On Grieving Trees

Words + Images by Meghan Powell

The most joyous parts of my life were the nights spent camping in the outdoors with family and friends. Long days, hiking majestic mountains over rough rocky terrain, carrying heavy packs, speaking only enough to alert the bears who shared the trail. We’d walk in wide-eyed wonder through the changing landscape on our path – every experience was new and exciting.

Every so often, we’d rest to snack on handfuls of M&M trail mix and Cliff Bars, under the shade of a pine tree. Sometimes not even taking off our packs because putting them back on made us want to curse whosever idea it was to do this.

Once at our site in the backcountry, we’d spend the next few hours, setting up tents and collecting dead and down wood. Then we’d all find respective rocks or flat ground for a much appreciated nap.

My feet always had blisters, our muscles ached, and we smelled terribly. And yet, I can think of nothing more enjoyable.

Nothing feels more like home than sitting around a campfire long after the sun has set telling stories or simply listening to the expansive space of nature without a human soul for miles. Nothing makes me feel more invigorated, alive, and so gloriously insignificant than being in the outdoors.

In fact, it was one of the reasons Mark and I made the move from our tropical Byron Bay home to the southern tip of Tasmania. We had a dream of spacious land and mountains greeting the roaring ocean. After a camping trip in the rainforest of Dorrigo National Park, we said – Ok! Let’s do it. 

Keep in mind, moving interstate somewhere we’ve never been during the height of COVID restrictions, after being months of being laid off – well, most everyone thought we had tossed our common sense right out the window! (And maybe we had. Isolation has a way of doing that.) But it was only when we no longer had anything stopping us, left with no other choice but a Hail Mary move, that it could really happen. One month later, everything we owned was packed in our car.

In the midst of uncertainty, we took it one step further and dived right into its open arms.

Our first night here in our new home was much like camping – except it wasn’t planned. That day we drove off the overnight ferry, a winter storm from the Antarctic brought with it extreme conditions. The drive was slow on the icy highway as we passed cars abandoned on the side from the night before and the tiny island was blanketed white with snow.

It was only after we arrived that we found out – our house was heated only by a wood stove and our firewood hadn’t been delivered. Now under strict quarantine restrictions, we couldn’t leave to find some. Luckily, our new neighbors came to the rescue with a few logs to get us through the night. 

You know, starting a fire is one of those life skills you don’t realize is important until you desperately need one. I silently thanked my parents for the many nights of camping whilst carefully placing the kindling on top of some paper I ripped from my journal. I struck the match and placed it underneath.

Blowing on the flames, the smell of smoke and the crackling of timber filled the living room. Soon my cheeks warmed as I watched the dancing of flames contained in the small stove.

We sat that night huddled close to the fire in our puffy jackets and wool hats under a blanket. We had no furniture, except a rug and two pillows, eating the only food we packed: pasta. I admit, I had a moment. Was this a mistake?

Fast forward eight months … We’ve settled in, rescued a hound dog, and our small garden is thriving with autumn vegetables. Winter is on its way and our firewood has already been delivered!

But as I stare at the pile of wood in my driveway, I feel as sad as I do grateful. As the guy who delivered explained, the recent years of bushfires and illegal logging have taken its toll on the trees. His business too. And it truly gives me pause.

These trees, these living beings, died to keep me warm. There is one less tree now when there are fewer and fewer every day.

Australia is one of those places where you can feel climate change right on your doorstep. We’ve all seen the pictures of burned koalas, read about the dying Great Barrier Reef, and most recently the historic flooding in parts of NSW. The raging bushfires, logging, agriculture industry, pollution, poor land management practices, housing developments … the list of human caused destruction hurdles us quickly down our path of climate crisis.

Eventually the loud rumbles of heavy machinery clearing land will ultimately silence the wildlife that call those fragile ecosystems home.

The year of COVID has given us all a forced period of pause, as well as the time to reflect on what’s important. And given all the new home gardens in various sizes and an upward trend of migrating to more rural homes, it seems a deeper connection with nature is right up there.

Many of us are now tilling the soil in our backyards, plunging our hands into the earth, and feeding it with our own composted waste. We are taking more walks outside, more hikes up mountains, and visiting national parks in droves.

And it occurs to me that this is indeed what I am mourning — home. My grief for these trees mirrors the grief I have felt during these last twelve months. Indefinitely separated from my family has brought a kind of homesickness I’ve never encountered before.

More and more, I turn to nature, seeking solace and the comfort of home, under the generations of Eucalypt trees on kunanyi/Mt Wellington, listening to the soft rustle of their leaves. And there, I reminisce of those times hiking with the people I miss most and wondering when we’ll be together, gathered around the campfire, telling stories again.

You know, that first night in Tasmania sitting by the fire, I had never been so grateful for a bunch of sticks in my life. I felt like that kid again, sitting around a campfire, giggling with Mark about how we actually made it when no one thought we could.

But as winter wore on along with the chore of constantly chopping wood, eventually I stopped feeling grateful and more often felt burdened. 

It took witnessing the death of trees for my own use and the same grief for these members of my own extended family to viscerally remind me of the generosity of this sacred planet.

It took the void to remind me how much I love this wild earth and all its inhabitants.

Whether camping beneath the starts or marveling at the colors of a sunrise. From coyotes and finches to the tiniest of centipedes. We are intricately intertwined in this fabric of life – humans, animals, plants, insects, air, water. Yet, we can all become so easily disconnected and distracted from that incredible fact.

But in this peculiar year of isolation and uncertainty, in a time we have all found our own version of solace in the company of trees and the unwavering truth of earth beneath our feet — will we remember?

Will we remember this time, hearts fissured by grief, held in love by the home we’ve often taken for granted – one of soil and seedlings, of running streams and mountains, of woods and birdsong, of fields of tall grass and the sound of crickets?

There is much at stake for our earth and those that call it home. And as the world slow reclaims its version of normal, it makes me wonder – how will it be different? Or rather, how can we?

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wild Geese
Mary Oliver

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