As a reasonably normal child — observably at least — I did all the things other children do: I climbed trees, gathered fallen branches for fires, made tiny fairy tepees out of twigs.
I used to play at the base of an ancient, wise oak in the schoolyard with my best friend.
I gathered fruit from my grandfather’s old apricot tree.
I watched my cousin in awe as he climbed to the very top of the enormous pine in our backyard, and when I was old and nimble enough myself I would climb any kind of tree that looked like it beckoned adventure, or at least possessed a forked branch comfy enough to spend half an hour deep in thought.
I remember the first time I befriended a tree. I must have been about eight years old. I was playing up and down the side steps of our sprawling hillside home, among the tree ferns and the camellias, weaving in and out of the shrubs, spinning some fantasy in my head… until I met her, face-to-face.
I don’t remember what kind of tree it was. Her trunk was smooth, with slight textural grooves all over her dense bark. She wasn’t large or otherwise outstanding in any way. Nothing about the tree was noteworthy, yet for the first time – I noticed it. I knew I had to hug her. I was compelled, I was drawn to her in a way I had not been drawn to anything before. I wrapped my arms around her, felt her sure strength seep into my body. I pressed my chest against her trunk, feeling her life giving herself back to me.
I had heard the phrase “tree-hugger” many times – always said disparagingly about faceless people who I’d assumed, from various snippets of conversation I was able to piece together, were nothing short of menaces to society – but I didn’t know what it meant.
I just knew if I was one, I didn’t belong.
Was I a tree-hugger?
I didn’t tell anyone about how my roots now found their way into the dark earth, about how I was friends with the small creatures of the night, how I could steady myself in a storm by moving with the forces of pressure rather than fighting against them.
I never mentioned how my arms reached as high as the heavens, how stretching until I felt the cooler air of the atmosphere seemed to bring a freedom unavailable to me elsewhere. I spoke not of my open palms bearing the weight of fruit I didn’t know how to taste.
I didn’t tell anyone that the tree now grew inside me, that it lived within the centre of my being, that when I first heard those few deep, resonating notes of the cello, the tree shivered, groaned with the rest of creation.
Years later I daydreamed about my death.
I felt the thrill as my lifeless body was moved apart by the ravages of decomposition as it lay, inert in the cool earth…
how the worms took me in as if they knew me,
how the roots of fire clung to my rib-cage as their tenacity cracked my brittle bones,
how the soil found its way into my mouth and nostrils and eye sockets
and how I breathed it in, gulping – desperate – for more.
Welcomed as I was into the oneness of all things,
the matter that once formed my skin, my hands, my face,
now existed within all things, as it was always meant to exist.
Everything that was myself now belonged
in a way it had never been allowed to belong,
within the confines of consciousness… and so
I didn’t tell anyone that I was a tree.