I should be working, but I’m sitting here at the cabin watching gnats.

We have a place in the mountains, a structure beaten up and neglected, and we bought it on a whim with some extra, unexpected money and cleaned it up. We go to it with delight, sometimes for just a day, sometimes for a year. It’s our refuge.

It sits in the middle of an old growth forest of massive oaks and cedars and firs and pines. Some are so big you can’t get your arms around them, even with two people holding hands and trying to reach. I hug the trees and talk to them and name a few. Last year we lost Grandpa, a massive Ponderosa pine 200 feet tall with a rotten spot at the middle. The top broke off in a windstorm and came thundering down, taking out a few smaller trees and embedding itself several feet into the earth from the weight and the length of the fall. We marveled at the size and the destruction, mourned, then cut up the wood and made use of it.

Though it’s ragged at the top, Grandpa’s remaining trunk is still alive, still rooted, still growing. He’s resilient and doesn’t want to go quite yet. He stands next to Grandma, just eight feet away, an equally large and aged and beautiful tree. Perhaps their roots are intertwined and she supports him, helping him to stay alive and enjoy a few more springs and summers, daylight and starlight, whispering breezes and rainy baptisms.

Deer graze around his feet, the squirrels chase and chutter, and wild turkeys pick their way through the undergrowth, strutting slow and talking amongst themselves as they turn their heads this way and that, black eyes sharp and watchful. At night the bobcat, mountain lion, bear, and coyotes materialize from their own secret places for their nightly rounds along unseen trails, along with the legions of smalls—raccoons, opossums, flying squirrels, bats, and ringtails about their business. And then there are the ravens, the smarties, the observers, the reporters of the woods calling out to the other ravens and letting them know whenever there is something new going on below. And there is always something new.

I sit, and watch, and drink it all in. When I come up from the city it takes a few days to adjust to the ancient ways of the woods. The trees live in a different time frame. To an old growth tree, a hundred years is a brief moment in time and a two hundred year old tree is just an adolescent, growing and discovering her purpose and learning, learning, learning how to make her way in the world. She will learn that a tree alone is a tree in peril, and a tree surrounded by friends and interlinked both above and below ground—connected by thousands of miles of intelligent and communicative roots and mycelium[1] and microscopic messengers in the rich forest soil—is much more likely to live and to thrive. Even when broken in half by the fierce winds of a Sierra thunderstorm.

A logger came to look at Grandpa and said, “We should cut it down. It’s going to die anyway.” He was a grizzled, lean old man and he knows trees. He’s practical. It is logical because if we don’t, the tree might struggle along for a while but still die, and die slowly, eventually falling and taking out other trees. Taking it down would make sense.

Robert and Teddy and I think about it. We talk about it. We walk by and look at it, the remaining branches still putting out fresh green beautiful growth each spring. The old tree still stands in sunlight, a larger circle of it now the top half is gone. I read about light this morning in Psalm 36: “How exquisite your love, O God! How eager we are to run under your wings, To eat our fill at the Banquet you spread as you fill our tankards with Eden spring water. You’re a fountain of cascading light, and you open our eyes to light.”[2]

I still talk to the broken tree and hug him, the puzzle-shaped pieces of his rough bark/skin pressing into my cheek. I tell him thank you for living, for being, as I breathe in the scent of the dry red pine needles underfoot several feet deep, the older ones even deeper below slowly turning back into earth.

On the edge of Grandpa’s meadow are the gnats I love to watch from my kitchen table. I’m mesmerized by the tiny little insects zigzagging through the sunlight, propelling themselves who knows where to do who knows what. Like tiny golden flashes of light, these daytime fireflies flit around and between the ancient trees like little Tinkerbells, their lives quick and ephemeral. The forest and the light-gnats and Grandpa and Grandma’s intertwining and sustaining love fill me with Eden spring water at this Banquet, broken though I may be, and open my eyes to the cascading light.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I’m standing on what Grandpa has made and what he leaves behind. It’s beautiful, springy when I walk, and it holds me up. Grandpa is still here, still broken, but still alive. He’s part of Grandma, part of the forest, and part of us. He still basks in the light.

[1] Mycelium is a system of intertwined fungal roots which connect at a cellular level to tree roots deep in the forest underground. Trees use these fungal root systems to share information with other trees and to share nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, water, and phosphorous. These root pathways create a communication network. Using this forest internet, an older tree can recognize the needs of a younger tree in the shady understory and will send the young tree needed carbon for survival.  An injured or dying tree can send its nutrients to nearby growing saplings to encourage new life and growth. Older established hub trees, or Mother Trees, connect to hundreds of other forest trees to assist their survival.  Diverse tree species will help each other.  https://ecologyottawa.ca/2016/09/01/trees-cooperate-and-communicate-on-the-forest-internet/

[2] The Message version



4 thoughts on “Watching Gnats

  1. Susy, I love your voice. And I love the way you invite us into the story beneath the surface. Beautiful, Sister. This touched my heart, deeply: “Grandpa is still here, still broken, but still alive.”


  2. This is so beautifully written. It made me miss home and feel like I was there all at the same time. It made me long for my cheek to touch the rough bark of a redwood tree. I miss the forest so much. Nobody understands out here, except those who are “tree huggers” like myself. (They are few and far between b cause most of them never left the forest.) I miss my beach, too. I guess I need a redwood forest by the beach so I can live contentedly for the rest of my life. 😉


    1. Or plant a small redwood tree? I’m with you. When I’m in the city I long for the woods. I was in the city the other day for a meeting and two Canadian geese flew overhead at twilight, in a hurry. I felt like my heart was flying with them!


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