Sylvan (adj): of, pertaining to, or inhabiting the woods.

Come Away, O Human Child…

People often talk about places that feel like home to them–not just a place to hang your hat, or even that place where there are family and friends who love you no matter what, but a spiritual home, a place that causes your soul to burst out in spontaneous Hallelujahs (or what have you). A place that sings to you, and you sing back.

During our (hugely successful) (fun) (hilarious) (exhausting) trip to the West Coast last week, I found mine.

Originally we intended just to go to Portland, then to take a side trip in a rented car along the Oregon coastline. Since we were flying standby (the one downside to traveling with an airline employee), we chose flights with as few passengers as possible, and that meant taking a meandering sort of path from ATX up to PDX. In the end we decided, almost on a whim, to spend a night in the Bay Area instead of a more direct route, and that gave us the opportunity for another side trip, this one to nearby Muir Woods National Monument.

Muir Woods is a coastal redwood forest; the coastal redwoods aren’t as enormous as their cousins the giant sequoias, but they can reach over 350 feet tall (that’s at least twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty), and Muir Woods is one of the few remaining old-growth redwood forests in the world. The oldest tree in Muir is about 1,200 years old. Redwoods can live for over 2,000 years. Imagine it: Jesus was in diapers, Buddhism had just reached China, Ovid was writing, and a redwood that’s still alive today sprouted in California.

There is comparatively little wildlife in a coastal redwood forest; most of the animals there are nocturnal, and there are tons of bats, but birds are more scarce because the tannins in the soil limit the food sources (meaning insects). This means that, aside from the constant burbling presence of Redwood Creek, the world inside the forest is strangely quiet, the sound of water only rarely broken by birdsong. As we rounded the bend that closed off the forest from the park’s headquarters, restrooms, and gift shop, the trees seemed to envelop us completely, drawing us into a world of soft, cool air, and peace.

I had never seen anything so beautiful. People throw the word “awesome” around cavalierly these days, but walking along the path through Muir Woods, I came to understand the real meaning of the term. Awe, and love, are the only words for what I felt…along with contentment. There among the redwoods I was happier than I had ever been in my entire life.

I had always known that would happen. Something in me has always cried out to visit those trees, and now I know why: we knew each other. All I wanted from the minute we came into the presence of these giants was to touch one, to lay my head against its bark, and to sink into its energy.

Docking with the Mother Ship

You can feel the power thrumming through the redwoods even at a distance, but touching one was like tugging on the Goddess’s skirt and having Her smile down at you. The feeling of age in the place is astounding. Trees operate on a different kind of time than the rest of nature; they are in no hurry, and are perturbed by little. A being that is over a thousand years old simply doesn’t have the same perspective as we tiny little humans for whom living a century is still pretty miraculous.

I’ve heard a lot of arguments about plants having feelings (usually used by people who are trying to fight with vegetarians), and while I obviously believe that plants are alive and have their own consciousness, I’ve always felt that the way plants “feel” is so fundamentally different from how animals feel that it’s ludicrous to judge them by the same standards. There is no evolutionary advantage to a plant being able to feel pain like, say, a dog; a tree can’t run away from an ax. Like all things that want to live and propgate, plants can defend themselves from damage to a point, but they still can’t do much about being ripped up or cut down.  I think that assigning human emotions and sensations to something lacking a nervous system is kind of silly–but only a fool could meet the redwoods and think they’re not aware in some way. Self-aware? It doesn’t seem so. They don’t seem to speak in terms of “I.” But nor do they say “we.” It’s as if a singular consciousness runs through the entire forest and doesn’t seek to define itself, only to grow.  They are alive, and they feel, but not the same way we do. They have their own purpose and their own way of being.

Mother Earth, carry me…your child I will always be

In the end, I don’t think it matters if trees have individual “feelings” or not; what matters is that we respect their vitality to the environment and protect the land that nourishes them.  That same weekend I saw hillsides in Oregon that had been clear-cut by loggers, and whatever the land itself or the trees themselves may have felt about it, I know that my heart cried out in pain at the ugliness of those grey, jagged slopes shorn of their leafy majesty. The thought that someone could look at the violence of such an act and not be moved to tears baffles me.  The thought that our society’s lust for material goods could destroy something as old and perfect as a living, breathing forest is the utmost blasphemy to me.

Aware or not, you can feel the forest breathe. Trees are the lungs of the Earth, after all, and redwoods are so tall that they keep shorter trees from being able to grow beneath them; there is relatively little underbrush except for lush ferns and fungi that contribute to the cool, moist atmosphere.  Everything is blanketed in moss, and there are even trees whose lower limbs have ferns growing out of them.  Every fallen redwood becomes home and food for hundreds of new creatures.

Redwoods have a shallow root system compared to their height.  In one grove, you could see the blackened stump of a tree that was struck by lightning hundreds of years ago and is now surrounded in a perfect circle of its offspring, who grew up out of the surviving root network of the parent tree.  I couldn’t articulate the lesson I learned seeing the centuries-old stump that still stood so long after its fiery death, guarded on all sides by the new life that arose from it, but my heart understood something new in that moment.  By the time we left the forest, something in me that had been withered and dry was lush and green again, covered in a soft coat of moss and stretching hundreds of feet into the blue, blue sky.

My whole life, trees have spoken to me–and when I say “speak,” I mean more that we have a connection, not that they use English words. That connection had faded down to practically nothing before I visited Muir Woods. Now, it’s as if every leafed thing on the planet is trying to get into my head, and I have to say, it’s awesome.

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4 thoughts on “Sylvan (adj): of, pertaining to, or inhabiting the woods.

  1. I grew up in Marin County, California and I have visited Muir Woods many times.

    While I do not hold your….shall we say…mystical views (please don’t be offended), I understand completely what you felt there. I always have a slight feeling of being watched there, not in a bad way, more just that you are surrounded by a place that is very alive.

    You did a wonderful job of evoking the beauty of the place and called to my mind fond memories of my visits there.

  2. I hope someday that I can feel these wonderful things about the place I end up living. I’ve traveled a lot in my time and only once or twice had anything like a similar experience. That kind of magic literally right outside your back door? Awesome (in the correct sense). I’m so happy that your trip yielded so much happiness and meaning for you, dear. <3

  3. Your writing truly evokes a depth of feeling seldom found in mere words. Thank you for sharing your wonder, discoveries and connections. Peace.

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