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Jean Stimmell: The way of the trees

  • Jean Stimmell played in these woods in Northwood growing up, which he called the “Green Forest.” Photo by Jean Stimmell



For the Monitor
Thursday, December 06, 2018

I have been in a blue funk. Last election’s rhetoric was too much for me: the outright lies, character assassinations, dog whistles, violent tirades.

More recently, like an overweight ostrich, the president stuck his head into another sand trap at Mar-a-Lago, stating, yet again, that climate change is a hoax, challenging 99 percent of scientists, along with the latest report from his own administration.

Then, of course, there is the chilling murder of Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi. The president continues to side with the Saudi prince perpetrator, thereby breaking every ideal of morality and common decency upon which our nation was built.

Until Trump was elected president, we associated such mercenary and transactional behavior only with gangsters like Al Capone, that swaggering ethic that says: I could kill somebody in the middle of a crowded street and not lose votes – or shoot homeless refugees seeking asylum from south of the border.

Trump’s world was closing in around me. I needed to find a way out.

My first strategy of recovery was to switch from the news, which is essentially “Trump all the Time,” to meditation and quiet walks in woods. Spurred by the grace of nature, I started reading Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins. I was quickly rewarded with this gem from John Muir: “Between any two pine trees, there is a door leading to a new way of life.”

I felt my spirit reviving. But not trusting myself to put encouraging words on the page after my recent doldrums, I decided to complete this essay by stringing together the words of others.

I was buoyed by how trees were Thoreau’s cheerful allies in his recurring struggles with melancholy – what we now call depression. To Thoreau, trees represent resilience and renewal: “In the winter, I stop short in the path to admire how the trees grow up without forethought, regardless of the time and circumstances. They do not wait as man does, but now is the golden age of the sapling. ... They express a naked confidence.” The human spirit needs such “stimulants of bright and cheering prospects.”

It dawned on me how, in like manner, trees have lifted my spirits, especially my relationships with special trees. Trees have been a fulcrum by which I could lever myself onto a higher plane by communicating with them through writing and photography.

I parlayed the comfort I received from Thoreau by starting a book by Theodore Richards, Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth. This book confirms what I have always believed: that we seldom make fundamental changes in our lives as a result of being nagged, threatened or coerced. Instead, we change when we become attracted to a more positive alternative vision.

The alternative reality that Richards is talking about corresponds to Thoreau’s vision of nature and my own inner yearnings: “If we are to once again experience the cosmos as our womb, to participate meaningfully in the awesome event called the universe, then we must simply walk outside, pause and look at the shining stars, or see a child being born, or listen to a tree’s rustling in the wind, and be amazed. Until we regain this capacity, no set of ideas can save us from ourselves.”

The conclusion I have reached from my sojourn back into nature and books is that our only hope is to stay connected to what is really nourishing. It is the only way that we are going persevere in our slog through the polluted waters of today to reach the exciting new world, awaiting us on the other side.

I take stock in Arundhati Roy’s words: Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing – a world that celebrates our interconnectedness, and the realization that, at our deepest level, we are all one.

Don’t give up hope. I can hear her breathing, too. I read in the New York Times last month that the Greens party is now the second-most popular party in Germany, lagging behind the conservatives by only a few points and already No. 1 among women.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)