The maples and sycamores, and the birches and oaks are almost naked; a cluster of withered, yellow leaves still cling to the hardier specimens.
It’s the season of transition. Impermanence.
Most think November is dreary, dull and dead. I do not. I think the month is one of great beauty.
Bare trees reveal their secrets. The birds have lost their hiding spots; the squirrels run hither and thither, scrambling along the branches and limbs like they are possessed. Their frantic motions are a harbinger of winter – of change.
In spring and summer foliage and flowers can distract us from the woody trunk – the true foundation of the tree. I believe that is where all the magic lies. The trunk is the soul of the tree. Everything else is just lipstick.
Trees have always fascinated me, and I am always under their spell. And even though I appreciate their greenery, it is the trunk and the shape of a tree that I find truly beautiful. The gnarled and twisted intricacies of an old oak or willow, the contorted beech trees, the aged maple that has not one, but multiple trunks that formed perfect perching spots for us when we were small.
And don’t get me started about the tree roots which form another world beneath. I have photographed roots that rise from the earth that look like alien planets. In fact, when I develop those photos, I am confused whether I am looking at the top or the bottom of the tree: I turn the photo this way and that, looking for signs of up or down. I frame them anyways, lean them against the living room wall, and when I go by, I reach out and rotate the pictures – upside down or upright, still an intriguing wonder to me.
When we walk along the river, I want to stop and gaze on each of the deciduous trees – often their limbs contort around another, like the yoga pose, the Twist. I am compelled to brush my hand over the trunks – some smooth, some so rough; some peeling, some filled with hideous burls. Hideous burls are worth sketching, are they not?
Bare tree trunks resemble torsos, their limbs reach out, cupped in prayer. And sometimes the torso has multiple arms like Guan Yin, the Chinese Bodhisattva, Goddess of Compassion, Mercy, and Kindness, that I saw in most temples in last year’s visit to China. We could do with more trees like Guan Yin. Better yet, we could do with more reminders of compassion, mercy, and kindness.
When you spend as many hours as I do watching the birds, bare trees are a gift. Just this morning I watched a family of black-headed chickadees flit from limb to limb, then fly to my wall of green (the ivy-covered fence) and then perch on the roof of our shed. Eventually they flew off to another barren yonder. In the summer, I can recognize their sounds “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” but often only glimpse a snatch of white and black. Today I drank a full cup of coffee while I spied on their movements. (You can hop, but you cannot hide.)
Last week, a Downy woodpecker (Downy-s are dinky; Hairy-s are huge.) was attempting to eat supper in his hidey-hole. I can see you, I call out. He ignores me. Supper is tasty. Last month his familiar rat-a-tat could be heard throughout the neighbourhood, but I spent too many minutes searching the leafy branches for his black and white presence. Eventually I gave up. His song was enough.
In my own backyard I tend to two small trees that are dead. Well, I have been informed by a number of people (some are gardeners, some are not) that the trees are dead. By their definition, I should remove them. They see rot and decay; I see life. Dead trees are apartment dwellings for sparrows, finches and chickadees. Dead trees are ornamental and sculptural when covered in snow or hoar frost. Dead trees are the perfect launching pads for squirrels and birds. And fights between the two species. Sketches of dead trees fill my sketch book. Dead trees house ready-made hooks for bird feeders and wind chimes. Oh, did I mention that during the Christmas season we decorate our dead trees?
Remove them? What kind of gardener do you think I am? I haven’t met a dead tree that I didn’t fall in love with, yet.
Bare trees form dark silhouettes against the grey autumn and winter skies that resemble looming shapes of plaques and tangles – like a brain with Alzheimer’s disease. That image is forever imprinted in my brain.
Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia s are tragic reminders of impermanence. Of transition.
We are not what we seem; we are more than we seem. That lesson I learned while caring for parents with Alzheimer’s.
