This story starts, as most of mine do, out in the woods; more precisely on a hike. We simply can not get enough of this glorious spring weather, and I freely accept this gift for what it is after the winter that almost swallowed us alive. We’ve spent nearly every waking sunshiney moment since outside. This hike was a short one, a chance to be together as a family without having to pack lunches or get out maps. No, this was something smaller, less adventurous.
I forgot, though, why it is we don’t often hike at this particular preserve. The trails can be a bit frustrating, short pieces that have to be added together to gather any kind of momentum, and eventually we looped our way back down to the creek to play. There was a nice flat bank of green grass to run on, and we tried not to disturb the fisherman too much as we let the dog splash about in the water. Two trees had fallen and lay across the green grass, balance beams mirroring each other, perfect for races. We tried meandering down the side of the creek, but the trail became thick with bramble and more felled trees, evidence of our harsh winter, here even. We turned around, content just to be in the sunshine, and played some more on the balance-beam trees.
Next to those trees there were three round stumps. Not proper stumps left from a tree that had grown there, but more like three chunks of tree that had recently been cut apart and left as seats. Freshly cut, their color hadn’t yet dulled with the weather. We gathered around these stumps, these chunks the tree, and we looked at the rings. We showed the kids how to count them, and we noticed together the variation in color and thickness. Here, in this one slice of wood, is captured the history of this tree, of its making and growing and eventually dying. The stripes spin around the core, and for a moment I feel as though I’m looking at a piece of abstract art. I sat on a stump in the sun watching the three kids climb up and over and around those other long trees rotting here by the side of this creek. The two older kids quickly found their balance and were racing each other from one end of the trees to the other. Griffin, though strong and agile as he is, eager to do everything his big brother and sister do, climbed his way up but needed my hand to run down the length after Grant and Renee. I obliged, I did, and then we were lost in the bugs crawling along the grooves of the bark like it was a highway.
This game ran its course, as all do, and it was time to move on.
Later that day, at home while I’m making dinner, bathing kids and tucking them into bed, I think about those tree stumps. I remember the sensual lines radiating from the center. I wonder about the years of feast, of famine, and I imagine this tree and its small story as a piece of that noble forest. I think about my growth rings, too, and wonder what will be left for all to see at the end of my journey.
There is a difference between being marked, scarred, and the striation that simply colors a life. I can look at my physical body, for instance, and see the dimple on my belly, a chicken pox scar from when I was little. It alludes to the story of being bathed in cornstarch, of being gathered with my sister and encouraged to share these germs, hoping to get all the crazy of chicken pox done with for our small family. There is a faint line I have that runs from my nose to my upper lip, an unfortunate reminder of my clumsiness when I bumped my face on the baby stroller, bleeding copious amounts as face wounds do, and adding up to utter embarrassment among new-mom friends, finding new-mom legs.
But what I’m thinking about is different. Scars are punctuations, stories of course, but accents to a greater narration. What I’m thinking about now is how that tree, with its growth rings, is like the Grand Canyon, a pie slice of geology, our world in the making. The stratification, layer built upon layer, each with a different tone, not telling the story of any particular incident, but the story of an era. Each stratum bears the impact of the environment. Seen as a whole, the stratification is a beautiful rainbow of contrasts, telling the story for as long and as wide and as deep as it is.
I wonder what it will be like to finger my way through my growth rings, count out my age. There will be evidence of thin years, lean and long, telling of hardships and eventually resiliency. There will be fat years, bursting forth with fecundity and growth, adding mass to this life. I am both that tree, and the Grand Canyon, specific in my own life, and contributing to a much greater one of which I will never know the end. It will be beautiful, like a piece of abstract art.
Those rings are beautiful, yes, but they are not the full story either. Looking only at those rings you miss the story of the green veiny leaves that were the tree’s crown of glory. I can only imagine the birds and squirrels, the animals that called that lovely tree home. Those rings don’t bear witness to the picnics that were had in her shade, or the kids who may have climbed her branches. Those things were beautiful in the present, and I find relief in that, too. Though I want my life to be glorious in retrospect, I want it to be beautiful in the present, too. It’s good to take the long view, knowing that struggles add depth and beauty, but it’s tiring to hold that perspective all the time. This very moment is something to behold, too. The full story is found in both the growth rings, and the branches; the Grand Canyon and the dust and the rain.
So while it is that I’m hustling our family out the door to Easter services, packing sleepover bags, and forgetting Griffin’s treasured “nanky,” I hold in my heart the truth of both those things: this very second, this one here in which I’m sweating and short of breath, panicked and full of guilt. But also this one: it’s a blink of an eye in the forest, time that I do not understand. And it is all glorious.