'Mother Tree,' 2018. Watercolor and pastel by Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 18: Mother Tree, now and forever

Right there, under scampering Lily and under me, is a world that I can only imagine, a city under a hill, the brain center of a family of trees.

To read the previous installments of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.

July 15, 2018

Last spring, when I started this journey into the forest with Lily, I was propelled by discovery, specifically the discovery of a fat, glistening morel mushroom. This was a forest prize. Perhaps it even hinted at admiration-worthy mycological expertise gleaned through mushroom-book scholarship and keen eyes.

The forest seemed far removed from the city life I had left, with its deadlines and grant proposals. In that life, these efforts were in the service of the future: of improving human lives, of increasing future knowledge, and of professional advancement. Yet when I found that first morel, it seems that I brought that perspective into the forest with me.

I wanted to find more. I wanted to become an outstanding morel collector, and a chef who brought this rare and prized vegetable to the dinner table for everyone to savor and admire.

But as time has gone on, something unexpected is happening. The forest keeps throwing me surprises: a papoose on my mother’s birthday; embracing pines; large trees growing from rock ledges; the back haunch of a deer.

On this day I’ve come back to the forest to check on some oyster mushrooms that I had seen the day before. They were encircling a tree stump on an embankment too steep for me to climb down. Returning with Lily’s 15-foot leash, I rappelled myself down from a tree above and then hauled myself back up, oysters securely in my bag.

As I turned back to the forest, I realized that I had no further agenda, no particular route to take, just an urge to keep going and to discover whatever lay ahead on this particular morning in July. I was shifting from future tense to present tense.

I follow after Lily, who is darting after rustles in the leaves and leaping on downed tree trunks in pursuit of whatever her ears, nose and eyes tell her must be there. Lily is all present tense. She doesn’t miss a crackle or a scent, abandoning each fruitless pursuit with renewed high excitement as she begins another. In contrast, if my mind is on the grocery list or my Facebook page or this or that task I need to do, I miss just about everything. On this day, though, I feel fully there, as though the forest has seeped in and taken over.

Lily has leapt on a fallen tree trunk, come to rest in the crotch between two old ash trees, one so fissured and broad that she must have been there for centuries. Following Lily as she leaps, I see her: the Mother Tree.

According to Peter Wohlleben (“The Hidden Life of Trees,” 2015), trees live in families. Well, here she is, the great-great grandmother whose seed somewhere back in time landed in this very place and grew, and delivered more seeds, and searched underground for her children’s roots and her grandchildren’s roots to hold, nourish and protect. Right there, under scampering Lily and under me, is a world that I can only imagine, a city under a hill, the brain center of a family of trees.

I hug the mother tree, but my arms only encircle a small part of her girth. Her fissures are as deep as my hand. In places the bark is missing. She’s covered with scaly scars. I see paper-thin layers of cambium like a wasp’s nest, desiccated with age. Her branches are as thick as tree trunks.

In this moment with the mother tree, I think of my own grandchildren. They are new roots reaching out into the world. Yet underground we touch.