No Wonder the Buddha

When we bought our home fifteen years ago, we hired an arborist to walk our mostly wooded acre and advise us about the health of our trees. He stopped at a willow in our back yard. “Nice burl,” he said, pointing to the gnarled base. “If you cut this down, I’d love to have it. I could carve a pretty nice bowl from it.” But we weren’t planning on cutting down any trees if we could help it; to the contrary, we were interested in keeping them living, and standing, our own garden of trees.

We continued on around to the front, where a forest of spruce trees was enduring an infestation of spruce bark beetle that had decimated much of the forests in southcentral Alaska. Entire mountainsides all down the Kenai Peninsula and in the Chugach mountains where we hiked almost every day had paled grey with dead and dying and fallen spruce, victims of climate change. Already the forest floor on our small acre was a logjamb of fallen spruce we could hardly walk through. Already dozens more stood dead and waiting to fall.

We wanted to know how to save those remaining and which were still saveable. The arborist stopped at a big spruce near the paved parking area with a basketball hoop at one end. “This one won’t make it—already infested,” he said, and before I could stop him, he pulled out his switchblade and cut a fig-leaf-sized crescent from its bark. “See the color of the sap?” he said, “Evidence of beetle. This one won’t last a year.”

A year later the arborist dropped dead of a heart attack, gone at the age of 53. Fifteen years later the willow still grows in our backyard, the burled base even more intricate as I, every summer, cut the sprouts from it, since our fenced land won’t allow moose to do the pruning. And the spruce by the basketball court still stands, too, alive as ever. The arborist was wrong; though beetles did kill another dozen or so of our trees, and winds have taken a few more made vulnerable by the loss of their neighbors, the infestation ended and that spruce survived. The wedge he cut is still there, though, grown over with bark but not entirely, a stark reminder of how little we humans really know.

What I’ve always loved about trees is their endurance, their patience. Think of it: they live their entire lives in the same spot, never going anywhere, never experiencing anything but what is right here, right now. I live surrounded by trees that have been right here for the passage of several human lifetimes. They’ve been standing here through two world wars and countless others, through the rise and fall of nations and cultures, through the inventions of telephones and cars and airplanes and computers. They’ve stood here, right here, while my grandparents were born in Italy, while they migrated to Ohio, while they raised three girls, while one of those girls married a young man, while the young couple moved to Virginia, back to Ohio, to California, and North Carolina, having six children along the way, while the third of those six grew up and moved to Alaska, finally finding her way here, among them.

Same trees. Right here. Staying right here and experiencing wind, rain, snow, temperatures from 30 below to 70 above, chickadees and nuthatches and warblers alighting on their limbs, generations of squirrels sitting on their cone-laden branches, biting them off one by one. They’ve danced through 100mph winds, whistling their needle-branch songs. They’ve watched the light circle around, in deep winter darkness for 20 hours a night, in deep summer light for 20 hours a day. Through all of it, they have stood right here, right now.

In contrast, we humans bluster through our days, wreaking havoc and sowing kindness. When I stand beneath a tree and drop my head back and gaze into its cascading arms, I am reminded of how little we humans know. And in that, I find peace.

No wonder the Buddha reached enlightenment while sitting beneath a tree.