In the spring of 2016, while the rest of the world was lost in the absurdity of Donald Trump and his strange bid for the White House, and before he actually won the election and, in so doing, broke the hearts and blew the minds of rational thinking human beings, I quietly slipped out of my city and drove down to a park in southeastern Missouri. The name of the park is neither here nor there, what’s important is that, for me, this particular location represents the closest thing I can get to feeling like I am truly in the wilderness, someplace where civilization isn’t so near by. It’s not really true, for the park is just a few miles southwest of small city called Ste. Genevieve; however, its terrain and the genius loci of the place enable me to fool myself. As such, when I’m hiking around in this park (that’s what it’s known for, it’s superior and strenuous hiking trails) I can play a little game with myself by pretending I’ve been transported to a locale that’s decidedly more wild and free than the congested city in which I otherwise spend my days.
Most of the time, when I travel to a place that is outside my normal sphere of experiences, I come with an agenda. I come with some axe to grind, some question to answer, or a deep thought to ponder. On this day, I went just for the sake of going, just to get out of the house and be among the trees and rocks and babbling brooks that are to be found there. Sometimes, a human needs to do that. There are moments in our lives, especially if we live among the crowded streets of a large city, when the state of our minds can get stretched so thin and so feeble that if we don’t escape from our typical routine and chase down that proverbial “change of scenery,” we fear we might be consumed inwards, as though there’s a singularity at the center of our bodies, like a planet that gets sucked into itself… I went because I needed to be reminded that there are places like this park in existence, spots where the beauty of Nature isn’t hidden behind a cement wall and you don’t have to look too far to find traces of the Earth as it was in the Jurassic or Cretaceous periods. I went because I wanted to hear the song that a place like that sings. After all, I’d been living in seclusion the last year or so (although, as I’ve said before, I did venture out of the house sometimes), and as such, I had nothing else on my plate that day. It was a beautiful morning and I had access to the car my wife and I shared, so I thought upon waking that day, “Why not?”
I arrived at the park fairly early, bringing with me only a few bottles of water and, per my usual custom, a notebook. With these and my pipe stowed into a small knapsack, I stretched, grunted, and proceeded to hike my way into the heart of the park, the words of John Muir at the forefront of my mind: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
The trail at this park, which is thought to be one of the most strenuous hiking trails in the state of Missouri, is in the shape of a figure 8. In other words, halfway through you can double back if you’re tired. On most of my prior visits to this park, I opted to do the entire trail. But today I planned to double back at the cross point, not because I thought I’d be tired (although I did think that; I mean, I’d been spending the last year sitting around thinking, so of course I was completely out of shape), but because I hadn’t come to hike as much as I’d come to find a secluded place and sit there for a few hours, meditating and thinking and doing all the usual sort of mental things that I tend to do. As such, I knew that opting for the entire trail would take up way too much time, and I had to be back in St. Louis to pick the wife up by 6:00pm. So, with that plan in mind, I chose not to conserve my energy, a decision I would rue later in the day.
After about twenty minutes into the hike, my thoughts drifted to my late father. I had expected this, for less than a year prior to his death, he and I had hiked this very trail together. I should clarify that we didn’t get too far along the trail, for he was dying of cancer at that point and his body, which had been subjected to many rounds of chemotherapy over the last few years, was nowhere near fit enough to convey him through the entire park. Still, we came that day, he and I, to enjoy some father/son time in a beautiful place. We knew he was dying. He always talked about beating the cancer, but we both knew the truth: it was beating him and had been doing so for some time now. Either way, we came and hiked for as long as he was able, and on that day we had some of the most profound discussions I ever experienced with him. During one of these conversations, I used a term that utterly impressed him. He, like me, was obsessed with geology. We were standing off the trail, staring at a certain rock about which he had been pontificating for the last ten minutes (my dad was an outrageously quiet man unless the topic of discussion was either 1970s rock music or geology—in which case you couldn’t shut him up). He was speaking of all the clues he noticed which informed him that this rock had been washed here by some ancient flow of water. He was mentioning how the Earth compensates for an empty space when something gets moved, and I said, “You mean ‘displacement?’” His eyes lit up and he smiled big and said, “Yeah, exactly that! Displacement. I’m impressed.” That was quite something, for my dad was not easy to impress.
I smiled at the memory, but my smile turned sour when I noted that in just a few months (August 2016) it would be ten years since his death. I missed him, but more importantly, I was reminded of that ever-present inevitability that hovers like a specter over us all: someday, as incredible as it sometimes seems, we will die… Our existence, which is characterized by so many “somethings,” will, at some point invert and become one great big “nothing.” Sometimes it’s so hard to really, truly grasp the full weight of that.
Anyway, I should point out that on this particular spring day there was not one single cloud in the sky, which was of such a deep and crisp blue that even a curmudgeon like me, who otherwise prefers his days to be gray and gloomy and wet, couldn’t help but feel as though reality itself was saying that somehow everything in this fucked-up world was going to be okay. Even if it was a lie (which I know it is), it was worth believing on that day. The blue sky, the lush green of the foliage, the earthy, nut-colored hue of the beaten trail, and the silvery tone of the occasional boulder all conspired together to lull me into feeling, if only for a little while, that there wasn’t a single instance of suffering anywhere on the surface of the planet in that moment.
