My friend Oliver is growing a new head.
His old head died for some reason and I thought he was dead too but now he’s growing a new head and it is an extraordinary thing to see.
I should tell you that Oliver is a tree. A sapling. He’s a baby and he’s already taught me so many profound things.
You probably know about me and trees. In another life I wrote a lot on here about what I’ve learned from talking to and observing trees. They have taught me many lessons that informed my old life and continue to inform my new one. The sharp observer will note that I haven’t posted on here in over three years. I tried to write during the opening phases of the pandemic, but at a certain point anxiety overtook me and I mostly disappeared from public view. I stopped writing. I withdrew from social media. There wasn’t anything I wanted to say.
And so it’s right and natural that I return to the blog today, for one entry at least, to share a tree story.
I named Oliver after a car that Richard Hammond drove on Top Gear. Hamster’s Oliver is a 1963 Opel Kadett A coupe. Mine is an evergreen tree of some sort that is about a foot-and-a-half tall and began its life growing resiliently along the side of my driveway maybe five years ago. Oliver chose a rough spot to grow. Or, in a more stoic sense, chose to grow in the rough spot where he was planted. I watched him for a couple of winters, enduring pummellings of snow from my shovel and my neighbour’s snowblower. Every spring I expected Oliver to be broken and dead, but when the snow melted there he would be, standing up, head unbowed. That was his first lesson to me. He taught me just how resilient a spindly, determined little being could be.
I was impressed with Oliver’s fortitude, so when we tore out and replaced our old asphalt driveway, I decided to save him. I chose a spot in my backyard where he could have space to grow, dug him carefully out of his original home, and replanted him in a space with much more potential.
Little did I know how much I would come to depend on that small gesture of compassion.
The driveway was scheduled to be replaced in June of 2020. A few weeks before that, with the first lockdowns in effect and the George Floyd protests happening down south, the fear and anger in the world hit me, and I had what I will call an anxiety breakdown. Really it was an ego breakdown. I realized I couldn’t control the circumstances around me, which is what the ego so desperately wants to do all the time. The powerlessness shook me. Hard. My body was convinced that my worst fears were happening or imminent. It was the most relentlessly awful feeling I’ve ever experienced and it lingered for a long, long time. (Traces of it linger still.)
Anyway, June came, and I managed to move Oliver to his new home. That’s when he taught me another lesson. As I was digging him out of the ground, it crossed my mind that he might be frightened. I mean, here he was, minding his own business, and then some enormous creature came along and started digging him up. Maybe the move was painful. Maybe he didn’t understand what was happening or why, just like me with my anxiety at the time. And maybe he trembled too as this strange power yanked him from his reality and carried him into the unknown.
I saw myself in Oliver, and I wanted to reassure him that it was okay. I wanted him to know that this strange power was benevolent and compassionate. I wanted to tell him that I was putting him through this because I could see what was best for him; that this disruption wasn’t meant to hurt him, but to save him, and to place him where he could grow.
As I carried him around the house I began to draw parallels to myself and the anxiety. My personal disruption was horrible, but could I see the Universe’s hand in my situation, the way I could see mine in Oliver’s? Could I rely on the benevolence and compassion of a strange power in my own life? I held onto that notion – that faith – for dear life over the weeks that followed. It’s one of the things that helped me survive the anxiety and so dramatically changed my way of being in the world.
Oliver seemed to thrive in his new spot, but I still kept an eye on him. When we got deep snow in the winter I’d go out and unbury him. I watered him in the summer. He was placed among many much older and wiser trees and I imagined they were helping him in their way too. Everybody likes cute kids. I thought all was well until the snow melted this spring and I noticed that Oliver had lost a lot of his needles over the winter. My fat little buddy was suddenly looking very sparse indeed and I was worried that he was rejecting his new home. There had been a lot of rain. His corner was flooded. It looked like he was going to die.
My watch on him became more vigilant. I tried giving him plant food. I searched the internet for a diagnosis. His head – the long and proud tip of his trunk that had withstood so much winter pounding – was completely bald and dry. It was heartbreaking. As the spring progressed his upper branches remained barren and I feared the worst until one day I looked closely and saw tiny new buds appearing on his extremities. He was alive! He was in rough shape, but he was still in there.
He has been budding all summer, but I didn’t see any other sort of growth happening until yesterday, when Oliver taught me yet another powerful lesson. I was cutting the grass around him when I noticed that beside his brown, dry head was rising a new head clustered with green needles. I stared at it with blinking eyes for a few seconds as I realized yet again the deep, irrefutable wisdom of trees. While I was worrying that Oliver was dying, he was merely conserving his energy and patiently preparing to start again. He knew what to do with his wound, and as I sit here writing about it now, I wonder if perhaps I do too.
Maybe the past three years of silence have simply been about gathering the energy to start again. And maybe not. But if Oliver shows me anything, he shows me that it’s possible to recover if you are patient and focused and you trust whatever mysterious thing it is that makes it all happen. That’s what this has all been about for me. That trust. That faith.
If you could use a bit of it too, I suggest you look for it in the trees.