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Trees, Heartwood and the Nature of Broken Hearts

October 13, 2014

Author’s note: All the tree pictures are high resolution. Click on them for more information.

Nature is a Mirror

“…landscape … furnishes us with the metaphors and symbols with which we pry into mystery…In approaching the land with an attitude of obligation, willing to observe courtesies difficult to articulate – perhaps only a gesture of the hands – one establishes a regard from which dignity can emerge. From that dignified relationship with the land, it is possible to imagine an extension of dignified relationships throughout one’s life.” – Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

two heart with marks

The two hearts of the tree are circled in yellow. The heartwood area is the oldest, innermost part of the tree, lighter in color, surrounded by darker sapwood.

Yesterday, I was splitting wood, in anticipation of the oncoming cold of autumn, and beyond that, winter. The batch of wood I got from my neighbor is full of knots and hard to split this year and I have to use wedges and the sledge hammer to get into them. A clear piece of wood like this, without knots or cross grain, will take about 1-2 minutes to split into 8-10 pieces with a maul. Grain that is not straight, usually from an intervening branch, that crosses the main flow of the grain,  will not split cleanly with one or two strikes of the maul, like a stem with clear heartwood will, and requires steel wedges and a sledgehammer.


The two stems at the right of the log (at the base of the original tree) merged into one and continued to grow up and out. 

When I finally got this one opened into a sagittal section, which took probably 5 minutes and dozens of strikes with the wedges and maul, I noticed something that made me pause. I looked at the end cross section and saw that at some point the tree had had two stems, and they had somehow joined together and become one stem.

I sat down on my splitting block and put my head in my hands, took a deep breath, and thought back to the summer…

garlic wagon last text 07232014
“Goodbye Garlic”      I guess.

This July, I was struck with the most acute, traumatic emotional blow I have ever received from another person. On the phone, I confronted my partner with evidence that she was cheating on me. She was living a few hours away – we had been doing the long distance thing for a few months. It was her birthday, and I asked her to tell me the truth. She denied the affair and said she had to go just then and be with her family and we would talk tomorrow. The next day she texted me a picture of the wagon-full of garlic she had harvested earlier that day and told me she loved me. I never heard from her again. Total silence, no response to a dozen prompts by text or phone. It took me a couple days to figure out what had happened; not that I really understand, even now.

We used to sing that line together from the Avett Brother’s song “January Wedding: “True love is not the kind of thing you should turn down. Don’t ever turn it down.” Ours was most certainly a true love, one of the few great loves of my life, and maybe one day, I’ll tell that story, but I guess she turned it down. We also sang the other part of that same song to each other: “She knows which birds are singing, and the names of the trees where they’re performing,” because our relationship was deeply woven with a deep, quotidian immersion in nature. It seemed like we were doing pretty well, talking of children and marriage, although this year has been a very difficult time in both our lives. For a while I Googled her name to see if she had been killed in a car accident or something. Just a few weeks ago I heard second-hand from a mutual friend that she is indeed, still alive. I tried to feel happy about it.

The Nature of Connection

Somewhere, along the way, as a result of my observations as a tracker and a naturalist, and my exposure to some native, traditional ways of seeing the world, I picked up the idea and image that all living things are connected by energetic threads. It’s as simple as noticing the tree between your house and your mailbox everyday, perhaps for several years. What at first barely existed, after a time has become something you feel affection towards. Maybe your children climb it and it has become part of the lore and landscape of your family now. Maybe it has a name: “The Pirate Ship Tree.” In certain respects, you are bound to it.

If we can connect with trees and animals this way, all the more so may we connect with our own kind in bonds of love. Alex Grey  Alex_Grey-Kissing_largemakes this idea beautifully vivid in his work. So when we lose a long-term partner and love – any beloved one – because we have woven our lives together, bodily, emotionally, spiritually, in many senses, there is a kind of amputation that takes place, as if we had lost a limb or an organ. We bleed out, and the grief and pain we feel from the separation is an expression of that.

