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  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Webs of Life by Wendy Peterman, PhD

As I drive out into the forest, silently contemplating the glassy, green surfaces of lakes and rosy-complexioned sunrises, I sense the interconnectedness of life. Roots, penetrating the soil, contacting the raw elements with their very skin, drawing into themselves the essence of being: water, minerals, carbon, nitrogen. Energy pulses through microscopic networks, connecting ground, tree, and sky. Water is pulled through tiny wooden straws to feed the hungry air, hundreds of feet above through millions of tiny lips, simultaneously gulping in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. What must it be like to be literally plugged into the planet? What sense of belonging, of place, of connection must the trees know? As I chug along the mountain highway, my vehicle exhaling toxic greenhouse gases, just to have a taste of that forest connection, I contemplate the isolation of being in this human container, free to roam the surface, yet always longing for the depth of real roots.

It strikes me how, as humans, we must seek every ingredient for life with intention. We must sense our hunger and thirst and find a source of food and water, then choose consciously to eat or drink. So must we sense the loneliness, pain, joy, and love that compel us to reach out to one another, forming bonds and alliances that feed our souls and become our roots. I reflect on my daughter, feisty, sarcastic, creative, sensitive, pragmatic, yet oh so visionary. For me, this is the closest I come to being plugged in. When I am with her, I am whole, and I know a perfect place in the world. Between us runs the thread of life, connecting heart to heart, supporting our interdependence. My daughter is my laurel tree, my spicy symbol of success, triumph, and values.

The people in my life are the trees in my human forest. Like the life force, coursing through the belowground neural networks, they support the essence of me. If I assign a tree species to the people who anchor me in my integrity and support me in being myself through time, I have such biodiversity, they wouldn’t all grow in the same environment, yet they are my ecosystem, my roots.

My friend Joni is a Pacific madrone, beautiful at any time of year, with subtle surprises, ever twining her cool, smooth branches toward patches of sunlight. Catherine is a live oak, strong, powerful, flexible and so deeply rooted and entwined, she can anchor her community through a hurricane. Ryan is a California coast redwood, tall, solid, grounded, resilient in the face of disturbance, and feeling like home even when far away. Steven is an old-souled baobab, conserving resources he didn’t have to weather harsh conditions of the past as he faces an unsure future. Mike is a red maple, highly adaptable, found in both wild and urban environments, always producing seeds and sending out shoots to explore new territory and see where his ideas can find fertile ground. Tasha, Lisa, and Shelly are weeping willows, graceful, strong, and stable through loss, grief, illness, and great challenges. Kier is a western red cedar, slow-growing, standard, helpful and medicinal. El is an Oregon dogwood, part of the forest undergrowth, broad and open-minded, deciduous, needing rest in winter, but happy to bloom in spring. I am an Oregon big leaf maple, always eager to volunteer after a disturbance, raising a giant leaf on a spindly stem, saying, “Hi, I’m here, ready to grow!”

A great practice for me in recent years has been receiving. Everything about my early life taught me to be a giver who bore adversity with grace. Christianity told me to be generous of spirit, giving always of myself, never asking for anything in return. I took to the very core of my heart that I should bless my enemies and turn the other cheek. In my Bible, Corinthians 13, the words “Love endures all things” were underlined so hard, the pen went through the page. So many personalities in life send a message that “there is no you except to be consumed by the needs of us.” Oh to have a need of my own, something just for me.

A couple of years ago, I was deeply affected by Michael Franti’s song “Nobody Cries Alone” and reflected on the irony of my response. I was singing, in tune to his words, holding in my mind my children, colleagues, and loved ones, gently rocking their spirits as they wept, and yet seeing so many images of myself, crying alone. It’s not that people don’t want to be there, some have tried, I just had an incredibly difficult time being seen and especially held when I was hurting enough to let it show. I’d sooner walk out into the woods to be alone with the trees than let someone see me hurting.

It was once reflected to me that I must always be the strongest person in every relationship, with others taking the role of desperate, hurting children, needing to be rescued. When asked why I can’t let someone reach back, I realized it was because I couldn’t bear to be seen as a homeless orphan myself. I took a big risk and reached out to some people who seemed like equals who might give back. It was humbling and liberating. Since then, I have begun to open, asking for help here and there, receiving kindnesses and the sweetness of souls like my colleagues and friends. Like a trickle of water, slowly working its way into a crack in a rock, it has reached me that people care. I am not alone.

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