Teri Orr: Bathing in the trees…
It is nearly nine at night. The sound in the still twilight is broken by songs I don’t recognize.
Bird songs. Sweet, sweet birds I haven’t heard for so many months…
They were singing just before dawn too. I didn’t realize how much I had grown accustomed to the empty silence in their winter absence. But it seems they have flown back. And their conversations and elations are music I have missed on a cellular level.
The trees seem ready to be part of the community again, too. They are budding. Hints/shadows of green on branches that have been barren for months. Trees that bore the weight of so many cubic pounds of snow it is a wonder they are still standing. They have wintered hard. Many of us have. The beauty of living in a ski resort town is often balanced by the enormous weight of winter — the cold, the monochromatic heavy blanket of white. Nature sounds muted or silenced for months on end. We work hard at our jobs that serve our guests and we can forget to serve ourselves.
This week I heard a story on NPR about forest bathing and I smiled and laughed a bit in my car with no one around. Forest bathing — has become a thing. A walk in the forest to calm our troubled souls, release our tensions, infuse us with wonder. Or as my 1950s mother used to say — “Go play in the woods. Come back when it gets dark.”
The Japanese have claimed this science of healing and there are deep discussions about the tree-derived compounds — phytoncides — that are emitted in forests and are now credited with reducing stress hormones in both men and women. And according to the NPR story — increase the activity of white blood cells aka — killer cells.
Looking back on my childhood “dos and don’ts” from my single mother — lots don’t really compute for me. I was not allowed to ride bikes — too dangerous. Or climb trees — too dangerous. But spend endless hours in the uninhabited oaks and redwoods and eucalyptus groves — that was just fine.
And we lived a 20-minute drive over the hill to the ocean — the northern California, mostly cold craggy foggy Pacific Ocean. Once I had my driver’s license, my mother had no problem with me loading up my car with bunch of friends and driving the winding, two-lane road over to the coast. “It will do you good to blow the stink off,” she said eloquently more than once. And nobody told you back then you shouldn’t take the colorful beach rocks or build a fire out of sticks.
I suppose those days spent at the ocean with the mist and pines and seashell collecting and sideways sand crabs scurrying — I guess you could call those beach bathing — just the not-getting-wet kind.
A few years ago at TED Summit (think summer camp for wonky adults, who sleep in great hotels, eat great food, run rivers, hike and bike and listen to smart people speak) there was speaker — Suzanne Simard — who talked to us about how the trees were connected and talked to each other and had a system of roots with conversations and communities and alarms and storytelling. At first it sounded like — the also connected system of psilocybin mushrooms — had been ingested by the scientist. But when she ended her talk — citing decades of serious research as proof — we were in awe of the forest communication system and community of living things.
We certainly know something about the Pando effect of aspens here in the West. The largest connected living organism is that grove of 47,000 trees in the Fishlake area — right here in Utah. We see those strands of trees communicate the death of one and send up shoots for new growth of another. You can almost hear the chatter there in the fall as the leaves are rapidly changing colors and shouting against the winter approaching. Now in spring the murmur is softer. Whispers of fuzzy green along the skinny branches is the subtle conversation of the fullness to come.
This weekend I plan to visit my yard with intention. Take stock of the health of the community of living things to see how they have wintered. Fill the feeders that have been empty all winter because I couldn’t reach them, or find them at all — buried under the snow banks.
Last week I was in a land of long-stemmed tulips and bright candy pink cherry blossoms and cathedrals and museums. And the ocean. Spring had arrived there and there were church bells to proclaim it. (OK, I woke up there on Easter Sunday morning but still…)
Here, we are weeks away from tulips blooming — though I did spy pink and purple baby hyacinths popped in a sunspot in the yard.
I will talk to the emerging tulips — first planted 25 years ago when my then-college-age kids decided one fall it would be a lovely surprise for me — come spring and it was … so lovely. And I am grateful to the folks who built this house in the ’70s I bought in the ’80s. They had the foresight to plant so very many different flavors of trees. Cottonwood and pine, aspen and Japanese maple, scrub oak and some others who lose their leaves and come back in the spring — first as tight buds and then as wide-leaved trees.
My little yard is home to squirrels and all variety of birds and opossums and raccoons and wilder creatures that pass through — from moose to mountain lion.
I will find the porch chairs and set them out so I can listen in the yard to the yard. Sacred, ancient conversations between bee and lavender. Between aspen and cottonwood. Between meadow lark and starling. Between my head and my heart. I will be bathing in a forest of my own making this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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“It was just the heads of the animal characters of the zodiac brought to life. It was dizzying to look up and see them all and to meander between the animals.”