Yesterday afternoon I read an article in Orion magazine about the art of gazing. The author, Trebbe Johnson, urges us to open our hearts to brokenness in her powerful essay “Gaze even here.”
She shares about visiting a logged forest clearcut with friends. About how one wants to avert one’s eyes from devastation, from pain, from ugliness, from loss. Yet she and her companions remained in the scar of the decimated woods and lingered there for days.
The group questioned: what would happen if they simply settled into this damaged place observing the land and their own responses to it? Their intention was to get to know this place that they heartily wished to run from.
They practiced gazing as they lingered. At first the situation seemed so bleak and hopeless. Sorrow rose. But as the group continued to explore, to gaze, something else emerged. She called it fascination. Details emerged such as the color of bark, the pattern of rings on the trunk. Birds sang. A tree trunk supported her. And later she felt glee arising and began to feel the wholeness of the broken place appear.
I read this article with great interest because I’ve done the same thing. So many sacred special parts of the woods have been destroyed in our decades here in the Upper Peninsula. Companies and logging families view the trees as crash crops like a field of green beans or sugar beets.
It’s possible to form deep friendships with the trees, with a cliff rising toward an unexpected open area, a bubbling creek surrounded by cedars. Friendship with nature can be as deep–and sometimes deeper–than friendship with humans.
About a half mile away from our house the logging trucks have been singing day and night for weeks. They’ve clear-cut huge swaths. When we pull off our back country road we’re greeted with a new view. Empty space dotted with unwanted evergreens. Slash. A lone dead poplar nobody wanted. An entirely new horizon.
The woods where I discovered the dead porcupine? No more does it exist in its old form. The place where I wandered through cedar swamps to sit atop a magic hill? No more. And it’s too hard to walk through the brush and bramble to get there–at least that’s what one’s mind keeps insisting.
A few years ago they came for my beloved hemlock forest, Marantha. When one names the woods, you know they’re beloved. I called the forester and almost cried. Luckily, he was one of the “good” foresters, the ones who cull responsibly. They cut the hemlock and pine and whatever else with top market value and left me weeping silently.
When one is on a spiritual journey one knows that all of life is precious–even a clearcut, even logging, even the death of one’s special tract of woods. So I forced myself to venture within the devastation and sit. Like Trebbe and her friends, I lingered and gazed.
When you first gaze it’s impossible to see beauty. You see scars and pain and death. You see slash and brush. You see ugliness. You can barely stand to look, to remain, to stay put. You long to run away to the ends of the earth, to an imaginary place which remains pure and unscathed for evermore.
But if you linger you’ll begin to see. You’ll see new life growing, little greenery pushing upward from the forest floor. In summer, you’ll see raspberry bushes aplenty brimming with deep red berries. Perhaps you’ll hear squirrels scolding your visit or birds winging down from remaining branches to nibble treasures in the fallen bark. Perhaps you’ll simply admire the patterns of dead branches stretching like octopus feet from a spiny fallen warrior. Like Trebbe, you might witness a mother black bear and two cubs making their way across the brush like acrobats.
If you’re lucky. If you’ve lingered. If you’ve allowed yourself to gaze. If you haven’t turned away in your sorrow and shut down prematurely.
The devastation taught me about my own personal woundedness, just like it taught her group. When one stays present with devastation one learns more about grief, about sorrow, about the thoughts and feelings which lead to suffering. About ways one refuses to stay present with pain. And, yes, eventually, sometimes, one arrives at this place of forgiveness–for the loggers, for the timber companies, for one’s imperfect self.
It’s even possible to find deep joy and delight in the midst of devastation if one doesn’t avert the eyes too quickly. Unexpected grace sometimes arises. You may even realize the interconnectedness of life, the impermanence of it. It can humble you. It can inspire you.
I am reminded to face pain and devastation more courageously when it arises, as it oft arises in life, in the outer or inner world. To look more deeply. To gaze at the many facets, to linger with subtle teachings.
To glimpse what life still generously teaches from woundedness. To witness new perspectives which emerge from the slice of a chain saw or the shifting of a human heart.
What a powerful meditation here Kathy. You know Orion is made in my town, right? I am often inspired by the writing there. Thank you for loving the woods so well. And your self. xo S
thught-provoking, heartwrenching and true – when we don’t turn away we make new discoveries — a lesson learned —
It’s one thing to see a clear-cut forest but another when it is “your” forest. A place you’ve walked and know so well. A place you’ve named and loved. That’s hard.
My heart understands.
“Friendship with nature can be as deep–and sometimes deeper–than friendship with humans.”
