For Priscilla Stuckey, this is a fundamental and heartbreaking misconception: that nature can be fixed, exploited, or simply ignored. Modern societies try to bend nature to human will instead of engaging in give–and–take with a living, breathing land community.
Using her personal experiences as the cornerstone, Stuckey explores the depth of relationship possible with the birch tree in our backyard, the nearby urban creek, the dog who settles on our bed each night.
Drawing inspiration from sources as varied as ancient philosophers and contemporary biologists, Stuckey challenges readers to enact a different story of nature, one in which people and place are not separate, where other creatures respond to human need, and where humans and all others together create the world.
With the eloquence of the great nature writers before her, Stuckey encourages us to open ourselves to the unlimited possibilities of a truly connected life.
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Cut-Leaf Weeping Birch
O dear to me my birth-things — All moving things, and the trees where I was born — the grains, plants, rivers
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
From the small cardboard box in my closet I pull a single photo — a four-inch square of faded color showing a tall, weeping birch tree, its leafless winter branches a graceful spiderwork of wispy white. The air is hazy, as the previous night's ice storm has condensed now into an icy fog. Pale background light suggests a watery sun trying against all odds to spread rosy hues over new-fallen snow.
I remember taking this photo — around eight o'clock one morning just before heading off to high school in Archbold, a tiny town in northwest Ohio. My favorite tree, planted just beside the house, looked breathtaking sheathed in ice.
Next to this photo in the same cardboard box is another one of the birch tree, this one taken in autumn. Bright gold leaves and white trunk shimmer against a cerulean frame of October sky.
Fifteen years later, when I was thirty-three and just beginning the journey of listening to nature, the birch tree became a friend at a deeper level. I was living two thousand miles away from it on a hillside in Oakland, California, when I was startled one evening by something I'd never before experienced. I'd recently had to get used to a lot of changes. At Christmas I'd fallen ill with a flu and never fully recovered, and for half a year now I'd scaled back my life — less editing work, slower doctoral studies, going out with my husband only rarely. Now it was June of 1990, and I'd just been diagnosed with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS).
I dragged myself through each day feeling as if twenty-pound weights were strapped to each limb. Each step took considerable effort: I could feel, but not see, that our hillside flat flowed ever so slightly downward because walking across the living room floor took less effort in one direction than the other.
One evening as I headed downhill on that floor just after dinner, an image popped into my mind. It was the birch tree, and in the space of a moment the tree was as present inside my head as the sofa was present before my eyes. I sank onto the sofa and closed my eyes. What was happening? I hadn't thought of the birch tree for years and had no reason to be thinking of it now.
There was no announcement, there were no words. The tree simply rose in my awareness, its tall, graceful image strong in my mind — stronger somehow than a memory. The presence remained vivid for a few moments then gradually faded. A feeling of quiet gravity, almost sadness, had accompanied it.
Two weeks later I received a call from my older brother, who still lived in Archbold. We talked of the failing health of our aging parents, the estate sale that was soon to come. Then Bro added slowly, "Well, I'm afraid we're going to have to cut down the birch tree. It's got a disease or something."
Ah, so that was it. The tree had come to say good-bye. I hung up the phone and stopped for a moment to focus my attention on the birch tree again. How was this possible? I didn't know, but I felt grateful.
That autumn, at the sale of our parents' house, I picked up pieces of freshly cut birch limbs to carry home to California. One I burned on New Year's Eve some years later, gazing quietly at the flames that curled and flashed around the white skeleton of my old friend. In the new year I gathered the ashes carefully into a grocery bag and took them to a ceramics class. There my teacher helped me stir them with other minerals into a glaze, and I painted the mixture onto a slim vase I'd recently sculpted. Today, as I write, the vase sits on a cabinet across from me, its sweeping curves finished in speckled cream.
* * *
I recall this incident with the birch tree as the first time a nonhuman being visited me. But it's probably more accurate to say that it was the first time I was able to receive such a visitor.
In my childhood there was a noticeable lack of mystery, for the sober German American Mennonites to whom I was born valued hard physical work, plain clothes, and above all, plain thoughts. Their sometimes severe practicality fit well in our small town, where cinderblock factories swallowed people into their deafening noise five days and nights a week, lawns were mowed weekly, and shrubs were barbered to smooth green skulls. Surrounding the town, lands that for millennia had harbored a great, deciduous wetland now nourished tidy and well-managed squares of corn and soybeans. European settlers in the nineteenth century had razed more than a thousand square miles of forest and planted drain tiles to take away the water so they could plow and plant their crops, and the flat earth looked now like what it was: a denuded landscape that in summertime was lush and green but in winter appeared exposed, a monochrome gray-brown. The only remnant of the Great Black Swamp of northwest Ohio — that loamy stew of water, trees, meadows, and microorganisms — were tiny stands of woods tilted here and there to the horizon like tombstones to forgotten ancestors.
