I’m back East in the Hudson Valley for a visit this weekend and just rekindled a ritual that I observed each time my father and I used to cross a threshold into the woods. He would stoop and gather a handful of soil, cup his hands to his nose, and inhale deeply,drinking in the rich pungent aroma of the humus. There is some evidence that salmon on their migrations use a highly developed olfactory sense to find the particular stream of their origin. The particular smell, from these woods, concocted from oak, and maple, birch and beech, hemlock and cedar, has that magnetic pull on my soul that tells me “ I am home.”
A drive to the old house (no longer in the family) and I can see spruce saplings I planted 55 years ago, grown to maturity, now heavy with cones. There’s another family story about my cousin’s father who took them out when they were little kids, dug two holes, put in two saplings and told them, “we’re planting a hammock.”
But I can’t think about trees without thinking of my great uncle Louie, who was a brick maker in Lithuania, a bear wrestler in New Rochelle carnival, and a window washer for 50 years in Virginia Beach. I didn’t meet Louie until he was 91 years old. I drove with my father down to the little shack where he had been living without electricity or without running water for the many years since he’d left his family and ‘gone south.’ He’d retired for the third time just a year earlier, still climbing ladders right to the end. That day he took us for a tour of the military base where he had his contract and walked our legs and lungs out, stopping now and then to introduce us to his many friends. Finally we stopped for a rest in a small grove of trees and Louie regaled us with stories; wrestling the bear, beating up the anti-semites who taunted his father, and a little biblical history. Before Moses and the Ten commandments, “there was lying, thieving, cheating, adultery was everywhere. It was a picnic!” But Louie’s religion, he told us, was of the moon and the sun, the stars and the earth.
“Boyz, ” he said in his thick old country accent, “Lookit dese tree heah. Lookit dese oaks. Robby… lookit dat young vun. See how straight it grows. Lookit da bark.” Louie reached over to me and stroked my arm. “Dat young vun… it’s bark is smoot… like your skin…see… da skin of a young poissen. Now lookit dat old oak over dere. Lookit da way it’s bent… just like me. Lookit da bark. It’s rough… wrinkled… feel my skin.”Then for a moment he seemed to grow pensive. “Boyz…. Tink about it… Trees…People…it’s da same univoise.”
My father, Uncle Louie, my cousins… They planted a hammock. Now I swing on the stories.
Does this spark a memory of a special tree or person in your life? Hope I’ve planted a seed.
An hour later: My friend Mike Seliger adds this!
Uncle Louie’s comment about “Trees…People..same universe” reminds me of a time when an old Huichol shaman was flown from his mountain top in Mexico, on a huge silver bird, into the middle of the canyons of Manhattan and was asked (by me) whether it was more difficult to be in touch with the sky spirits when in Manhattan, compared to the clear sky above his mountaintop. He answered ” It’s the same sky!”