And so I go into the woods. As I go in under the trees, dependably, almost at once, and by nothing I do, things fall into place. I am less important than I thought, the human race is less important than I thought. I rejoice in that. —Wendell Berry, A Native Hill
The redwoods stretch high towards the cloud-speckled sky. They provide shade at the intersections of their branches and leaves, through which thin beams of light filter through.
From my spot beneath them at Redwood Regional Park, I listen to a hawk caw from its perched positioned above, its body occluded by (and submerged in) the leaves. Its caw is ribbity, as if there were a frog caught inside its throat.
Other birds make noises too, sounding like tiny droplets of water hitting against granite or porcelain. Not a full song, just distinct and crisp little cheeps—each a single solid note emitted sequentially from a separate beak. Some sound like specks of uncooked macaroni landing on a surface made from wind chime.
I wonder what these birds high up in their trees are saying to each other with their “chips,” if anything.
Twenty feet away, a bilingual woman with a large group of young explorers is teaching her kids to respect nature—specifically trees’ bodily autonomy.
When she catches one student ripping bark off a redwood: “How would you like it if a little monster came up to you and pulled the skin off your face?” she asks, after explaining to him how bark serves trees the same protective function that skin offers humans.
Her student, who then tries to reattach the bark to its rightful owner, asks the teacher if she has tape.
“Just don’t do it again,” she gently counsels him in response, while playfully ruffling his hair.
I come here on my own because nature restores me. Some might write this off as woo-woo, but that doesn’t stop me from believing it: that partial answers to some of our problems (at times) might even await us here.
Maybe they’ll surface in the quiet. Or if they don’t, at least in nature we find some strength to navigate them. Maybe we accept that they’re unanswerable—and in our ‘reconnected to self” state, can temporarily make peace with that uncertainty.
Coming here aids in that. Here where the pure and unadorned trees are just being themselves—no pressure to be anything more as they stretch tall and serene towards the cloud-speckled sky. Out here I’m not comparing myself to others, nor am I wracked with FOMO—because I can’t think ofa more nourishing place to be.
Nature’s authenticity coaxes my own out from beneath blankets and layers of performativity. I come to the redwood forest to rid my mind of filters. I come here to return to my purest form.
“We can tell with certainty that trees can hear, smell, communicate—and they can definitely remember. They can sense water, light, danger. They can send signals to other plants and help each other. They’re much more alive than most people realize,” wrote Elif Shafak.
Nature has a way of quietly assuring you that you’re whole and complete without asking or taking anything from you.
I can’t say the same about humans.
Enjoy nature and accept what she has to offer, on her terms—rather than colonize and try to change Her. The boy in The Giving Tree understood this lesson when he was young. The older he got though, the more that modern life seemed to siphon it out from within him. Perhaps it became lost to capitalism—a system that profits from our indifference to nature.
“They pluck our leaves and gorge themselves on our fruit, and yet still they do not see us,” wrote a fig tree in Shafak’s novel The Island of Missing Trees.
I think about where our planet would be if a greater number of us treated our connection with nature more similarly to how we treat our other close relationships. If we, as Muriel Barbary phrased it in her book The Elegance of the Hedgehog, chose to “honor this beauty that owes us nothing.”
Maybe if more of us did, we wouldn’t be here.
Here, where, according to Tara Duggan, the Western monarch butterfly is rapidly disappearing. “The number of graceful, black and orange winged insects overwintering in coastal California this year dropped to under 2,000, compared with more than 29,000 the year before,” she wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle. “And that was already a fraction of its previous population.”
Here, where Jaime Lowe wrote in Breathing Fire, “Sequoias, hundreds of feet tall, usually die from old age, collapsing under their own weight, but now some were dying from dehydration, rotted inside and out.”
Here, where in Kurtis Alexander’s words, “At least one tenth of the planet’s giant sequoia trees are believed to have been wiped out by a single wildfire last year,” (6/4/21 SF Chronicle).
“Nature is innately brutal,” some say in defense of humans. Some scoff at the idea of a complicated and unruly entity simplified to “innocent victim.”
Some plants and animals are akin to humans in their ruthless competition with one another, they argue. Certain species of tall trees can block light from reaching neighboring organisms, for instance. It’s only once they fall over and die that light finds its way in, giving other trees and flowers the chance to grow. If it hadn’t been us humans, some other species would have stepped in to establish dominion.
Maybe no creature is exempt from nature’s barbarities. And yet, the amount of destruction—as well as the rate at which humans have destroyed—is unprecedented and unnatural. We’ve tipped whatever precarious balance existed before, taking far more than our share. It’s about degree and proportion, and the human contribution to planetary degradation is astronomically disproportionate.
