had chosen to lead.

I stared at the ground, at my feet, placing each of my steps carefully but automatically, avoiding rocks and roots and keeping a firm footing. I could see the ground, but not really—I was in my own head, lost in pity and frustration, in the dark paths that the hike’s physical rhythms had opened up to me. I imagined human touch, physical intimacy, and the longing for it clawed at me. I wanted all these things that I didn’t have at the moment, and I couldn’t see all I did have.

At that moment I looked up and ahead, along the shadowed trail beset on each side by high-reaching Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. One of those firs towered on my right, moving in close as I continued to walk along the path, its trunk deep and wide and covered in vibrant green moss. I didn’t think about it, made no conscious decision; I simply reached for the tree. In that moment of intense sadness, I turned and reached and hugged the trunk of that tree, pressing against the rough bark and soft moss, and I felt relief flood me. The tree comforted me as well as any human could have and for a startling moment, it was as real and alive to me as any friend would be. It mattered not that the tree was of a different composition than flesh and bone, a different species, in many ways an alien being.

Trees are alive, of course. They have power and spirit. They are creatures of this world, the same as humans are, the same as any animal. And yet, despite my love of them and despite my joy in their presence, I don’t tend to gain a comfort from them the way I do a friend, or a family member, or a lover. I know there are some people out there who feel that intense a connection to trees on a regular basis, but I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I’ll stop to touch a tree, to feel its bark, to rest or lean against it and I’ve even been known, once or twice, to speak to a tree, though I’ve never heard a response. Hell, I’ve hugged trees more than a few times in my life. But never when I felt the way I did that day, in that dark moment, in desperate need of comfort from another creature. I sought that tree out, not even thinking, and I felt as connected to it as I would anyone. Even as it happened, it shocked me.

I stayed against the tree for a few moments, shifting my head to place my forehead against the cool and damp moss, taking deep breaths, self-conscious enough to glance down the trail to see if anyone else was coming into view, able to see me in my arborous embrace. Thankfully, no one appeared. I was left alone with the tree and its comfort.

After a few minutes, I stepped back, placed my hand against its trunk, thanked the tree. I felt infinitely better. I did not feel nearly so alone, nearly so destitute. My loneliness and self-pity dissipated and the incredible community around me came into focus, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even if it at times felt that way. I continued my hike, buoyed and thankful. Blessed. I stayed alert and aware of the life around me, even as I continued to think and meditate, to allocate a portion of my attention to the inside of my mind.

Since that day, I’ve stayed here on the Oregon coast. I’ve moved a few times, but each time only down the road, not to some other town or region. I’ve been building a life, integrating into the community, meeting people and making friends, establishing myself. I don’t know that I’ll stay here—it’s very possible, but not assured. I have yet to find a partner. I still find myself lonely at times, and I even occasionally question my decisions, wonder if I’m on the right path. But almost every day I’m surrounded by other life, some of it human and much of it not. That’s always a blessing. It’s always a comfort. It’s always a confirmation that I’m on the right path, wherever it may be leading. Yes, there are still human relationships I yearn for and that I hope to eventually cultivate. But they’re not the only source of comfort and connection. They’re just one amongst many.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel such a striking and intense connection to a tree again. But I love knowing that it’s possible—that in dark moments, a greater number of species than I might otherwise have imagined can provide me deep and true comfort. I love that sense of connection, of being intertwined, of transcending unnecessary and imposed boundaries. Flesh and bone, bark and pith—it’s all the structure of life, all from the same source. It’s all connected. It just sometimes takes a dark moment to realize it.


16 responses to “Tree Hugger

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  1. It is amazing how life encompasses us, enfolds us, surrounds us. Sometimes it is brutal, sometimes it is beautiful, most people do not take the time to notice or to appreciate the many moments of connection that can occur in this lifetime. This touched me.

    • Thank you, Dianna. I’m glad you enjoyed it. And yes, being alive on this planet really is quite an amazing and encompassing existence when you take the time to notice it.

  2. Reblogged this on ww123.

  3. Hi Joel. Thanks for this post. You travelled a dark path on that day, but interestingly didn’t end up on that dark path. Nature can be very nurturing. Sometimes, I too don’t know whether this is the right path for me either as I am constantly at odds with societal expectations, but I’m also reminded that there is no right path. All you can do is follow your heart. A partner will come to you when you are ready. I don’t say this flippantly, but know that when the time is right you will instinctively know opportunity when it presents itself to you and who knows where that may lead you. If I had your postal address, I may can send you a video which may be of interest to you?

