A few weeks ago when we were in California we went for a walk in the Jack London forest. My sister’s friend Carol lives in Sonoma; years ago they used to go for long walks together almost every day. We picked up Carol and off we headed. It was another of those nearly perfect California days; the sun was shining, the temperature was moderate, only a few clouds dotted the sky. This was our last day of Obama celebration and we wanted to make the most of it. I love hiking. It gives me a chance to connect with the earth; to leave the confines of my mind and experience the way the soft ground cushions my step. I become aware of the way that the air moves through the trees, giving energy to the leaves so that they can whisper their story. I love the way the sun chooses points of arrival, manoeuvering its rays between the branches. As I relax into the moment I began to learn things from the environment that would escape me if I was just scurrying from point A to point B the way I mostly spend my days. There was nary a place you could go in California that week and not be confronted with a sense of change; it was on campaign signs that remained – albeit a bit tattered by now – on front lawns. It was emblazoned on t-shirts and buttons. And on this beautiful autumn day it was etched on everything around me. Jack London, of course, said it best: “The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smoulders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive. I am filled with dreams and mysteries. I am all sun and air and sparkle. I am vitalized, organic.”
So, with thoughts about the significance of retirement floating through my mind I walked through that forest, camera in hand … actually trying to learn how to use a new camera that we were given as a gift by David’s brother Dan – an excellent photographer himself – so that I’ll be ready for Antarctica in a few more weeks. I walked quietly through the woods with eyes – and heart – open to new understandings. I was not disappointed.
Right near the beginning of the walk we passed a spot where you could see right through the trees all the way to the Pacific Ocean, if – that is – you took your eyes off the path right in front of you and stretched your vision. Too much of the time I think that I focus only on what is right at my feet; in this case that would be the decaying leaves as they decompose and change from something that’s visually beautiful to something which will have new – equally beautiful in a concrete way – functions and benefits as it becomes humus. I could just see this as loss; on the other hand I can see it as a natural process that allows something organic (like us) to move naturally from one state to another, not so much losing life as going through a transition from one kind of life to another. See the connection to retirement?
There are lots of different kinds of trees in the Jack London forest; redwoods, black oaks, and eucalyptus. They tower all around us as we walk, providing some shade from the heat of the sun and sharing with us their gift of dancing boughs and swirling leaves. I notice that the trunks of some of the trees are in flux; the colour of the bark seems to be changing as they strip from one skin to another. Their beauty isn’t diminishing; it’s just becoming something new. I also notice that some of the trees are adding new parts as they age; another
connection to what seems to be happening to my body as I age. Parts that used to be more vertical start to slump a bit; new “growths” appear. Just as I think when I look at this tree trunk, these are changes that are natural and that add some complexity and interest to what was once more simple and stark. I think that life – and the aging process – is a little bit like that too.
There’s a grace in the forest that’s palpable. Seasons change and with the turning pages of the calendar there’s the turning of the colour of the leaves and the changes in the essence of the air. The way the sun shines through is different too; more hours bereft of sunshine which gives even the plants more time to “rest”. The trees don’t try to hold on to their leaves (I think, having never really had a conversation with the trees about this); there’s that wonderful natural process that just is .. without thought, without resistance. Even as I write this, sitting in my TV room (isn’t it awful that I designate a room as belonging to the TV?) and looking out a large window at my own backyard, I am struck by the beauty of the Japanese Maple that has turned entirely red as it prepares for the winter … soon the red leaves will all be on the ground and the snow will fall and my backyard trees – just like those in the Jack London forest – will hunker down, do the strength-building that they do out of sight/underground over the winter months, and before I know it (hopefully) the warmer weather will return, the leaves will burst open in splendid shades of green, and another time of year/life will begin.
I have a lot to learn from the trees. Don’t we all?