Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Falling in Love with Earth: A Tree and its Journey in Me

A tree once captured my imagination and has never let go. This tree lives in the Arnold Arboretum, an incredible green jewel in Jamaica Plain in the southwest section of Boston. The Arboretum was design by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in America. Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Capitol grounds in DC, and more iconic spots than you can shake a stick at. As my cousin - who knows about these things - once said to me, “He da man.”

My wife, Jill, and I discovered this tree one glorious fall morning while escaping from our studies at BU. Roaming the Arboretum’s undulating grounds, we had just crested one hill and were romping down the far slope when we stumbled upon a captivating scene. A massive tree had recently shed its leaves in a perfect golden circle. It was truly a vision - and, almost as if harps were playing, drew us under its branches.

Soon after discovering this spot, a craggy old man in a black cape ambled by. He seemed remarkably introverted, yet he stopped to show us some quinces he had just gathered. He said if you put them in your drawer, they dry out and give off a wonderful fragrance. This guy was like out of a storybook, weaving himself into our adventure. Amazing.

One of the lower branches was very long and thick, and dipped down in the middle - low enough so I could jump up, swing around, and perch on it, just like riding a horse. So I sat up there while Jill twirled around on the ground amidst the brilliant leaves. We took some photos which captured our sense of whimsy in this moment. And I found the tree tag labeled “blue sugar maple.”

Many times, we would return but could never manage to locate our enchanted tree. Despite our numerous visits - and with no map - we still had a hazy understanding of the Arboretum’s layout. We even introduced the place to our kids - when they were old enough to help in seeking the legendary tree and just young enough so they wouldn’t think it was an uncool thing to do. Still no luck - but I was buoyed by the spirit of our quest -  even if the goal remained elusive.

Several years later - after the internet changed everything - I finally saw a map of the Arboretum - online. Clearly, the grounds were organized by tree type - and sure enough, there was a section labeled “Maples.” A spark of hope.

It was December, and I was planning to travel to Boston for a 3-day workshop. Jill came with me, and we drove up from New Jersey a day early to beat the approach of a winter storm. We settled into our B&B as the snow was beginning. And the next morning, all bundled up, we trod through the thickening snow and hopped on the Orange Line of the T.

Visiting the Arboretum is always a joyous occasion in any season, and we had been there in the spring, summer, and fall - but this was a first - exploring the grounds as the snow worked its magic. The map - and my tactic of heading for the maples - proved helpful indeed. Before long, we spotted a tree we suspected was “it” - but in such an altered landscape it was hard to be sure. We walked around it several times wondering “it this really the one? Is our old friend still here?” And slowly but surely, it became increasingly clear we had indeed found it - that 34 years later we were reunited with our aged friend, still standing strong. This time, we found a tag dating this tree back to the 1880s, which helped me see our time with the tree in a much broader perspective. How wonderful to think about this grand old icon continuing to grow and thrive through all these years - as we got married, started careers, and raised two kids, now out of college - in still just a fraction of its lifespan.

Looking back, I’ve come to realize my deepening love for the natural world was kindled by the time we spent roaming the Arboretum. This connection has taken me down many paths of sustainability and spirituality in my adulthood, including:

  • promoting greenways for non-motorized travel
  • pursuing more walkable, bikeable neighborhoods
  • studying well-designed and well-used public spaces
  • preserving open space and farmland
  • exploring permaculture and organic farming
  • weaving nature into the urban landscape - including pocket parks and rain gardens
  • walking mindfully through the woods (something
    unheard of when you’re part of a Boy Scout troop!)
  • exploring healing gardens with labyrinths
  • transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy
  • focusing on the shift to green buildings and green infrastructure
  • healing the planet and combating climate disruption
  • understanding the complete interconnectedness of all species with Mother Earth

With all these learnings and explorations, I have evolved into a Spiritual Ecologist. This term just came to me one day when I was trying to describe myself in a short phrase. After Googling it, I found - lo and behold - that this is a real thing - and two of my dearest teachers are listed in the Wikipedia entry: Thich Nhat Hanh and Joanna Macy. Somehow, this felt cosmic - and of course it made perfect sense.

Now, from the vantage point of middle age, I see this tree symbolizes something very dear to me. Roaming the Arboretum’s emerald hills awakened a deep connection with and appreciation for nature that had been lying dormant in me for many years. And this tree stands as a centerpiece, an anchor in a journey that continues to unfold. 

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