Call to the Redwoods

 

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In her book The Soul of a Pilgrim, Christine Valters Paintner writes: “In the practice of hearing the call—whether it was a call we desired or one that was unbidden—we respond and assent to a new journey as pilgrims.” Since returning from California this summer, I’ve been pondering what it was that called me to journey three thousand miles to the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and I’ve realized for the first time just how often trees have always called to me.

When I was a kid, I used to play in the acre or so of woods behind my house. There was one pine tree that especially called out. Pitch smearing my hands, I’d make my way a mile or more, it seemed, up to the top of that tree, where I would nestle into the friendly crotch, feel the wind gently rocking me, and watch the clouds floating just over my head.

How else to explain why I started out in college as a forestry major? I didn’t know anything about the science of trees. I wasn’t even that interested in hunting and fishing. Which I’m sure is why I hated my classes. But through that program, I worked for two summers in McCall, Idaho on a regional hotshot crew, fighting forest fires throughout the Rockies. Besides the thrill of a little danger, there were nights at six and seven thousand feet in Colorado and Wyoming and Idaho where the stars seemed so close I could reach up and grab a handful anytime I wanted.

Even then I recognized those moments as somehow holy, and they led, I think now, to my becoming an English major, with a special love for the Romantic poets and the American Transcendentalists. When I became an English teacher, I used to spend my Sunday afternoons walking in the woods of Down East Maine. The pungent smell of autumn leaves, the anthems sung by a June breeze through the spruce trees, the caress of the sun or the rain or the snow on my face called to something inside me: a vague concept I called God.

After my 18-year-old daughter died of cancer, I lived in southern Maine for twenty years in a house I bought from my grandmother. One of the things I loved and miss about living there was the maple tree in the back yard: a wonderful tree, a good six feet in diameter. I thought of it as my family tree, complete with a jagged limb where a large branch had been broken off in the Ice Storm of 1998, and which symbolized for me, the jagged scar on my heart left by the death of my daughter.

These days, I walk the trails through the woods preserved by Brunswick/Topsham Land Trust behind our condo and go for longer hikes with my wife Mary Lee through other stands of Maine trees. (Maine is called the Pine Tree State for good reason: ninety percent of the state is forested, the highest percentage of any state in the union.)

Trees, then, have always sung their siren song, and so it was just a matter of time before I made a pilgrimage to the oldest, tallest trees on earth. I’m still mulling over the lessons they taught and the gifts they gave.

Redwoods are great teachers. Perhaps because of my forest fire fighting years, I noticed early in a seven and a half mile hike through the Rockefeller Forest in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park how fire had scarred many, if not most, of the redwoods Mary Lee and I saw. Yet they continue to grow and thrive. You may be scarred, they say, but you can still flourish. Redwoods don’t start producing branches until they’re some 150-200 feet high. Hey, you still have time! they proclaim. Even after falling, redwoods continue to produce new growth. They reproduce, not only through cones, but also by sending shoots up from their roots, which ring the trees. Eventually (and I’m talking 1500-2000 years) the parent dies, leaving behind a circle of great trees. What offspring will you leave to the world? they ask.

For trees as tall and as long-lived as they are, redwoods have a very shallow root system. Their roots, however, spread out hundreds of yards, where they intermingle with other roots from other redwoods—a network that keeps all of them standing tall. It’s an image, I realize, of the networks of support groups that have sustained me in the years since my daughter’s death, and what I will always need to keep upright and growing.

Redwood trees also resonate in me at a deeper level. They are magical, mythic—more than what I think of as “spiritual.” Age has something to do with it. The earliest redwoods began growing on earth just after the dinosaurs, about 240 million years ago. Some redwoods Mary Lee and I walked beneath were alive when Christianity was just beginning. Those circles of redwood trees I talked about earlier are called “Fairy Rings,” and I often thought of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Early in our hike I found a branch that I used as a walking staff, which made me feel like Gandalf leading the Fellowship of the Ring or Merlin on his way to Camelot.

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The light through the redwoods also contributes to this magical/mythical feeling. Hiking under the redwoods was like walking in a great cathedral, the trees like pillars reaching into the sky, the sun casting yellow and green shades of light through a stained glass canopy.

And I don’t recall ever experiencing such sustained silence. Any wildlife live three hundred feet overhead. The same with the wind. Because of the tannin in their bark, redwoods are not beset with insects (and thus, neither are hikers)—another reason the trees live so long.

And grow so high. If people don’t know anything else about redwoods they know they’re big. Still, I never appreciated their size until beholding them in person. Redwoods grow up to 378 feet high, which is over the length of a football field, and sometimes 20 feet or more in diameter (think the three-point line in professional basketball). And yet instead of my feeling small, defensive, or apprehensive, I was aware of an immense comforting presence watching over me, enfolding my problems, my defects—sins, if you will—and my grief.

I wonder if that presence isn’t always around me, and I’m too preoccupied to be aware of it until it calls me once more to pilgrimage. The redwoods, I now realize, had been calling me all my life.

