Mid-November, and the old oaks in the forest were some of the last to shed their leaves, in tandem with the beech groves. Ten days ago, on an unremarkable morning, one in a series of mild days, they shared an inscrutable signal and dropped most of their leaves at the same time, between dawn and noon, in a shimmering shower of gold.
The warm autumn weather enticed hikers out to the mountain trails, where they discovered the dry oak leaves were so slippery and deep, many had accidental falls. I didn’t fall, but I went careening down a steep slope, where the slick leaves hid flat rocks, with nothing between the trail and a six hundred foot drop down the Hemlock- forested cliffs. For the first time ever, I hesitated on the thin trail, realized that it promised to be an extremely difficult and dangerous solo hike, and turned back.
I suspected that once we’d had a good rain, the forest trails would be easier to negotiate, even if still invisible under the deep golden covering of fallen leaves, and I was right, but I didn’t know why. It turns out the tannin-rich oak leaves have a slick, shiny film that makes walking over them akin to sliding on ice. Once they’d had a good soak, maybe beginning the disintegration process, the forest was walkable once again, with caution and a proper hiking staff in hand.
Deep in the forests, moving through the bare trunks of late autumn, the old Northern Red Oaks convey a weighty presence. Many are remnants of the brief time in Southern Vermont around the 1840s, when the forests were cleared for Merino sheep, except for these same oaks, which provided shade and shelter. Now the forests have grown back, but it’s easy to spot the originals. They don’t grow close together, so when the unmistakable pillars of their trunks appear in the midst of lesser trees, they demand attention. I’ll put a hand on the rigid bark and look straight up the trunk, into the thick terminals of the branches, to see a few folded, clacking dry leaves still hanging on, way up there, and take pleasure in verifying that the charismatic tree is indeed an oak.
Every tree has its own personality, though really getting to know them through the seasons and years has been revealing in ways I could never had anticipated. Whether appreciating how the oak splits and dries and burns compared to other hardwoods, losing my footing on the rolling excess of fallen acorns, or growing miraculous shiitakes from the cut boughs, a new language arises. It’s not only the subtler secrets of the tree being given up, but the awareness of what was necessary in order for me to begin to hear it.
Part of this process is the releasing of beliefs that are so ingrained, they inhabit my mind and memory without my being aware. Was it from childhood, or folklore, or books in which the magical oak was featured? A strong part of my identity and heritage is tied up with the spirituality of old pagan Britain and Northern Europe, and the oak features prominently. It has found its way from its mythological past to the mind-boggling array of contemporary studies and advice, in particular among the various neo-Pagan communities. A mere glance online for “oak tree magical properties” will propel you into a universe you never imagined could be so vast.
I fear that from time to time I have been lazy and undiscriminating in my research and reading. Countless other things, like my thoughtless familiarity with the oak, have been taken up, inspected and tried, enjoyed or rejected, and put down, to be included in some strange treasury of accrued knowledge. When I see a particularly handsome oak, my mind, like a horrible computer, ticks through the list of all the notable and clever things I know about it. And that’s what I see, when I see the oak. But of course, it’s a fantasy, a construct of my own choosing.
There were two things that eroded away my superficial notion. One was simply existing in its presence, allowing it to come to me, rather than imposing my expectations on it. Living with the oak is not the same as visiting it with a purpose in mind, such as an intentional summons or entreaty to the oak to reveal itself; its resident spirit dryad, Sidhe Draoi, its attributes of power and strength. (And please do not think I do not do this- at one of the darkest times in my life, I stumbled home from a trip still not knowing if a beloved family member I thought I had lost, was yet to die, and without thinking, the only thing left to do was fall wordless at the feet of the great old oak and curl up there, heedless of the freezing temperatures, until I could function again.) And yet, even here, for the most part, with the best of intentions, there is a danger of self-delusion, of self-fulfilled projections which can too often lead right back to a solipsistic fantasy. Happily, the patient teacher of time in the presence of the oak snuck up on me all unawares.
The second is more active: when hiking in the forest, particularly on some trails that could be treacherous, such as with those slippery oak leaves, or testing the edge of a change in weather or light, one’s attention is forced to be on the task at hand. Wander off in your mind, and you are courting a sprained ankle or harsh fall. If the temperatures are especially low, the wind keen or the rain coming on, things get really serious. This stills the mind and clears the senses, so they can do what they are meant to do, concentrate on the surroundings, make quick decisions on how to keep danger at bay, and at the same time, be ever vigilant.
Then, the really interesting thing happens, which won’t surprise anyone who has experienced it; a feeling of bliss sets in from this heightened focus. It rushes in, it manifests simply as it is. I am with the oak, and the tree is released from my shallow ingrained perception, to emerge fully in its true presence. Perhaps the same thing is happening to me. This transcending bliss feels very connected to something far greater. Rather than being a novel curiosity, it’s more akin to opening up to something already there. Yet, it always surprises me, perhaps because I’m not looking for it. It’s a by-product of being in the natural flow. It eventually recedes as the cares of daily life pull the attention back to its fractured state, but it is by no means transient. The more it visits, the deeper a layer it creates across the days of my life.
The unfortunate conclusion about this process is that if the oak is any indication, I probably have self-created delusions around just about everything. The good thing is that it seems to be the human story of how we move through our lives, and even my self-delusion is endearing in its way, as is a child’s or artist’s unique way of seeing. It’s as if I’ve been given a fresh perspective of creation, and I have joined with countless others who have experienced this before me. Now, it’s up to me to honor the gift. Let me begin by writing this down and sharing it with you.