Island Blog – The Understory

It snowed this morning, the real stuff that floats like duck down to land, and to stand. The depth of it wasn’t much, just an inch or two, but it did coat the shrubs, the daffodils, my mini and the bird table until the outside of things told a fairy tale. I can be whomsoever I like and whenever I like, the outside of things seemed to be saying and hearing it made me smile. A couple of hours later as the sun built into a fireball and the goose grey clouds parted to form big puffs of cotton wool in the blue blue sky, the outside of things changed completely.

I walk towards the sea along the road well travelled, past the elvish woods and on. I dither for a minute. Shall I enter the elvish woods today? I decide no. From where I stand, walk, the abundance of moss seems emerald denser and more coverate than just yesterday. I shall watch it as it passes me by, notice the way it clumps like fists to the drystone, the thick tree trunks, even that fence post, turning the whole wood an eerie green. I also know there may well be a tawny owl nest under construction in there somewhere and I am the last woman standing who would ever intentionally disturb such a critical process. I hear the owls at night, the twit and answering twoo. The cries both disturb and smile me. Life, after all, is so very precious whether you are a woman who wants to continue sleeping or a nocturn who does not.

The sea is a milky turquoise with choirboy ruffles, wind over tide, and this wind is razor sharp, straight from the very north of Siberia. Such a contrast between the front of me, face scoured as if by wire wool, and the back schmoozed into believing that Spring is really here now. Buds burst into life overhead, all around me as I walk. Lady Larch swings her greening skirts at me and the mighty horse chestnut is opening her leaves to the light. It may be freezing cold but these beings of nature know a thing or two about when it is safe to show themselves vulnerable. Perhaps they take risks. Shall we? Shall I? What do you think? Yeah, come on, let’s risk it friend. The way this planet is going, what do we have to lose? And so, they open their arms in welcome as I welcome their courage and strength and persistence. I could never be a tree. All that repetition, predictability and the same uniform every year. Oh no, indeed. But the funny thing is that even as they ‘same up’ every year, they always appear fresh and new. They are the overstory, as is the colour of the sea, the tension in the wind, the way the wee burn turns into a furious teenager after heavy rain or the return of the siskin. All of this is what I can see and, if paying attention, notice and appreciate. But what of that which lies beneath, the out of sight parts of everything, of everyone? I see what I see, I assess, judge, explain and tidy away. There, that’s sorted! But no, it is far from sorted, doesn’t ask to be sorted, doesn’t need to be sorted. It thinks me.

On days or at times when I feel I am not enough for this life, this new one, the one ‘without’ himself, you would never know. I show you the overstory, the one rehearsed and practised a zillion times over. I am fine. I am good. I’m doing really well. My overstory. But beneath that tippytoed breathless exuberant response I am a lump of dough, dense, greying and with no chance of a rise. Just feeling this way is both understandable and lazy. If I allow these feelings to develop more strength I am choosing to do so. After all, I am in control of what happens with my feelings, am I not? They may fall like sudden snow in my heart, but I can be the sun that melts them or I can allow them precipitation and gravitas. It is my choice. One method is to pretend they aren’t there, the snow feelings. I can feel them, allocate them the best room in the house and choose to present a contrasting overstory. I can tear open my breast and display them to the world thus halting all conversational flow, or I can stand at the door and refuse them entry. Why would I ask them in, let them stay, anyway? I can invite any guest I choose. I can smile a welcome to the best dinner guests, the fun people, the ones I trust and admire for their characters, their way of really living their lives. And I can do the same with feelings.

We all have times when a sudden knock at the door causes heart flutter. Who might this be? A welcome face or one I really don’t ever want to see again, let alone now, at this hour of the day or night? It takes balls to turn someone away and I am far too well brought up to be rude to anyone even if this is precisely what they deserve and always have. It is the same with feelings. They just come and oftentimes at the most inconvenient moment. We are unprepared, make up half applied, grubby pjs on, we don’t want a visit, but they don’t give a damn, frankly. They, feelings, are pushy wee tricksters with immense powers of deceit. You can’t stop us, they chortle as they cross the threshold. That is where I get them. That is where my good girl politeness grows teeth and claws, now that I know who they are and what they plan for me. None of it is good, not for me. I tell them they are not welcome for I have a house full of happy people with happy intentions for me. They don’t like that. They don’t like the light of the sun, preferring, instead, the Siberian wind upon which they ride like Valkyries. They might peer beyond me for sight of such weirdos but they won’t see anything or anyone. There is only me here but it does no harm to show them a glimpse of my understory and, in truth, the overstory is looking a bit like a car boot sale. No matter for I am doing the work and I know what I know, as they do not. I know that in order to fend off the snow feelings, all I have to do is to accept that it is as it is and that I have considerably more power than I had heretofore understood. I am in charge not of incoming feelings, or incoming people, events, circumstances, but of my response to all of the before, my attitude, in other words. I can look at the scouring wind and think, cold, turn back, or I can notice the sun warming me , and keep moving through. It is all about attitude and response. Life sucks at times and not at others. When it does, the laziness of me might fold, lie down, get snowed over till I disappear and freeze, but I have never been lazy and will not be lazy now with my understory.

