| The Bard's Path
The Memory Tree
Many years ago, in a time when memory was young, a woman lived with her children in a little cottage on the edge of a great forest. This woman was not the prettiest of women, nor was she the smartest. But she was very happy living on the edge of the forest raising her children and tending her little gardens.
Each and every day of every season, she and her children walked in the forest and talked with the trees, animals and birds that made this their home. And as they walked, the woman would gather the herbs and plants that she used in cooking and healing and she taught her children the wonders of nature.
For many years she worked in the little gardens by her cottage and walked in the forest and was happy. Her children had long since grown to adulthood and moved into the village to raise their own families. And still, the woman stayed in the cottage and cared for the plants, trees, birds and animals that inhabited this wondrous place.
She walked the well-known paths of the forest, speaking to all that lived there and listening to their wisdom. The slightest breeze brought words of wonder and delight to her heart. The colors of autumn leaves in the forest were as bright and dramatic as the flowers of springtime. The summers brought welcome sunshine and warmth and thunderstorms that left the air crackling and sweet smelling. Even the snows of winter, which were never overly harsh, told her their secrets. As with all things in the cycle of life, she knew the winters to be as important as the summers because they brought a time of rest and the promise of the spring to come. During the cold and quiet of winter or the highest heats of summer, she stayed close to her cottage and read from her small store of books.
The woman’s grandchildren and the other village children would often come to the cottage to hear her tell the old stories. They would clap their hands in delight when she told of the turtle that outsmarted the villagers who wanted to make him into soup. The birds in the trees would puff up with pride when she told how Raven got his black wings, and the trees themselves would lean in close to hear the story of why some trees lose their leaves in winter and why others stayed green all throughout the year.
Despite all the beauties and wonders of the forest around her, she began spending more and more time at her little cottage and less and less time in the forest. There was always so much work to be done. There were many ill or injured animals that needed care. The gardens must be tended if there was to be enough food for the winter. The cottage was always in need of repairs and there were healing teas and ointments to prepare for the villagers.
Each day, the children would come by to hear a story, or the creatures of the forest would come to visit, or the trees would bend their branches and gently tap the window glass whispering to her of the glories of the forest. Yet, more and more often, she declined, "Too much to do today! Perhaps tomorrow." she would say. And each day they would return, only to hear the same response from her.
After a while, the children stopped coming to visit, and the birds and animals no longer came to see her. Even the trees no longer whispered to her as they tapped their branches on the windows of the cottage. The winds still blew and the birds still sang and the seasons still passed, but the woman didn’t notice them the way she used to. As each season passed, she noticed them less and less. She was always too busy.
The woman did notice that she no longer felt as happy as she once was. There was emptiness inside her …something was missing. Deep in her heart she knew what was missing, but she didn’t know how to get it back. She missed her friends in the forest - the trees and the birds and the animals. But try as she might, she could no longer hear the trees whispering, and the bird song no longer told her the old stories. The sound in the trees was just the wind blowing through the leaves and branches and although the birdsong was still sweet, she could no longer understand it.
She began taking longer and longer walks in the forest listening to the wind in the trees and the birds singing their songs and the animals calling to each other. But still, she felt that emptiness inside her heart.
One morning near the end of winter, she awoke with such a deep sadness and such a deep longing, that she decided to spend the day in the forest. So, she fed all of the animals in her care, bundled up in her warmest winter clothing and with a small pack on her back she set off into the forest. She walked and walked for hours. Sometimes she would stop for a while and close her eyes and listen to the sounds of the trees and birds and animals. The longer she walked, the more she felt drawn to something…something deeper in the woods…as if something were calling her. On and on she walked, up hills and down hills, deeper and deeper into the forest. The path she walked was no longer familiar to her. She had never been so far into the great forest!
Then, near sunset and exhausted from her long walk, she looked up to see a crooked tree standing alone on top of a rocky cliff above the slow moving river. She felt her heart leap with excitement! It was a steep climb, but finally, the woman made it to the top of the cliff and was able to see the tree close up. The sight was well worth the effort she’d made to reach it! The tree was old, very old and its trunk was larger across than the woman was tall and it was bent from wind and weather and age. Despite the chill in the air and the patches of snow still on the ground, many of the branches wore flowers of white or pink or palest blue. Some branches were already in full leaf, while others had only the tiniest of new green leaves and still others bore leaves of autumn gold. Some branches were heavy with large nuts, and from others hung plump berries. There were branches that held dried and withered fruits and branches that were as bare as winter. It was as if this tree was made up of every kind of tree that had every lived and carried every season within its many branches!
