During a slow sylvan saunter, if I stand still more than move, in bodily senses and in palpable transcendent essences I find reminders that nature made me to thrive among immortal woodland spirits, in refuge from the illusory blessings of merely mortal society. I cannot exceed the company of trees, nor regret deep solitude among them.
Each phase of nature, while not invisible, is yet not too distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for it, but not demanding our attention. It is like a silent but sympathizing companion in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude … — Henry David Thoreau, Journal, November 8, 1858
Above: I’ve walked by this sugar maple tree several thousand times here at Balsamea. The trail passing near it was one of our most difficult and complicated segments of trail to make, so I spent a lot of time intimately engaged in the trees and rocks there.
Later, in mid-winter Boreas dropped a big balsam fir lengthwise down the middle of that section of trail, obliterating it. So I spent a day re-clearing the trail there, then walked by this tree a couple thousand more times.
Suddenly, on April 22, 2014, I heard the tree say hello for the first time, because I was listening, in the course of a slow sylvan stroll in which I stood still more than moved.
It’s a true tree story and anecdote from my personal myth of Balsamea.
On the 23rd, I went out to listen to some other maple Balsameans. These are some illustrations that they offered with their stories.
RIGHT: Very tall old man walking in tattered pants says there is no poverty among trees.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
— William Shakespeare, As You Like It
I say, in good company, “There is no solitude in a forest.”
I have nothing to offer to the woods, but always something to bring back from them: personal inner bridges over the quick-sands of senseless societies.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
— William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned
Woodland nymphs continually tickle the forest to life. Their vivacity enlivens the mundane, tempts the demure, and harrows the proud. Their stalwart retinue of trees often inspire fortitude, equanimity, and fertile imagination within observant human guests and occupants.
Merely human lifestyles, unaided by such natural spirits, can entrap unwitting souls unconsciously aching to be free, suffering unaware, blinded even to themselves.
Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. — John Muir
Mindful attendance at forested places and their faerie domains can help regain that sight, ease the suffering, and expand awareness of the true nature of things, including oneself.
Whether by plunging suddenly and deeply into the forest, or by wandering aimlessly within it for hours, or by simply lying still on its floor, it has invoked useful catharsis.
For some people, the forest offers refuge, asylum, safety. Many people say that it is like going home after a long time away.
There are those for whom the company of trees is as important as church to its most ardent members.
Some people find meaning or just pleasure (which means something) in barefoot forest walks. I have walked a mile this way.
It demands mindful attention to every bit of surface shape and texture, and to every ounce of weight connecting with earth in every moment of every step. That is not the only kind of connection. There is the air, the moisture, the temperature, and the sight of your feet meeting their world in this direct way.
“… the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” —Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Connection with nature is to know and be known.
Forest companionship offers endless opportunities for exploration and discovery, spiritual refreshment, revitalization, education, recreation.
For me, it is all these things; all in my direct experience, everything I’ve mentioned or described so far. So when I said, “some people,” that included me especially. It’s not just theory, speculation or myth. It’s the way it is.
All that we are and will and do depends, in the last analysis, upon what we believe the Nature of Things to be. — Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy
After immersion for several years in forest life, now a sylvan — not just in the forest, but of it — I cannot imagine living in any other environment. If unable to maintain myself here, I would rather just end here.
“Some people” realize that humanity depends for its existence on the world’s forests. As they decline, so does the habitability of the planet.
There is no reasonable argument against the veneration of trees.
In a person’s relationships with forests, absence makes the heart grow ignorant. Step into the woods, and the lights can come on, day or night, in all seasons.
Whenever I have found myself stuck in the ways I relate to things, I return to nature. It is my principal teacher, and I try to open my whole being to what it has to say. — Wynn Bullock
In the woods I am more likely to be in touch with my best, truest self, that essence underlying anything good, true or beautiful in my life. It is an environment that gives me a sense that my life makes sense (to me at least), yet frees me of any need to force that sense of myself into any particular product, form or function. In the woods, I am less inclined to wrestle with my head, especially if I’m there alone.
I love to be in the forest alone. Its generous hosts are entirely companionable. They always welcome me with open arms, rain and shine, day and night, hot and cold, stormy and calm. It doesn’t matter to them when or why I show up, and I am with them under all these conditions, and in all states of mind.
While my sylvan friends — some with personal names — offer worthwhile challenges to help cultivate my powers and talents in mind, mood and body, they don’t expect anything different of me than I naturally am at core, and they strongly discourage my doing that to myself. They help keep me grounded on my true inner ground.
