All it takes is one tree, one connection…
EARTH & PSYCHIATRY
According to Genesis in the Old Testament, there was a choice. One tree or the other within The Garden of Eden. The meaning of that choice and the resultant decision has been debated by scholars for millennia. One thing for certain, however, is that the central importance of the natural world has been emphasized since our birth into being. Earth Day was one of the first days of Creation!
My childhood Eden was just outside the door. I called it “The Woods.” It was a block-long plot of undeveloped land that separated the modest homes on our street from the busy avenue on the other side. The parents on our block, however called it by another name: the empty lot. That label implied that if a space did not boast buildings of some sort, then there was nothing of value to be found. What they saw as empty, I saw as full.
When I was about 7 years old, my friends and I would lose ourselves in play among the elm, oak, and maple trees that made up our forest world. What a perfect place for a game of hide and seek! Sometimes we brought our toy guns and played war. Though I was an anxious child, my confidence soared as I imagined myself as Audie Murphy, a real-life American war hero and star of the popular film, To Hell and Back. Sometimes I would bring my trusty bow and arrow in order to hunt wildlife in the dense jungle. Squirrels and an occasional rabbit were my only quarry. The rabbits were rare and seemed quite exotic to me. These animals really had nothing to worry about. My bow was feeble, my arrow rubber tipped, and my reluctance to hurt any living thing a given.
While play certainly dominated my relationship with The Woods, there was something more fundamental I found there: a gravity and stillness I could find nowhere else in my young life. Things at home were often volatile, school was demanding, and friendships bred nervous jealousies and competition. But even just the thought of entering my sanctuary brought a gentle tingling to my body. It seemed to settle my soul. A view of a robin, oriole, or cardinal from our back window brought that same primal thrill.
Within the expanse of thriving trees was a tiny clearing that became my chosen place of contemplation, respite, and repose. My living room, I suppose. A fallen tree trunk laid out as a makeshift couch. Although it was hard and rough to sit on, I found it comforting. I felt like I was safe here, protected from the slings and arrows of daily life. Sometimes I wouldsit there, completely lost in thought, all of a sudden experiencing no thought at all, just my embodied self merging with the natural world. A sense of oneness, as I view it now.
Many times I brought a sandwich in a small brown paper bag. Although I was a voracious youngster, I patiently waited until lunchtime before I opened the bag. Even a sandwich had special meaning within the space and time of The Woods.
With the satisfaction of a full belly, I delighted in my special form of freedom. I would listen for birds singing their songs and sing a song of my own when the spirit moved me. That spirit moved me quite often. I had found my place in the world. Like the earth itself, this was a place that would live on forever. While I relied on the constancy of The Woods, I marveled at the changing seasons observing the rich pattern of growth and decay, death, and rebirth. I knew I would be grateful for the wonders of The Woods for the rest of my life.
That is, until my father gently gave me the dreadful news: “They are going to cut down your trees, Barry. I am so sorry.”
From my point of view, that would have been downright impossible. But I knew that my father was a truthful man who knew what he was talking about. After a moment of awkward silence, I just cried.
"They can’t do that! Why would they even want to do that,” I emphatically replied. Of course, these days, the answer seems obvious. They would “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” That was their intention, indeed. Back then there was little or no pushback. Development was embraced as progress. It was a symbol of America’s post World War II prosperity.
But a sense of progress was not my concern. The strongest protest I could mutter was: “Shouldn’t we do something to stop them, dad? It’s just plain wrong!”
“It doesn’t work that way,” my father said apologetically. Looking back today from an adult perspective, I recognize my impulse to save The Woods was a prelude to our current urgency to save the planet.
Soon came the indifferent machines, clear cutting my wilderness until it was no more than logs, trunks, and stumps. Severed limbs lying everywhere. More machines came and went until there was nothing left but dirt. I told my father that I heard The Woods crying. He knew better; it was the tears of my broken heart.
Then, the smell of black death. Toxic petroleum-based asphalt that smothered the earth. This was a forever proposition. Nothing was going to grow there again!
There was no way I could defeat the enemy. I had neither the tools nor resources to beat back the attack. My clever father, however, recognized a way to hang on to dear life. This, fortunately, happened before the destruction began.
“Grab the shovel, Barry, and come with me.” I did as he asked and joined him on our holy mission, following him intoThe Woods. I, in turn, led my father to my sacred spot. I wanted him to know where my heart had led me. He sat on my couch and silently surveyed the area around us.
“Let’s pick a young and healthy tree. That’ll be your tree,” he said. “Start digging, I’ll help if you need me.”
I didn’t. I planted that shovel into the ground surrounding my tree and went to work. As if I was participating in a sacred ritual, a rite of passage. Although small in stature, I made up for my limitations with sheer will and determination. I cherished the dirt that covered me as if it were a coat of honor. As if I was now a part of The Woods myself and this single tree had transformed into the biblical Tree of Life.
My father and I dragged the lone survivor out of The Woods, past the alley, and on into our backyard. Working together, we dug a big hole in the center of the yard and gently placed the tree in its new resting place. We surrounded it with wooden stakes secured by wires so as to protect it from the shock of transplant and the vicissitudes of weather.
I often worried about my tree. Many summer nights, I snuck out of the house to lie under it, imagining that we were together in The Woods. I was, however, always on guard, ready to repel any surprise attack by the determined machines. With my bow and arrow at my side I pointed my flashlight toward the blacktop. Let ‘em try!
Underneath the canopy of leaves, I looked up to marvel at the stars. I wondered if they shone their lights to protect the Earth as I protected my tree. Was there someone out there watching over us all, assuring that everything would be alright? Or did life here on Earth rely solely on human caretakers to survive? Would enough people take on the task? That seemed uncertain given what I witnessed with The Woods.
Some 60 years later, as an adult, I returned to view and contemplate my childhood home. I approached the current residents for permission to enter their backyard. How had my tree adjusted after all this time? Did it whither or flourish? Was it even still there?
There was little left of the backyard as I remembered. It was all tree. One sturdy oak took up the entire space. Anchored by a strong trunk, thick limbs, and plentiful green covered branches, it was a grand tree. In its noble reach, it welcomed me and proclaimed its proud survival. The owners allowed me to sit underneath.
I reclined under the tree, once again feeling the stillness I had experienced as a child. It was as if my tree had transformed into the entirety of The Woods.
The woman stepped forward and spoke. “You know, that tree is sacred to our family. Our young boy sits under it all the time. He insists that it is his tree.”
She giggled, as if embarrassed by his boast.
"Would you give him a message from me?” I asked softly.
She nodded shyly.
"Tell him, it is and always will be.”
Barry Marcus is a clinical social worker, a visual storyteller, and a creativity consultant.
To see more on Earth & Psychiatry, please see The Power and Potential of Earth Week and Psychiatry.