Chapter Thirteen: Natural Resources
I had them, even though it took me a minute to recognize it.
In my first couple weeks in the mill house, I did what I could to establish a routine. Wake up, spend 45 minutes trying to light a fire, spend another 20 writing panicky, woe-is-me bullshit into a Microsoft Word document, and then another ten trying to properly balance my laptop on top of a briefcase on top of a mattress so I could do yoga in the narrow space between the twin beds downstairs. I was physically exhausted, so I welcomed the extended breaks in the 45 minute routines that came from the internet sputtering out. I had moved onto a more rigorous YouTube yoga dude, who made me feel that I might slowly be starting to rebuild something other than muscle and lung capacity. But I didn’t need to overdo it.
Lunch came next. We were undergoing a second soft lockdown which meant restaurants were verboten, so the meal produced from the Harry Potter hot plate under the stairs became the highlight of my day. Because the divorced dad 20cm cocotte miraculously fit in the toaster oven, I did a lot of chicken legs floating on random cut up veg—chunks of zucchini and whole lemon with dill, or minced potatoes and carrots. A lot of omelets. A lot of reheating of these samosas I got from the supermarket that turned out to be delicious, if nothing like the Indian food I was used to eating in LA. (These were Antilles-style. LA, where I grew up and learned how to eat, is light on Antilles food, which is too bad, since I have come to love it.) The tiny kitchen table had become kitchen equipment storage, so I’d eat at my tiny desk in the twin bed room. These not-terribly-indulgent moments were nonetheless comforting, as they were a welcome distraction from what had become dour, aimless monotony.
Fifi and Samira would knock daily, with some little idea of something nice to do: there’s a good organic bread guy in the next village over; there’s a concert of Kurdish music in the big village 20 minutes away. I wanted none of it. It wasn’t her fault that her visits made me feel like Nosferatu facing down the sun. Every now and again Freddy wandered into the kitchen to hiss at Fifi, and I silently thanked him for saying what I could not.
Then one day as I was fake-smiling and standing up from my chair to signal that I was done chatting after five grueling minutes, she reminded me that there was a lot of forest behind the house. Since the shitty internet made it impossible to mooch around reading about the perilously close makeup of the US Senate, or whatever, after the door closed behind her, I pulled on my rubber boots and a parka and said, OK, Come on. Get on with it. Isn’t this partly why you chose this place? Is giving into torpor helping?
The trail started near Claude’s barn, and it was well marked, if squishy with mud. The sucking sound on my inappropriate boots—all I had were flat boat ones from Aigle, without the tread you get from a wellie—made me feel like a kid again. I could squish my foot in as deep as it could go, because I trusted the rubber. I liked the feeling of resistance I got trying to pull them out again. Squish, whish, plonk, squish, whish, plonk, along I went deeper into the woods. From what I could tell it was mostly birch trees that lined the path, on a treeline that started a few feet above foot level. They hadn’t grown their leaves back yet, but their trunks were covered with the same moss that the sides of the path were, making for a kind of wall-to-wall carpet vibe. It looked slimy. I started looking around for a tree to talk to.
OK let’s back up a minute. I established my somewhat unique relationship to trees decades ago. It came after an uncanny experience while I was in college. Insufferably cocksure undergraduate Marxist that I was, I wasn’t looking for some kind of ESP moment, but I was visiting a friend whose landlord was pulling up a smallish jacaranda that was likely too close to the house, and when the tree was finally uprooted, the feeling in the air was like a slap across the face. It was a silent scream and it hit me like a strong wave. “I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices…” Except no, really, I did.
Some years later, when I finally understood that my long grey spells were a thing called depression, and that maybe I should actively try to do something about it, I started seeking comfort any way I could. This included medicine and a shrink and also an effort to have felt experiences that went beyond the Cartesian. I had been down that road once before, in my early 20s, during a neurotic detour into New Ageness when trying to repair my relationship with my very New Age father. This wasn’t that. But the impulse was related: I needed some sense of something bigger than me and sort of unexplainable to make life interesting enough to engage with. Something magical and outside the norm.
Thus emerged the practice, sometime in my 30s, of leaning up against tree trunks and asking them for a chat. I did this when I wanted a shot of the beyond, or needed to clear out internal static, or just felt shitty and stuck. What would come back was never linear, but it was always palpable. Sometimes it was appreciation, like getting a big hug as moving and comforting as one from your actual mother. Sometimes after a few minutes of silence, a profoundish thought would just pop into my head out of nowhere, usually about some kind of self-acceptance or another. Sometimes it felt like the tree was actively interested in me, so I’d just sort of sit there with it and let it check me out. There is definitely something that animates a tree, and it is not a judging something. That’s what humans do.
Anyway it took me almost two weeks of being surrounded by trees in the mill house to go chat with one, thanks to Samira, but anyone who has suffered depression knows it is like wearing blinders, and you forget your normal resources. The day I finally squish-whish-plonked along, I put out the request to the trees around me that if there was one in particular with something to offer, please make itself known. This was my established habit of selection: the tree “making itself known” meant I’d randomly find something especially aesthetically pleasing or comfortable-looking about a postulant. I chalked it up to the tree itself raising its energetic hand. You can laugh at this if you want, it is objectively ridiculous, though for me, it works.
I climbed up the side of the path to nestle myself into a crook of a more ample one, possibly an oak. It turned out the moss wasn’t slimy, it was fibrous and springy, sort of like the fur of a teddy bear. It felt clean. I leaned back and the minute I connected with the trunk I felt a kind of explosion go off inside of me. I closed my eyes and it had colors: red, bright yellow, bright green. I started to cry. A lot. For a long time.
I had already done plenty of crying, I was getting incredibly sick of it, it didn’t seem like it was getting me anywhere. Sure, it was a natural response to feeling lost, directionless, old, tired, in the dark, lonely and impatient to get my house and start actually living, whatever that meant. But I have this annoying quality of wanting difficult things to get me somewhere, to be evidently worth the suffering, to be leading to a new chapter, to always make sense.
This tree didn’t promise me it would soon come to an end. It didn’t reassure me that it would all be for the best. It just pushed me deeper into the abyss of my own very bad present feeling to such a profound degree that I imagined it was telling me to stop trying to turn this into something. Stop thinking about how it will end and just be here for as long as it takes. Because it came from the tree—I mean it probably came from me, but that would be harder to listen to—I said OK. I think I stayed out there a good half an hour.
When I got back to the house, I saw that Claude had delivered a wheelbarrow full of firewood and a stack of newspapers, so I went in and made a fire. I realized I was starting to get the hang of it.