Kathy – I resonate deeply with your statement.
Our little house used to have a small forest behind it. About 10 years ago a developer bought the land from the city to build 32 large McMansions. In the contract, he promised to relocate the trees and dedicate a portion as a protected wetlands. He kept the latter part of his promise, but broke the first part — putting every single tree through a chipper. He chose instead to pay a huge fine, which he said with a smile on his face, “It was less expensive than relocating the trees.”
Oh Kathy, how beautiful. I brought tears to my eyes. I cannot explain, but my heart finds healing in your words. I wish that I could find unexpected beauty, and forgiveness in new discoveries. Thank you.
There are no words that can compare to what you have written in this post. The whole thing is like a song, a cry, a eulogy, an apology to nature for the cruelty of man. And even while mourning, your hope for the future is still there. I can see it and feel it right along with you.
Beautifully poetic. It pertains to the devastation you see right before you, and to a metaphor about life. Wonderful blog posts.
It is difficult to sit and be with the painful. Our society encourages us to avoid grief and sadness to “get past it” rather than to travel through it and give it the time it demands. How wise you are to understand this and how lucky to be able to take the time and truly see what has happened to your beloved forests.
When I was a kid we played in a big woods that had two flowing streams and hills and giant old oak trees. I hear there’s a subdivision there now. I don’t know. I won’t go back because I don’t want to see. Friends have sent me newspaper articles about the sub…but I have not read. I want to remember what was. Part of me is glad people are enjoying that space..part of me knows it is not the same space as where we played.
Is the snow the whitest of all the white? how can it look so pure? Well,
art of gazing! Thank you so much for sharing the nice article. I completely agree with your thoughts. Nature is much wondrous!!
Kathy, thank you for this beautifully heartfelt meditation. I share your love for nature and my heart weeps for the destruction of the precious woods. Your writing today reminded me of another book…and paragraph in particular. The book “The Cup Of Our Life. A guide for Spiritual growth.” by Joyce Rupp. Here is the paragraph …”What would happen if we met our frustrations, pains, and heartaches as we would meet a visitor having something to teach us? What if we lingered a bit with our brokenness and asked it to help us to grow? What might we learn from the pieces of our lives that are still wanting and incomplete?…”
There is much to learn in the midst of our “emptiness”…even in the woods, especially in the woods. And there can even be joy in the midst of pain. Thank you for reminding us to linger and notice that life finds a way and hope remains.
This is a great piece. I have mourned the passing of sacred places, but after seeing how nature reclaims land I have some peace knowing future generations may see something as wonderful in their lifetimes. What really angers me are the companies that mine by destroying mountains or the amount of land that is destroyed by the taking of the oil sands in Canada. Those are things that will never regenerate. Planting for future generations is a sacred duty and a privilege. As you said in the mean time we get to watch how nature uses a healing piece of land and have joy for future generations.
Reading this took me back in time to when I was only ten years of age and a bushfire went through the area where I lived. We, along with all of our neighhbours, were evacuated. We returned the next day to find total black devastation of our beautiful leafy street. Every blade of grass, right up to the edge of our house, had been burned. We had no other choice than to look at the black mess, every day. But withing a very short period of time, the black was tinged by a touch of green, then more green, and more, until all of the trees had reproduced their foliage, and even more lush than before!
Kathy, I do hope the loggers are re-planting the trees in your woods. It is heart breaking to lose something, anything, that you hold dear to your heart. And like all small things, your babies are so cute! Now you have the opportunity to watch them grow.
This is simply wonderful, Kathy, and resonated with me on many levels. Thanks for taking the time to expound your thoughts in such detail, and with such feeling.
This is moving and hearkens us to a better place; a place of forgiveness when “they” take our favorite places and rape the land.
Our farm, the one I loved so dearly was clear cut this year. I could not look; I could not forgive; I could not sit and watch for I had to leave and come back to this city of concrete and glass which I call home now.
I walked every foot of that forest as a child; the trees had not been cut in forever and one day I arrive to visit the cemetery and they are all gone!
Perhaps, just perhaps, after reading your insightful thoughts, I can go back to see what i did not see before. As I use to say: We cannot own the land for it is not our to own; we can only be good stewards and leave the land better than how we found it.
Thank you for writing this piece. I will come back to read again when I can stop crying out of selfishness that they clear cut my childhood home place.
You must read “The Man Who Planted Trees’, it is also a short animated film that I am sure you will enjoy. Possibly available thru netflix.
Kathy, this is one of my favorites of yours. I have read it through twice, and will have to return for further rumination.
