Find Beauty in Forest Loss

The death of a tree, as with the end of the growing season, rejuvenates other life—we just have to open our eyes to see it.

by Dawn Combs

Find Beauty in Forest Loss

Today I took a group on our monthly free medicine walk. I’m going to confess here and now that the last thing I wanted to do this morning was head out to a local park and spend an hour walking in the cold. But because a couple people had already registered and I can often expect a few to show up last minute, I couldn’t let them down. I dutifully hauled myself out of bed and out into a chilly October day.

These walks are as much for me as they are for others. Constant farm work has caused me to fall out of the habit of weekly “church.” I desperately wanted to set aside time to be thankful and reverent—time to feed my spirit. For me, that is time in nature. Not the time I usually spend where I have my own agenda, but time when I am open to what spirit has to say to me.

So this morning, I started walking with a grudging heart. We walked across an open field until we reached the shelter of trees. On the way, I pointed out the dried husks of teasel and a surprise last red clover flower in the meadow. We watched a couple birds arguing over the seed head of one of our native flowers. With one on the top, the stalk remained aloft. As soon as the second bird jumped on, the stalk drooped to the ground, they chattered at each other, and one flew up to a tree to rethink its strategy. I began to let go of my resentment.

As soon as we walked under the shelter of the first few trees, my whole being shifted to feel the forest. The ground as far as the eye could see was littered with gold. The trees seemed to be lit from underneath. The glow of these leaves revealed the bones of the trees that are beginning to be unveiled in the coming winter. Here and there were trees no longer sending food and water to their canopies. They were beautiful in their decay. Honestly, they were the most beautiful of the trees that we encountered today.

During this time, I was reminded of the emerald ash borer and the loss of our ash trees. I began to talk about this from a different perspective to those who had gathered. It’s sad to lose these trees—they’re one of my most favorite and I lost the one next to my deck just this year. From a myopic human view, the tree loss is tragedy, as we could potentially lose an entire species. The thought is inconceivable and makes us feel helpless. However, as we look across a forest community, we see that the dead trees continue to support the living in a way that we are only coming now to understand.

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These dead sentinels fuel the interconnected life of the entire forest through the soil at their feet. They’re host to myriad unseen fungal relationships that create communication and nourish the possibility of new growth. It’s perhaps an important model for the humans walking by who have lost the ability to connect and to see beauty and purpose in death.

We have to see that there is a greater purpose at work, even in the loss of an entire species. When we lose sight of that, we become overly anxious about things that are beyond our control. I certainly don’t mean to argue that humans shouldn’t try to fix the damage when it’s us that has caused problems, but sometimes cycles beyond our understanding take place in the Earth’s forests at large that are for the better of all organisms involved.

There is beauty in the ending of a cycle, in the ending of a life and in the ending of a relationship. We just have to learn to look for the possibilities of new growth.

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