Church of the Holy Firs
Maple. Ant. Robin red breast. These were the names that came first. I would sit in the grass and watch the fat black ants that had made a castle in the crook of the maple tree that lorded over the front lawn of my New Jersey home. I could stare for hours at the colony’s endless marching cavalcade pouring in and out of a crack no larger than the nub of a well-used pencil at the tree’s rippled grey base. Overhead, robins appeared each year right around my birthday to decorate the tree’s bud-filled branches. They would hop across the well-tended lawn, then stand still, listening through their feet, my mother told me, for the sound of earthworms moving underground. It was a timeless time.
By 21, I’d fled the East Coast and landed in the Pacific Northwest, a cross-country move with a man who was all wrong to a place that was all right. Forest, mountain and sea fused together in this hidden corner of my country, where there were new names to discover. Old man’s beard. Douglas fir. Maidenhair fern. I learned the names the way my (once a) Baptist mother had dutifully learned the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Western red cedar. Trillium. Pacific giant salamander. I learned the names the way my (once a Hindu) father had reluctantly recited the thousand names of God as a small boy in India — Krishna, Kali, Rama, Vishnu…. My parents split the difference of their disbelief and joined the Unitarian Church to give my brother and me some semblance of religion. But I was a stubborn child, resisting any notion of God, fighting even the Unitarians’ mild form of anti-church, with its lectures instead of liturgy. I saved my reverence for ants and robins, for the wriggling unseen worms.
In Seattle, a friend who called himself Woodsy gave me a copy of Walden. Peering through the door of Henry David’s cabin revealed a Transcendentalist world filled with wayward Unitarians like myself whom I had somehow missed in church. Armed with their words, I ventured out of the city with a heavy backpack into those western woods, into the tonic of wilderness, where I found a labyrinth hidden in the forest floor, along a path of broken sticks and banana slugs. As long as my hand, as thick as two fingers held tightly together, the yellow slugs, spotted brown – they really do look like bananas, just this side of rotten – slid across an untended layer of leaf litter a millennium deep, leaving their gelatinous mark upon the world. The silence of the big trees – or was it the reverberations of slug song? – lured me into the forest, losing my way with no intention of being found. “Within the woods,” wrote Emerson, “a man casts off his years and becomes a child, returns to reason and faith and feels that no calamity can befall him which nature cannot repair.” I was under the maple tree again.
Three years after I arrived in Seattle imagining I was some kind of pioneer looking for adventure, my friend Evan came to the Emerald City because it had a top-notch cancer research center. I had never not known him. Our parents had befriended each other before I was born. When our ages were still in the single digits, Evan and I caught lightning bugs together in my front yard under the ant-filled maple tree and let them loose in the living room as our parents drank wine on the back porch. I thought maybe one day we’d be married. Instead, we grew up. I went west and he went east, to busk in the streets of Paris and fall in love with a Russian. When he arrived in Seattle, the doctors sealed Evan in a sterile room and gave him less than 50-50 odds that every last leukemia cell would be vanquished. His wife scowled at them as she held the hand of their young son.
I didn’t know how to pray, so I gardened. I lived in a spacious and creaky old house perched on the top of Queen Anne Hill, one of Seattle’s many small mountains. Between hospital visits I ripped up a chunk of my lawn when the landlord wasn’t looking and knelt in the dirt.
Look here, I can see it still. I have in my hand a mottled piece of the universe, pitted with deep holes and peaked points. It is so small I can barely hold onto it between my two fingers as I press it into the dirt. A beet seed. A tiny world. A sphere of possibilities. It needs soil, light, water, air. It is not so different than Evan or his son. It is not so different than me.
When the bone marrow transplant didn’t take, Evan returned to New Jersey, with his family, to his family, to the hometown we’d shared. The robins must have been arriving when Evan died, three weeks before his twenty-seventh birthday, which was two years and 16 days before mine. His time stopped, while mine continued. I returned to the soil and the dirt to ground me.
My beet seed grew. It sent up leaves that were deep green with blood red veins. It formed a rough round bulb underground that I dug up with my fingers when the fall rains came. I cooked it and ate it and it turned my pee pink. It wasn’t enough. After Evan’s death, I was greedy. I wanted more than a backyard garden and weekend backpacking trips; I wanted the big trees, the banana slugs; my forest, my refuge. I drove south, to the end of a dirt road in Oregon where I walked through a grape arbor at the heart of a two-acre garden cradled by towering Douglas fir trees. I emerged from the arbor with the sweet and sour taste of grapes on my tongue and a certainty that I did not want to leave, that I could never return to the pace and lifestyle of a city-dweller.
Eight years later, I wrangled new meaning out of the old texts as I gave them away, along with the garden tools I had accumulated and a flock of chickens that included a golden hen named Honey I had raised from a chick. “I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot,” wrote Thoreau. I twisted the words to justify my decision to leave my forest and move to New York City. I hoped that the god of dirt and trees would remain in my marrow. That the transplant had taken, and I, too, could be a sojourner in civilized life for just awhile, just long enough to learn yet another language, which I found myself hungry for again. An insatiable appetite for new words. Q train. Chinatown. Journalism school.
Days before I left, as the moon reached its fullness in a sky littered with stars that I would no longer see, my friends and I disappeared into the woods one last time. We hiked in at dusk, setting up camp on the edge of a dark lake. I slipped off my sweaty clothes and sunk into the cold black water. I felt the salamanders slipping away like mercury as lake mud squished between my toes.
The next day, we descended down the steep ravine where Opal Lake spilled into Opal Creek. We were in search of a tree that stood apart for its size even amidst the surrounding grove of giants. Below us, tree roots intertwined, feeding off fungi and rhizomes and an endless supply of water from cloud and creek. Soil, light, water, air. We wrestled through four-foot ferns and then scrambled to the top of downed trees that created superhighways through the thicket. I have heard them when they topple – with a deep thunderous sundering sound, the sky separating from the earth – their fallen bodies settling to serve as nursery logs for the next generation. All together, the young and the old, the healthy and the fallen, form the only church I’ve ever felt at home in.
We found the tree – a fir wolfy with age, cloaked in lichen – and collapsed into the soft earth, looking up into infinity from its base. From there on the ground, from the vantage of an unbeliever, I imagined that this is what finding God must be like. Or rather, not finding but feeling found. Falling into something as timeless as a slug path, with hidden meanings revealed in the pattern of broken sticks. A coming home, even as I prepared to leave. My friends and I rose, to see if we could circle the tree, all four of us with arms stretched taut, faces pressed against the rough bark, linking our hands to form a current. That’s what God is, right? Something so big that you, alone, can’t wrap your arms around it. Something that stays with you, no matter where you go. Right?
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.