“Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”
–Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
The legends go that both Buddha and later Isaac Newton were sitting under a tree when they received the world changing insights they are each known for. Siddhartha meditated under the Bodhi tree and became the Buddha. Newton was sitting in his family’s apple orchard when he was “hit” by what would become the laws of gravity and motion that modern science sprang from. Sometimes the story goes that he was actually hit on the head by an apple, which is unlikely. But the apple trees and the fruit he was uninterested in tending were inspiration for the profound math his keen mind hoped to work out.
What most people don’t know about the father of modern science is that he was also an alchemist. So the reductionism we now wrestle with would have been foreign to him in the way we now think of it. Newton’s search for the equations that explained the laws of motion was a deliberate and often literal vision quest to unlock the secrets of how things work in the world. It had very little to do with literal accidents, like an apple happening to fall on his head. For example, he calmly used himself as the subject of experiments that most of us would consider torture in order to learn how the eye sees.
Buddha voluntarily sat in meditation, waiting to have the cause and then answer to the world’s suffering revealed to him. Although he didn’t get hit on the head, prior to his meditation under the Bodhi tree, the story goes that he had an insight when a girl offered him a bowl of rice. In the moment he accepted it, he realized he would not find enlightenment through the extremes of renunciation he had lived for several years. He saw that the path to enlightenment involved following what he called “the Middle Way.” I suppose you could say this insight, which came from the wisdom of taking an uncharacteristic action, was a kind of gentle catalyst that prepared him, as the story goes, for his attainment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree the following dawn. But most of us, myself included, sometimes need an actual knock on the noggin, or its equivalent, to catalyze profound understanding.
This past Mother’s Day, despite the lovely phone call I received from my son, the best present I got was the one that occurred when the shovel I had leaned against the star garden fence slumped to the ground and hit me on the head. As I bent to pat down some sugar snap peas I was planting along the fence. I was so intent on “getting it done” that I didn’t realize I was in fact wiggling the fence with my exertions, and thus destabilizing the shovel, which, in my state of hyperfocus, I had forgotten was there. But its reminder was swift and sure. And it hurt. If there had been a cartoonist present to draw me as I stood up, she would have drawn a circle of stars around my head and put a couple in my eyes.
Accidents have been a regular occurrence in my life as early as I can remember. I was often seated on the closed toilet seat lid while my mother administered the orange stain of mecurachrome on my constantly scraped knees. At age 13 I famously ripped my paisley bell bottom pants from side seam to side seam across my rear end at a rolling skating party as I negotiated the rink, drunk on adrenaline that rendered me unafraid to fall, and get up again, and fall again. Delirious I could roller skate at all, I was undeterred by the embarrassment, and laughed it off. I skated the rest of the party with a sweater wrapped around my waist. The next year I felt honored when I was voted “most accident prone” in my graduating class. It meant more to me than “friendliest” or “smartest” or “most likable,” because it meant I was not afraid to try things that were difficult for me because of the CP. I wanted to be able to push through. Most of the time, I wore my crashes, bumps, bruises and scrapes like badges of honor.
But the crack on the head from the wooden shovel handle was an annoyance. I wanted to finish planting the purple cabbage starts. Nevertheless, I knew the routine protocol I had to follow. So I went into the house, took some homeopathic arnica and a little rescue remedy, and grabbed a small bag of frozen corn kernels and wrapped it in a towel. Then I headed back out to the garden and finished planting the remaining cabbage starts, patting dirt down with one hand, and “icing” my head with frozen corn in the other.
After that I knew I probably ought to lay down, but I didn’t want to go inside. So I plopped myself down under the pear tree, where one of the cascading branches, leafed out and full of blossoms turning to the tiny beginnings of pears would block a direct hit from the early afternoon sun.
I’ve had this pear tree nearly as long as I’ve had the diagnosis of MS. I bought it in the Spring of 1996 and the diagnosis came just months before that in Winter. But in all the time I’ve had this tree, I’ve never taken the time to lay under it and look up into it like I did on Mother’s Day. Perhaps one of the reasons why is that in the beginning, of course, it was small. I initially tried to train it along the fence espalier style, but that became too hard for me to do, so it grew partly like that and partly out into the yard in a sort of crazy leaning shape. Early last Spring my friend Clark pruned it, saying if he took off some of the branches shooting straight up it would make more fruit. In that process he also gave it a beautiful umbrella shape. In blossom, it looks as if someone leaned a parasol against the fence made of white flowers and vibrant green leaves.
