By CHARLES REAVES
A therapist many years ago in an afternoon session one day when I complained of loneliness, reminded me that in an earlier session I had commented that I was never alone in nature. Even though I am by nature a classic loner. The kind of person you might feel sorry for at a crowded restaurant, "table for one, please". Or the solitary person in the funny hat and crumpled overcoat seated alone to the far left at the front of the movie metroplex theatre. The truth is I was never really alone anywhere. I often preferred it to the noise and distraction of human companionship. But in nature I had always found friends.
In 2010 I was diagnosed with cancer, an "easy" cancer I was told. Easy for medical professionals, easy for everyone except me I guess. My body was ravaged by chemotherapy, all my hair fell out, even my beard! I became the ubiquitous old stick of a man walking with a cane for all who dared to look , seemingly walking to nowhere.
It was partly true, I had to walk because in addition to chemo, I suffered 72 radiation treatments in 15 weeks that left my groin and my ass burned to a brightly colored red crisp. The only other option was to lay in bed blindly watching mindless cable television while puss filled bed sores attacked my already disintegrating flesh.Eventually all of it in that sensitive area would turn black and peel away like the skin of a poisonous black snake. But the observers were wrong. I was walking somewhere. I was walking to my healing tree.
Earlier in my life having shaken off the shackles of organized religion I had decided I was agnostic or even atheist, but even a recovering Baptist must find something to believe in, and through hours of reading and research what I discovered was paganism. Not the contemporary more popular reclamation of Wicca ,but instead the ancient traditions of the native Americans. The traditions of the Lakota tribe chose me. They made sense to me. The idea that we all are born of a common mother, the earth. The ideology that we all are connected to her, not only human, but all living things. I practiced the ritual of sweat lodge,going into the warm wet womb of the mother and finding healing, truth and peace. I adopted the belief that all things are equally exalted, "mitakye oyasin" , they say in Lakota: we are all related, aho! And through this believe I discovered my ability to communicate with trees.
The trees are actually saddened by our ignorance of them. Next time you find yourself close to one, whether it be in a city park, on the street or in the Adirondacks, simply put your hand to a trunk and feel the vibration. Listen to the wind in their leaves and you will hear. But you must first learn how to listen, carefully and with intent. And should you find an opportunity to place an ear on the trunk of an ancient giant like the mighty redwood you will hear the vibration of its wisdom and knowledge. Talking with trees is a gift, and I assure you there is no greater magic in the universe...if you should believe in such things.
Part of the Native American tradition is focused on healing. A shaman often undergoes a journey to promote or change the perception and reality of an entire tribe , or if you truly believe, the universe.The shaman is drummed into a trance and then assisted in the other world of non reality, the world of our subconscious, by specific animal guides and allies. The great Lakota medicine man Black Elk often referred to the spider Iktomi as one of his guides or allies.The trees are some of my allies. They teach me and show me the path to the red road, a road to balance and tolerance. There is also a belief that if a part of you hurts , place that part on the earth mother, give her all your pain. She will take it from you and you will be healed.
So on that day, for those who cared to watch a young man impersonating an old one, feebly hobbling to his healing tree. They would have seen me crest the hill and walk to a beautiful eucalyptus tree whose limbs spread wide to offer a comfortable seat. One in which I could lift my legs and slowly recline back against her strong trunk and listen to her soft lullabies on the gentle pacific wind.
Friends go away when you have cancer. They hide in their small cozy apartments and cringe when their phone rings and the caller ID betrays you, they don't answer, they can't . They don't know what to say , and neither do you. In our culture cancer is so closely associated with death it is our nature to avoid it. But my friends the trees sang to me everyday. And just as they take our Carbon dioxide and give us oxygen, I gave them my cancer and they in turn healed me and gave me back my health.
My therapist was right to remind me of my own teaching. Unfortunately it also reminded me maybe I didn't need a therapist? All I really needed was a tree. I have never been alone in nature. Each blade of grass, every spider, all the rocks , the great whales of the ocean and yes my beloved trees all call me friend. They did then , they do now, and I'm certain they always will be there for me.
Charles Reaves is an actor and writer who recently moved from San Francisco to NYC. Since the late 1980's he has written both poetry and prose about his experience as a survivor. He lives in Manhattan with his cat Furie.