Gifts from the Trees
From myths and the crackle-candy of fairy tales, I was taught to fear night. Once a rain shower shimmered between slats on a roof during the darkest hour, soaked her nightclothes. Two months later, she finds out she has a peach growing inside her and gets locked in a trunk, dumped into the sea. Or perhaps you walk by a pond at twilight and hear a heavy shuffling behind you, so you turn around and the largest swan you’ve ever seen looks you in the eye and down at your breast and back into your eyes again. No blinking. And the swan lunges forward and nips at your collarbone.
I want to talk about how it feels to be brown and free in the woods, to not look over your shoulder anymore. To be able to open your hand to a gift. To not listen for footsteps or someone other than these mucky beauties: Salamander. Squirrel. Mud puddle squelching under your toes. A titmouse jumping from limb to limb. I want to talk about not needing to run anymore, about learning to saunter, even dawdle in the green.
In Japanese, forest is shinrin. Bath is yoku. Forest-bathing is shinrin-yoku. Names are important. My name is important. I have been mocked for it all my life. I’ll never change it now. I wish people would care to get tree names right. Teach yourself the difference between red maple and sweet gum. Spicebush and sassafras. Water oaks never ask me, What are you?
What happened to my heart, the blood sloshing through me and behind my wide eyes when I was not able to practice shinrin-yoku for years. What quiet violence that was to take away the green light from my brown skin. And so many other bodies, too.
I am glad to be alone in the woods now because some men are too much like wind. You only notice them when they’ve done too much or too little. Perhaps one will finally find the time to notice red clover, mockingbird wings, or the small toad at the edge of the pond, instead of leering when a woman carrying a notebook walks past. But someone else can wait for that. Not me.
Thank you trees I want to say thank you trees this time to the trees in Mississippi and Kansas for giving me shelter. Thank you to the trees in New Hampshire for letting me walk under you one slow end of summer, when I was three weeks away from my family. I rode a bike and wore a headlamp past midnight in the trails. I haven’t been able to do that since I was twenty-one.
I’ve missed making nocturnes from a real forest, not one from the movies—an imagined song of night.
The first time I was at that retreat in the woods, I got lost. I gathered up light-colored stones in the bucket fold of my skirt like Gretel, and placed them just so and pulled sticks into the shape of an arrow along the trail to the artist cottages. So by headlamp or by moon-spell when I saw the arrow glow and point, I knew to turn left toward my temporary nest.
The others laughed when they saw it, I know (I heard). But they probably didn’t have their wrists held by the campus tennis courts the summer after college. Never had wrists scratched open from being held up against a chain-link fence. They’ve never had to scream with every bit of might from every alveolus and bronchiole, only to have it wasted in the sweaty center of a man’s strange palm.