On Pines and Permanence

On pines and permanence…

It’s the warmest week of the year. I should be outside to gather birch sap, build the waddle fencing for my raised beds, and tend to my hoop house. But instead, I am planted in my seat inside, nursing a knee injury and watching the world move on outside my window. The chickadees pay a visit and two mourning doves come to my sill and sing their song, a sign of peace and renewal. Feeling a tad useless though, I hobble to the library and check out a book on the ecology of Michigan’s forests. Say what you will, but I was really excited. Surprisingly, this rather scientific book has shaken my worldview up a bit and I’d like to share some thoughts here.

When we think of “permanent” we think of tattoos, markers, century-old cathedrals, the mountains and their waterfalls. In fact it goes deeper. We are subconsciously obsessed with permanence. It’s why we long for the good old days or torture ourselves with the loss of a loved one. It’s why we cling so tightly to love, as if we could will it to stay forever by force. But permanence is an illusion created by man.

The Appalachian mountains that seem so steady and monumental? They used to be the size of the Himalayas, now just a shadow of their size. The land you stand on was covered by ice for two MILLION years not so long ago. We are living in a tiny beautiful blip in time where all of life has converged. You and I took tens of thousands of years to evolve to this state of consciousness, not to mention the plants and animals by our sides. We are able to absorb the magnificence of that miracle. We are the universe becoming self-aware. Take that in for a minute. How lucky are you to be living this life right now, in the span of millions of years of evolution and change?

It’s curious then, how permanence ever even became a concept in the human psyche. If even our mountains are constantly transforming, how did we learn to dwell if not from the world around us? That may never be a question that can be answered, but something to ponder regardless.

So what happens when we let go of this obsession with permanence when we become like the great pines and the flowing rivers? Do we float off into the universe, untethered by anything solid? Or do we rise up to a higher vibration, nothing to hold us back?

You may be wondering how this all ties into a book on forest ecology. So let me give some context. One of my beliefs was that we should return all forests to old growth. I believed clear cut logging was sacrilege. I couldn’t see how restoring the final climax of the forest (old growth)  wouldn’t be the answer to all of our food shortage carbon sequestering problems.

But then I read a few things that changed my mind: Disturbance in the forest is the key to life. Obviously not a Manifest Destiny sort of disturbance seen during Michigan’s logging area that would wipe out an entire forest, but a natural systematic disturbance to renew life.

  • Gaps in the forest canopy caused by fallen trees create light for understory trees to grow up and for other plant species to establish themselves.

  • The ravages of fire unearth a new dynamic by germinating fire resistant seeds such as jack pine or wild geranium.  The ash left over also acts as a fertilizer.

  • Flooding deposits a new layer of soil, creating a rich substrate for new plant establishment.

  • Even logging (including clear cut) produces woody debris which release valuable minerals and organic compounds into the soil. In fact, it was shown that clear cut logging provides some of the same benefits as burning. There was no difference in species diversity, species composition, yearly biomass productivity, or nitrogen cycling. Plant diversity was actually found to be higher in young forests that regenerated after logging.

My book stated that the “normal state” of an ecosystem is to be recovering from the last disturbance. Is the same not true for life itself? Aren’t we constantly adjusting and healing from something? So what I had to think about was how do we come to terms with the fact that we are always in limbo? Always getting broken down and regenerating over and over.

My book also says that in the natural world there is no good or bad, right or wrong. It just is. Morals and ethics are also human constructs. It’s easy to get caught in the wildfire or flood. It’s much harder to see these processes as not good or bad, but simply present.

Not only did I realized that a young regenerating forest is just as important to the ecosystem as old growth, if less pleasing to look at, but I also had to think a lot about my own life. Some destructive processes are necessary for new growth as we know, but no one tells us how we should balance these forces when they happen in a continuous cycle as life often does without coming unhinged.

I’m not sure I have any solid answers, but I have thought of some practices that help me to let go of permanence when it feels like the lows keep coming:

  • Go outside. Whether on your front porch or a walk in the woods, no matter how hard it is to drag yourself to do so, just go. Find a silent spot and look for the signs. Maybe a bird lands by you, take note of the bird. Maybe an oak tree lets out an interesting creak as it sways in the wind. A snake slithers, a flower whispers, or you find a lone feather. There are signs all around, waiting for us to take notice. Ask for a sign. Tell them what you need that sign for. And no matter how the answer comes, let it wash over you. Let the cycle wash the permanence from your mind. Because even as good things don’t last forever, neither do the bad.

  • Learn something. When I feel stuck I read. It gets my overactive mind out of itself. Case and point, the forest ecology book that prompted this whole musing. Whether you read about something new, find it on the internet, or take a class, this is a sure way to get inspired and see new light in a situation.

  • Call someone. In the age of texting it’s easy to isolate ourselves into our own turmoil. Even just talking through your thoughts with a loved one can help return the balance, even if it doesn’t change the situation itself. It’s also a good reminder that you are never alone.

  • Ritual ritual ritual. The best way to keep balance in an impermanent world is to find your ritual. This ritual is a practice that tethers you to your soul and the universe when everything else seems to be flying away. My ritual consists of meditation, tea, and books, in that order. Try an adaptogenic tea such as ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, or reishi. Adaptogens are normalizing herbs that help to bring your body back into balance. By taking these over a long period of time, you will find a greater sense of peace throughout the ups and downs. Whatever your ritual is, be sure to be consistent and be all there when you practice.

  • Listen to your intuition. Lastly, no matter what you’re going through, never ignore those gut feelings. Sometimes it is better to act before you think. Let yourself do what it needs to do before you get in your own way. Deep down we all know how to heal ourselves. We all know what our true path is. We just get so hung up on things like permanence that we can no longer see it.

If we can find ways to be like the great white pine that have traversed this land since the ice age, then we can find peace. Through the fires, floods, human tampering, and countless other disturbances, everything truly just is.  

Valerie Elkhorn