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The Wall Between

Viet Nam Wall

 

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Almost everything I’ve read on pilgrimage says that preparing for the pilgrimage is part of the journey. There have been times in my life, however, when I haven’t prepared, when what started out to be a vacation or just a trip became a doorway to another dimension.

For example, it’s April 1987, and my wife Mary Lee and I are in Washington, D.C. visiting her cousin Peggy and sightseeing. We turn a corner somewhere around the Lincoln Monument and find ourselves beside a black granite wall. In the midst of the noisy city, I’m suddenly in a cloister of quiet. Maybe twenty-five people are walking slowly along the wall in silence. Many reach out tentatively to touch the wall, or trace one of the names engraved in stone. Some are weeping. A tall man with a white beard stands to one side, his arms wrapped around himself, as if holding himself together. His face is like marble. He does not move the entire time I’m there.

Obeying some kind of call I don’t understand, I walk down the cobblestones in front of the wall to the book that tells me where to find the name of my high school classmate, Bobbie Boyd. By the time I identify him—Panel 27E-Line 98: Robert White Boyd. 1LT-02. Died October 13, 1967—I am overwhelmed by the almost 60,000 names of those who died in the Viet Nam War and by my sense of guilt over how hard I worked the year Bobbie was killed to parlay a congenital back deformity into a 1Y deferment. Placing my hand against the polished black stone, I feel the solidity of the wall between those of my generation who served in the military and those who didn’t.

Thirty years later, I’m still on the other side of that wall. When the guys in the men’s group I go to who served in Viet Nam talk of their experiences, I shrink in shame. I wonder how much of my continued back pain is due to guilt rather than deformed bones. Still, I know that those who served in Viet Nam suffer far more than I for being on their side of the wall. Some guys talk about returning to the US after serving their country and being yelled at, spit upon. Several talk about depression. More Viet Nam veterans have now died by their own hand than died in combat, the result, many people think, of the way our society shunned them. And in his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger points out that since Viet Nam, the problem for returning soldiers has become even worse because more and more people in our society don’t want to acknowledge the ruthlessness and aggression needed for combat.

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A year and a half after visiting the Viet Nam Memorial, I found myself on the other side of another wall when my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer. I’ve written in earlier blogs about the isolating effects of grief. Certainly much of my isolation, especially my guilt, was self-imposed, but, as I’ve said before, even the most sociable parents find themselves isolated in their grief. Most people, at least most people I’ve come in contact with, don’t want to think about what it’s like to have a child die. Oh, they’re happy enough to read about parents who are raising money for scholarships in their child’s name or who are planting trees or building memorial gardens. They enjoy hearing stories of dying children cracking jokes or comforting their parents. Our society loves to hear of heroic struggles, determined resilience in the face of death. My experience has been that what society doesn’t want to hear about, any more than it wants to acknowledge the brutality of combat, are the sleepless nights, the irrational anger, the self-medicating, the tears, the shame. Even close colleagues and friends who are sympathetic at first can become impatient after a year or so. “Get over it,” I’ve been told. “Lighten up.”

My clearest memory of the wall between those who grieve and those who don’t comes from December 23, 2000. I know the date because it was the twelfth anniversary of my daughter Laurie’s death. That night I sat at a card table in the middle of the Maine Mall with Mary Lee, selling CDs to benefit the Jason Program, which provided pediatric hospice services for terminally ill children and their parents. Some of the artists on the album were performing in the circle where two of the main arteries of the mall come together. As the Christmas shoppers flowed by—teens in their oversized pants and undersized tank-tops, the guys in their baseball caps and leather jackets, the families, the occasional older folks looking tired and lost—they swerved, as if being jolted by an electric fence, when they saw the poster promoting the Jason Program, which featured the picture of a little girl (I can’t remember her name, but she had already died of cancer before the CD came out) in a bright red hat picking flowers. No matter where I placed the poster, it was as if there were a wall about five feet in diameter around her. Even people who bought CDs or made a donation to the Jason Program stayed away from the poster, as if the little girl’s cancer were a communicable disease.

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I have no clue how to tear down these walls, either between society and the increasing number of soldiers returning from duty with PTSD, or between those who mourn and those who don’t. The only thing I do know is that Robert Frost was right when he wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Walls, it seems to me, are the result of our baser instincts—certainly mine, and probably society’s as well: guilt and shame, anger and envy, selfishness and fear—what psychologist Carl Jung called our “shadow side.” Jung advised his patients to recognize and acknowledge that we all have our shadow side and then work to overcome it. The Viet Nam Memorial was built in part to both acknowledge and tear down the walls between veterans and the country they felt they were fighting for. Organizations such as Compassionate Friends and Maine’s Center for Grieving Children (unfortunately, the Jason Program is no longer in existence) continue to work to raise awareness of how grief affects not just those who are suffering the loss of a loved one, but all of us.

I have to add that I, who usually avoid talking politics, can’t for the life of me see how building a wall around part of this country is going to do anything but give in to our shadow side and separate us even more than we already are. I spend enough time trying to climb over the walls we—and I’m as guilty as anyone else—have already erected. I don’t need another one, thank you very much.

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