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 courses along the driveway, washing away all the gravel and anything in its path. 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 and nearly a week of storms, finally, a sunny morning invites me out for a wander. I’ve donned my battered, wide-brimmed walking hat, not just because it’s part of my outdoors attire but also due to the light mist that continues to fall despite a 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 hips and knees feel like creaky doors too long unopened.

Two days ago in the tempest, 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 pause for a while, 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. Standing there, I feel an impulse to lightly run my hands over the great cut limbs, feeling for life in the wet wood as I offer last rites and soft words of appreciation, and then touching scented 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, a narrow bridge spans the gulch and I can hear the loud voices of water as I approach. Yesterday, despite the depth of the ravine and the large drainpipe under road, so great a volume 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 gully is a series of cascading waterfalls and swirling, muddy pools. It’s an impressive, captivating sight and I linger, listening to the new chorus of high and low notes in a liquid choir, drinking all in through open senses.

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

Just around the corner, I reach the Forest Reserve and its wide, metal gate, where there is a trail I normally tread barefoot several days a week. Here is where I come for my earthing time, my grounding meditation and sensory communion. Passing the portal, there is 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 step free of my well-worn walking sandals. Wide, bare feet sink just slightly into the soggy, cool red soil and I feel myself involuntarily inhale a deep breath.

Yes… good.

pinewoodsAs I begin my barefoot wander along the track, I marvel at how the forces of water have rearranged the scene. The usual, half-foot deep carpet of pine needles is entirely absent, swept away somewhere, and the trail is a rusty snake studded with grey stones. The sensation through my soles anchors me firmly in bodysoul, a tender and vivid exchange with every step.

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

Amidst the trees my mood has improved immeasurably, as it always does. I’ve come home to myself, once again cognizant of the larger, mythic frame. Slowly I meander the forest trail loop, my Keen outdoor sandals dangling in hand, soles (and soul) softly squishing in wet, muddy earth… offering quiet, heartfelt blessings with each step.

At one point, I pause again to commune more deeply with the mountain forest around me. Using both a visual and feeling sense, I “touch in” with the trees. Feeling. Listening. Connecting with the invisibles—a world of energy, subtle perceptions, and emotion—this style of sensing or knowing is both underdeveloped and under-appreciated in Western cultures. Yet we all do this on a certain level, as when we step 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. Indeed, we dwell in a fully participatory and reciprocally sensing Universe; we cannot perceive a thing without it also perceiving us. Despite claims of scientists and researchers (or anyone, really), there is no such thing as a truly objective experience, as demonstrated even on the quantum level. What we observe, touch, or interact with will respond, react, or touch us in return.

In this form of sensing, of reaching out, there exists a moment when both beings experience something of the other. It’s a feeling for which there is no word in our impoverished English language. The Athenians called it aisthesis: the experience of perceiving the touch of life, of a particular kind of ‘other-than-human’ awareness on us, in reciprocity. For the ancient Greeks, the organ of aisthesis was the heart, that part of us that is capable of feeling. Further, 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 recognize this sort of exchange is in the living realm of Nature. Reaching out and touching 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, 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 energetic field, a deepening of breath, a relaxation or settling.

I feel into the forest, noting what I perceive in my body, 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. In my very expansive, sensing state, I also detect a soft upwelling in each living thing, a surge upwards towards the heavens. Further reaching out and sensing more keenly, I feel each of these new qualities in my own bodysoul—a somatic communion. By “tuning in” on a feeling level to the living world around me, my mood and physiology have shifted.

In this reciprocal sensing, I wonder what the forest feels in me…?

Mindfully walking the return aspect of the trail loop, in a gentle reverie, my attention is drawn by the unusual sounds of a tree I am passing. I’m well acquainted with the usual clacking of branches in the winds here on the mountain, even the way that the various voices take on almost human qualities. (The ancient Hawaiians considered these upper forests to be the realm of spirits.) This sound is different: a low base note, it’s not unlike a cello’s strings. I halt and look up into the tree, scanning the limbs that must somehow be rubbing against another to create an almost musical noise.

From a cedar directly in front of me, just above my head, a branch as thick as two human arms emerges from its great trunk and rubs against another cedar several feet away. For so long has the limb massaged and stroked its neighbor that a smooth, shiny groove has been rubbed into the other’s trunk. Meanwhile, the neighbor has continued to grow and expand its diameter, thus the newer growth has formed a cusp around the sliding branch. Like a pair of cupped hands, the worn slot holds and encloses the other’s appendage as it moves; a sufficiently deep C-shape 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 there for a full five minutes, marveling at this unique arrangement while absorbing the sounds—feeling the resonance in my own body. How long has it taken for such an enclosing grasp to form in hard cedar wood? Unguessed at years, through which these two beings have stood side by side in relationship, making music together.

To the tuned-out, disaffected juvenile staying in our house, at dinner I repeatedly pose the question, “What was the most interesting thing that you observed today?” Marveling at the “cello trees,” as I think of them now, my own answer is delightfully clear.

I finally amble on to the end of the trail where, at the gate, I turn and offer a ritual bow of acknowledgment and gratitude to the mountain wood. Then I fasten the battered Keen sandals onto my muddy feet for the mile and a half distance to our cottage. Walking through sunlight and lightly swirling mists, listening to the voices of wind and trees, I savor the profound lightness in my body, so profoundly different from when I set out on this walk just an hour ago.

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

I am nearly at our driveway when a curious memory arrives, as if a little bird has alighted and carried a thought in its beak to drop into my head. I recall two men we met while living in southern Spain, where we hoped to build a new life in the rugged mountains of Andalucía amid the silvery olive groves. They were a delightful couple in their early forties, one English and one American, hard at work renovating and reopening an impressive bed and breakfast in a 300-year old farmhouse. One of them had recently left the cutthroat corporate world of London because, as he put it, he had wearied 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 [at this company]?”

As this recollection pops unbidden into my consciousness, for a moment I consider that we each might do well to pose a similar but gentler question to ourselves: What did you do today to 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.