We met unceremoniously. I stepped into a clearing and there she was. Bespectacled and stooped over her dilapidated french easel. She eyed me warily but turned her attention back to the canvas. Despite her grey hair and advanced years, she scooted back and forth gingerly.
“I have to step away from the piece to see the whole. That’s how I find the false junctures.” Her voice startled me.
“The false junctures?” I asked, confused.
“Yes, the false junctures. The places where things don’t connect properly.” She squinted at me, assessing. Then she put down her brushes and reached into a backpack on the ground. “Care for a drink?” she offered. Much to my surprise, she pulled out a flask.
“Uh, no thanks, I don’t drink. I have no talent for it.” It was the truth. My father was an alcoholic and I inherited the same proclivity. Sins of the father, sins of the son. I lacked a reliable off switch, so I steered clear of booze.
“I admire that,” she said just before taking a swig. “What’s the line in that Clint Eastwood movie?” she asked. “Oh yes, ‘A man’s got to know his limitations.’ I love Dirty Harry. He says it like it is.” She belched and took another sip.
My mouth was agape with incredulity. I’d been hiking these trails for the last three years to get away from people and be alone. To think and try to figure out the mess of my life. I miss my six-year-old daughter. Divorce and visitation every other weekend was all my ex and the courts allowed.
“Hey, where’d you go just now?” the old woman asked.
“Oh, sorry. I’m not used to running into people out here.” I gave her a half-smile.
“People can be a distraction when you’re sorting out your life,” she said as she set down the flask and plopped beside her backpack. “Young man, I’m a widowed and retired old woman. But if you like, I’ll share with you a few things.” As she spoke the wind danced through the tree leaves. Everything felt surreal.
“Okay, why not,” I said as I sat down with this enigmatic woman in the woods.
Life is a lot like parking lots
She told me that she used to teach literature in the English department at the local university. Her husband Alfred passed away nine years ago. Her only daughter was all grown up. The woman said she lived alone now, with just a Siamese cat, her books and love of outdoor painting.
I told her I was a sales rep for an athletic clothing company. I went through a nasty divorce and only saw my daughter every other weekend. I told her my drinking was partly why I was divorced, but I’ve been sober a few years now. I admitted that I don’t care much for other people. “I thought I’d be much further along by now with my life,” I admitted.
The old woman smiled and said, “I heard this Israeli writer on NPR recently. He said something like, ‘We all think we are the star, the one whose name is on the marque, and everyone else is bit players. But everyone else thinks they are the star. Just like parking lots, we are all looking for our space.”
She gazed at me a moment and asked, “Do you enjoy your work?” I thought about that and said, “Yeah, I do. It’s challenging and fulfilling. But for some reason, I still feel kind of empty. Lonely, maybe. I guess I’m not a happy go lucky type.”
She took another swig from her flask and said, “Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘There is one thing one has to have: either a soul that is cheerful by nature, or a soul that is cheerful by work, love, art, and knowledge.’ Sounds like your career is fine, but the love, art, and knowledge needs work.”
The hidden life of trees
We sat together silently for a moment, watching the trees as they swayed in the wind. Then she spoke. “You know, I just finished a fascinating book titled ‘The Hidden Life of Trees.’ The forest is a social network. Trees communicate and support one another. They can sense with their leaves and roots and fit into one another’s respective ecosystems. Without trees to draw water inland, we’d all be in trouble.”
I gazed at her, mesmerized. This amazing sage in the woods. I closed my eyes and listened as she continued.
“When Scots pine trees are attacked by caterpillars, they release a scent from pheromones in their leaves. This pheromone attracts wasps who come and lay eggs in the leaves which turn into larvae that eat the caterpillars. Some trees send out electric signals via fungal fibers underground that spread out for several miles, informing other trees of conditions. It’s sort of like ‘tree email.’ People don’t appreciate how much trees communicate and support one another.”
It was fascinating but I had to ask, “Why are you sharing this with me?” She got quiet for a moment. Then she said, “See all those leaves shimmering in the light and dancing in the breeze around us. Can you feel the peace in that? This is how old trees speak to us.”
“And what are they saying?” I asked, somewhat amused but curious.
“They’re trying to tell us that we are just like them. Both isolated and connected. We must lay down roots and establish our presence. But we must build alliances and connections, too. Trees take a long view, just as we should plan for our future. Trees don’t blame. They take responsibility for themselves. And they find peace in their companionship.”
“You’re making trees sound a tad anthropomorphic, aren’t you?” I pointed out.
“No, I’m saying we can learn a lot from trees. Maybe I’m analogizing a bit but think about it. Trees are admirably independent. Strong, yet connected to others. Meanwhile, we’re such fragile creatures. Always worrying about what others think. As Lao Tzu noted, ‘Care what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.’ We need to get comfortable with our individuality, like trees, yet leverage the power of community, too. Nobody should be lonely in life.”
A good life is like a good painting
I asked the old woman her name and she said “Carole Ann.” I told her that I went on hikes to figure out my unhappiness. My work was fulfilling, I was healthy and enjoyed my hobbies of hiking and camping. But something was missing.
“Remember when you first bumped into me?” she said. “I was talking about finding the ‘false junctures’ in a painting? The places where things don’t connect properly? Well, that’s what you need to figure out in your life. You see, a good life is like a good painting. You have to smooth out some of those rough edges and be sure to have proper values. And to balance out the grayness, you need a little color, too. Also, a painting is lonely until it finds a frame and at least one person to share its beauty with.”
The sun was setting and it was starting to get chilly. I thanked Carole Ann for her wisdom and advice. From trees to art, my head was swirling with everything she told me. I hiked back to my jeep and made my way to town, deciding to enjoy a hot latte at the local coffee shop.
As I sipped my latte a pretty woman sat across from me. Our eyes connected. She said I looked familiar and I told her where I worked. Turns out she just began working in the local Patagonia store and she remembered me from a sales meeting.
Recently divorced, she moved to town for a fresh start and to be closer to her mother.
“What does your mother do?” I asked. She smiled and said, “Oh, she’s a retired literature professor. But now she just drives me crazy talking about trees and painting.”
“Carole Ann?” I said.
“Why yes, do you know her?” the woman asked.
“Yes, she helped me understand what the ‘false junctures’ are in my life.”
“The false junctures?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s the places where things don’t connect properly.”
“That sounds like my mom. Did she tell you about one of the largest living organisms on earth? It’s a grove of quaking aspen trees in Utah called the Pando. It’s a forest, but all of its 47,000 aspen trees come from a single root system spread over 106 acres in Utah.” She smiled at me. “Mom is a font of wisdom.
I offered to get her another coffee and she accepted. Maybe old trees do speak to us. Like the Pando in Utah, maybe people are all connected, too. How else to explain meeting Ann in the woods, and now her daughter?
All I knew was that the ‘false junctures’ in my life seemed to be disappearing. Things were beginning to connect again. And a feeling dormant for so long was resurfacing.
A feeling everyone longs for. A feeling we all deserve in our lives. Maybe old trees feel it too.
It’s called happiness.