A Rolling Stone

The last thing I have is roots.

The last thing I want is to be earthed in one place. I have burned to fly for years.

So why—why, why?—am I reviving this long-dormant blog that honors trees, whose roots fix them in one place for life? Who cannot move, ever? Who are housebound from birth to death? And why now, when I have finally shed what tied me down and regained at least some of an animal’s birthright of movement?

Let me catch you up on some backstory. For the last five years, I have been almost entirely housebound with chronic illnesses. I could go grocery shopping every couple of weeks and seek medical care, but otherwise I looked at walls. I stared at the ceiling. I rested. I could seldom read, or watch movies, or listen to music.

I watched trees grow—slowly—in my small, much-loved, walled garden. Birds were my companions there, and lizards, and 6- and 8-legged beings whose paths crossed mine. I was a tree, though a poorly adjusted one, planted in the Adirondack chair, envious of the birds who could come and go as they pleased. The lockdown the healthy found so difficult during the pandemic had been my lot for years, with no walks outdoors, no excursions for take-out, no hope of an end.

Image shows the patio of a small garden, with potted plants, a wooden Adirondack chair, and a folded sun umbrella. In the foreground is a birdbath, greenery, a patch of yellow flowers, and a gravel path. The garden is lovely (if I may say so), but you cannot see over the walls.

Then I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a patient (and guinea pig) at one of the best research and treatment clinics in the country. With knowledgeable medical care, I have been slowly, partially freed, improving from 95% housebound to perhaps 80%. Instead of four hours a day of “feet on the floor” time, I often have six. Despite that huge, 15% gain, it was not enough to get me out to the wilderness I love, or to let me travel to visit family.

Then I realized that part of what kept me housebound was the actual house: the weight and heft of foundation, beams, and drywall, the burden of upkeep, the bulk of everything owned to fill it.

Image shows a row of Pueblo-style townhouses in southwestern colors of sandstone, maize, and turquoise in a narrow driveway, as seen through the windshield of a vehicle (with a radio antenna very much in the way). A street sign reads “No Outlet.Symbolism? You decide.

What if I exchanged a fixed dwelling for a mobile one? After two years of thought, research, planning, work, and help, that became reality.

Image shows a white camper van heading up a dirt road on a glorious, blue-sky day through a landscape of juniper and piñon trees. A dramatic, rocky bluff beckons in the background.

Which leads us back to the present. For the last five months, I have been a nomad, doing things I could not when rooted in place: visiting family, exploring new places, listening to thunder rumbling over the mountains, wondering every day what I would see from my back doors. I mostly go to beautiful places so that I can lie down in them, but still. Movement has been glorious.

Image shows a white camper van from behind. It is in the distance, heading down a gravel road through cottonwoods in various shades of (let’s be realistic) uninspiring, autumnal brown. Puffy, white clouds dot the sky.

So why, now that I am a rolling stone, am I reviving a blog whose first premise is that trees have much to teach us?

Because I still think they have much to teach us—lessons I have not learned, let alone mastered. Trees are experts in long-term situations, at thriving when no change is possible, when ”fight, flight, or freeze” don’t apply. They endure and adapt rather than running, denying, or conquering, and to those with conditions that cannot be run from, denied, or conquered, they offer glorious examples of how to flourish. They remind us that we can deepen at the roots and broaden at the crown, prioritize what branches to keep or discard, offer shelter to others, and grow greenly despite incurable hardship.

Image shows a twisted piñon tree. It is growing almost horizontally, with its roots exposed and its trunk spiraling. Half its bark is missing, but the needles are still green and vibrant.

They also remind us of the value of being. Trees do good in the world simply because they are, and they are trees. They do not check things off their to-do lists, or exchange labor for money, or earn their right to live through their productivity. But because they breathe and grow and green, we have oxygen to breathe, shade to cool our planet, birds and earthworms and lizards and squirrels and bobcats and bees to keep this world in balance.

And they give us joy. That is no small thing.

Image shows the white trunks of a lovely little aspen grove growing with lush, green grass and a generous supply of dandelion seed heads.

If there is one message I want to underlie this blog, it is that you have value because you are, because you live and are human. Life is a gift, given and received, and you can give and receive life generously whether you accomplish a to-do list or not. You have value because you breathe and grow and green.

That is the story of trees.

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Note: I don’t know what shape this blog will take. I am not good at niches. So we may cover #vanlife, recipes on the road, wonders and marvels, Trees I Have Seen, chronic illness, and the works. This blog, like me, will be nomadic, and you never know when I might show up on your doorstep.*

*But you are more likely to find out if you subscribe to receive email notifications of new posts.

A Lyrical Manifesto

It’s a train-wreck of a tree.  What chaos that cottonwood must have caused when it fell:  the thunder-crack of its trunk splitting, the roar of its leaves and branches rushing downward, the shaking of the earth when it hit and crushed the saplings beneath it.  And the dust.  The fine, gritty dust of the river bank rising like smoke to hang shimmering in the sunlight.

By cottonwood standards it must be an old tree, maybe 100 years.  It was one of the giants in the bosque along the Rio Grande.  Its crown is broad.  Its trunk is several feet around.  I can lie on it comfortably with room to spare and look up at blue, desert sky through the leaves.  The tree’s own leaves–that’s the amazing thing.

