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The Sound of Trees Talking

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

I awaken to the quiet on my first morning back at South Ridge. Punctuated by the sound of birdsong and trees in the wind, it’s less a silence than an absence of hum, both heard and unheard – the low rumble of traffic, near and far, and the subconscious web of radio frequencies draped over all places where humans congregate. The space created by this absence penetrates, filling my solar plexus with air, light, and an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude. My mind empties, and I can hear the voice of nature.

A five-hour flight to Vancouver had plunged me from my new home in the woods into the assault of a full-on rush-hour cacophony and a dizzying attack of culture-shock. As I drove towards my destination, bathed in the chemical clean of my rental car, windows rolled up against exhaust, I marvelled that I’d lived in this city for years - surrounded by this motorized roar, this electromagnetic storm, absorbing it daily and somehow functioning long enough to make it all the way across the country to South Ridge. Deep in that fog, I still knew what I was missing. Though I despaired of ever finding it, I did my best: got keys to the roof of my skid row apartment building and planted a little container garden up there. That was twenty years ago. It’s funny what can happen if you keep a dream alive.

I was lucky on my trip West to be provided comfortable lodgings with friends and family; the sound of civilization was muted in these cool basement rooms with access to plenty of hot water and large bathtubs. (Our camp on South Ridge, sadly, lacks these amenities.) The city does have its allure, I admit - I’d been looking forward to shopping, as access to certain kinds of goods are limited here. I was on the hunt for home apothecary supplies, as well as reference books, but was often diverted into stores littered with tempting doodads, knickknacks, and claptrap. To my surprise, I was able to stay my hand in a way that I wouldn’t have in times past, passing by several formerly irresistible temptations: BIG SALE! 50% OFF! Well, I don’t need any clothes, makeup, or housewares. I need knowledge and tools.

My avarice was less controlled in the used bookstores I sought out - deep dusty shelves containing far more treasure than I could carry in my suitcase. In one of these, I found a tome recommended by my herbal teacher, Rosemary Gladstone – Stephen Harrod Buhner’s “The Secret Teachings of Plants.” Reading it at night, the city buzz around me receded and I was placed into the future I’m experiencing today: strapping on my snowshoes in search of fir pitch. I need to make more salve. The stuff I’d brought West with me, applied to a newborn with a bad rash, had dramatic results - and now I want to see what I can do for a friend with eczema.

As my snowshoes crunch down the hill, my senses expand outward – I feel the snowflakes kissing my cheeks, smell the freshness of the air, hear the wind tossing branches around above. Following the direction of my teachers, I’m listening to the forest, asking the trees to talk to me. To tell me how to heal. Both Stephen and Rosemary, as well as many other herbalists I’ve read, tell me to use intuition and respect when gathering plant materials. To make offerings and to thank the plants for their bounty. They say that, by listening to plants, the herbalist can develop deep relationships with them. That plants are helpers who will direct us to the medicine we need. But how do you listen to a plant? Isn’t that silly? You know what you’re looking for, you go look for the plant, you take it, you make medicine with it. What’s so magical about that?

I’ve been through this forest before with my tin can, looking for the sap-bubbles on fir trees, taking from any motherlode I could find. Must harvest a half cup for this recipe! Keep going! Rejoicing when I find a tree sporting bubbles, be they many or few, big or small, and greedily filling my can. Stumping further and further until I’ve reached my goal, forgetting to look at the light on the branches, to listen to the birds, to smell the earth. My mind fixed on results, not process. The drive to shop and spend is a perversion of the ancient instincts of the gatherer, and I have wasted a lot of energy in the form of time and money trying to satisfy that instinct in the wrong way. Those habits are hard to break, even in the wild.

Today, as I walk through the forest, that sense of urgency is utterly absent. Instead of looking for bubbles, I’m looking at trees. I notice their individual characters, how some seem to burst out of the ground with vitality, while others lean tiredly. Some are thickly clothed in foliage, while others have been battered, aged, or diseased. I notice the quality of the bark – mossy? Thick and rugged? Smooth and silky? I see the young trees with their fresh promise of summers to come. I see the old ones, who have seen many storms and hazards, emanating a palpable sense of solidity and endurance. Wise herbalists say plants will offer themselves to you. On this foraging trip, I’m determined to let them make the decisions for me. By the grace of my return here, my mind cleared of hum, I can finally listen.

And I notice that when I am looking at the trees, lost in their beauty, I find the ones that have medicine to spare. Instead of attacking multiple trees with my can, I listen to the voice inside that says to pass this tree or that one by; I may spot a bubble or two, but I keep walking until I notice a pair of fir trees that have wound themselves together into one: sisters, I think. The needles are fresh and moist, the branches sturdy. By growing together, I see, they’ve supported themselves and become stronger. Then I notice that each trunk is bursting with the medicine they’ve created together, so I pull out my can.

I place my hand on the barkskin and introduce myself to each tree, as I have been taught. I feel life pulsing beneath their surfaces. I tell them who I am and why I need their medicine. I place my can gently against them, releasing the sap and marvelling at its beauty, pouring in great drops, the light glistening through it, illuminating the microcosms within. As I gather, I think of what this medicine can do for the people that use it. What can I offer in return? Indigenous gatherers sprinkle tobacco, but this action seems out of context for me. Instead, I take a moment to praise the trees for their beauty and strength, and to thank them for this harvest. Later, I’ll find that they have supplied me with the exact amount I need for the recipe I have in mind; no more, no less. But while I am gathering, my mind is on the present moment, not the result I am seeking.

And I recognize that by this conscious collecting, I am healing myself. That sense of neediness and lack which has haunted me all my life is receding. I am binding myself to this forest, to its majesty, to its place in my destiny and in the destiny of those I want to help. There is no separation between the medicine, myself and those who use it.

My mind empty of all of distraction, immersed in the present moment, I can hear the trees talking. Their wisdom and guidance echoes within my skull, and their message is clear. We and the forest are one.

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