I also resonate deeply with your sentiment about friendships with nature. It is very hard to say goodbye to a once-beloved place once it’s faced destruction.
I think sometimes we turn too quickly from pain, but other times I think it’s appropriate to sidestep it. I think there are times when not “going down that road” is the best course of action. No, if you’ll excuse me, I have some gazing to do.
My heart breaks for the trees. Why is “progress” or maybe it is just greediness so hard to understand?
Your words here speak my thoughts. We live in similar “logging communities” where I am seen as a “tree hugger” and I am proud of that. I understand the need to cut the timber .. the older trees are going to fall and die eventually and it is a wasted resource then. However, they don’t go into a patch of forest and cut selectively … they cut “everything”. When they are done, it looks like a massacre … the death of nature. There are acres of land I can not look at … it is too sad. I want to remember it the way it was .. huge, alive and beautiful.
If I gaze long enough at the sight of all that death, I can find new growth and life …. but, in my lifetime, it will never be as glorious as it was before they took their machines in there and killed the forest.
The forestry department has gotten rather sneaky. When they sell the timber off of a plot of land that is visible to the world (close to a major roadway) they leave several yards of trees along the road untouched … so only people really looking will see how they have destroyed the northwoods.
Clear cutting my northwoods makes me sad, too … I do not have the power to stop it and I do have to close my eyes to it at times …. it is heart breaking. Thanks for writing this post.
The farm land that was my childhood home is now three different subdivisions. If I close my eyes I can see what WAS there, and despite any attempts at spiritual enlightenment, I’m sorry that I cannot see the beauty in the rows of houses and townhouses that replaced the orchards, the corn fields and the fields were the cows played, ate the grass and got chased by “some kids”.
It has taken me a while to gaze, Kathy, but I find that gazing at life the way it is and not the way we think it should be helps us to recognize that life in any form is miraculous – in spite of pain and ugliness. ❤
To sit quietly with pain and loss is a lesson worth learning – and I think maybe it takes a lifetime.
Powerful post, today, Kathy. I never would have thought that such devastation could be beautiful. Hubby caught a program about mining up north and I felt sick to see them bulldoze the tree line with no regard for the forest or the creatures that live in it. Until reading your words, I don’t think I could find anything good in such devastation.
A few decades ago, we witnessed the destruction of whole sections of the woods along the highway on the way to the cottage and grieved for the loss of those trees, even though it was an attempt at curbing the spread of a blight that affected the pines. They were razed to the ground but trees were replanted. The affected areas now thrive with new growth. It is a different species of evergreen and they haven’t grown as tall as the old-growth trees that were burned to the ground, but it is joyful to see that there is life there, now, where before there was only blackened rubble. 🙂
Thank you so much for those of you who lingered here and added your own stories of devastation and destruction and–sometimes through grace–finding peace and/or beauty even amidst the most challenging outer and inner landscapes. Blessings to all. Love, Kathy
Such a wonderful piece of writing on such a powerful subject. For me it was about acceptance, how one must acclimate one’s self to the change, try to find positive aspects in it, and finally embrace it. We can’t do that unless we let ourselves linger, no matter how painful. Thank you for sharing.
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I remember beginning to read this early when freshly posted but I could not sit to gaze! I could not look at the forest that once was to see the forest of the future !
As I process the aging of my Mother, her mental capacity to grasp everyday events, occurrences that happen on a regular basis, just like the trees in the forest, we have walked their paths have linger in their presence for so long not to have them be the same even in their gentle daily changes, is very disturbing to our present state of being.
I have to learn to refocus, learn to look deeper and with patience, love and compassion!
Can’t see the forest for the Trees!
Sweet Kathy, you indeed are a special soul. This post moved me so much I couldn’t post until today, many days after you wrote it. Reminds me of the concept of nepantla, a Nahuatl (Aztec) word that means the “space in the middle” or “an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries.” This is where we can transform if we allow it, rather than frantically seeking firmer ground. I know the feeling of panic when I first find myself there, but a few deep breaths work wonders and soon things show themselves. Thank you so much for your words!
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Thank you again, everyone. Have really enjoyed reading all these comments and am keeping them close to my heart.
Wonderful words. Your part about how when you first look you see scars and pain, I think this goes for how often we are to quick to judge people by their outer appearance. I will make a point of embracing the ugly on my ski trip tomorrow.
Thank you, Kathy. Your words really hit home with me today. Namaste, my friend.
Thank you, All…
Ahh, what a beautiful wise post, Kathy. So sad for the loss of your forest friends.