This tree–this train-wreck of a tree–is still alive.

By whatever miracle, the fall, even the wound in its trunk, didn’t kill it.  Its core is sound, or at least sound enough.  Its roots still dig deeply; xylem and phloem still carry their elixir to and from every branch-tip.  The crown has begun to grow upward toward the light from where it lies on the ground.  New shoots have sprouted from the base.

Make no mistake:  this tree is in distress.  But in the nine years since I moved to Albuquerque and began coming to call on it,  I have watched it bud and leaf and flower, its long red catkins sending pollen flying on the wind.  Nine years or more after the cataclysm, the tree still lives.  None of my photos does it justice.  They convey either the massive size or the damage or the tender new growth, but not all three.  Maybe a wide angle lens could do it, but not an ordinary one.  The tree’s story is that complex.  That rich.

IMG_9039.2aWhat a story, that crash.  I suppose it’s typical to focus on that and not on the hundred peaceful years that came before.  Stories are all about events, all about plot lines.  Crises and denouements, tension and resolution.  Disaster.  Overcoming.  Even the most subtle stories are about action and movement.  Human stories have worked that way for millennia, and believe me, I see their appeal.  They just don’t do justice to this tree.  Perhaps they don’t do justice to us.

The cottonwood–what about that first century?  Not just the magic of its seed finding water to germinate and grow in a dry land, or its first, whippy shoot branching out one summer into a crown.  But the rest.  The year when its roots deepened and its crown spread.  The next year, and all the years following, when they did the same.  The leaves that turned golden every autumn and clung every winter; the way their waxy sheen caught the light and glittered with every breeze.  The generations of birds that nested and fledged in it.  The whiptail lizards that rustled invisibly in the litter at its base.  The hundreds or even thousands of lives that found shelter in its reaching arms.

And what about the years since it fell?  What about the on-going suffering, the painful effort to thrive, the new leaves bursting forth each spring?  All the things that make that mighty crash matter:  they are backstory or epilogue.

IMG_9041.2Human stories thrive on drama.  They are about going forth and conquering or failing utterly.  They are about personal adventure and one-time, cathartic release.  Growth depends on the overcoming of obstacles in a three-act structure.

Tree stories are about adapting and enduring. They are about ecosystems, symbiosis, interdependence.  They are about cycles and continuity.  Growth is a slow process of deepening.  A tree’s life is generally not about events.  It stands by while others take wing.  But its roots are strong enough to crumble stone.

I’ve become fascinated with the difference between these two kinds of stories–the ones about progress on a plot line, and the ones that deepen in cycles–as I continue to think about chronic illness.  I’ve been ill with ME/CFS/CFIDS/SEID (the name changes often) for almost two decades, and you’d think I’d have grown accustomed by now.  In many ways I have.  But each new phase of life presents its own challenges, and the whole idea of chronic anything….well, the idea is that it never goes away.  A multi-system illness like ME, which affects the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, requires constant management, especially in the absence of effective medical treatment.  It limits your possibilities for action.  Your stories become a tree’s stories as much as an animal’s.  You don’t go forth and conquer your illness–you adapt and habituate.

I’m also becoming aware, though, of how much others’ lives are affected by the kinds of stories we tell:

How often do we apply conquerors’ metaphors to those in crisis?  They are expected to go forth, fight their battles, and then return triumphant.  Story over and done.  But it doesn’t always work that way.  No end credits roll partway through a life.  The story continues.  Ramifications grow.

We tend to turn away from complex aftermaths, I find, as we do from the long, slow emergencies of chronic conditions.  Animals have that option:  to run from distress–or to face it down, snarling.  When we can’t fight or flee, we become discouraged.  So we fight or flee the person whose distress troubles us instead.

But doing so has consequences.  Individual attitudes of dismissal or avoidance translate to large, cultural attitudes.  They turn into a systemic lack of research and resources and to the perpetuation of harm.

I think we forget that we–and others–can live with chronic distress and endure it.  We may not want to believe that people cannot conquer every problem by might or force of will or good behavior. We may be terrified to realize that the most important things to us are beyond our control.  But it’s true nonetheless.

So is this: we can adapt to dire straits, even perpetual loss, and find joy.  There is a lifetime’s worth of hope in that.

Don’t get me wrong.  I would love to conquer my illness.  I would love to leave it in the dust and scamper happily away with all my old energy of body and brain to enjoy a new adventure.  So far I can’t.  But not all good stories feature conquering heroes.  Not all problems fit onto that plot line, or into mythic tales of saints and sinners.  We cannot shoehorn real lives into the stories we want them to tell.  They are more complex than that.  More rich.

IMG_9049.2That magnificent, fallen, living cottonwood will never heal.  Its trunk will never be whole; it will never stand upright again.  There is nothing anyone can do to help it.  Yet its buds are fattening again this spring.  It is in unconquerable distress, and life “leaps greenly” within it.  Both these things are part of its story.  They are part of our own stories, our communities’ stories.  We may not love both parts of the story equally, but we, too, are large enough to give them both room to speak.  We are sturdy enough to embrace complex truths.

We are strong enough to tell the stories of trees.