Far away on the west coast of Mexico where the sea gentles inward to form a cove and the people who live there wake to birds that call their names–Chachalaca and Kiskadee- there is a woman named Om who slept high within a fig tree–for nine years.
She was not alone. Her pet monkey Chuy swung from the tree limbs chiming in tropical birds. Sometimes friends would climb up the rope ladder to her high platform set on sturdy branches quivering in jade-colored leaves. As many as eight people could squeeze tight there in starlight, moonlight or sunset. Her bed was a simple mat covered with a blanket and draped with mosquito netting. She placed books in tree forks. Sturdy branches formed natural banisters and Om was not afraid.
I imagine her there night upon night rocking in winds, listening to the soft rapid one-note hoot of a ferruginous pygmy owl, the shuffles, sighs, rustles, creaks, snorts, flutters, and chatter of all the tree dwellers. One big iguana would sometimes fall upon her platform with a thump and both would startle.
Om came to know the great fig tree as a sentient being and as a friend–in the way of the best relationships deepening year upon year. The tree could not belong to Om or Om to the tree. There is no Om’s Tree or Tree’s Om. Instead, the two entwined in the way of fig roots–OmTree and TreeOm. No beginning or end.
At once elfin and birdlike, Om is small-boned, slender, and a little over five-feet tall. When she speaks of the tree, she crosses her hands over her chest, and her eyes dance with longing. Her accent carries the lilt of grackle, cacique, and euphonia. Her long braid is threaded in silver. She wants to return to life in a tree, although her chosen home in the nearby town on the edge of the cove is interwoven, draped, and supported by figs, palms, and other trees. All is leafy and close.
Om told me that when she came here in 1982 with her two siblings, she was a city girl and new to the ways of nature and of a small community. Still, she knew almost right away that she would choose a tree for a home. Maybe her monkey whispered arboreal thoughts in her ears? During the day, Om lived on the ground–her kitchen and bathroom were below the tree. She taught young children after-school art, math, reading, and English. And by day’s end, she would climb rung by rung into her nest and dream.
When I think of living as Om did, I tend to be swept into romantic visions of living like a bird, as if growing feathers, and wings and weaving my circular nest. Yet, Om also grounded me in the hard parts, like ants that bite and the scorpion that once stung her arm. She hurried down the ladder to fix herself a local remedy of chopped garlic and oil, which she drank quickly to keep the venom from spreading. The sting felt like a burning cigarette on her skin, she said, but Om was not sick and after a few weeks the numbness in her arm went away.
I would like to talk with Om for much longer when we can commune high up in branches together. She has ideas for another easier to climb tree home on a piece of mountainous land she has bought away from the hubbub of the town and still with a view of the ocean.
I did sit by the Om Tree one morning alone. The fig called to me in the language of Kiskadee–kiss…ka…dee– and the bird with the bold black mask and bright yellow chest perched close by. On that day, wild sweet peas skirted the tree trunk in pink flowers.
Diaphanous clouds flowed across the sun with tai-chi slowness. The ocean breathed and sighed stories of olive ridley sea turtles and gray whales. Brown pelicans swung over the waves with their beak buckets ready for fishing. High above them, magnificent frigatebirds sliced the sky wide open with their slim bent wings. Salt. Tears. Heat. Gratitude. Bare arms and legs. Nothing hidden here.
Above me, I heard the gossipy chatter of orioles as radiant as oranges and I tracked the fervent flitting of tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers. A butterfly the color of chocolate laced with raspberries shimmered by, leading me to see the cinnamon hummingbird upon a twig.
I touched the gray skin of the tree, smooth in places and rough in others, like the barnacled skin of whales fluking, spouting, and diving in the Pacific. Ants smaller than wild rice grains scattered, converged, and aligned. Sap oozed from a small wound.
I pressed my ear close to listen, yearning for the fluency and wisdom that comes with nine years of sleeping in a great fig’s arms.