[an essay from the late 1980s]
The term drifted into my mind as I walked on a trail up Humbug Mountain on the Oregon Coast, surrounded by 600-year old Douglas Fir trees, each one easily four-feet across, with vines creeping tangled around the bases of their trucks, with dolphin-size roots plunging into the earthen sea. So different from the southwest desert where I lived.
My husband and I were bicycling down the Washington, Oregon, and northern California coast after having attended the 1987 Round River Rendezvous of Earth First!, an annual gathering of the radical environmental activists I would come to think of as “my tribe.” There, I’d overheard a couple young men, one in dread-locks, another with short hair and a workman’s cap, ribbing each other with this term they’d obviously been called and taken to heart.
I wondered: Did anyone ever really hug a tree for some purpose?
There were people in this movement, a minority for certain, who acted – what I thought then – strangely. Some conducted “medicine circles” and sang Native and New Agey songs. They were a definite minority, strange and not embarrassed to be so strange. I’d dropped in on one of their events once when invited, but snuck away shortly after it began.
Now I imagined the leader of one circle hugging a little white-barked birch tree, and found the picture ludicrous.
Nah, I thought dismissively.
Why don’t you try it? I heard, and staggered as my feet momentarily froze while my body continued forward.
The voice had come from the trees, and didn’t have a quality I could remember – it hadn’t been audible – but was clearly there, in English, no less!
I’d been trying for the past year to articulate an intelligent explanation for what other people called Spirit. I’d determined, after leaving the Christian Church in my twenties, that I didn’t want to arrive at any conclusion by argument or reason – so I’d enforced on myself a ban on spiritual reading and tried always to avoid using any jargon I’d heard. I was in my thirties then, and had been open for years to the idea that, if Spirit existed, it would make itself known to me. Otherwise, no argument or reading could convince me.
Nothing had convinced me, yet. Everything others got shivery about, or intuitions for, or seeming answers to prayer, I assumed were simple coincidence or perceptions of subtle energy from atoms and light, nothing unusual. If anything was special, I thought, we were – we probably had more subtle perceptions than were currently recognized. I called it natural, not supernatural.
This reasonable conclusion, even to me today, did not, however, inspire me to try to develop my subtle perceptions. I didn’t want to risk contaminating my quasi-scientific inquiry by getting my imagination involved. If Spirit was going to speak to me, it was going to have to come to me. I wasn’t going to go searching for it.
Meantime, I’d had a few anomalous experiences, but stubbornly refused to acknowledge them.
I walked on, ignoring “what could not be,” eyes on the trail, the trees earning no more attention than what I gave from the corners of my vision. I didn’t believe in things like this. I’d joined American Atheists, just for the card to prove I was a rational empiricist, not someone with spirals in her eyes.
Then I sensed – powerfully – the trees’ disappointment. And thought (and my heart sank with this idea): A rational empiricist had to consider the evidence, even if she doesn’t like the apparent corollaries or conclusion. To wit: I had to hug a tree.
I’d long said I’d consider the evidence if Spirit ever talked to me. But I didn’t want to. What if my husband, ahead on the trail came back down and caught me? Or a family came up from the campground below? I’d be mortified.
I stopped and turned toward the forest, scanning the trees with my eyes. Nothing seemed unusual. No faces in the bark. The world still seemed perfectly normal.
I would do it, or berate myself ever after for not having the guts to test out a theory. I’d never be able to feel honest again about my beliefs.
Sending up a quick and ironic prayer for privacy, I forced myself to approach a tree, but soon discovered that the roots were all so large and descending at such steep angles from so high on the trunks, it would be impossible to stand near any.
I was saved! Just like Abraham with Isaac, I thought (Sunday school lessons still surfaced now and then): The sacrifice didn’t actually have to be made, so long as I was willing. Having learned my lesson, not to be so sure of myself and reality, I could now get back on my way.
Turning to go, directly in front of me was a tree I’d just passed, with a root that made a right angle from the trunk, at a perfectly comfortable stair-step height.
Had this tree shape-shifted?! (Tony Hillerman novels were my only education at that time on this concept known to Native Americans and others with shamanic knowledge.)
Re-resigning myself to the task, I stepped on the trunk and wondered how long would constitute a worthy test.
Checking myself, that I still felt in possession of my normal rational faculties, I realized: Even if I think I hear something, it won’t prove anything. I might only go the rest of my life wondering whether I’d imagined it.
But I’d do the test. Since I was there.
Wrapping my arms around the tree, I leaned in my chest while my fingertips searched out crevices into which they might dip.
Letting go a breath to relax, I was immediately stunned by something that seemed like a beautiful cascade of light that fell through the crown of my head and dispersed all agitation from my body. I felt as if I’d had a radio tuned to static inside my body my entire life – and the radio had just been turned blessedly off!
I never felt so good – literally, ever. Stepping off the tree trunk backward, two steps without taking my eyes from this tree, I raised my hands in a classic prayer pose and slowly nodded my silent thanks.
I knew I would be forever changed. And for the first time I thought with compassion of those people with pinwheels in their eyes – and felt a knowing kinship.