There’s a Lawren Harris painting that I love, “Winter Woods,” a small reproduction of which hangs on the wall next to my desk. The play of light and shadow over snow-heavy boughs evokes one of my favourite things: walking through the forest in the winter, the particular silence of the world muffled and hibernating, a respite from the noisy city, our noisy lives. 

I’ve always been a tree-loving introvert, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I became someone to whom friends would text pictures of trees for me to (inexpertly) identify. I blame Covid, because it was during lockdowns that I started taking more epic walks around my well-treed neighbourhood, near Toronto’s High Park, and found myself wanting to know my red pine from my Scots pine, my black walnut from my black locust. I think I needed something for my monkey mind to focus on that wasn’t anxious rumination about Covid, or my precarious work situation, or my chaotic love life. I have a judgmental mind, quick to compare and contrast, and applying that to trees felt like channeling a tendency into something good—or, at least, away from something habitually unhelpful. My walks adopted a focus that nudged my mind away from the ruts it was so often stuck in.  

As was true for many of us during that time, nature became my only escape from my little apartment, my limited life. And nature didn’t just mean wandering through the generous expanse of High Park—it also meant the sight of a hawk ripping the head off a mouse on a branch outside my window, the scent of lilacs drifting into my place on a May night, a skinny coyote ambling along the street, a tiny maple seedling sprouting from a cracked, abandoned pot on my balcony. It meant a wider world than the one I was confined to, one that rolled on with or without me, with or without my judgments or my ruminations.

It wasn’t long before trees became a feature of my meditation practice. On a retreat a couple years ago, I was working with a posture practice that CEC teacher Seishin had taught one Monday night, in which the meditator focuses on five points of the (seated) posture: the stable base, the rooted tailbone, the balanced centre, the open heart, and the lifted spine/crown. (Admittedly, I don’t exactly remember the points as they were originally outlined, as, in true CEC fashion, I’ve adapted them to my own practice in a way that works for me.) 

As I sat in a small group of fellow meditators, I began to imagine each point of the posture as a feature of a tree: the base of my posture, my crossed legs, was the earth; my rooted tailbone was the roots of the tree; my balanced centre the trunk; my open heart the branches; and my crown the crown of the tree, lifted and tilted slightly forward, like a leaf on its petiole. It didn’t map perfectly, of course (maybe my crossed legs should be the roots? But then what’s my rooted tailbone? Is my head one leaf or all the leaves? How about I anxiously ruminate on that for twenty minutes instead of actually meditating?) but it worked for me, enabling me to feel grounded in my body, grounded in the earth. I imagined the mycelial network that connects each tree to its neighbour through the teeming earth connecting me to my fellow meditators, invisible threads providing what each of us needed in that moment, like mycelia move nutrients through the soil. I felt a kind of joy that I hadn’t felt in years, a sense of belonging to the earth, of being part of nature. I won’t claim the joy has persisted, exactly, but it opened a door for me that has stayed open, just a crack, even if I’m usually stuck on the other side.

Since then, I’ve started imagining specific trees when I do this practice, trees I know and love and want to embody. There’s a well-known Dawn redwood in High Park that sits right on the edge of Grenadier Pond, its wide, rooty base smooth from the feet of clambering children (*cough* and at least one adult) who regularly climb it, narrowing dramatically to a fine point over a hundred feet up. It’s the very definition of majestic, and sometimes, but not very often, I imagine myself as this tree, commanding and regal. More often, I choose a slightly humbler tree, like one of the white birches found further down the path. Luminous and elegant, the birch embodies grace to me. It’s not the showiest tree around, but it’s certainly not shying away from the light.

The tree I choose to embody most often when I’m meditating, however, is a massive copper beech up near Colborne Lodge. Older copper beech trunks tend to look like elephants’ legs, grey and wrinkled and slightly saggy, like a sock that’s lost most of its elasticity. Their relatively thin bark makes them a tempting canvas for young lovers who want to carve their initials into something semi-permanent. (Please don’t do this, young lovers.) This particular beech is sturdy and strong, wearing its scars with a shrug. It’s seen some shit, and it’s still there, being its beech self. 

This is my tree for acceptance, the quality I struggle most with. I struggle to accept where I am in my life, how I have failed my own and others’ expectations; I struggle to accept the choices I’ve made; I struggle even with my strengths, with accepting the possibility that I have value in the world. The copper beech is exactly what it is, wearing its lumpen, imprinted, sagging skin without apology. It speaks to me of welcoming the passage of time, of living without bracing against the world. The beech doesn’t need to be a graceful birch or a majestic redwood. Let those beauties do their own thing—we need them, too. We need them all. 

The beech says to me most clearly what every tree says: I am what I am. What differentiates one tree from another—the arc of the branches, the shape of the leaf, the pattern of veins in each leaf—is something I love noticing, but I try to make fewer qualitative judgments now, putting one tree above another in beauty or some other measure of value. I love trees for what makes each one itself. I love that hawk outside my window for doing its hawk thing, gruesome as it was to watch. I love the world’s reminders that it’s all nature: the birds, the fungi, the humans, wrestling with our anxieties and regrets. 

We are nature, and I hope to learn from nature what it means to accept what is, and do the work of living from that place of acceptance. Do you think that copper beech agonizes over what is already done, what it cannot change? Beech, please.
 

*Jane is a freelance editor and occasional volunteer park ranger. She’s been meditating with the Consciousness Explorers Club since its inception, at her brother Jeff Warren’s enthusiastic insistence.