I cannot explain what goes on beneath the sea, beneath and road well travelled, the rocks that tumble a wee burn nor the how of a siskin’s return from Africa. I cannot answer any questions about why a tree stands tall or dies, or suddenly falls. I cannot see their understory. I can only guess. But I know my own, the both, the over and the under of me and I can keep learning, keep my heart open, keep practising acceptance, response and quality of attitude and in doing so, I won’t save the planet, but I just might save me.

Island Blog – The Overstory

I walked yesterday among the trees in the Fairy wood. I barely glanced up into her leafless arms nor stopped to touch the bark of the tallest Fir, nor paused to consider the tangle of roots thrust into visibility by endless erosive rains; roots as thick as my arm, conifer fingers, gnarled and scarred over hundreds of years by hundreds of human boots, marching boots, tramping across the overstory with little enough thought. I didn’t look, nor see, nor stop to garner soft peace from the whispers of these gentle and protecting giants. I just took my place in the march. I didn’t pause to consider over what I did this marching thing. I just wanted to get back out of the nipping wind and into the warm.

All evening, staring out at the dark, I considered. The understory thinks me. What brilliant planning, synergy and sharing goes on down there, in a deeper darkness that Night could ever bring? In a clutter wood, where new springlings struggle towards that wee patch of sky, of sun to hear the stories carried on the backs of the winds that dash across this rocky island from all points on the compass, how can life go on? Is there a finite of trees within the human boundaries of this wood? And how do they know not to crowd themselves out of sunlight, water, food – to leap across the track to where that fallen beech has created, in its final death cry, a whole rack of gentle space just asking for a friend. And not only space, for in its dying, in its soft slow submissive return to the earth, this giant is preparing magical layers of nourishment for that seedling to grow strong and straight-backed.

Roots will be under my feet even on this track wide enough for a whacking great lorry. Roots don’t bother with our boundaries and it isn’t just that. I think they conjoin, I know they do, merging and melding together for the greater good, the good of the wood, of the family. Unlike us, separation is not their main thing, not a thing at all. Unlike us, they do not judge by species, sex, type, shape or achievement. They care not what colour your leaves might be, nor if those leaves are bigger than their own. Like us, they need each other. Like us they sing better in a choir, a unison of voices rising into the sky sending harmony, melody and rhythm out to warm a listening heart. They know it. We are only learning.

Life is lived in the overstory. Although the underneath matters a great deal, it is easily hidden from the world. I can do this as well as anyone. I can slap on my smile and pretend just like you do. And there is no wrong in that, unless, unless, either of us forget our tap root and that of others with whom we share our life. The good news about tap roots is that, like the trees, they grow in silence, whether we pay them attention or not. As they grow in the silent darkness of our hearts and souls they find other roots. This meeting is not confrontational, nor constrained by fear but a vulnerable reaching, meeting, greeting; a gentle slow winding together of fingers, a melding perhaps, or a share of time before moving on. We can learn from that time of open curiosity, the lack of fear, the acceptance of another life doing its very best to grow and to grow right.

Today, when I walk beneath those same trees I will be witted-up and open. I never tire of the woods and have walked through and around them for almost five decades but sometimes, like yesterday, my overstory is so shouty that I forget where I am and thus I miss the nourishment on offer beneath those ancient wise giants. I miss the startling gasp of star moss on a rotting trunk, the shelf fungi holding on even as its host crumbles away, the rain-betrayed spider webs cast between a spindle of branches, long since empty of life. I miss the patchwork of sky, the squelch of peat under my boots, that sudden realisation of the understory, always working, always growing, in gentle silence. Today I will see it all, hear the voices of the wood and they will bring me calm and a real smile, no pretend.