by Kim Childs
One morning as this year’s interminable winter gave way to spring, I took myself out for a walk. Strolling though my favorite park, I was arrested by the sight of a shining silver birch that was beginning to sprout some green. An exuberant “Hi!” escaped my lips and I looked around, wondering if anyone had heard me talking to the tree.
Not that I could have stopped myself. Because trees and I, well, we go way back.
As the daughter and sister of two skilled arborists, I consider trees part of the family. In fact, you could say that they put clothes on my back, a roof over my head, and money in my college fund. Our family photo collections contain just as many pictures of trees as they do of gap-toothed kids, pets and relatives. Growing up, my brothers and I would groan as Dad repeatedly stopped the car to photograph the specimens he spotted on family road trips.
I’m pretty sure I was the only kid in my school who could identify Japanese maples, Dutch Elm Disease and gypsy moths.
During my tomboy phase I climbed trees, and sometimes I read books in their branches. Later on I built a fort in the woods where I retreated throughout my adolescence, finding comfort and solitude among my beloved trees. I think that’s also where I felt closest to the God of my understanding.
Throughout college and the years that followed, I traded the solace of nature for the excitement of cities. Years spent living in Philadelphia, London and New York found me worshiping shiny buildings, hot clubs, trendy restaurants and trendier people. By the time I was 35, that lifestyle had burned me out.
An early midlife crisis sent me running back to the natural world for healing in 1999, when I came to live and recover my spirit at the Kripalu Center amid the green, green Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. I went for walks in the deep woods and did yoga or took naps under shady trees on the lawn. My fellow volunteers and I held sharing circles under the majestic American Elm near the Annex, shedding tears and speaking truths beneath its sheltering branches.
Assembling vrikshasana, or tree pose, took on special meaning at Kripalu as I planted my foot, raised my arms and gazed out at steady evergreens for inspiration. “Trees get everything they need without striving, and they’re never in a hurry,” my yoga teacher once said. “Trees are strong because they root down into the Earth, reach for the heavens and bend with the wind.”
And thus trees became my gurus, too.
Two years later I moved to a suburb of Boston with tree-lined streets and plenty of parks. I’m now just minutes away from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau famously found tranquility in the woods. When I walk the bike path near my home, the tall pines and maples form a cathedral that receives my prayers and secrets. The birds and squirrels offer companionship, too, reminding me of Mary Oliver’s promise that life is always calling to me, “announcing (my) place in the family of things.”
I do feel benevolently companioned by trees, and I’m proud to call myself a tree hugger. I’ve also been known to thank them and caress their bark—usually when no one is looking.
“It’s no coincidence that the most important spiritual leaders went out to nature when they were searching for the truth,” says Positive Psychology teacher and author Tal Ben-Shahar. Indeed, the Buddha himself found enlightenment under a sacred fig tree that later became known as the Bodhi tree. It makes me wonder if this great spiritual teacher was absorbing wisdom from an even greater one during those weeks of sitting in stillness under its leaves.
I once heard a news report that said we humans are spending more time with machines than we are with each other, which makes me guess that time in nature has probably dropped even further down the list. While I love my gadgets, they rarely stir my heart like the smell of spruce or musky autumn leaves, the fiery blaze of fall color or the tender green shoots and pastel blossoms on the trees outside my door.
Recently, I was excited to learn about a meditation practice called Sit Spot. It involves finding a tranquil place in nature to simply sit and observe natural rhythms and changes for about 15 minutes a day over a period of time. Now that’s my kind of spiritual practice, and I know others who’d agree.
“I go among trees and sit still,” the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “All my stirring becomes quiet around me like circles on water. My tasks lie in their places where I left them, asleep like cattle.”
May all beings, everywhere, find their own Bodhi tree.
Kim Childs is a Certified Positive Psychology Life, Career and Wellness Coach. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation.