Last autumn’s leaves have not yet composted, so they cover the parts of the path that aren’t muddy. The trees in my Ottawa, Canada climate are budding, but branches are still bare of leaves. Muted colours of grey and brown and dark forest green dominate.
I rounded a corner in the path. Up ahead, white leaves fluttered on a single tree. With branches stretched out in a triangular shape, the leaves resembled the flickering lights of a Christmas tree.
I stopped to appreciate it. I walked closer to examine the leaves. I thought about another of Robert MacFarlane’s words: marcescence. It can refer to trees that hold on to leaves through winter, or people who wither but don’t fall.
Others might have passed by without noticing the simple gift of nature. I’m glad that I walk mindfully, on the lookout for sparks of light on my path.
If we’re watchful, we can perceive those little boosts to the spirits. They help us duringtimes when we’re withering, so we don’t fall.
There’s something primal about the word roots. We feel it at our core.
Deep roots allow trees to stand tall, and they nourish the plant. Kind of like family. One hopes.
My roots are deep in the Ottawa Valley, in a farming community and a large extended family. No matter how old I get or where I live, the phrases “Ottawa Valley” and “farm” will always be central to my being.
If I dig deeper, I get to “Irish,” “English,” and “Christian.” Yes, I am a WASP—a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with all the privileges that come along with it. My parents raised me in faith and, even though it has evolved significantly over my lifetime, that rooting in faith still keeps me grounded.
What about people who aren’t so lucky?
When trees are rooted in rocky-ground, it’s difficult to stay standing.
There’s something primal about the word roots. We feel it—or the need of it—at our core.
If you were to walk up to a group of women in their forties and fifties and say “Roots” out of context, the first thought of many, if not all, would be hair.
They wouldn’t think about tree roots snaking out through soil in search of nourishment, and they wouldn’t start pondering family ancestry. They’d wonder if they left it too long between dye jobs.
For the past year I have been transitioning from dyed hair to natural, and it has been an en-lightening (pun intended) process. For women, there is little middle ground on this topic. Most fall at one of two extreme opposite ends of a spectrum.
Abject Horror: “What? You’re going natural? (They step back as if it’s contagious.) Don’t do that! It will age you horribly. I am never going grey.”
Militant Support: “Good for you! (They thrust a victorious arm in the air.) I don’t understand why women ever colour their hair. Natural hair colour is an act of resistance against societal beauty norms for women. You will never regret this.”
Considering there are such extreme opinions on this, I myself was quite ambivalent. In the end though, I made my final decision instantaneously as a result of one story told to me by a friend.
She told me about a woman she knew who, on her deathbed, reached out to family to implore that they make sure she had no roots showing when she was laid out in her coffin.
I thought, “God, when I’m on my deathbed, the very last thing I want to be thinking about is my roots.”
And, we never really know when that deathbed might arrive, right? It might come sooner than I expect. And, even if it doesn’t, I’m 57, so statistically I’ve got 25 or 30 more years left. How much of that time do I want to spend thinking about my roots? Surely, there are more important and interesting things for me to think about than that.
“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”
Don’t get me wrong. I grieve for my former dark hair. I have thick, wavy hair, and when it was my natural, lustrous dark brown, I loved it. I was vain about it, in fact. I have never wanted to be blonde, ever.
BUT, grief is no reason to avoid action. I decided to follow the advice of Desiderataand take kindly the counsel of the years and surrender gracefully the things of youth.
On my recent hiking trip I met many silver-haired women who were striding confidently on steep hiking paths, enjoying the spectacular views, and not spending one second of their time thinking about roots.
In the time I have left, however long that might be, I want to stride confidently on the steeps, enjoy the views, and let my mind whir and spin with how to make the world a better place.
What do they tell us about what’s going on underground?
Are they beautiful? Or more than that?
I pondered these questions during our recent hiking trip to the Rocky Mountains in Alberta Canada. We marveled at roots burrowing into narrow crevices to eke out nutrients.
We stepped over and around roots intruding into our hiking paths, sometimes buckling the earth in their quest for growth
We hiked around beautiful, large roots that did all of the above: buckled the ground and intruded into our pathway as they sought nourishment in stark environments.
The roots spoke to me of tenacity.
The never-give-up attitude was helpful on the steeps of the trails, and it is helpful to me now that I’m back home and looking at long to-do lists.
They made me wonder what’s happening underground that I can’t see.
I am currently reading Underland by Robert Macfarlane, a book that explores the ground under our feet as a new frontier, like space or the oceans. As I stepped over the large roots and trod carefully around the smaller intertwining ones so as not to twist an ankle, I imagined life teeming in unseen ways under my feet: worms, burrowing animals, microbes, and tree roots co-existing in another realm.
The work of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard explores how trees interact with each other, healing, sharing, communicating underground through an “underground social network,” or a “wood wide web.”
It makes me want to become a worm for a day or two so I could periscope into the earth for a look around.
But I’m stuck here above land, and from where I stand the roots have a tenacious beauty. Even the ones that now longer reach for nutrients or buckle the ground.