So I crawled under it and collapsed, trying to get the cold bag of corn on just the right spot. It was a gorgeous place to recuperate. Romeo instantly joined me, nestling up against my side, offering his own special brand of first aid. I’d admired the tree’s shape last season and this one too, but I never thought to sit or lie under it until the shovel knocked the sense into me that I needed to lay myself down, and I found myself looking up into it. So I’d never experienced it as a place. But that’s exactly what it is. As I looked up into the branches, and the pattern of growth backlit by sunlight muted in clouds and breeze, I saw all the stages of growth in progress. The unmowed grass on my “to do” list, full of dandelions going to seed, was a soft place to relax. I decided to just stay there until I felt like getting up, instead of pushing myself to go make lunch once my head was numb from the cold pack. I just let the schedule go, and suspended myself in green, sunlight and clouds, with my dog breathing next to me, ribs to ribs.
The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of life and death transitions happening all around me, amidst my own new adventures. Someone speeded up the film without telling me and I was running to catch up with the plot of the movie it felt like my life had become. Some sad things, some happy, but all of it beautiful and meaningful and not to be missed. Yet there were not enough hours in the day. When there’s that much profound stimulation, it isn’t easy for my nervous system to slow down and stop. Even when I do, it often keeps going, and how to get it to know we are not running to catch up anymore can remain elusive.
Being under a tree is not like lying down on the couch. Everything around me was alive, was moving. Although this might seem counterintuitive, it was this movement that relaxed my nervous system. I didn’t know that was happening while it was happening. I was involved with the beauty of the pears forming, the sun moving in and out of clouds, Romeo’s breathing against my side, even the cool tickle of the grass on my bare feet. And my body slowly relaxing against the earth under the grass. I saw my tree. Not as a pruning job, or a source of fruit, or even fragrance, or something that needs to be watered or tended, or kept from getting too tangled up it the clothesline, or even the literary reference one of my professor friends says it is to the pear tree in Zora Neal Hurston’s wonderful novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Instead it I saw it as a living being in process, welcoming me to a real place to rest and regroup in the bargain.
I have long thought trees superior in intelligence to humans. They know how to ground. They know how to breathe. They know how to follow light. What else is there? The network of bare branches in the giant trees in my neighborhood remind me of the complexity of my own respiratory system, and in the years I was quite ill and struggled for breath at times, I would take myself down the walk under them and trust their natural ability to remind me of my own.
So nearly an hour later, when I sat up and looked around, I had become a different person. I was not the person who was running behind schedule, wondering how in the world I’d get even one thing done I had hoped to do because other equally compelling and necessary encounters had pre-empted those plans before I had to make lunch and take a nap. By laying down under the tree to rest my hurt head I had removed myself from the dictates of my routine and found that it was arbitrary. I could take a nap or a rest for an hour before I made lunch. I just had. Instead of losing time, I had gained something back that allowed me to be in the moment. My head no longer hurt. As we went into the house and I began my lunch preparations, I noticed the woman who’s head had been swimming with what ifs and I must get this done now had simply gone quiet. Instead I was at the cutting board without a deadline. I was simply making lunch in the moment. And that turned out to be the best present the day could have possibly handed me, even if I had to get hit on the head to receive it.
Newton wasn’t “supposed’ to be sitting under those apple trees attempting to discover the laws of gravity. If I am remembering my reading about his life in James Gleick’s stunning biography Isaac Newton correctly, at one point his mother had plans for him to be a gentleman farmer, and wanted his attention riveted to the land and the trees from that perspective. In her view, his calculations about how apples fall were nothing.
Though my own concerns were far more humble and less abstract than either Newton’s or the Buddha’s, from the point of view of my attachment to them, I wasn’t “supposed” to be lying under my pear tree simply looking up into it and feeling grateful. I came to that position fervently questioning whether there was somewhere else I should be, and if so, what plans needed to be made to start moving me in the desired direction. When I got up from my rest under the tree, that urgency was gone, and I was present in the moment again. Did the shovel knock it out of me? Did some angel (or pixie) come and give it just a little push, to help bring me back to myself and my magical garden? Or was it the tree simply being that helped me back to myself?
It wasn’t enlightment with a big E, but it was healing to be wiped clean of the questioning and yearning about where to be, and when. Where to be is always where I am in the moment. It’s that simple. And sometimes, if only for a moment, I know that sweet nothing, is indeed sweet, and not the kind of nothing that needs to be filled. It’s one of those mysteries I’m grateful to live even for an instant before my mind darts away after the next thing. And it’s always there waiting for me under a tree.