Grief is a sacred journey

Give Thanks for the Teachings of Trees

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DSC00653November grief has a sharp edge. Six years after my husband Vic’s death, I still struggle with holidays. I know I’m not the only one.

Sorrow needs space this time of year. Since hiding makes me sadder, I address grief straight on in my forest, at the cairn where Vic’s ashes are buried, and in poetry. I remember the deep roots of trees and know I’m rooted, too.

I searched my poetry files for favorite poems about the wisdom of trees. It’s a Thanksgiving gift to you–and to myself.

DSC00659Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

       ~ David Wagoner (1999)DSC02117

When I feel lost, I trust leafless November trees. They are rooted here. They know where I am. They know the way home.

Rumi adds sacred riches to the teachings of trees. He reminds me that everything in my life connects to the unseen world and my job is to plant love. 

Widening Circles

Every tree, every growing thing as it grows,
says this truth: You harvest what you sow.
With life as short as a half-taken breath,
don’t plant anything but love.
Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world.
The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same.
Every wonderful sight will vanish,
every sweet word will fade.
DSC02402But do not be disheartened.
The source they come from is eternal, growing.
Why do you weep? The source is within you.
And this whole world is springing up from it.
The source is full. Its waters are ever-flowing.
Drink your fill.

           ~Rumi

I end with the bard, Mary Oliver. Her trees know where she is, too. They bring her back to herself, back home, in a celebration of life as it is–grief, light, loss, and love. All of it. Always all of it.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

DSC00328

Willow dressed for hunting season

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

~Mary Oliver

It’s simple. The trees know what to do. They’ll remind us if we pause and ask them.

***

Thanks to writer and friend Robin Botie for sharing the poem “Lost” when I needed it most. For a blog about our lost hours in my forest, please see Lost and Found in My Own Backyard. For other favorite poems in times of grief, see Poems to Grieve By. For a beautiful prose poem about grief in the forest, see “Snow is Falling” by Mark Liebenow. Have a Thanksgiving full of love.

 

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20 Comments
  1. Just lovely, dear Elaine. I too find comfort in trees, and in poems about them. May I share one of my favorites with you?

    When you grow weary of the boasts of men,
    go to a tree, my friend —
    one that has stood long patient years
    within a silent wood.
    Beneath its branches you will find again
    a thing long lost.
    Trees are content to be
    as God created them.
    No bough that turns its golden thoughts to autumn
    ever yearns beyond a hillside’s immortality.
    Go to a tree in silence, you will find
    in the soft eloquence of bud and leaf
    serenity beyond the voice of grief
    and faith beyond the reach of humankind.
    Man spends his noisy days in search of gain
    while trees find God in sunlight, soil and rain.

    ~ Anonymous

    • I love it, Marty! I didn’t know this poem. Trees hold so much serenity and quiet acceptance of what is. I add this poem to my treasure–and don’t be surprised if you see it in a blog someday. Snow is expected here today. The trees don’t worry about a change in plans. Thank you for providing comfort of your own.

  2. A most beautiful post and reminder to us all. The trees have much to tell us. Holidays seem to be hard for most of us who have loved and lost as it’s the time of bonding with the family and a great reminder of those who are no longer with us here to celebrate. So we must keep the glass half full and look to the trees, and remember the good times within our hearts. <3

    • Debby, I’ll go to the forest today (before or after the snow begins) and the trees will be there holding on to the earth and reaching up to the sky. When Vic died, I knew how many humans had walked through this forest and how much the trees had witnessed the passing of humans from the land. All in peace.

      • Beautiful Elaine, so beautiful! I just received your book today! It’s wonderful front and back. I can’t wait to read it, a few books from now on my TBR. Will definitely review when read. <3

  3. Thank you, Elaine, for this reflection on trees and wisdom and self and hope. The photos and poetry bring presence to a season of bareness that too often amplifies our sorrow.

    • Thanks for your reflection, Mark. I hope everyone visits your website, reads “Snow is Falling,” and looks around at your writing. Photography helped me look for beauty after Vic’s death and it’s become my habit to take my little camera everywhere. Wishing you a peaceful Thanksgiving.

  4. You are right: November has a sharp edge. And grief seems heightened just now. This is our first Thanksgiving without Mother. I am planning to take a place card with a pretty posy with her name to our Thanksgiving table.

    Our house is surrounded by 18 live oak trees which have endured the ravages of the seasons far longer than I. There’s a lesson there too.

