Tree Hugging Skinny Dipper
Today I hugged a tree. There is a name for people who are weird like that. They are aptly called - Tree Huggers. I was not one of those people until today. I am striding through the nearby Gila National Forest, trying to escape mental turbulence and seething anger by moving my body quickly and confidently through a wild place. Up and over logs, one, two, three steps through the creek serpentining seven, eight, then nine times across my path. My feet are sure, steady, though my focus is not on flowers or raucous crows or even adorable chipmunks. My focus is only to escape, the physical outpacing the mental, if such a thing is possible.
Then, a huge Ponderosa Pine tree hits me. I suppose I hit it, as I am the interloper in this scenario. “Ouch!” My feet slow for the first time in 45 minutes, and rubbing my offended shoulder, I crane my neck to gaze up at this brawny, old-growth monster. Sunken black veins create a haphazard pattern deep in the orange bark, like God has gone crazy with a wood-burning tool. The bottom two feet of the trunk are scorched from a massive wildfire that went through a decade ago. Its towering height is marred by three sets of forks, meaning it has undergone severe trauma three different times in its long tree life. Yet here it is, firmly rooted, with the audacity to bump me out of my self-pity stupor.
Can non-sentient creatures communicate with humans? I am sure there are many opinions on this subject, but I know this tree says something tender and gentle to me. In response, I put my arms around one-third of it, dig my fingers into the fissures of its skin and hug it so tightly it leaves puzzle piece bark imprints on my cheek. A tear or two leaks out, the first saltwater released in 24 draining hours.
Later, I come across a pool off the trail a bit, tucked back into the curve of smooth granite rock. The stream tumbles off the hillside filling the pebble-bottomed oasis. It is at least three feet deep and twice as long, a miracle here in this dry land where even a year-round stream is a rarity. My skinny dipping tendencies kick in, and I strip without hesitation, pretty sure I am the only human for two square miles. Spying a small grey and brown toad cautiously eying me from a crevice on the far side of the pool, I laughingly wonder if he appreciates the sexiness of the growing pile of lacy undergarments exactly matching the color of my nail polish.
I timidly oooh and aaah until I am thigh-deep in the fridge water. As my body slowly numbs, I rescue two caterpillars and a half-drowned cricket from certain death. It feels like the first productive thing I have done all day. I contemplate having a perpetually numb heart, not caring what happens or doesn’t happen on any given day, in any given relationship. Just go numb, don’t feel. It seems like an escape route to my mental turmoil.
Finally, mustering all my courage, I take a deep breath, collapse my knees, and gasp, then shriek when the cold water closes over my shoulders. In that instant, I know a numb heart is not what I want. I want to hug trees and skinny dip and flirt with amphibians. I want to admire crows and rescue crickets, and listen to the voice of the trees. I want to continue to grow tall and robust despite adversity and setbacks.
So, I sit naked as a jaybird on a smooth, sun-warmed rock in the middle of the forest writing in the notebook I always have tucked in my jacket pocket. The words pour out and as usual, bring perspective and healing. Thirty minutes later, water spots begin to stain my notebook, but they are no longer tears, only the first raindrops from a storm brewing in the mountains. Time to get dressed, head back and face my troubles. It is nice to know there is a secret place to escape, though, if only for an afternoon.