Throughout the plain-thinking years of my childhood, I sat through endless days of school, bored with lessons yet unable to disappear into fantasy. I couldn't think up stories like other kids did. I didn't know how to make up games. I was sure I had no imagination. Yet pieces of mystery continually stretched toward me. Through the center of town, giant trees arched over Main Street, the tips of their branches touching overhead, and I biked under their bowing limbs, reveling in the green canopy. The town library, just across the street from the elementary school, harbored myriad treasures of words, and, lost in the pages of a book, I discovered worlds undreamed of. Books and trees: these were the mediators of mystery in my childhood, and though as I grew I devoted more time to books than to trees, still my connection to trees remained strong — especially to one tree, the birch in our yard planted five years before my birth.
As a child I loved to stand amid the dangling threads of its branches, next to the slim white-and-black trunk. Its young bark was thin and crinkly as tissue paper and revealed to my toddler fingers the joys of peeling. In junior high, sent to rake the birch tree's generous fall of leaves — tiny crackles of serrated yellow — I would rake and daydream, sometimes arranging the leaves in the rectangles and squares of a floor plan, with windows and doorways laid out as in blueprints. And when I was in high school, the tree, now thirty feet tall, witnessed my longing as I sat beneath it on summer afternoons, immersed in books, reading everything from romance novels to C. S. Lewis. I can't say I shared secrets with the tree, but I did feel different — calmer, a little more confident or clear — after being veiled for a few hours under its leafy fall.
* * *
If books AND trees mediated mystery in my childhood, it's probably no accident that when, as an adult, I became ready again to receive news of a world beyond ordinary logic, books and trees delivered it gently to my awareness. I am tempted to think that it began with a book I was copyediting around the time of the birch tree's visit. It was one of the most beautiful books I'd ever worked on — and one of the shortest, since each left-hand page carried only a sentence or two, with a huge, full-color photo splashed on the right. I found the words soothing, and their sparse scattering was all that I, with my illness-addled brain, could edit at the moment. The photos too felt nourishing, each one a close-up marvel of flower petals and stamens, leaves and bark, each dazzling photograph calling to mind those larger-than-life blooms by Georgia O'Keeffe.
The sentences in the book were written by a woman who said she had cooperated with plant spirits to grow incredible bounty in the Findhorn garden in northern Scotland. I was intrigued; could it be that awareness resided in nonsentient forms of life? On one page was a huge fuchsia beaded with dew, and facing it a thought that the writer and gardener, Dorothy Maclean, had received from fruit trees: "Nothing is worth doing unless it is done with joy; in any action, motives other than love and joy spoil the results. Could you imagine a flower growing as a duty and then sweetening the hearts of its beholders?"
A door inside me opened the moment I read those words. I recognized myself — doing out of duty for most of my life, with far too little sweetness. At the time I could hardly imagine what it was like to do things simply out of love and joy. That day I opened myself to a little more sweetness of heart. Could it be that flowers had their own point of view? Even now, when I gaze at a flower, I recall these words and am brought for a moment into the presence of joy, not just the joy of beholding the flower, the joy moving from me toward it, but the joy present in the flower itself, offered to the world — to me — as a gift.
* * *
My nascent opening to a world beyond ordinary logic was speeding up because of illness, and especially because Western medicine could not relieve my terrible symptoms. Despite weeks of prescriptions ranging from antianxiety meds to antivirals, I could find no easing of muscle aches or calming of a frantically racing mind, no relief from the hours of insomnia every night or the mental fog isolating me by day as if behind a Plexiglas wall, no softening of lymph nodes hard as walnuts, and above all, no reprieve from the crushing fatigue, the feeling of lead weights pressing down on every square inch of my body.
The person I had known as me was dying, her once-defining abilities now fading and disappearing. First to go was music. Before getting sick I'd been a serious classical musician, teaching a few private lessons in both voice and oboe. Now, blowing air through a stiff oboe reed would have been tantamount to bench-pressing three hundred and fifty. My short-term memory eroded to such a degree that at times I lost the ability to read, no longer able to connect words at the top of a page with those at the bottom.
The continuing pain and distress pushed me, in 1990, the first summer of the illness, onto the treatment tables of two alternative practices I wouldn't have dared to try otherwise. Desperate for relief, I walked sluggishly down to the end of my street, where a Chinese doctor, a woman in her forties, practiced acupuncture. As she threaded needles for the first time into the top of my skull, she watched me closely, asking anxiously, "You okay? You all right?" Yes, I was all right, but the way she jabbed the needles in my legs induced electric shocks so strong that my body nearly jumped off the table. (I learned later that she gave one of the strongest treatments in town, twirling needles to an extent considered unmerciful by others.) When she took the needles out, I was unimpressed with the results of the treatment — until I walked slowly back up the street and noticed, for the first time in months, that leaves on trees were actually green and alive. The Plexiglas wall had vanished! For a few precious hours I remembered what it was like to think more clearly and feel like myself again. Within hours the wall rematerialized, but there had been no doubt: behind the veil of fog, a person with abilities I used to have was still there, waiting. I was intrigued; could it be that acupuncture, in treating the body, also treated the mind?
