We walk up a bank that is muddy from the torrential California rains, Steve pulling the dog and then me following behind. As I come around the corner, I have to navigate the mushy mud beneath my shoes, and I slide a bit as these shoes don’t have enough grip. I pause to bend my knees, so I don’t fall. As I come around the corner, the narrow path we usually follow is blocked by a large downed pepper tree. The roots pulled out of the earth are laying on their side like a startled hand with splayed fingers. It is five feet tall, and leaning on a bowed chain-link fence, breaking through to a neighbor’s backyard. I look at the hole in the ground. It looks like a giant brown tooth has been pulled out of a gaping mouth. Awe and sadness hit me. It was so big and seemed so strong, how humbling that water can uproot such a giant.
I move closer to the exposed root. It smells of damp earth and wet wood. I touch a woody finger. Like in Avatar, when a creature (animal or plant dies) the Navi take a moment to connect and thank it for its service to life. I take a respectful breath. Then I look up and see that we are blocked from going forward. I want to retreat and walk back home, as I don’t see a way around the very long, thick trunk blocking our path.
“Give me your hand, we can squeeze through here, and get around.” My husband points to a low, small opening, where we can duck through. I take his hand and he pulls me up, then I duck, and we get beyond the downed tree.
Yesterday I worked with a woman whose friend had just died. She said, “I am so ungrounded that I left the water on in my kitchen sink and it overflowed onto the floor…I feel so overwhelmed. How could he leave me? I still need him.” She felt tension in her throat, where her tears were stuck.
On Saturday, I sat next to a ninety-two-year-old friend at a memorial for a colleague. I noticed her staring ahead but not really listening to the speeches from the family of the deceased. She looked far away and pained. I know that just last weekend she had spread the ashes of her sixty-five-year-old daughter at Campus Point in Santa Barbara – at the intertidal, which sits between the high tide and the low tide. She watched the grey-white ashes blow and settle into the wet sand and rocks. A year earlier she had spread her husband’s ashes in the same area. “Now they mingle on the shore together”, she said and nodded with a slight smile and sad eyes that held a hint of sparkle.
When I came upon the power of the uprooted tree, I felt awed. It reminded me of how death uproots your soul and ungrounds your feet and the sink can overflow like your tears are trying to do if you unclench your throat, but you don’t want to lose control and cry a river. Not here. Not now. Maybe never, but how will I find my feet again when the ground is muddy and slippery, and the trees won’t hold? The eucalyptus grove in Monterey that my Spanish grandfather planted in 1915 always makes me feel part of my family heritage. The two Chinese elms that sit in front of my childhood home have stood steady, watching the generations blossom and grow since my parents moved there in 1952. These trees that have been shelter and strength and held steadfast through low tides and high tides, are being shoved around and disturbed to breaking point. And like the pepper tree, some have fallen. They hit the ground hard and dust rises. Ashes of loss swirl in the wind and you watch as they softly sink into the damp earth, touching the threads of your broken heart.