There is something about Fall. Something about the change of light, the movement of air, the fragrance of earth and bark and foliage that makes my heart feel a fullness it hasn’t felt all year. Something about this season reminds me of the passage of time more than any of the others; the simultaneous coming to a close of one era and the beginning of another. The darkening days lend a mood of introspection, the slowing from the buzz of summer activity, a cool breeze taking the edge of the simmering heat of the last few months – and I find myself sitting still a little longer, lingering by the open window and …watching the sky. I feel time moving.
In autumn, I always feel all of the autumns past. And it is at once an overwhelming gratitude, heartsick nostalgia and a profound awe. It catches me off guard and it always takes my breath. How far we’ve come. And all that is passing away as we speak. It almost feels like too much to bear.
Last week I hiked solo to the top of the ridge behind our house, a steep climb through the forest to a spectacular view of the valley with the river running down below and the one main road that leads through our rural community and on out to the sea. At the top of the hill has stood for a few hundred years an ancient, gnarled and sprawling magnificent oak. Whenever I have hiked this ridge, I have paused before Her in reverence; in the wetter seasons, reaching into the well of Her womb for the water that collected there.
“Holy water,” I said, anointing him and then myself. I remember it made him chuckle the first time I did it. We were new and exploring, I was the wild and mysterious girl from the woods, we were in love and every single thing was pure magic.
We like to say it was She that brought us together.
One summer five years ago, on a whim I emailed this stranger to ask if he wanted to come build a tree house with me and live in it all summer. I said I knew the perfect tree. I was on a very serious kick to sell all my belongings and go and live out of doors, “off the grid”. I was in that restless place of transition without having a clear idea of what the next stage of my life would look like. Recently I had picked up a book written by this interesting guy – a book which also contained his contact information. I was bored and curious (a combination I have found leads either to stupid decisions or serendipitous ones!).
He wrote back. Thus began the two and a half years of correspondence that would eventually, finally lead him to my doorstep and “the girl in the woods by the sea” became no longer a mystery but now leading him up a mountain to the very tree that inspired it all, where we carved our initials (and later, a third set). Near Her roots we would bury a list of our heart’s aspirations for our life together as a family.
In the last couple of years, I have had fewer opportunities to visit her. Days have been full and gone are the free hours when I could go get lost in the woods for half a day at a time. In the shorter walks we’ve taken through the woods with our son, the little Acorn Scout, we’ve watched the Phytophthora ramorum, the sudden oak death, sweep through the forest swiftly claiming one after the other, both the tan and the scrub oak. At first, just a black nodule here and there but within months hollowing them out and felling them like twigs. From time to time, I worried about Her. I had seen the tell-tale signs high up on Her branches as well. But it was hard to believe that She could not withstand this too, for She had seen so much, She had stood for so long.
Last week I made the trek up the mountain for the first time since Spring. With the change in temperature, the bright red leaves of poison oak plant have begun to wither and recede again, making the way less perilous. I made my way up the mountain slowly, pausing to notice the filtered sunlight, the shift in temperature as I rose higher, the breeze as it sounded through crisp and drying leaves.
Reaching the summit, I came around the familiar bend and suddenly —
there She lay.
Half of Her tremendous weight collapsed across the path before me. I could still see the freshness of Her wound where She split, taking smaller trees down in the power of Her wake. I stood unmoving.
Who knows when it had happened exactly, when the moment had finally come, when it was time to let go. Had the forest mourned? Had the trees reached out their arms to soften Her fall? Had they bowed their heads to the great Matriarch, now Herself riddled with the disease that she had watched claim each of Her children?
How long had She stood watch over this hill? Hundreds of years of roots were not enough to protect Her. How long had She had stood with dignity even as the black death slowly ate Her from the inside and hollowed out all Her limbs? Now from where She lies upon her side, I can see how She held out to the very end. While I lived my life out below, She watched and waited patiently for the end to come. Lichen and moss still cling to Her like royal adornment, the emblem of our names now blighted with bulbous growth.
And I want to cry but I can’t and I am filled with shock and sorrow and I want to understand what it all means and I think of my partner and how hard and painful things have felt between us for awhile and how much we’ve grown since it felt like we were children clambering up to sit in Her branches. When She held us. When it felt like we were just beginning.
And I think of all the teachings. About non-attachment. About the impermanence of all things.
I want to cry but I don’t have any tears. So instead I find a foothold and lift myself up to rest my body against Hers. My hand runs along Her mossy trunk and I close my eyes.
Deep deep down, Her pulse still echoes. I slow my breath to listen.
She says: I am not gone. It’s just time to transform. My time in this form has come to an end, that is all. I am only changing form.
And then I see.
The forest does not know loss or grief. It only knows change. It only knows transformation.
It doesn’t know death, only surrender. Only becoming.
And I see.
That the sadness comes from the holding on. From the clinging to the old form past the time when it’s been worn out, expired and no longer of service.
It’s just time to transform. I am only changing form.
I am too.
And I want to cry or laugh or, or – something. But I can’t. My heart is too full.
So I just be still. I just be still and know.