In Neale Donald Walsch’s, Communion with God, Walsch writes about impermanence and change:
Which snowflake is the most magnificent? Is it possible that they are all magnificent – and that, celebrating their magnificence together, they create an awesome display? Then they melt into each other, and into the Oneness. Yet they never go away. They never disappear. They never cease to be. Simply, they change form.
And not just once, but several times: from solid to liquid, from liquid to vapour, from the seen to the unseen, to rise again, and then again to return in new displays of breathtaking beauty and wonder. This is Life, nourishing Life.
When I cared for parents with Alzheimer’s, I was constantly in stress and my body (and spirit) became broken. I lived in a world of grief (for the past) and worry (about the future).
But throughout that challenging time, I learned to go back to two things that I had practised as a young woman and throughout my life. I began to take them more seriously, with attention and awareness. Meditation and yoga (and eventually Tai Chi) saved me.
More accurately, the steady and constant practice of both yoga and meditation on a daily basis transformed me. Slowly I began to heal my spirit. My mind and body followed. Stillness and silence are great healers. (Qualities that we attribute to the majesty of trees.)
Today I believe that mindfulness (staying present in the Moment throughout the day) and recognizing my emotions and feelings and not trying to divert, distract, or dull them, has opened me to a richer life – one filled with acceptance, non-judgment, creativity, and wisdom. Compassion, love and mercy are part of the whole package.
Meditation has taught me that “I am the sky; my thoughts are just clouds – that come and go.” (All the great meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual thinkers subscribe to that thought; most notedly, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh.) We are impermanent. Every minute 300 million cells die within our body. Our bodies are in constant flux, as are our daily lives. As are our thoughts.
We are reminded in meditation to breathe through the nose – breath in, breath out – and yet if we stay focused on the breath, we will begin to notice that each and every breath is different. Sometimes I breathe in 8 seconds and hold, and sometimes I breathe in 10 seconds, and exhale without holding. Sometimes I feel the coolness along the tips of my nostrils, and in the next breath, I notice an itch. Sometimes my belly expands, and sometimes I notice not as much expansion. Each breath is different.
If a fundamental thing such as breathing is different each time, then we begin to recognize that all things are changing. All the time.
The trees teach me about impermanence. They are a daily reminder. They are my cheat sheets. I need cheat sheets – they keep me grounded. (Pun, not intended.)
When I remind myself that my moods are temporary, that a particular challenging issue has me stumped and filled with worry, that a friend is suffering, I turn to the universal truth of impermanence: All things are transient. This, too, shall pass. Today the trees are nude, tomorrow they will be wearing their green dresses. My dark mood will lift. In time the challenging issue will either resolve itself, or I will gain wisdom to see it differently. My friend who is suffering will find relief.
As humans, we will adapt better to living a full and happy life when we let go of the fear of change. We will breathe easier when we learn that within the changes that take place, lies ephemeral beauty. That a decayed and rotting tree will soon nourish the earth. And another tree will be born.
When we perceive change as not right, not wrong, just is…we will teach ourselves to adjust to change, and eventually, to accept change. Acceptance leads us to a happier life. Happier? No. Wrong word. A balanced life. That’s what I strive for. Happiness is fleeting. I desire balance or equanimity.
Naked, November trees remind me of transition: from a rich and verdant existence to one of bare essentials. Like us. Whether we accept it or not, we are all aging. At this very moment. Yes, all of us. By the time you get to the end of this blog, you and I will have lost a billion cells.
Naked, November trees remind me of essential truths: we are all going to die. Everything is impermanent. Many things are inherently beautiful – even the gnarly roots that surround an old, decaying tree. Awareness and attention are transformative. We are meant to be whole, not perfect.
As my son’s last text reminded me of the importance of “not right, not wrong; just is,” those powerful words inspire me. Acceptance. Reality. Truth.
Besides, I need not worry. Everything will change. In a few seconds, or a day, or weeks. Or years.
I think my trees are teaching me a lesson: Don’t worry. Be happy. Better yet, be balanced.