“…and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.” — Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s poem “When I am Among the Trees” calls to me on this first quiet day of February. I am back at my desk after a slow walk in the pocket pine forest behind our home. It’s such a small forest really, curving up against the 7700-year-old massive lava flows between here and the Deschutes River. Each wander differs from the other by season, time, and weather. On this mid-morning, a few inches of cold sugary snow are tracked in the prints of western gray squirrels, Douglas squirrels, coyote, mule deer, and our nose-to-the-ground labrador Pepper. The gray sky lifts an eyebrow, then shuts tight.

The tracks of western gray squirrels led me on their leaping treks down from trees, over logs, under crevices, and into a Scouler’s willow thicket.

I am in the slow-down mode after a rush to meet a writing deadline and heeding a cranky hamstring. I bring my phone on the saunter only as a camera to focus on small wonders. These woods I’ve come to know are not dramatic at first glance. Almost all the trees are smallish ponderosas, except for a sprinkle of junipers and two Scouler’s willows where scrub jays tend to converse. The driftwood stumps tell the story of logging maybe a century ago.

Yet, here’s what I love. Since that time, this sliver of national forest has slipped by foresters intent on imposing order upon all that is twisted, bent, fallen, clustered, mistletoed, dying, or dead. The forest re-wilds in her way–proving that yes, six ponderosas can grow in one embrace. The seeds likely sprouted from a squirrel cache.

Six ponderosa pines grow in a communion above and below ground.

Oliver in her poem wrote of the trees she had come to know–willow, honey locust, beech, oaks, and pines:

“they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.”

I hear the hints of”gladness” in the breathing of trees. On this walk, I’m also drawn to the interplay of living and dead, like the manzanita intertwined in two-tone bark the colors of blood and bone. Melancholy drifts into my consciousness. Perhaps it’s the clouds settling on my soul. It’s not a sadness, more of the way I feel when listening to Eva Cassidy singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Her voice –at once meadowlark and sultry blues–is not forgotten decades after her death from melanoma at 33. Loss. What lives on. The singing. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

Do you see the gremlin face in this manzanita trunk? The polished red living bark invites sunlight to penetrate into the chlorophyll-rich tissue, a phenomenon called “stem photosynthesis.” Why dead and living wood fused together? A botanical mystery…

Isn’t it possible the trees are dreaming? Why not the shrubs below them, too–manzanita, ceanothus, bitterbrush, rabbitbrush, and currants? Perhaps their dreams float like feathers in free-fall. Or maybe their dreams rollick with raven, scrub jay, and thunder crack. Or possibly, their dreams are so deep and far beyond ours they are known only to the distant stars.

How to come closer to the stars? I stoop down low. Take off my mittens. Brush my fingers across the fluorescent-green lichen like sea coral. I notice the seeds and shells of pine cones on the driftwood-gray stump, the place a squirrel dined with ears alert to danger.

Stories on the old stump…lichen, pine needles and cracked open seeds, furrows, nooks, and snow

I turn from the stump to run my bare fingers over the curled-up leathery leaves of ceanothus and the wax-coated oval green leaves of manzanita. Their leaves cling to stems even in winter. Their truth is in the way of cacti, a succulence retaining the moisture. I nibble a tip of manzanita leaf. Bitter! But not bitter like spite, like anger. This is the bitterness that staves off all who might bite you. Another quality to consider. The forest is filled with survival tips.

Pygmy Nuthatches chime the branches then fall silent. A flicker calls in a single note like a torch beam. Raven flaps past and lets fly a double-croak, which might be part of the Mary Oliver poem: “It’s simple.”

Simply notice. Simply ease the tension in your shoulders. Simply step out into the trees. In simplicity, bow to a galaxy of life upon life above and below the ground.

In my homeward saunter, I find a contemplative communion in the shadow of Mary Oliver and her voice is the tree:

“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”


When I am Among the Trees
Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Your reward for coming this far down in my photos from the morning walk in the forest…another manzanita curiosity! The curlicue bark peels around summer solstice to let the light directly into the green stems–sunlight to sugar to energy for the manzanita. And the peelings also shed unwanted parasites. (For more, see this fabulous book featuring Oak Woodlands–also haven to manzanitas: Secrets of the Oak Woodlands, by Kate Marianchild.)