    • What a wonderful idea, Marian. I find it helps so much to consciously remember and celebrate those who are missing. I’ll spend Thanksgiving with friends, and we’ll light candles for those we miss who aren’t with us, many living and many dead. Those oak trees have lived through plenty and they’re still standing. How lucky you are to have them. And to have the sweet memories of your mom. And her recipes, too.

  5. Thank you Elaine. This is a gift for sure – 3 in 1. I’d never seen that Rumi poem before. Trees are so special this time of the year. The rocking in the wind, the fallen leaves, the way the forest welcomes light through undressed branches. And already at Wegmans, you see the displays of little Christmas trees stacked and sending out messages of all kinds to shoppers passing by, “Take me home,” and “Holidays are here now.”I prefer the messages of the poems you found, about the wisdom and eternal light in trees.

    • Robin, I felt like a poem thief writing this. You can have all of them, plus the one in the first comment sent by Marty. One of my favorite things about the winter forest is the light through “undressed branches.” And then protection from wind. I know those little trees and some are in pots with roots. I considered buying one in preparation for Christmas but didn’t. Maybe after Thanksgiving I’ll change my mind…

  6. Well, Elaine, you just encouraged me to get up from the computer and go take a walk. Nature always recharges my batteries.

    • Ann Marie, I hope your batteries are recharged. We’re expecting snow this afternoon, so I’ll take a long nurturing walk this morning and give thanks to trees. I may have to get out my snowshoes for Thanksgiving Day.

  7. Lovely post, Elaine.

    I particularly relate to the beginning lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “When I am Among the Trees”

    “When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily…” These standing beings are like old friends to me. 20 years living on the edge of an old growth stand of woods in Michigan where we built our house taught me the ways of trees and their power to heal and balance in times of grief.

    Remind me to tell you about the ‘tree deva’ one of these days.

    Big holiday hugs and a very Happy Thanksgiving to you, Willow, and your family,

    Jenna

    • The tree deva? I’m entranced. Must be cousin of the dakinis who live in my forest. Today, the forest was quiet and soft with new sticky snow. A dark time of year, but a good time for drawing inward and reflecting on life. Please don’t forget to tell me about the tree deva. Thanks for your good wishes. I send them back to you. Elaine

  8. Beautiful, Elaine. As always.

    The Rumi poem brought to mind the Rilke poem with the same “widening circles” concept. I offer you the poem for your collection and the lovely Krista Tippett interview with Joanna Macy. I know you will love it.

    Thank you for writing about loss, grief, and the holidays. It’s a lesson still quite raw for many friends right now.

    May your walks among the trees bring you beauty and strength these November and December days.

    • Thank you, Shirley. I love the Krista Tippett interview with Joanna Macy and shared it a while back on FB. I met Joanna Macy many years ago (just once when she visited and spoke in Ithaca) and used her translations of Sonnets to Orpheus in my book. As much as I try, as much as I think I know how to navigate these stormy waters, holidays are hard. The only thing I know to do is give space to grief. Just so we get to enjoy this poem again, I’ll include it here:

      I live my life in widening circles
      that reach out across the world.
      I may not complete this last one
      but I give myself to it.

      I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
      I’ve been circling for thousands of years
      and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
      a storm, or a great song?

      ~Rilke, Book of Hours, I 2

  9. I am wholly mesmerized by the beautiful and divine wisdom and teachings of trees. Thank you so much Elaine for not only sharing these great poems and your wonderful photos with us but also for reminding us, in a timely fashion, of those deep roots of trees. Oh how this poet’s heart feels nourished and soaked with lyrical devotion! I shall be returning to reread this post many times for such tree richness cannot be absorbed in one meeting alone. Thinking of you on this day, have lit a winter’s candle and placed it in my window. A small light to help illuminate the dark night. Blessings always, Deborah.

    • Deborah, you make my heart sing. I wrote this piece a year ago at Thanksgiving. It’s one of my favorites.

      My forest is a healing and centering place filled with red oak, white oak, pin oak, hickory, maple, pines, hemlock, beech, and much more. In this world where everything moves quickly and we’re on to the next thing, you remind me of the timeless quiet of the woods. The big trees are a ten minute walk from where I sit at the moment. Out my window, the earth is dusted with frost and light illuminates the tree tops. My dog wags her tail with expectation. She knows it’s time to put on my boots and take her for a walk through the fields to visit the trees.

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