The breeze slides off the lake, slips nimbly up and over the ragged, red clay bank, and swirls in eddies around my bare feet. It shimmies past the perspiring skin on my arms and legs just enough to keep me from retreating to the air-conditioned camper. The water is mostly still today, only occasionally ruffled by a pleasure boat. I am fully ensconced in the shade of several young white oak trees, trees whose leaves capture (but fail to hold) the edges of the breeze caressing us all.
Many thoughts have been breezily swirling in my brain since we arrived to this quiet cove yesterday, though I fully admit to pushing some of them away so that I might remain fully present. I don’t push them away because they are unpleasant or difficult (though some are); I simply, right now, want to focus on, well, a tree.
What has captured my pen today is one singular oak to my right, the same age as her sisters (I’m guessing 25-50 years old, which is, in oak years, practically newborn*). She is the victim of unfortunate circumstance, an event probably created by drought, likely in the last 3 years.
The earth simply could not hold her where she planted herself, on a promontory too close to the water’s edge, and erosion beneath took its toll eventually, causing her to now be tilted precariously towards the water at a 45 degree angle. Her branches are in full summer outleaf and her trunk remains stubbornly sturdy; the top edge of her root ball has feathered away, though, and the exposed roots show minimal, but concerning, damage.
I have no idea how long she will persevere in this this inalterable state, and I find myself wondering how she will cope with this predicament, how much further she will fall over time, and how much time she has left, knowing full well only two things: she will never ponder these thoughts, and now, I will never not ponder them.**
Perhaps she will compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on her skyward side, strengthening the ones already there, or curving her trunk, to act as ballast.
Perhaps she will call out to her brethren and sound an alarm, and they will come to her aid, as trees do--sending nutrients through the mycelium to boost her and hold her steady against the wind and water and the ravages of time.
Perhaps she will be able to hold herself in this altered state for many years, and perhaps not. She has no idea how long the remaining dirt under her will last, and she may not be able to compensate being fully waterlogged at the base once it gives way.
And then there’s the question of what will happen if roots, trunk, and branches become partly or mostly permanently submerged. White oaks are hardy, sure, but they are not suited for under-the-waterline stasis like a bald cypress, swamp tupelo, or even a willow. She could live for years more--even if she slips below the waterline. But she will likely not thrive in that state and would certainly not reach full age and mass.
Her roots hold fast to the remaining bank for now, and she continues to hold fast to her white-oakness; what other choice does she have, really?
It makes me think about how we humans cope with change, how we adjust ourselves when things interrupt our growth and/or purposely or unconsciously try to drag us down.
The tree doesn’t need to “think on her feet.” She holds this new line as only she can: with blinding slowness and complete neutrality, with steady composure, without dread. It will take months, nay, years for her to make adjustments to trunk or branches, and they will be so incremental that they would hardly be noticed with the naked eye. The challenge she faces is not one where quick thinking matters; she will adjust, but with no haste.
Meanwhile, life/the Universe flings all manner of feces at us daily: we lose jobs, our spouses divorce us or we divorce them, partnerships dissolve, our beloved soul friends move away physically or drift away emotionally (the latter, of course, being even more painful), our pets face trauma and illness and we must face their mortality, and our loved ones face illness, adversity, and death. Our hearts break, capsizing upon themselves in white-hot agony, and we are stripped bare by the futility of circumstance. Our existence can be thrown into chaos with one phone call, one unnoticed red light, one instant of distraction, even one stumble off the curb. Change is the only permanence in our lives, and often, we are not ready to face it, let alone cope with it in healthy ways. It’s funny: humans have adjusted and adapted over centuries to all manner of newness and strangeness, and persevered. But we crave consistency and sameness, routine and ritual, nonetheless.
And there is nothing wrong with this craving. Wanting consistency, desiring ritual, and needing routine have helped us adapt, actually: stability is nothing to sneeze at. We are creatures of habit.
But the Universe doesn’t really care about that, does it? We know that Life Happens--and storybook endings rarely do. We know, intellectually, that bad things happen to good people and vice-versa, that adversity doesn’t discriminate, and that life is actually rarely fair. So that means we realize that change will come and it may often be unwelcome, but we must cope. What other choice do we have?
And, unlike this young tree facing adversity, we often need
to adjust to change very quickly, even though what we’d really like is More
Time to learn how to cope with the inevitable erosion of what we are used to. Our heads understand what is needed, but our
vulnerable hearts are slow to catch up (and often too swift to declare they
will never embrace vulnerability again). The tree, lacking a breakable heart,
has nothing but time to adjust, but we are rarely afforded that luxury.
As we feel our feet being ripped from underneath us, find ourselves tipping toward the water as the earth sloughs away, we realize that we can change nothing about the circumstance but ourselves: we can compensate for being off-balance by sprouting new branches on our skyward surface, strengthening the ones already there, or curving our trunks, to act as ballast. We can reach out to our brethren for aid, and open ourselves/be receptive to the nutrients they provide us.
We can experience change (and the knowing that it will always be watching us from just outside our awareness, peeking through a crack in the curtains, waiting to pop over for a “quick chat” just when we have settled ourselves into a cozy nap in the familiar) by activating the stalwartness we, like the tree, already possess.
The leaning tree cannot control the erosion, nor can she adapt quickly to adversity, change, or distressing situations. But she copes, regardless. And we learn, sometimes against our wishes, that we can cope, provide ourselves ballast, and thrive over time despite adversity, discomfort, and even heartbreaking pain.
What other choice do we have?
*The common folklore is that oak trees grow for 100 years, live for 100, and die for 100.
**Will I think about this tree constantly? Of course not. But will I think of her regularly? Yes, because I think about trees a lot anyway, and this one in particular has captured me on this day--and forever.