'What We See Isn’t All There Is,' watercolor and pastel painting by Carolyn Newberger

Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 20: What we see isn’t all there is

If I didn’t observe with my own eyes the two trees solidly arising above, I would perceive the roots as a single organism of braiding parts.

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

Nov. 12, 2019

Deep in the woods, after pushing and whacking my way through prickly brush, swamp and brambles, I discovered a place where two trees grow at the edge of a deep and steep bank above Yokun Brook. As the water courses merrily through, the trees spill their roots over the edge and onto the rocks below.

The roots tumble and tangle down the bank, twining into each other so that it’s impossible to know where one tree’s roots end and another’s begin. Indeed, in the root world rendered visible on the embankment, they appear unparsable, indivisible.

If I didn’t observe with my own eyes the two trees solidly arising above, I would perceive the roots as a single organism of braiding parts. Could it be that these intertwined roots in the realm of earth, rather than the distinct trunks and branches in the realm of air, reveal the fundamental identity of tree? Leafy boughs create seeds from which separate new tree beings grow, but root parents can also push out new versions of themselves, sprouting tree families from their old stock. This is quite literally a figure-ground issue!

Sitting on my windowsill is a small water glass that contains a jade-plant cutting. This cutting is a second generation from a plant that my mother prized for decades and that I inherited when she could no longer care for it. Years ago, I cut a branch from my mother’s jade plant for my friend Linda to root. Somehow, through the past three years of moving from the city to the Berkshires, I lost track of my mother’s jade. It’s probably now growing in some corner of my daughter’s home, though I don’t exactly remember where it went.

When I visited Linda two weeks ago, there was my mother’s jade descendent, plump and healthy on a sunny table in Linda’s living room. “Would you like a cutting of your mother’s jade?” Linda asked.

I felt as though I were bringing home a piece of my mother, its cut end carefully wrapped in damp paper towel and Saran Wrap. I check it every day to see if there are the beginnings of new roots — not yet, but I know they will appear.

Back on the brook edge, the roots are so entangled that I get lost in them, more complicated than my searching eye can follow. I try mightily to unravel the strands, but the under-tree universe has its own language and its own logic Or perhaps its logic is in the power of its life force, seen and unseen, and the imperative of expediency and opportunity.

Where the earth is soft, a root can burrow. Where the root encounters a stone, it goes under, over or around. Root ends encounter other root ends. They touch and separate, touch and separate. Perhaps they merge as they continue their journey into the moist earth.