    I’m starting to sound a bit esoteric, so I’ll get to some practical concerns. The trees here just want to kill you. Seriously, if they’re not dropping a 50m (150ft) 150 year old tree onto your house and crushing it, they’re out to burn it down. What’s going on with that? We do have a large stand of Douglas Firs planted on the main ridge of the mountain range here and they are quite beautiful, but by and large the eucalypts in the mountain range don’t mean you well. Mind you, one of my neighbours has one of the oldest trees in the mountain range that I am aware of and I’ll have to post a photo one day (I’ve got permission to do so). It’s big and probably about 400 years old. It puts your own life into perspective.

    Tonight whilst I was out minding the chooks in their free ranging activities, one of the local parrots (rosella) was up a massive tree and dropping gum nuts onto my head. I’m sure it was intentional as the local birds do a lot of mucking around. One day, I even saw a sulfur crested cockatoo stand on top of a whirly gig which acts as the aerator for my worm farm and get spun around and around in the wind. It looked as if it was having a great time.

    It is still hot here and over the next few days we’ll get to maximums of 36 (96.8 Fahrenheit) and 37 (98.6 Fahrenheit). I spent about 5 hours yesterday in the hot sun mulching the fruit trees with mushroom compost and for thanks at night I had a bit of heat exhaustion. I have to continue on that job tomorrow in the cool of the morning and then water the trees. Hopefully a cool change is coming on Thursday of 27 (80.6 Fahrenheit).


    • Hi Chris,

      You know, at the end of the day, I’m far more happy than not. I also feel my life is much better now than it was before I started my uncertain and detour-ridden walk down this path. So I don’t regret what I’ve done, even if it at times feels a challenge. What path wouldn’t feel a challenge, right? It’s a tough world, even if it is also beautiful, thrilling, and heartening.

      Speaking of tough, sounds like you have some tough trees down there! I suspect they’ve had to deal with plenty of crap in their time, so they don’t have much sympathy for us humans. As for that 400 year old tree, please do post a photo. I would love to see that. I seem to recall reading somewhere a year or two ago about the ancient trees that used to stand there in Australia a long time ago before they all were cut down. Some of the largest trees the world has ever known, if I’m remembering correctly. I’ll have to try to look up that info.

      I’m suddenly reminded that I really need to go catch up with your posts. I’ve seen you link them over at TAR, but I haven’t gotten over to check out the last few.

      Ha! The bird sightings and adventures sound quite enjoyable. (Well, maybe not the gum nuts on your head. Perhaps amusing for a third party observer, though!) Birds are a playful sort—I’m sure it was purposeful, indeed. My roommate is quite the bird watcher and he puts out a bit of feed on the back patio most days. Between that and our position right along a major local river, there’s quite a bit of avian life that ends up hopping about on our patio. It’s quite a sight. I’ve always found birds a bit mesmerizing. One of these days soon I’ll put up another Encounters post that will deal with a couple birds in a bush.

      Careful of that heat exhaustion. Dangerous stuff. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the cooling takes place as advertised.

  4. Oh yeah, forgot to mention, the video is a show I saw recently and your post reminded me of it. It’s English so I hope it translates well, anyway, if you don’t like it chuck it out. Chris

  5. Lovely post and sad that you are so lonely when you are, in a way, ahead of the curve. But yes, the natural world can help some to ease that at moments.

    • Thank you, mieprowan! The natural world does indeed help. And I’m not quite so lonely these days, although the last month or two has seen intermittent challenges. Oh well, I’m going to get into the garden tomorrow and start prepping things, so that should boost my spirits.

  6. I found my way to your blog from the Archdruid Report, and I think I’ll stick around. Your post on loneliness and the consolations of nature struck a chord with me. In part because I have a life partner, and while that does do away with a great deal of loneliness, it also brings on even more compromises and side-trackings, especially if you want to share a path. I will have to do some thinking and writing on that. And perhaps go hug a tree. There’s a great white pine back in the woods who I haven’t paid a visit to in a long while. It has been a cruel winter in New England with many a shorn and mangled tree. I hope it fared well.

    • Glad you found your way here, Andy! And that you like it. One of the things I do struggle with if I’m dating someone is that question about how to balance lives, particularly because I’m living in a nontraditional way. I have yet to find someone who seems to really be on the same wavelength about how I’m living. Sympathetic, yes, but not quite in the same place. (Not that I’m expecting to find someone in the exact same place, mind you.)