In addition to acupuncture, I was regularly visiting the tiny meditation room of a church across the bay where a woman of sixty with clear, bright eyes and a wry, bemused smile offered spiritual healing. As I lay on a massage table listening to a recording of Tibetan bowls being struck like gongs, their wash of echoes bathing the room, she would circle the table reverently, placing her hands on my head or legs and sometimes sweeping the air over my body with her palms. During those treatments I would contact a well of calm that most other days was unavailable. The healer seemed able to see trouble or distress in the organs of my body, and from time to time she would place her hands on my abdomen and grow more deeply quiet, as if listening. "They all like to do their jobs well," she said. Who knew that organs had a point of view?
* * *
By the time I resorted to alternative medicines, I had been a feminist for at least a decade and a spiritual seeker for what seemed like forever. But now I was forced to practice both feminism and spirituality with a level of commitment undreamed of in earlier years. Fortunately, this was not hard, at least not philosophically; illness was showing them to be not two separate paths but one. The courage I'd gained from feminism — risking trust in my deepest inclinations — seemed no longer just a path toward healing; it was apparently the only path. The severe necessity of illness was forcing me to pay attention to the effect of every activity or emotion or interaction on well-being — to listen to my body not just in a vague or general way but with unwavering attention.
I began testing all decisions — even mundane ones, like which herb tea to drink for breakfast — on a scale of breath and muscle and heartbeat. An internal yes or no would arise in a feeling of lightness or heaviness; things tending toward heaviness, I learned, sent me deeper into illness. If people or activities depleted my energy without replenishing it, I had to limit my time with them, no matter how long I'd known them or how deeply I cared for them. I was subordinating all of life, not to a scripture or to a spiritual teacher, but to my own health. It was a fierce feminist practice of honoring a woman's body and a woman's needs — the woman in this case being me.
Words of poet Audre Lorde had long graced my desk: "Out of my flesh that hungers / and my mouth that knows / comes the shape I am seeking / for reason." These lines came from a love poem, yet they seemed to illuminate illness as well. I was learning another side of the erotic — flesh hungering for health — and this hunger too, it seemed, could define a new way of being in the world.
It felt scandalous, this commitment to putting the body's needs first. By that time in grad school, I'd studied the history of Western Christianity, which was marked by a deep suspicion, sometimes hatred, of the body. The ascetics of the fourth and fifth centuries had fled a disintegrating Roman Empire by moving out of their towns and villages and into the desert, renouncing sex and marriage to take up spiritual contemplation; by medieval times the truly devout controlled their bodies by controlling their food intake. In these and many other ways Christian history spoke again and again of the body and its urges as a problem to be remedied — by fasting, by abstinence, by renouncing physical pleasures of all sorts.
Not just the body but the whole self was to be denied in many versions of piety surviving down to our time. As a child in Sunday school, I'd been taught a little song to the tune of "Jingle Bells" about the proper order of things: "JO-Y, J-O-Y, this must surely be: Jesus first and Yourself last and Others in betwee-een; J-O-Y, J-O-Y, this must surely be: Jesus first and Yourself last and Others in between!" The song echoed millennia of Christian teachings about finding heaven by denying the self.
Now chronically ill, I had to practice the opposite, renouncing not the self or the body but the kind of religiosity that labeled self-care as selfishness. Audre Lorde, battling cancer, had said, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation," adding bluntly, as a black lesbian feminist, "and that is an act of political warfare." Healing from illness, I was finding, required spiritual insurrection as well.
* * *
Not that caring for the self is any easier when ill; it may in fact be harder just because living with illness is, by definition, harder. But, reduced to discomfort or pain, one is likely to seize more quickly on anything that can possibly lend relief. And so, robbed of the ability to do things that had previously defined me, I resorted to doing the few activities that were still available and seemed to help. Chief among them was resting.
I'd already spent a decade practicing a relaxation exercise learned just after college in a yoga class. At the end of each class the teacher led us in a ritual, relaxing each part of our bodies as we lay on our backs, inert on our mats. I didn't know that this relaxation exercise was the yoga pose called shavasana, or corpse pose; all I knew was that when weakened limbs ached and mind raced uncontrollably toward destinations legs could not travel to, doing this relaxation exercise brought mind and body a bit closer together. A state of relaxation was harder to find than when I'd been well — god, was it harder! — for lying still was nearly impossible with muscles and mind made twitchy by illness, but if I could manage even a few moments of utter stillness, the achiness subsided ever so slightly and agitation eased. This was enough to keep me at it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kissed by a Fox"
Copyright © 2012 Priscilla Stuckey.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: Bald Eagle,
1: Cut-Leaf Weeping Birch,
2: Hooded Oriole,
3: Wild Orphans,
4: Red Foxes,
5: Stories We Live By,
8: Peralta Creek,