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Thoughts on Travel and Trees

Written By Phyllis Tickle

The following reflection first appeared in November 2008 as part of First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010.

A man—a genteel and gracious older man who, with his wife, was my host at a Sunday luncheon some few weeks ago—asked me if I enjoyed traveling as much as I do. There was about the directness of the question and the directness of his gaze an intensity which told me that his was not some idle question offered up for the sake of making social conversation. He truly wanted to know.

Whether it was his sincerity or the astuteness of observation that underlay his ability to ask it, I don’t know. All I know is that I had to stop and search for an answer as honest as I perceived his question to be. Now, two or three weeks later, I think that it was his age that enabled him to ask his question with such a peculiar and affecting level of curiosity, though I did not understand that at the time or in my confusion.

He was correct in his premise, of course. Because of the nature of my work, I spend almost twice as many days in a hotel room each year as I spend in my own kitchen or bedroom or office at the farm in Lucy. Now that Sam has retired both from farming and from medical practice, he spends a fair number of his own days in hotel rooms with me, rather than at the farm. Over the last few years, truth be told, I have come to treasure those days on the road together. When we are both at home, we tend to be so distracted by work and routine that half our work-a-day communication is by e-mail, quite literally. From my office to his, the cryptic bits of query and information fly in alarming quantities. If communication is good for a marriage, then ours may be said to be in surfeit, though not exactly in the traditional sense of conversational contact.

So yes, I could say to my inquiring host, yes, I enjoy my life of hotel rooms and suitcases and bustling airports. “Why?” he asked.

If his first question had given me pause, this second one of his knocked me completely off center, and I didn’t even try to pretend otherwise. Instead, I deflected it by saying the predictable, but none the less true, things: “I like being with people I’ve never met before. I like making face-to-face contacts all around the country with new friends. I like enormously the learning that can only happen when one is right there on-site and experiencing a different way of doing and being.”

He just looked at me as if he were a bull frog on a lily pad and I were the fly that had just gone buzzing by. “That’s not what you’re asking me, is it?” I said, as if I didn’t already know the answer.

“No,” he said, “it’s not.” He left the matter there, and the conversation went on to other things, except that his question went home to the hotel room with me, and it has been packed in every suitcase I've taken with me since. As a result, were my host to ask me the same question this Sunday over lunch, I would have an answer. Maybe he will even read my answer here. I hope so, for I am much in his debt for having asked it of me in the first place.

Yes, I like living in hotel rooms.I like being like a turtle and having everything I need on my back or in the suitcases I am rolling along behind me. I like the minimalism of it, the not being possessed by my possessions, the not having more to see after than just what I need for doing my job and sustaining my life. I like not having the responsibility of maintaining a place, of occupying it with my self so completely that it and I engage in daily scrimmages to prevent its creeping in and overwhelming me with the burden of definitions. I like the freedom of the turtle, the life of the peripatetic. But it was not always so… that’s the thing that had stopped me at Sunday lunch. It was not always so. When had it changed for me…

It had changed so gradually that I had not even perceived the shift in my soul any more than I can say that I have been very adept at perceiving the shifts over the years in my body. Both have moved quietly, but irreversibly, from youth to age. Both have gone from child-bearing and child-rearing to the adventures and freedom of aging. Once I needed a place. I needed it for shelter and focus while we bore children and reared them, while we grew ourselves up as individuals and as a bonded pair, while we walked abroad to discover who we were and what we were here to do. But those things are accomplished now… or at least they are as accomplished as they ever are going to be. I do not need place. In fact, it burdens me and slows me and deters me from the subjective adventures I am engaged in now. Except… and this is what has most deeply arrested my attention since I came to perceive it… except that I do need place, just not manageable or ownable place.

Each year, the farm has increasingly delighted me, far more, in fact, than ever it did in our youth while we were farming it. But never, in all our good years here… never has it so embraced me or loved me or called to me as it has this past summer. We pull in from a road trip or from the airport run, and I feel it physically. The moment I step out of the car, the farm’s embrace is there… the grasses of untended fields, the wildness of dormant berry brakes and the pond no longer muddied by cattle feet, and the trees.…

Stand of Spruce TreesMaybe most, the trees. All of them huge now. The ones that marked the fence lines when we came here and the ones Sam has planted over the years. Everywhere as far as the eye can see, trees. Waving, calling, sometimes, I think, laughing. And I yearn toward them almost as if with a child’s sense of homesickness; yet I had not realized the truth of my own experiencing, though certainly I should have.

On the base of the desk lamp in my office, there is a gargoyle, or there is the miniaturized reproduction of a gargoyle. It is of the “Green Man,” which is to say that it is a replica of that primordial vitality which, the ancient peoples of almost every culture thought, dwells in all the world’s trees and vines and whom they understood to be human as we are human, save only in his being rooted rather than ambulatory.

The particular Green Man who is the subject of my replica is in Canterbury Cathedral where, so the story goes, he was installed by the original builders of that sacred space in an attempt to Christianize the natives… or perhaps and more likely, as an attempt to domesticate the old fellow just in case he might be more actual than they wished him to be. He has always fascinated me; and so, one fine day, I saw my replica of him sitting in a shop in Canterbury, bought him, and brought him home to sit on the base of my lamp and just beside my computer.

When I bought him, and despite his name, he was not green at all. He was instead the stone or putty grey of the gargoyle of which he is a miniature. Now, however, my green man is quite definitely green and has been for a couple of years. He’s green because of Henry.

Henry was five when I brought the Green Man home, and he was fascinated as only a five-year-old can be. “What is it? Who is it? Why does he look like he’s some kind of tree? Why’s he got those leaf things in his hair? Why are his fingers sticks?”

The grown-up answer to Henry’s chorus of questions is that the Green Man has all those suggestive qualities because once upon a not too distant time we human beings really thought that the Green Man was, to some extent, us—that our substance had come from trees and would return to the trees. The Green Man was the visible representation of our invisible life-cycle. He was proof, promise, and means of unending vegetation for those of our kin who, at any given point in time, are moving about upon the earth. Belief in our prior human “greenness” and a certain certainty about our inevitable return to it was present, not only among fairly unsophisticated pagans, but also among the Greeks and Romans, who were neither unsophisticated nor primitive.

As a leitmotif, whether consciously articulated or not, it still dances in and out of our heritage. MacBeth, for instance, flirts with it when the witches say of him that he shall hold until Great Biram Wood shall come to High Dunsiname Hill, a feat we know was accomplished by “men like trees moving.” Even the blind man, in the strangest healing story in the New Testament, tells Jesus that he sees “men, like trees, walking about,” at which time Jesus hastens to anoint his eyes once again in order to turn them to a more customary way of seeing. But then there was the afternoon that I came into my office, only to discover that the Green Man was now partly green and only imperfectly gray. And there sat five-year-old Henry, my green indelible marker in his hand, painstakingly coloring every crack, crevice and surface, vine, leaf, and gnarl. He was so intent that there was no way to reprimand him. Instead, I just asked him.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Because,” he said, without looking up from his work, “I remember when I was a tree.”

Well, Henry, I think maybe I do, too; and I also think that the remembering will be a benison for me as I enter this November.

Copyright © 2008 Phyllis Tickle.