Feeling the strength of a Pin Oak in my backyard, Ridgefield, Washington. Photo: Brian Tissot.

… time is a fire in which we burn

Dr. Tolian Soran (Star Trek Generations)

I can still feel its strength and remember its message. For although I have no photos, it is etched in my mind. I recall the coolness of its shade, the sound of the wind blowing through its scaly leaves, the sweet smell on the wind, the sound of running water below. Although it was one tree among many, it caught my attention and for ten years of my life, I took the time to visit and listen to its song.

For if time truly is the fire in which our lives burn, shouldn’t we slow life down? Isn’t it prudent to seek solace as the seconds’ tick by? Most of us, myself included, are content to pack our daily lives full of activity. Rushing hither and yon chasing a dream that is perpetually beyond our grasp. After all, there’s so much to do in the world, so much to see, so much to accomplish, so who has time to be idle? But then, what are we missing as life rushes by?

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Coastal cedar trees on the Oregon coast. Photo: Stephen Grace.

I don’t know. But one of those things is the song of the trees. For they live in a different world, a world where time, at least from our perspective, is slow and endless. Where seasons roll by like days, decades like weeks, centuries like years. Where life is measured in millennia. But if you take the time to stop, to truly quiet your mind and listen, you will hear the trees. And their wisdom is profound.

Coastal cedars. photo: unknown.

I have heard many trees in my life: a pin oak in our backyard in Washington, a wounded fir tree on the Olympic coast, and the sound of Hemlock forests screaming in the winds of the high Cascades. But the one that is imprinted on my mind was a magnificent red cedar in a stream bed on our property in Ridgefield, Washington. When we moved there in 1998, I simply saw it as one tree among many in a small forest. But I had missed its beauty.

During that time in my life (my 40s), I was undergoing profound personal change and questioning my life. Who am I? Where am I going? What am I here for? This is the middle passage in life that many men (and woman) traverse in their lives. A frightening time of painful reflection of the past but with an opportunity to grow into something new, something more meaningful. During those years I faced the storm inside and the search for balance. I quickly discovered I was not alone and a good friend suggested a men’s weekend retreat with the Mankind Project. I hemmed and hawed, afraid of what I might discover about myself, but in November 1999 I went and my life was changed, forever.

Circle of men. Photo: Craig White.

I learned that like most men, I held deep wounds from my past experiences. Although the physical and emotional pain was gone, the trauma lived within my head and was reflected in actions in my life. I learned that weekend that I could move past those issues, but not by myself; I  needed help. For one cannot see their own shadow. So with the help of a trusting, powerful circle of new brothers, all wounded in different ways, I faced my deepest fears. It was a terrifying moment, but when it was over I had a new awareness of who I was and increased sensitivities to those around me. The world was different and I left with a deep connection to the gifts I could bring to myself, my family, my friends, and the world. If a person can truly be reborn in life, I was.

Then, years later, I revisited the tree and sought its message.  I sat patiently underneath, touching its trunk, asking for direction. Then I looked up and I saw what I had missed. For the tall, old tree was growing on the shifting slope of a stream bed and the ground had shifted, and its massive trunk had fallen over. Instead of lying dead in the stream, it fell against another cedar tree, which supported it with its own strength. At that point the two trees grew together; the wounded tree’s angular trunk was straight and tall and reached high into the canopy — its bulk held up by its neighbor.  The message was clear: with the support of its brother, the tree lived to reach the sky and join the other trees with its top swaying magnificently in the wind in the riparian forest.

The tree made me think of my weekend retreat and the brothers who had supported me and how I had supported them; the trees were mirroring that. Touching the trunk and waiting, I heard a slow song of joy; the happiness of being one with the forest, the pleasure of its gentle swaying in the wind under the sun, the comfort of sweet water pouring over its roots. The delight at being alive. Then I realized that was how I felt. Content, whole, joyful. With other men’s help, I had pulled the deep shadows in my life into the light. And it helped me to realize how glorious life was, that there was so much to do, and I had so much to offer. I was happy, just like the tree.

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Cedar leaves. Photo:

Later, when I served as staff on other men’s weekend — with the tree’s permission — I carried some leaves and placed them in the Talisman’s of newly initiated men; a pouch we carry to remind us of our transformative times. The fragrant leaves joined objects placed by other men: a salmon bone for strength; black and white rocks for men’s shadow and gold; Sage for cleansing. I asked the native American staff member making the pouches if I could include the cedar leaves from my tree. Upon discovery of what they were, he smiled: cedar was an important tree in his culture and was used for healing. A shiver ran down my spine as I realized that indeed, it had helped me heal. And now, I hoped, it would help the 30 men that carried those leaves away that weekend close to their hearts to heal as well; to move on with their lives. At that moment, part of my life’s circle felt complete and I felt a new phase of awareness and mission. And through that, a willingness to help others heal.


Now I make time to listen to the trees and seek to understand their songs and their wisdom. But in my efforts I’ve discovered that trees are not the only things that sing; indeed, all living things do. If you really listen you can even hear the planet sing, as it does every day: the waves, the wind, the soil, the very earth. And although I don’t know the words of the song, the music is magnificent.

Further reading:

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