Grief is universal. How we grieve is anything but.
Some of us need to be with people. We want to talk with friends, family or a support group to make sense of the often strong, confusing emotions grief can wield. Others need to be quiet and walk a more solitary path as we grieve. Me? I want to both be quiet and communicate—with trees.
Communing with trees helps me to find solace from the overwhelm of loss and feel connected to something greater. The beauty of the sun sparkling through branches…the soothing whisper of a breeze tickling leaves overhead…the quiet support of a strong, unjudging trunk…and the deep wisdom of how to survive and thrive through years, decades and even centuries of changing seasons seems to seep into my cells and calm my soul.
Imagine, then, how exciting it was to learn the wisdom I—and many others—sense from trees exists in very earthly ways. Research by forest ecologist and professor Suzanne Simard revealed tree roots—and the fungi in the soil all around them—facilitate communication in forest ecosystems. That results in an exchange of carbon, water, nutrients and even defense signals between trees that help each other survive. In 2016, when I watched Simard’s Ted Talk on this topic, I was mesmerized by her findings and struck by how much we can learn from what trees innately know to do.
In 2020, I listened to the audiobook of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory, by Richard Powers. His soul-stirring homage to trees and their plight—told through 12 interconnected human stories, including one loosely based on Simard’s life and research—reminded me again of the wisdom of trees, their healing power and their ability to communicate in unseen ways. And that made me think of another tree close to home that had inspired me across four decades.
A Wise Old Oak
Nearly 40 years ago, I moved to central Illinois, near Peoria, to take a job at a publishing company. Soon after, I learned about Peoria’s Giant Oak Park, home to a majestic burr oak estimated to have taken root around the year 1500. Over the years, I would visit the tree, poised on a bluff overlooking the city. It had grown so large, caregivers had surrounded it with a wrought iron fence for its own protection and only those charged with its care could enter.
I would visualize that enormous tree as a seedling and sapling, when native humans, flora and fauna were the only witnesses as it grew. “What changes must you have seen over all these years?” I’d think. I would imagine resting against one of her welcoming branches that dip to the ground, listening for her wisdom in the cool of a 110-foot canopy.
Over the years that grand tree remained a constant as my life changed. I married, climbed the corporate ladder, received couple of advanced degrees and then (now more than 25 years ago) left the publishing world to start a consulting business. I wanted a slower pace—and to have time for personal passion projects.
The first of those projects was a children’s book that would help prepare kids for loss—before it happens. The story had been percolating a while before it spilled out onto my computer screen. The main characters? Two friends: a young boy and a wise old tree modeled after—you guessed it—the mighty old oak in Peoria’s Giant Oak Park. The boy and Tree, as she’s aptly named, communicate about life events large and small. The boy confides in Tree that his grandfather is dying, which the boy doesn’t understand. Tree helps him understand life’s cycles, sharing that, even though he won’t see his grandfather after he dies, they will still be connected in ways we cannot see.
I loved the story and the sample illustration a gifted artist friend created to send along to potential publishers. But…I never sent them. I told myself the time wasn’t right, but maybe I just lost my nerve. The book and sweet illustration went on a shelf.
Past Becomes Future
And that brings us back to The Overstory, some 20 years after the first draft of that little, abandoned children’s story. As the novel’s last words faded away in my earbuds, I was overcome with emotion…gratitude for trees and all they do for us, sorrow at the plight of so many of our old growth forests and renewed wonder at the interconnection of all things.
In the larger world that day, politics had divided our country and the COVID-19 pandemic was raging. People were dying without their families by their side. Children were losing parents and grandparents with no framework for understanding “death.” I realized if ever there was a time the world—especially young children—needed the healing power of trees and all of nature, it was then. I knew it was time to revisit the story of a deep friendship between a sensitive child and a wise, 500-year-old tree.
My husband and I had recently lost a beloved dog named Lola to a sudden illness. As a kind of living memorial, I reimagined the book a bit. The boy became a girl named Lola, who has a dog named Skye (who looks just like our real-life Skye, who also was missing her “sister” Lola). The story integrated themes of family, friendship, nature and impending loss, and it came to life through new gorgeous illustrations by Missy Shepler, the same friend who had lent her artistic touch all those years ago.
This time, thanks to the now robust world of self-publishing, there was no stopping. Missy and I worked for many months to make the story and illustrations capture all we wanted to convey. Then we self-published Lola and the Tree of Life. After more than two decades, my belief in the power of trees to instill hope and healing had made its way into the world in tangible form.
Connecting with Others
But that’s far from the end of the story. Soon after the book launched, I started to hear from others who shared how trees had helped them find their way through grief after a death, as well as other kinds of loss and trauma.
One woman, who heard an interview in which I shared that the character of Tree was inspired by the burr oak in Giant Oak Park, emailed that she had moved to Peoria 40 years ago (around the same time I had!) and had loved the tree ever since. “How lovely to use its wisdom,” she said. “I can’t wait to read ‘Lola and the Tree of Life’ and share it with my girls (28 & 31) whose dad passed at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s never too late to heal.”
A man wrote, “I have to share my love for trees. My first wife died in 2004 at the age of 62 during a heart procedure. As part of my grieving process, I would go out into our back yard and sit on a log which lay at the base of a 125-year-old oak tree. I would talk to the tree and ask it how it manages to look so magnificent year after year going through the dying and coming-back-to-life stages. I would close my eyes and just sit there. The wind would quietly flow through the leaves of the grand old tree, birds would chirp, and I would get the most warm and comfortable feeling that life would go on and all would be right. I believe that nature gives us the most positive example of dying and rising we will find on this earth. I found a peace and strength from just sitting under my tree.”
He added that the resilience he found beneath that tree helped him re-enter life and eventually remarry. “She has been like a gift from heaven for me and for my children,” he wrote. “Just know, as I read your book, I am reminded of how life is full of surprises, and we will not always know what the outcome will be.”
The Circle of Life
How true. I had no idea how important that giant oak would be to me. Or how writing a children’s book about preparing for loss would help me transmute my own grief into something positive, while connecting me with so many others who feel the same.
If you’re interested in learning more about the healing power of nature and suggestions for experiencing it yourself, please refer to the earlier Remembering a Life blog, Spending Time in Nature Can Help Heal Grief.
How Trees Talk to Each Other , June 2016 TED Talk by Suzanne Simard
The Overstory, by Richard Powers, published in 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company