Spirits of Cedar: A Walk on the Mountain, and Feeling into Nature

Days of monsoon-like rain. Nights of howling wind and crashing trees. A brown torrent of water coursing down the driveway, washing away all the gravel. The ravine below our house, which normally sits dry, is a raging current alive with voices as water hurls down the mountain. A bit lower on the slopes, a house was swept off its foundation into a gulch.

After too many days indoors, nearly a week of storms, a sunny morning invites me out for a walk. I’ve donned my battered, wide brimmed ‘walking hat’, partly because it’s part of my walking ensemble but also for the light mist that continues to fall despite the blue sky. Lazy, inelastic muscles are eager to be stretched and my heart longs for the pump of exercise and animating breath. Heading out from the house and up the hill, my tight, creaky hips and knees feel like rusty doors too long unopened.

Two days ago in the storm, a great salt cedar toppled at the head of our road, falling across the neighbor’s drive and smashing his fence and gate, effectively leaving him trapped. I stand for awhile, considering the impressive tree and its uprooted fate, feeling a twinge of blue sadness that such a noble giant stands no more. It was a beautiful tree, sculpted by a lifetime of winds into a graceful, windswept poem as skillfully as if an artist’s watercolor brush had trailed it eloquently across an open page. The collective work of a couple of chainsaws has restored access to the road, and the venerable cedar is now a jumble of cut logs that smell fragrantly. I want to run my hands over them gingerly, feeling for life in the wet wood as I offer last rights and soft words of appreciation… then touching my sweetly smelling fingertips to my face and lips.

Holy, holy…

As I walk on, the tarmac still glistens with water as if I am treading on shiny obsidian glass that doesn’t crack. Much of the road is in a poor state, piled with gravel and mud washed down in impressive amounts. Just a bit further along, the road bridges the gulch and I can hear the loud voices of water as I approach. Yesterday, despite the depth of the ravine and the large drain pipe under road, so much water roared down the mountain that the deluge was over the road (making it impassable except with four-wheel drive). The rushing water is lower today but the normally dry gulch is transformed into a series of cascading waterfalls and clear pools. It’s an impressive, captivating sight and I linger awhile, listening to the new chorus of high and low notes amid rushing waters, drinking it all in through my open senses.

Passing the junkyard house at the top of Pi’iholo Road, the resident flock of feral chickens—they seem to always be strutting and dandying about the road—alerted by the golden and ruby cock’s bossy warnings, squawks and disbands at my approach, scattering off into the wild ginger.

Just around the corner, I reach the forest reserve and its wide, metal gate, the site of a trail where I normally tread barefoot several days a week. This is where I come for my ‘earthing’ time, my walking, grounding meditation and sensory communion. Passing the gate, I feel a somatic upwelling in my body; a steady streaming of energy like a subterranean spring pushing forth.

Shed your shoes.

It’s a command, not an option. I hesitate for a moment as I contemplate the muddiness of the earth but then slip out of my well-worn walking sandals. Wide, bare feet sink just slightly into the cool, muddy red soil and I feel myself involuntarily inhale a deep breath.

Yes… good.

pinewoodsAs I begin my barefoot wander along the trail, I marvel at how the forces of water have rearranged the landscape. The usual, half-foot deep carpet of pine needles is entirely absent, swept away somewhere, and the trail is a bare, rusty snake studded with grey stones. The sensation through my soles brings me entirely into my bodymind, a tender and cool exchange with every step.

Shortly into the walk, I cross a clear stream (which doesn’t normally exist) flowing across the trail, awed by the jumble of fallen trees and tangle of destruction deposited in the water’s wake. It’s clear that a considerable wall of water hurtled down this gentle gully. Everywhere, the landscape is familiar but rearranged; a condition that oddly mirrors my own life, I muse, given the extended stay of mother-in-law and my partner’s young, stunningly immature cousin. Microcosm mirrors the macrocosm. The storm on the mountain, however disruptive, is merely a passing moment in the cyclical rhythms of Nature; a squall of weather that will pass, whether on the forest or in my living room. Just a bit of weather. A wee bit of drama in the small story while the Larger Story goes on, unperturbed.

Barefooted among the trees my mood has improved immeasurably, as it always does. I’ve come home to myself, once again cognizant of the larger, mythic story. Slowly I meander the forest trail loop, shoes dangling in left hand, soles (and soul) softly squishing in wet, muddy earth. Offering quiet, heartfelt blessings with each step.

At one point, I stop and sense the mountain forest around me. Using both a visual and feeling sense, I ‘touch in’ with the trees. Feeling. Listening. We are touching on the invisibles here: a world of energy, subtle perceptions, and emotion. This style of sensing or feeling is both underdeveloped and under appreciated in Western cultures. Yet we all do this on a certain level, like when we walk into an unfamiliar room full of people and quickly ‘sweep’ it over with some invisible sense, detecting how it feels… whether it is safe, inviting, or bristling with unfriendly eyes.