The warmth and light of the sun was rapidly leaving the sky and the woman knew she needed to find shelter for the night…but she was reluctant to leave this wonderful tree. With the approaching darkness, she was worried that she’d get lost in the forest, so she gathered as many sticks and broken branches as she could find and built a fire for warmth and light. From the light of the fire, she saw that there was a large hollow at the base of the old tree – just large enough for the woman to curl up into for the night. So, she wrapped herself up in the thin blanket from her pack and crawled into the hollow. For the first time in many, many months, the woman felt happy – warm from the fire and snuggled safe inside the tree.
She closed her eyes and slowly felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking into the tree…until she became the tree. She felt her legs and feet changing into roots that reached deep down into the rich brown earth. Her roots twined around each other and around stones and rocks that were buried deep in the ground. She felt and heard the slow, deep thrumming heartbeat of the earth vibrating through her and a profound sense of peace and belonging came over her.
The woman, who was now the tree, could feel the water and food from the soil rising up into her from her thousands of little rootlets. Slowly up her roots it traveled…up, up into her trunk and onward into her arms that had become branches, reaching high into the air. On her outstretched arms and fingers she felt the touch of tiny feet as squirrels climbed up her torso to snatch away a mouthful of nuts and songbirds landed to carry away a berry or two or snuggle into a nest full of birdlings who squawked for more food.
A strong breeze then blew through her arms and she felt some of the nuts and berries shake loose to fall down over the edge of the cliff and splash into the river. She felt herself drawn into one of those nuts. The waters swept her along, the currents pushing her here and there until suddenly a fish swallowed her! Now, she was the fish swimming powerfully through the water, leaping and diving joyfully along with the current of the river, until, finally, she emerged into the sea and joined hundreds of other fishes in their dance among the waves.
From above, a hawk swooped down and captured her in its strong claws. The hawk flew up into the branches of a tree to eat its catch. As the hawk dined, the woman felt her fish self now becoming the hawk. Then, away she flew, up high into the air, picking up the air currents and calmly gliding along for miles over the trees of the forest, over valleys...across the hills and mountains. Circling, circling, she flew and looked down upon the earth so far beneath her. So small it seemed and so distant! Onward she lazily flew, back to the cliff to land in the heights of the old and crooked tree.
Suddenly, she was no longer the hawk, but the mouse that scurried with fright into the hollow of the tree when the hawk shadow passed over. The woman felt herself leaving the mouse body and flowing back into the tree, into the trunk and roots and branches.
All the voices of all the trees and wild things of the forest - of the whole world - were brought to her in the freshening winds and the light rain that had begun to fall. The voices of distant places and distant times were carried to her through her roots, and her own heart beat in time with the deep, slow heartbeat of the earth.
For many, many years she had stood in this place, growing first from a tiny, fallen seed. She remembered each and every season that had passed - from the long sleepy winters and the awakening springs to the hot dry summers and the fullness of every autumn. She remembered the storms that brought the welcome rain and lightning that cleansed the air. Sometimes the lightning storms brought fires that burned away trees that had long since passed on. But the fires also took trees that had only begun their lives. Although the fires were destructive, they left behind a richness that nourished the earth and encouraged new growth. She also remembered every bird that had nested in her heights and every creature that had taken shelter from harsh weather beneath her sturdy branches. Each had touched her and left behind a part of themselves, just as a part of her went with them when they traveled on.
She now knew that this tree...that all trees...were a part of everything, connected to everything. Every bird and animal and plant and person that now lived...or had ever lived...contained within themselves a part of the trees of this earth.
With this realization in her mind, her roots shrank and shrank until they became legs and feet. Her many branches dwindled down and became her two arms and hands. As she opened her eyes, it was to find the first light of dawn creeping into the hollow of the tree.
Had she slept then? Had she only dreamed of being the tree and fish and hawk and mouse?
She smiled as she realized that it didn’t matter if it was a dream or if it had really happened. Her heart was full from the lessons she had learned during her adventures.
With only the slightest thought, she could hear the trees whispering their secrets to her once again and she could share in the stories told by the birds and the animals in the forest. She never again wanted to lose the precious gift this beautiful old tree had given to her.
The telling of this story is done. But this story will go on, as long as trees grow and rivers run.