Before I had words for God, I had hands and feet and a heart for climbing trees. As a small girl, I would climb into the hackberry tree nearest our house, on a farm in the flat South Texas delta.
The crotch of the tree was a low wide lap that caught and held falling rain and leaves, and even harbored the occasional wee frog. Three large boles rose from the crotch and began branching and reaching out. One of these was the perfect height and diameter for my small hands to catch and hold, as I walked my feet up the main trunk and swung onto the lowest bough.
On up the tree I went, reaching over to whatever limb offered the likeliest path higher, until I was in branches that could barely sustain my weight. Sometimes I’d set one foot into one branching vee, and another into an adjacent vee, holding on with both hands as the tree swayed. That sway was the wind moving the tree, and the tree moving me. I craved the feel of the wind on my cheek, the view out through the limbs and twigs and leaves, the sensation of being held in a dancing tree.
Later, when someone read Genesis 1 to me, I recognized that primordial wind, and could imagine the sound and feel of the breath over the waters. That was the breath that had caressed my cheek, the spirit that had lifted me in the tree. As soon as I heard the name, I felt that I had always known God. Spiritus, ruach, pneuma – the Latin, Hebrew and Greek all recognize the relationship of breath, wind and spirit, the invisible force seen only in its effect on what it touches.
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This memory came back to me in the spring of 2004, as I was in the midst of decisions that would change everything about a deeply faithful life. Would I lose that faithfulness in the changes, or would there be a strong core that held? As I cast aside nearly every support in my life as it was, I remembered the sensation of being held in the tree, the sway of that dance. “Let me always live in the high branches, Beloved,” I prayed. And so it has been … the memory and the story have helped to sustain the struggle of growing into a new life. And yet, no life can be contained by one story, any more than a tree can survive without adding rings of new growth.
I’ve noticed that when a question begins to itch, if I hold it in awareness an answer will come. Last weekend, at a prayer retreat here in the woods, I was reading a guided meditation for my companions. Centered in the life of a tree, part of it read:
“… Think of a strong, healthy tree, with roots thrust deep in the earth. Picture the wide interlacing of the roots, like veins and arteries, searching out the underground springs of water, absorbing the moisture and the soil’s rich nourishment. The taproot goes deepest of all, down to deeper levels of water. Stay focused on the roots as long as you wish, while they drink.”
I read on through the rest of the meditation, which moved through the branches and into the light, into the tree’s ability to heal from injury. As our group commented on the meditation afterwards, one of my friends shared that she had just stayed with the root part of the meditation, and not paid much attention to the rest. “I need to be more deeply rooted, to sink my roots into the Mother.”
Two realizations sprang to mind: one, in my life in the high branches, I have forgotten that a healthy tree’s roots are as widespread and manifold and deep in the earth as its branches are in the air. There is almost a mirror tree of roots underground. Two, the image of Mother Earth felt broken. In the same way as I had trouble with Jesus being my brother, I had trouble with Earth or ground being Mother. Suffice it to say, old family of origin griefs are roiling the metaphorical water.
Like my friend, and probably like many of us, I do need deeper rooting. There are storms a-plenty in my life and I need to bend through them, standing as strong and flexibly as I can. I need more roots, and deeper ones, especially since I have transplanted to a new home … So, it’s worth trying to let the metaphor and my difficulties with it continue to speak to me.
Was my tree-climbing in childhood an escape from what was happening on the ground? Yes, sometimes. I do remember times when my brother or mother came out of the house looking for me, and I remained silent in the tree, choosing to come down before letting myself be found.
Can I relate to a feminine divine represented in or embodied by the Earth? As a Mother? Only in my mind … there’s too much chatter for the notion to find its way to my heart. Earth Mother brings up clichés from the ‘70s, and feminist analysis from the ‘80s, and Gaia thealogies from the ‘90s. It doesn’t feel productive; it feels thought through and already chewed through and not promising for anything new. Especially now that gendered notions are themselves become so questionable, say my heart, mind and soul.
Do I trust that I will find good by digging deeper? Am I willing to probe blindly, and take in what comes? Frankly, no. Even though I love to dig, and have dug holes for trees, and spaded earth for gardens, and opened and shaped ditches … even though I think of myself as a person who digs in when work gets hard … even though I love the earth and would rather care for it than mindlessly exploit it … even though I understand and have compassion for what was lacking in my mother’s ability to mother.
All this said, there is something hidden and dim in the notion of rooting deeper, and something challenging about thinking that I am rooting into Earth/Mother, a Being that holds me and provides for me and nurtures me, and is itself an aspect not unrelated to the wind that kissed my cheek, a Love that takes any and every shape to give me what I need.
If I can believe this, then I do begin to feel a call to know/love her.
Undoubtedly there is a lack of trust that runs all through me, a fracture in every human relationship I have. Perhaps dealing with this disconnection from Earth/Mother is another invitation to learn to grow from my trust in God to more of a trust in Life, and the lives around me.
* * *
In writing, I became curious about how a tree grows, when its bark seems solid and unyielding. I have not found the full answer, yet, but I have learned that the growing layer just beneath the bark is growing both in and out, expanding sponge-like in all directions as does a lump of yeasty dough.
Trees are growing into their insides as they are growing out towards their outsides. Growing down deeper as they grow upwards. Slowly.
I have lots to learn. Help me, Beloved. Help me with deeper.