In addition to ways that I take responsibility for all forests, in Balsamea I am trail tender, trail bender, trail mender and chief stone structure craftsman. (It’s easy to be chief when you’re the only one.) I practice a crude, elementary kind of silviculture, and I learn more about forest life every year. All wildlife here, flora and fauna, are “protected species.” It is a nature preserve, and refuge for humanimals, too. I am responsible for cultivating and conserving this patch of forest, for leaving it better than I found it, for making it better for those who enjoy it after me.
I foresee children living here, often in visions of palpable intensity. For that dream and others to materialize when I’m gone, I must simply be fully myself here, doing as The Balsamean does and is.
In truth, the forest and my activities in it do more to cultivate me than I do to it. I am healthier in mind, body, heart and soul because of Balsamea, maybe even a little better person.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. – Hermann Hesse
Ambling along Balsamea’s paths a thousand times each year, I never hear enough of the dryad muse whispering from her pine refuge — into which Pitys escaped Pan — saying, “Live in peace forever among the trees.”
The nymph Pitys did not heed or need Pan’s aggressive desire for her (and for all nymphs). She escaped his advances not by fleeing or fighting. By metamorphosis, by transformation, by self-liberation she rose to her eternal self: the pine tree (usually seen as fir, in the pine family), ever to inspire people for all time, and not be mere temporary food for Pan’s lustful appetite, never satisfied, never at peace, as with so much of the world.
I believe that Pan most prizes the nymphs he never possessed, and perhaps needs most, for the virtue in their not wanting him. They made him a better god. Inspired by Syrinx’ self-transformation into reeds, he made the pipes for his music, and his head forever wears pine wreaths in craving remembrance of Pitys.
I chase the spirit of Balsamea through the trees for its blessings.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. — John Muir
From the endless sap of their immortal spirits, both rooted and transcendent, Pitys and her sisters vitalize my sylvan soul. When I listen attentively to the voices of the forest, I find again that she retains her freedom, stands true to herself, defines her own nobility, and inspires the same in me, as in trees.
God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, “Ah!”
— Joseph Campbell
Metamorphosis of Pitys (1850) by Edward Calvert (1799-1883) i.e., Pitys escaping Pan
See more of Calvert’s unusual art.
For the nymph-tickled mind:
I just found a website that I’ll probably visit a thousand times. Spirit of Trees is “a resource for therapists, educators, environmentalists, storytellers and tree lovers! You will find here abundant resources, in particular a varied collection of multicultural folktales and myths.” Spirit of Tree’s approach “highlights the symbolic and aesthetic dimensions of trees,” through an amazingly exhaustive worldwide “collection of multicultural folktales from contemporary storytellers, with links to more tales on the web.” Beware: “When told with feeling, these [stories] have the power to foster a heartfelt connection to trees, one that taps deep into the human imagination to inspire hope, wonder and compassion for the living earth.” They offer worldwide folktales, poetry, essays, curricular resources, and organizations taking responsibility for cultivating our relationships with trees. Spirit of Trees began as part of the DC Memorial Tree Groves Project, a Washington, DC-based national memorial to the victims of 9/11, and grew from there.
“Je me coucherai moins bête ce soir!” literally says in French, “I’ll be going to bed less stupid tonight!” The thought is great, and being able to pronounce it correctly is a special delight. (French loves the human mouth.) I found it in a pleasurable and educational piece written by Florence Berlioz, Did you know the origin of the word panic? in the blog, Miss Darcy’s Library. Gotta love someone who says she goes “leafing through my Dictionary of Greek Gods and Heroes (one of my all-time favourite reads!).” I enjoyed Ms. Berlioz’ treatment of Pan and panic.
And some of you have called me aloof, and drunk with my own aloneness,
And you have said,
“He holds council with the trees of the forest, but not with men.
“He sits alone on hill-tops and looks down upon our city.”
True it is that I have climbed the hills and walked in remote places.
How could I have seen you save from a great height or a great distance?
How can one be indeed near unless he be far?
– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Thank you, Buddy and BLR, without whom
I’d be blind to the gift of the life I’ve been given.
Text and photos Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved except usage strictly under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. only under the conditions that you (1) Make proper attribution and (2) Notify me of your use of the material. Inquiries welcomed. All tree photos take by The Balsamean at Balsamea in April 2014.