One of my students once said: Leny, in my mind I keep thinking and saying “I Love Nature” but I don’t feel it in my body, in my emotions, in my heart. I want to change that.
So one of the exercises I do in class is to tell the students to go outside and find a Tree and sit under its canopy or sit next to a Rock in silence. Listen. Be Quiet. Wait. Stay still until the Tree or Rock starts talking back to you.Then come back inside and write in your journals.
One student said that she thought this assignment is so silly until she decided to do it again at home. By her window one morning, she looked at the tree outside. She said she didn’t know how to start a conversation but then she noticed that the tree was actually providing shade so that her room doesn’t get the full warm sun of summer. Thank you, Tree, for standing there to provide shade for me.
With these simple words of gratitude, she started writing and out flowed the most lyrical, heartfelt expression of joy and calm that swept over her. She read this in class and the silence enveloped all of us in awe for a prolonged moment.
One student wrote about sitting under the canopy of a blooming dogwood tree, noticing at first the pink petals, then the shape of the leaves, the shades of green, the texture of its bark, and then finally noticing that her mind has quieted down and she had become aware of her inner smile. This, too, was a surprise to her.
I can do these exercises and process them with my students because I, too, have fallen in love. At first not with a tree but with the memory of a young love that kept coming to me in a recurring dream for over a decade. Why won’t you love me? was the persistent question. At the end of a decade, the answer came: But I have always loved you; you just didn’t know it. When I was able to understand the deeper meaning of this dream in my psyche, the lover in my dream eventually turned into… a Tree.
I took this as a lesson about what our longings for romantic love should really evolve into if we are to discover our inner beauty and wholeness and our basic nature as Interbeings. I was like that student who cognitively knew that she loves Nature but couldn’t feel it in her body. So in my heart I prayed: Let me feel this love for Nature in my body and my heart.
One morning I stepped outside my bedroom door and looked up. There she was — a 300 ft majestic redwood tree in my neighbor’s yard! I have lived in this house for 30 years and this was the first time I saw her. Please forgive me! I said. Since then it has been my morning ritual to greet her. I stand still in her presence with my arms in front of me in a gesture of hugging her trunk. I turn my gaze to the details — the crows that nest up on her limbs, the maple tree next to her, the contour of the hills beyond, the honeysuckle crawling on the deck which I planted 25 years ago in honor of my Apu Sinang — she who first came to me when I first prayed to know my ancestors.
To Dwell in a place. This is the lesson I needed to learn. If I am to claim that I want to grow my indigenous consciousness, to court back my Indigenous Soul — this is what I must do. To learn how to Dwell in a Place. Who are the beings that have lived here since time immemorial? What are their stories? What are their names?
I am a settler in Sonoma County, California. Displaced by colonial history from my homeland where we never learned how to Dwell in a Place, I am, ironically, learning this now in a place that is not my own. And yet, as Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairperson of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (the original peoples of this area), says settlers like me are also now part of a moving history that I can participate in. He says that it is okay for people like me to claim this place as my own now as long as I learn how to Dwell.
So my time and energy in the last few years have been taken up by this new calling of learning how to Dwell in Pomo and Coast Miwok lands now called Sonoma County. There is so much to learn and unlearn.
Now when folks ask when I am going back to the homeland, it’s a bit difficult to explain why I am not going. I want to have a smaller carbon footprint, I tell them, but I know that is not the full story.
I am tending a Tree. I am tending Love. I tend with the nourishment I have brought with me to this Land from my homeland — our gifts of Kapwa, of Kagandahang Loob, of Pakikiramdam, of Kabaitan. Shared self. Inner Beauty. Compassion. Kindness. I plant these seeds here now.
In our garden, the ampalaya/bitter melon is flourishing next to the heirloom tomatoes next to the meyer lemon tree where my grandson’s placenta is buried. We are growing roots here.
Falling in love…with a Tree may not be as accurate as saying that She has loved me all along. She has waited long enough for me. I am loved.