Whatever the price, it was too high.
There are only a few of the ancient kauri giants left standing and these – too little, too late – are protected and preserved with the fervor of the fanatical convert to a new faith. You aren’t supposed to go anywhere near them – because it is possible for human clodhoppers to transfer fungus to the tree roots. You certainly aren’t supposed to touch them.
But that was hard on me, that separation. Because, you see, I am a Speaker to Trees. If I touch a tree I can hear it breathing. And big trees, old trees, they have stories which move slowly through their bark and their heartwood together with the nutrients and the water and all the other things that keep them alive. It takes just a touch – a laying of my hand, open-palmed, on the tree trunk – for me to be able to listen to these slow-told tales which rustle in the leaves and the needles and grow, ever so slowly, built into the rings of the tree as it adds them year by year, decade after decade… century after century.
The first time I saw a kauri tree, I just stared, open-mouthed. My eyes went up and up and up and still there was no end to the thing that stabbed the sky.
But that was one tree – that was Tane Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest, standing there set apart and alone and bitterly lonely, the last remnant of a leafy woody tribe that once teemed around his gnarled knees. The forest-that-was no longer exists, not outside those tree-tales caught in the sap of the old monarch, and I was not really permitted to touch and listen and hear (and I certainly did not wish for my OWN feet to carry that dreadful fungus anywhere near that magnificent specimen).
At this time in my life, I had never seen, outside photos and movies, the redwoods of North America – the places where giants like Tane Mahuta still lived in forests, where the big trees ruled the world.
That changed in 2008 when we drove up the California coast from San Francisco to Oregon, passing through redwood country on our way.
And I passed through the Veil, again.
There was a tree there which had burned out from the inside, completely, with the innards of the thing (its ENTIRE heartwood) burned away into a massive room-sized hollow – you could enter this through a door (a DOOR! In a TREE!) and if you looked up from the center of this inside space, you could see the sky through the branches at the top of the tree. This happened back in the early 1900’s. A CENTURY AGO. And yet here it stood, the tree, its heart gone for a hundred years, living, thriving, green, obstinately refusing to surrender its existence.
There was a tree that was named The Immortal Tree. It had little icons on its massive trunk showing where God and Man had sought to end it – an image of an axe, next to an almost invisible hollow on the tree trunk, where once somebody tried to hack it down; a fish tacked on to the place where the waters reached at a high-water mark during a particularly devastating flood (well over my head). A sign said that the thing had lost almost 100 feet off the top of the tree after not one but TWO lightning strikes. And yet here it stood, living, thriving, green, obstinately refusing to surrender its existence, laughing into the face of Destiny.
I walked through the cathedrals of the redwood groves, laying hands on the massive trunks, closing my eyes, listening. Somewhere above my head the ancient trees talked to each other of the years and centuries gone by, remembering eras when sailing ships still plied the seas armed with masts hewn from the redwoods’ kauri brothers from across the ocean, remembering kings and emperors and great beauties who have been dust and ashes for a thousand years, remembering battles that mowed down men and generations – while here, in the quiet woods filled with tree dreams, they stood, and grew, and lived, and endured.
I cannot tell you all the stories. There were many, and they were overlapping, and they were overwhelming. Walk in the shadow of the redwoods, and you walk beyond the Veil, in their world, not your own. At one of the “drive through” trees, big enough so that you could drive a car through it like a tunnel, a little doggerel poem was tacked up beside the parking lot. Most of it was trite, like one would expect anything wrought in human language to be when applied to these trees, because they transcend the human language into which poets try to force them in the same way as no photo can truly do a redwood justice (they just don’t FIT into our puny parameters). But those last two lines – they actually made a valiant attempt of trying to catch the meaning of it all.
“Sink down, oh Traveller, on your knees.
God stands before you in these trees.”
I walked – but I’m a Tree Whisperer. It’s on your knees, with your eyes travelling up these massive trees until you think you might be able to catch a glimpse of Heaven caught in the branches at the very tops of them, that you suddenly see beyond the Veil.
There are creatures out there which are beyond our knowledge and our understanding. Sometimes we can touch an image or a word, we can catch a shiny glimmer of some larger truth stirring there behind the Veil.
But you have to be quiet.
And you have to be reverent.
And you have to be very very lucky.