      Anyway, my point is that I agree that the compromises and side-trackings do seem to be an inevitable part of any relationship. It’s part of the trade off, it seems. But perhaps, in its own way, it creates a bit of resilience. A tiny bit of dissensus, perhaps?

      I hope, as well, that the white pine has come through the winter okay—and that you get a chance to visit it soon.

      Thanks again for making your way over here.

      • I did go visit the pine. She was battered, but obviously not for the first time. Standing on opposite sides, my 11-year old son and I reached around the trunk, and by pressing our bodies into the bark we could just touch each other’s fingertips.

  7. Joel,

    This is so beautiful it’s feels almost crude to respond to it. But there’s something in it that resonates at a level that compels me to write.

    I have been with my partner for going on 16 years now and we have a child together -that bonds us to each other in inexplicable ways. But. There have been times, perhaps most markedly in recent years, when the awareness of where we are in the scheme of Western civilization has left me feeling profoundly alone.

    Those times have been the greatest of teachers to me. They have imparted the plainest, rawest truth of “limits”. That ultimately we are alone. We are limited. With our body, as it is. With this breath, as it is. In the meantime, in the in-between, we practice acceptance.

    And I know that meditation of breath you speak of and of wanting to melt into trees for lack of any other dissolution.

    As alone as I have felt, as many times as the trees and their roots, their assurance have been my solace, I am as you wrote, grateful for those that have indulged me and the curse/gift of undodgedly following my ideals. I think that is key in maintaining connection. Gratitude and humility.

    Its been eye opening to realize that my partner, my soulmate, is much more “in the world” than I and that he doesn’t always *get* trees and breath in the way I do and that that is absolutely ok.

    There are many things that I have taught him- how to view things thru the lens of peak oil being the biggest. But there are tremendous things he has taught me. Not the least of which is unconditional love and absolute acceptance of where we are (where he is) mentally, spiritually and physically. Isn’t that the bigger lesson, really?

    In essence, that is the power of a tree. It is the power of what is. A tree may not be the perfect representation of what we are hoping for, what we long for. But it is, in those moments where hope is all we have, exactly what we need. Solid, patient, quiet, grounded acceptance.

    Thank you, always, for sharing such personal reflections. Your writing is intimate honest and inspiring and I appreciate that.

    In spirit,
    ~ Chela ~

    • Far from being crude, Chela, your response is beautiful, and most certainly appreciated. “Solid, patient, quiet, grounded acceptance.” That sounds just right.

      Thank you for your words. I feel I should say more, but I don’t necessarily have a response that seems worth saying. I just appreciate what you wrote here and I’m glad you were inspired to write it.

      Take care.

  8. As you know from my previous comments, I have lived almost all of my 70-odd years in various locales here in western Oregon and as a result have spent a great deal of time around, among and with a large number of trees – probably including your friend there on the trail up Neahkanie (which I’ve hiked numerous times myself).

    And I’ve personally planted several thousand trees – Dougies mostly – both on lands that I’ve ‘owned’ and in the old Tillamook ‘burn’ (now known as the Tillamook state forest) when I was a Senior in High School many, many years ago. So you might say that I’ve been something of a ‘tree-hugger’ all my life; and you’d be correct to some extent.

    But none of these experiences compare to the first time (and the many times that followed) that I spent a day – or two – among the remaining Coastal Redwoods that still survive in northern California. To hike only a few miles away from the highway and into the presence of these beings is more than just entering a cathedral, as many have expressed. It’s rather like time-traveling to a world that no longer exists and visiting with a ‘presence’ that is so awesome it defies description. Every time I go there it brings me to tears, not only for what has been lost, but also for the ‘knowing’ that the essence still exists.

    Re: finding a partner – don’t know how old you are Joel, but don’t be in too much of a rush. Just relax on it and she’ll turn up in due time.

    • Hi Martin,

      I really need to spend some time amongst the Coastal Redwoods. As you know, drove through there back in October, but it was just through—I didn’t have a chance to stop and hike in and get away from the highway. I think I may have done that once, years back, when I was just a kid and during a family trip. But I don’t have much memory of it. Need to get back, perhaps, if I have a chance.

      I’d love to be in that presence. It must be incredible. I don’t know when or if I’ll get back down there, but if the opportunity does arise, I really should budget in some time for a hike.

      I’m 32. I try not to be in a rush, and most of the time I’m successful, but I do go through the occasional blue period. And sometimes a grouchy period. During those times, if I’m not being dense—and I too often am being dense—I remember to get my butt outside and amongst all the life around here and that usually gets me to feeling better.

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