by Kate Jones
I have a stone beside my bed in the shape of a heart. Dark gray slate, there’s no mistaking it, it’s perfectly heart-shaped.
The first day of our holiday, walking toward the retreating waves, about to explore the cliffs reaching out into the wider sea, I walked over the stone. Bending to pluck it from the sand, it was as though it had been placed there deliberately. It has laid beside my bed ever since, like a talisman.
I didn’t know the term wabi-sabi then, a Japanese term celebrating the beauty of imperfection. Recognizing the beauty of natural objects: the gnarly knot in a fallen log; the raised ridges of time etched on my heart stone, representing the years it has been tossed in waves and buried in sand. How wonderful that the Japanese have a term for celebrating imperfection. This is what I love about Eastern philosophies: they often tend toward recognition of nature, and of human beings, as being beautifully imperfect, and ultimately connected.
Buddhists, for example, believe we are all interrelated, interdependent. When a tree in a forest is at threat of being felled, Buddhist monks often dress in their orange robes and dress the trees in their own vestments, to indicate their spiritual connection to all living things.
This connection to nature isn’t exclusively the proviso of Eastern brethren. I remember my grandfather, years ago, predicting the rain by placing a fir cone on the windowsill of his home. When the cone closed up, he would look out of his net-curtained window gloomily: rain was coming, preventing his escape to his rose garden. The opening of the fir cone indicated sunny weather, changing his personality along with its changing shape.
We often wander into a wood and comment on the wonderfully dense thicket of trees, or the way the river surges rhythmically over rocks. But it is too lazy simply to recognize these natural features as merely ‘trees’ or ‘rocks’.
The leaves of our many varied trees, for example, distinguish its species, each silhouette representing a way to identify it, just as fingerprints identify the individuality of human beings. The rings around their trunks are often used to date them, perhaps similar to the wrinkles we all develop as we age; and their long roots spread through the woods, making up a connection referred to recently by scientists as ‘the wood-wide web’, feeding other plant species, similar to the communities we belong to. Even their seeds eventually leave the branches to pollinate and procreate new saplings throughout the woods, just as our own saplings grow into adults and lay down their own roots. We are far more connected than we realize.
Our trees are legendary, magnificent, and necessary. Standing steadfast, used for healing, for hanging a tire swing, for kissing under as young lovers, carving initials in for future generations. Planting new trees is a way humans can touch the future: an oak tree planted on the birth of a human child will still be standing, growing steadily, when that child is a grandparent, or great grandparent, and so on. Once we begin to look out for these connections, these examples of interconnectedness, we find them everywhere. It’s a clear case of reticular activation: the idea that you notice more of something when you become interested in it.
To enter a wood can be to pass into a new world, where we find ourselves, as with the natural elements of our environment, transformed. The healing and transformative powers of immersing oneself in nature – given the official term of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, in Japan – is now widely recognized, treating a variety of conditions including depression and anxiety.
The Chinese count wood from trees as the fifth element, recognizing them as our barometers of weather, just like my grandfather with his fir cones. They relate to the changing of the seasons; we tell the time of year by them. Who is in any doubt that autumn has arrived in the Northern hemisphere when they take a walk in a wood, observing the myriad changing colors of the leaves?
I heard a story stating that woodland people, communities unaffected and untroubled by hectic city living, can often tell the species of a tree from the sound it makes in the wind.
Perhaps this is a lesson for us all: perhaps if we begin to slow down and listen, to breathe once in a while, to separate the umbilical cord of the smartphone, we too will begin to pick up on the messages the natural world is sending us.
About the photographer: Emily Sorensen is a graduate student at Yale School of Drama, where she’s working toward her MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism. When not in a theatre or classroom, she likes to go outside and take pictures of pretty things. Mostly trees.