I think of all the signs the past few years pointing to disruption in the earthly tapestry. California’s infamous September orange day was one. That day, social media statuses and memes depicting our final days abounded. One Facebook friend asked whether there was a such thing as “taking an Apocalypse day” off from work (“asking for the entire Bay Area currently trying to find good Zoom lighting with the orange tint out the window.”)
What stood out most was the eerie day-long silence. Usually I’d hear squirrels scuffling through the leaves out back, or raccoons tapping at the roof. Birds would sing.
That day though, the only audible noise was BART whooshing by in the distance every twenty or so minutes. At 12:48 pm one bird on its own cheeped for for about thirty seconds before disappearing back into the darkness of wherever he’d been before.
Back in March 2020, I wondered if we would see any improvements on this front. Maybe the break in human activity would benefit the natural world. Animals did seem to be re-establishing partial dominion—goats had taken over a town in Ireland. Water in the Venice canal looked clean and vibrant in the pictures. One family found a moose swimming in their backyard pool.
Benefits like reduced air pollution from fewer cars on the road proved to be short-lived though.
In trying to play God, humans have tampered with the natural order of things. Our actions are of a greater scale than the competition and occasional intra (or even inter) species ruthlessness that we might witness occurring naturally within the animal kingdom.
I’m also not sure that it’s nature itself that’s insatiable and destructive. I wonder if more accurately, the parts of it that are noble and pure and kind are inevitably more vulnerable. They’re more vulnerable to evisceration by their more sinister and opportunistic shadow halves.
A few weeks later, I’m outside a brewery in Susanville, California. At the picnic table next to me sit a young couple and their dog. The sun is behaving in a fickle manner.
Click: It departs / switches off. Click: it comes back.
“The sun just like, can’t make up its mind,” the boyfriend observes.
“It’s annoying,” the girlfriend comments.
Their young pit-bull’s chin remains against the pebbled ground, opinionless—or just too fatigued to offer one.
The shifting temperatures are uncomfortable. Yet out here the air is fresh and limitless nature surrounds us. And so I remind myself:
Before any humans walked the earth, the sun shone. She came and She went, She glimmered and dimmed, She did her own thing, with no one around to grumble in response.
Back to the redwoods.
Nearby, pine needles and twigs of varying thickness—some bare, others blanketed by pistachio-green moss—scatter the dusty ground.
I watch as a squirrel hugs an acorn to his chest, only to quickly drop it. Moments later he skitters to the other side of the path, in typical stop-motion jerky squirrel fashion.
Bikes zip up and down the trails, gears buzzing like insects. Helmeted, masked up, and with sunglasses on, the riders look like insects too.
I wish I could wrap up these musings with a tidy conclusion. Previous drafts of it (from a couple years ago) said:I think of a world with starkly less nature. One where you have to drive hours or days to find an environment even remotely similar to the piney one I’m breathing in right now.
That world feels so sad and empty. I hope that’s not where we’re headed. The people written off as alarmists—I’d like them to be wrong, and I’m sure they’d like more than anything to be missing the mark as well.
I want the smell of piney bark to continue gently pulling people out of sleep in the morning. I want our feet, after cutting through bushes and stepping over pinecones, to squish into muddy marshland. I want us to stare down in awe as we pass over wet grass that looks like the lustrous green hair of a mermaid.
Hundreds of years down the road, squirrels will still scurry in stop-motion fashion and birds will continue to sing, and we’ll continue to hear the calming drip-drip-drip sound our beaked friends put forth, as I did today. Days like the orange one, where animals scuttle and flutter confused and disoriented, will become but a memory, never to repeat.
I don’t feel like I can end this way though, without feeling disingenuous—or like I’ve fallen prey to magical thinking. What feels more truthful now is that global warming is a reality. This planet as we know it won’t remain this way forever.
At the redwood forest that day I breathe in this heartening reminder, together with the smell of pines and campfire charcoal. I take in my surroundings and settle back into the almost quiet (‘almost’ because mosquitoes still buzz and kids’ shouts remain audible).
I take a still-shot in my mind of it all. Then folding up my chair, I listen to a little girl who seems to be on the same page:
“I wanna stay here all day! Then go to bed next to her (*the redwood tree). And wake up tomorrow and say Good morning, Tree.” And as I walk the wooded path back towards my car, I make a promise to return to places like these for as long as we all still can.
©2023 Eleni Stephanides
All rights reserved
…is an LGBTQ bilingual writer and Spanish medical interpreter who Eleni was born, raised, and currently resides in the California Bay Area. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Breath and Shadow, Elephant Journal, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others. She currently writes the monthly column “Queer Girl Q&A” for Out Front Magazine. You can follow her on IG eleni_steph_writer and read stories from her time as a rideshare driver.