And is this isn’t just a touchy-feely metaphor. During a response to trauma, we literally lose billions of neural connections, in a process called apoptosis,apoptosis-4-panels but when acute, becomes a kind of necrosis. Dr. Mark Brady tells more of the neurological story of suffering and healing here, in his wonderful blog “Your Flowering Brain”. Science increasingly confirms that the flood of stress and pain hormones from loss can cause you to literally die of a broken heart.

When we’re bleeding out, we have to heal. And it’s hard work. I’ve been blessed with many tools for doing that work, and I’m going to be okay. But I’ve been working at it, because unresolved grief puts us at great risk for enduring the same suffering over and over again, and even inflicting it upon others, as something in us drives the self into situations to force us to deal with the root issues. There is enough novel suffering in the basic structure of life, that I’ll have to deal with, I’d rather not cycle through the same chapter of the story over and over again. But thanks.

I’ve learned that sometimes when nature gives you a metaphor or symbol to work with, it’s a good idea to take the time and energy to engage it. It’s less about finding a conclusive answer than turning it and working with it,  to “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…”- Rilke

The Connection of Nature

One of the best tools for healing is nature connection. Meaningful engagement with nature can facilitate healing in many modes, but right now, I want to address just two of those patterns.

When we observe and participate, especially over long periods of time, How Things Work in nature, it tends to lend a solidity or equanimity to life. For lots of reasons. We go waaayyyy back with nature, as way back as there is a way back. There is an inherent solidity and elegance and rightness to natural design. Nature is reliable! The sun and moon rise and set as they are supposed to, the earth spins, the seasons come and go, the tides rise and fall, the leaves and the rains and the animals and birds all move as they are supposed to. Even in this era of extraordinary disruption things still basically work like they are supposed to, and when we come into an embodied experience of that, a kind of gnosis abides and that kind of knowing does much to ease anxiety.

Another route towards stability and repair of our psyches lies in the way that Nature, if we choose it as a fundamental nutrient in our information diet, provides us with templates, patterns and the raw material to use for creative acts, for inspiration, and for wisdom. This is what Barry Lopez is speaking of in the opening epigram: “…it furnishes us with the metaphors and symbols with which we pry into mystery…”

What had I noticed as I pried into the mystery of the tree, into the log, that brought me up short, heart pounding?

Remember the last time you stubbed your toe, and the sensitivity forced you to realize how constantly you use your toe? An emotional wound functions in the same hyper-sensitive way, calling attention to our heart, as memories of our loss intrusively flood back to mind. Dealing with perservating, intrusive thoughts is one of the significant challenges of a wound to the psyche. Often, I just breath them in, acknowledge them, hold them for a moment, realize the futility of holding and then let them go. Sometimes they asked to be worked with. And this was a moment that needed to be worked with.

From the look of the log, it appears that the two stems of this “two-hearted” tree grew along side each other, for just a little while, before they fused into a single tree, DSC05877where I assumed the growth of the grain would continue straight and uninterrupted, as it appears to. But as I found my way into the log, DSC05881with more wedge and sledge work, it stubbornly refused to give. I realized that the although the hearts had merged into a single bole, the cellular web of their merger still radiated throughout the grain of the tree, all the way to the very edge. DSC05889After the merger of the two stems, it appears that the grain runs true and straight and should be easily separated. But that wasn’t the case.

That union of the two, deep inside, and down, towards the root, now formed a “one” of a very different character and quality than a typical single stem tree. The “commitment” the two stems made to each other, continued to be manifest, imperceptible to the eye.


In a clear stem, these lines of grain would separate cleanly. In this tree, they are still woven together. They don’t want to let go.

They didn’t want to let go. So I wasn’t alone in that feeling, after losing love, after becoming separated. I don’t want to let go. It doesn’t mean that I can cling to it. I can’t and won’t. But it tells me that it isn’t wrong to have that feeling. That feeling has a place in the world. I can accept it. And then I can really let it go.

And then I stood up

and went back to splitting wood

with a wedge

and a sledgehammer.

It’s heavy work, but good.

“Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere, they’re in each other all along.” -Rumi
One Comment
  1. There is no better teacher and healer than nature. She will never leave you, she will never forsake you. She will wrap her loving arms around your raw and exposed heart and care for your seeping wound. The broken places will be stronger for it. Stay with her and she will see you through the acuteness of your grief.


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