The living intelligence (and creativity) of the Cosmos permeates everything from atoms to cedar trees to supernovas. We dwell in a fully participatory and reciprocally sensing Universe; we cannot perceive a thing without it also perceiving us. Despite claims of science, there is no such thing as a truly objective experience. What we touch, observe or interact with, also touches us in return.

In this form of sensing, of reaching out, there exists a moment when both beings experience something unique in the other. It’s a feeling for which we have no word in our impoverished English language. The Athenians called such an awareness aisthesis; the experience of feeling the touch of life, of a particular kind of ‘other-than-human’ awareness on us, in return. For the ancient Greeks, the organ of aisthesis was the heart, that part of us that is capable of feeling. It was understood that this exchange, this non-physical touch between the human and non-human world, opens moments of perception and understanding, when insights flow into us that can arrive no other way.

Where we most powerfully feel this sort of exchange is in the living realm of Nature. When we reach out and touch the wildness of the world and Nature’s soul, something new—and essential—arrives in us. As with the breath, we open in inspiration. Indeed, if we observe our bodymind in this mutual ‘touching’ or sensing, we will note that in addition to the affect or feeling, there is also a simultaneous change of physiology. A somatic response ensues: a dilation of the heart’s field, a deepening of breath, a relaxation or ‘settling’.

I ‘feel’ into the forest, noting what I perceive in my body (rather than simply projecting), trying on different words to find the right fit. Renewal comes close. The mood feels harmonious, even if still adjusting to the new arrangement of things after significant motion. I also detect a soft upwelling in each living thing, a surge upwards towards the heavens. Reaching out and sensing, I feel each of these new qualities in my own bodymind like a somatic communion. In ‘tuning in’ on a feeling level to Nature around me, my mood and physiology have shifted.

In its reciprocal sensing, I wonder what the forest notices in me…?

Mindfully walking the return aspect of the loop, on my way back to the main road, my attention is called by the unusual sounds of a tree I am passing. I’m well acquainted with the usual clacking of limbs and branches in the winds here on the mountain, even the way that the tree voices take on almost human qualities. This sound is different. A low base note, it’s not unlike a cello. I stop and look up into the tree, scanning the branches that must somehow be rubbing against another to create an almost musical noise.

On the cedar directly in front of me, just above my head, a branch as thick as two human arms sprouts from the great trunk, and it rubs against its neighbor cedar several feet away. For so long has the branch massaged and stroked its neighbor, a smooth, shiny groove has formed in the neighboring trunk. Like a pair of cupped hands, the wide trench holds and encloses the substantial arm of the neighbor’s branch. Enough of a cusp exists that the rubbing branch cannot escape or be freed from the surrounding groove; it can only side back and forth as the two trees sway in the wind, jointly creating sounds and music of deep, low reverberations.

I stand for a full five minutes, marveling at this unique arrangement and absorbing the sounds. Feeling a resonance in my own body. I ponder how long it has taken for such an enclosing groove to form in hard cedar wood; unguessed at years through which these two trees have stood side by side in relationship, making music together.

To the tuned-out, disaffected juvenile staying in our house, I repeatedly pose the question, “What was the most interesting thing that you observed today?” Marveling at the ‘cello tree’, my own answer to this question is delightfully clear.

I finally walk on to the end of the trail where, at the gate, I turn and offer my ritual bow of acknowledgment and gratitude to the mountain wood. Then I slip my battered Keen sandals back on muddy feet for the mile and a half stroll to our cottage. As I walk through sunlight and lightly swirling mists, listening to the voices of wind and trees, I savor the profound lightness in my body. It couldn’t feel more different from when I set out on this walk just an hour ago.

I pass the fallen, dismembered evergreen at the top of our road, notes of freshly sawn cedar hitting my nostrils, and again feel the currents of soft, blue grief inside… sadness that I will no more hear the wind spirits sighing and speaking through its great, evergreen boughs when I walk by.

I am nearly at our driveway when I have a curious memory, as if a little bird has alighted and carried a thought in its beak to drop into my head. I recall some friends we met while living in southern Spain, a delightful male couple in their early forties, one English and one American. They were hard at work renovating and reopening an impressive bed and breakfast, the 300-year old farmhouse of Finca La Maroma, building a new life in the rugged mountains of Andalucia amid the silvery olive groves. One of them had recently left the corporate world of London. As he put it, he was weary of sitting in meetings where daily he had to provide a suitable answer to the question, “What did you do today to justify your existence [to this company]?”

As this memory pops unbidden into my consciousness, for a moment I consider that we each might do well to ask ourselves a similar question (in a non-corporate framing, of course): What did you do today to justify – and celebrate – your existence as a human soul?

If you ask me today, my answer is simple: I walked barefoot on the Earth. I opened my senses and marveled.

Or simpler yet…

I felt. Deeply.