Photo by Pat Tompkins

by Kate Jones

Through the trees, shafts of sun beat down. There are floating water droplets, probably collected overnight from the heavy rain. Sheltered in the tree’s branches they are now released, cascading downwards, like tiny dust motes, what my daughters’ used to call ‘flower fairies’. Making me laugh in their innocence of how wondrous and magical these dust particles were, rather than how I saw them, as evidence of my bad housekeeping.

Whatever the floating mists this morning are, they give the woods a mysterious, fairy tale feel.

Crossing the gushing river, ever moving, fuller today because of last night’s heavy downpour, I remember our toddler in a red puddle suit and wellingtons, the flick of a blonde curl at the nape of her neck, paddling delightedly. Our eldest, around nine then, cycling through the water cautiously – her default setting. Her feet raised up as the water splashes up against the tires.

The myriad of beech trees in a small enclave draw me in. My favorite place to wander, and wonder. How old are these trees, exactly? How long have they been standing in this place? Rooted. Permanence. How wonderful to know exactly where you belong, what your place and role is.

An orange brown leaf makes its descent from the top of the tree, despite the rest of the leaves being green. A rebel, committing to autumn despite the rest stretching out, clinging to the summer sun still. I stroke the bark of the beech nearest me, possibly my favorite, though it’s hard to choose. It has letters etched into it: a love heart, ‘BG hearts GO’. I wonder where they are now, how old they are. Whether recent lovers or ancient, like this tree.

Today the rough bark is damp under my fingers, wet track lines running down it like tears. I reach out to catch another falling leaf, but miss. Under my canopy, the small saplings crouch beneath the tall, elegant grownups.

I once read an article where a writer said her father went to church on Sundays. When she asked her mother why she went for a walk in nature at those times, she responded, ‘He has his church, I have mine.’ I get this here.

I feel an indescribable peace in this place, like I belong, among the beech trees. I come here to think. I sit on the fallen trunk beside the clay-infused river and try to make sense of my writing, of where I’m going. The spiky holly sprawls around one of the beeches, trying to protect it, to ward people off getting too close. I perform a Yoga tree pose, reaching tall like the tree giants that surround me. Today it is slippery, but I manage to catch my balance.

When I return home, I shall discover the beech has deep connections with writers and writing. The bark was used as an early writing material; the Latin word for book: liber, the root word of library. Liber originally meant ‘tree bark.’

Mother trees send carbon nutrients to their seedlings; dying trees often donate to their neighbors, in order that they may survive in their place, showing favoritism to their closely related plants. Their family, their people, their tribe. A tree’s taproots grow vertically straight, tapering downwards, forming the center from which subsidiary rootlets spring. For any ecosystem to remain functional, it requires that every one of its components be in place. Like human society, this plant society is characterized by variety, with its capacity to help and hinder, to cooperate, and to exploit. Nature is built on connections, and so are we.

As women, we unknowingly pick up pheromone cues from other women in their perspiration. It is this cue that leads to a synchronization of menstrual cycles in women who live together. My cycle synchronized with my mother’s; my daughters’ with mine. I have tried to send down strong tap roots to support my two saplings, as my mother unknowingly rooted me. I recognize now, though, that we often also pass down that which we don’t intend: our insecurities, our fears.

Mycorrhiza – the symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant – can be pathogenic to the host plant. Sometimes, in life too, it may be necessary in order for us to grow, or to pass on our best selves, to deracinate ourselves. Whether physically or mentally. Just as there are ties that bind us, there are times we must uproot. Though the trees cannot move from their rooted positions in the forest, still they can exert some control. This may involve pathogens – violence, in order to break free.

An appreciation of nature enhances a sense of humility, and a fascination with the most ordinary of things. Forest Bathing – known as shinrin-yokuin Japan – is the practice of short, leisurely visits to a forest for health benefits. It is thought this connection with nature, with trees and the abundance we find in the forest, can enhance our understanding of ourselves. It is the forest I return to and my cluster of beech trees when I need to understand, to reconsider, to re-root myself.

It is said that we often feel nearest to a tree’s essence when it stands in isolation, like us. But evolution didn’t intend trees to grow singly. Trees are social creatures, more even than us. Truly symbiotic, they create or support many other societies: birds, plants, insects, mammals, micro-organisms. Symbiosis shouldn’t be restricted to simply those relationships between species that bring a mutual benefit. A truly harmonious place, whether a forest or a human family, should be the sum of all its phenomena. Gestalt, from the German for form or shape – an organized whole, perceived as more than the sum of its parts.


About the photographer: Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her essays and poems have appeared in The Bark, Thema, Modern Haiku, and other publications. Her photo is titled “Reservoir.”