For a few weeks now, I have allowed England to permeate me with tea, pastures and moorland, hedgerows, clotted cream, thatched roofs, and an eery presence of humanness in all things.
On the north of the Old Postern building, where I am situated, is Northwood. Most of Northwood is a lumber plantation owned by Dartington Hall Trust, the same organization who hosts Schumacher College. Ancient walls mounded over with earth and moss stretch out like spines of fallen giants all through the trees. Some are tall, hunting walls that once enclosed the wild stags that knights hunted in my childhood imagination.
Dartington Hall itself has experienced the better part of a millennium. It was expanded out from the yet more ancient Dartington Manor by John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter. Holland was eventually beheaded for the "Epiphany Rising" conspiracy to assassinate King Henry and return the imprisoned ex-king Richard to the throne.
Standing out in Northwood three days after my arrival, I was feeling all of this history, the wind through the cedars, the silence in the wood. There is immense quiet in these woods matched by immense empty space. Nothing but silence grows between the canopy of the tall plantation timber and the thin-skinned ground. The Western Red Cedar imported to England for commerce and, stolen out of context as it were, grow with only partially expressed purpose. Meeting Cedar, who is such a familiar friend from the Pacific Northwest, in this place was like encountering the ashen face of a deceased loved one in the grey world of a dream — there, alive, but removed from the body of the world.
The bark I know of red-orange ochre, sinewy fiber crumbles to pale dust under my fingernails, between my exploring thumb and forefinger. Squirrel, who in the Pacific Northwest uses the bark as the staple material for nesting as we use the lumber for building, do not use the bark of these trees and perhaps cannot. The cedars stand as beings deprived, to a great extent, of the intimate, knowing touch of others. I sink with the feeling that my fingers will not be drawn back to this tree for sensuous pleasure.
A heavy buzz. Bumble. Another. I follow and arrive at a fold in the twisted base of a trunk, one of the wholly familiar expressions of Western Red Cedar that I do recognize here. Bumble Bee lands in one of the deep folds in the twisted wood and moves purposefully into the dark heart cavity of the trunk. A moment later another emerges and buzzes off. Here! In this cedar, Bumble Bee has made a home. This tree is less alone.
A week or so later, with a headache, I go to sit by this cedar, rest my eyes, and listen to the bumbling comings and goings of Bumble Bee. It is early evening. The aching coos of Wood Pigeon resound in the silence between the plantation cedars. A few species of songbird sing their last song of the day in the thickets outside the plantation. For another long while I stare with half-open eyes and wide focus out into the canopy over the thicket. Buzzard wails in the canopy on the edge of the pasture. Every sound is swallowed in the vast empty space beneath Plantation's canopy. Plantation floor beneath me is hard, stripped, cracked with dendritic patterns like shattering glass through the hard mud.
My head turns unexpectedly and my eyes come to focus on Cedar. Straight. Tears come to my eyes and my chest pulls open. In the same moment the image arises in mind of strained faces, strangers' faces, friends', family's, who once smiled open and wide like children, with children, as children, and now can only pull against a strain that is greater in its life than the life of the smiles that still strive to emerge.
Inside the tree whose trunk my back is settled against, I hear the chewing, turning, and churning of bumblebees. I feel the vibration of their movement, but cannot see within. I stand up and stand back to observe the bees' harboring fold in the trunk, the trace of the tree's first life, like a fawn's springing, clumsy grace on fresh legs. The twist of the trunk keeps with the tree into old age and speaks of youth, perhaps, only in the particular reaching of the minds of humans.
All of these cedars once, in their first years, danced. Maybe they danced through young Hazelnut, Hawthorne, and Elderberry, with harsh English winds to which their bodies could not yet brace against and had not yet been subdued by their collective effect as a whole body of trees, as Plantation.
All of these cedars speak to me in the creative folds at the base of their trunks. Bumblebee, traveling wide territory and homing back to this cedar, making a home in this cedar, speaks of the life that life brings when it dances with other beings.
My eyes make the transition from the base up the great burdensome body — straight up, straight up — a dancer, with stiff rods in limbs and spine, held to attention by whom? By its fellow cedars, who by shielding their fellows from the dance of light and wind, who by darkening and deadening the plantation floor, bring straightness to mind and expression. Also by the forest managers, for whom straightness is lumber and by the their managers for whom straightness is simplest control, mechanism of profit. And by those countless persons who do not wander these places, do not meet Bumblebee here, and do not linger long enough for them to chance even a short phrase, nor longer for them to speak.
Bumblebee lives in the slightest lines of an old smiling face, a face who has not smiled in decades of straightness. Innumerable whole worlds live in the deep lines of old faces who never stopped smiling fully or in the old trunks of tree who never stopped dancing. I know this in friends and family and in the dancing cedars of the Pacific Northwest forests, who only through a lifetime of pain and joy and all else in equal measure, smiled and danced the whole way through.
Where and how does the stopping happen? The question lives in the core of my sadness, understanding, and creativity. Cedar did not stop being Cedar. If not in the tree being a tree, then the stopping must be in the relationship between the tree, wind, and other beings. If not in me, then the stopping must be in the relationship between me and straight trees, faces of loved ones who strain more than smile.