(You know that old saying? “We lie best when we lie to ourselves.”)
After a few sips of water, I hiked on…
Perhaps two hours had passed since I’d started. I was feeling good. Moving briskly, thinking that perhaps I wasn’t as out of shape as I’d thought, and now humming the theme song to Game of Thrones, I was on the lookout for a place to sit for a few hours and meditate. That’s when I remembered that just past a bend in the trail ahead, you could stray from the path for about fifteen minutes and eventually come to a decent-sized creek. I recalled that a few flat boulders sat in this creek, their surfaces jutting out of the water just enough for a man to sit on them and stay dry.
Checkmate, I thought, and after the bend in the trail, I left the path and made my way to this location.
There’s a small waterfall somewhere nearby that place, for even though I couldn’t see it, I could hear it. Had it been any louder it might have spoiled the effect, but it was just right and I sensed that I’d found the perfect spot to Buddha-sit my ass for a few hours. Navigating the creek wasn’t hard at all, and in no time there I was, sitting on a smooth, silver boulder, surrounded by gushing water on all sides, a vertical wall of earth and roots to the left of the creek, behind me; and an arching slope of grass and trees, down which I had hiked to get here, to the right… in front of me. The earthen aroma of encompassing Nature enveloped me, clinging to me like smoke, and I decided to augment the smell and the smoke by lighting my pipe.
And with that, my adventure was finally ready to truly begin…
From my position on the boulder, I instantly noticed a giant tree on the arching slope to my right. It was close to the creek bank, just one among a score of such trees, but for some reason this particular specimen stood out to me. I’m not the fellow who knows his trees, so I can’t knowledgably impress others by saying, “Oh, that there? Why, that’s a chestnut tree. And that? Just your textbook elm.” The only trees I know on sight are maples and birches. If I had to guess, I’d say the tree I was looking at just then was an oak, but I cannot be certain. Perhaps someday I will revisit that particular section of the park, snap a photo of the tree, and simply ask Google about it. In any case, this tree (we’ll call it an oak unless otherwise corrected) was tall and thick and, if I had to guess, quite old. It spoke to me of sturdiness and persistence, of the hardships of withstanding the elements, and of standing fast against the test of time. And for some ludicrous reason, a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree popped into my head: “And the tree was happy.”
My suspicion was that, yes, this tree was happy.
And why shouldn’t it be happy? All it ever has to do is just stand there and be what it is. It’s under the pressure of no one’s expectations.
On impulse, I pulled my notebook from my knapsack and proceeded to sketch the tree and the scene around it. I’m no artist by any stretch of the word, but I feel my rough illustration, crude though it was, captured at least a hint of the aura this particular tree was giving off, at least enough to ensure that I’ll always be able to recreate the sensation every time I look at it. Had anyone seen me at that moment (no one did—there was no one else around for miles), they’d have beheld an unkempt, unshaved man smoking his pipe and sketching something in a notebook. As such, they likely would never have imagined that I’m actually a pedantic city boy who couldn’t have told them what genus of tree I was drawing.
Here’s the sketch:
As I was drawing the tree, a quote from William Butler Yeats came into my mind: “Though the leaves are many, the root is one.” I admit, I have never quite understood this statement. Dig up any tree and you will find more than one root. You’ll find tons of different roots, in fact; stretching out all over the place, like an underground web. Perhaps by “root,” Yeats meant the trunk? Maybe. That would make more sense, both practically and philosophically. And yet the more I thought about it, the more I sensed Yeats knew exactly what he was saying. The root is one. Yes. Isn’t that exactly what the Buddhists have been saying for centuries? That though we are many, we are all one. Perhaps this idea of separate individuals is merely an illusion—a deception, even—one that has caused our species to forget some basic truth about ourselves, that we’re all connected, that we’re all parts of a whole, portions of one sum, that we’re all cells in the tissue of one great, indelible organism, the organism of consciousness. And perhaps this illusion, this deception, is at the very heart of the collective ache we humans feel, the concealed culprit of that thing we call the human condition. I don’t know. I admit that it sounds a bit silly, the idea that we’re all one. And yet some deep, deep, primal place within me is haunted by the notion, haunted because somewhere down there in the lowermost recesses of my subconscious, I know that it’s true. And crazier still is the notion that there’s another part of me, lurking in that same deep place, that hates this truth, a skewed part of me that craves separation, individuality, and isolation. But why? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the question we’ve been trying to answer all this time.
At this point, I stopped drawing and began looking at the tree in a new way. I recalled an image I had seen somewhere, an image showing a tree as it actually is, not just the part we can see above the ground. The trunk went as deep into the ground as it did into the air… and just as there were branches at the top, so too were there roots at the bottom, making the thing look like a kind of dumbbell, half in the ground, half out of it, as seen in this diagram:
And it hit me at that moment that this tree was a perfect symbol for the true nature of reality, that things are almost never what they appear, that for everything we perceive on the surface, there is always more going on below. A tree is never just a tree… it’s more than that. It’s a complex, living thing, only part of which is presented visually to us. Likewise, existence and reality and life itself are always more than we can detect with our senses. There are doors down the hallway of reality that we’ve never walked through or even opened, because, just as with the roots of a tree, we don’t see these doors, and thus we don’t know they’re there. Or maybe some of us do. Not me, but someone somewhere. People who have trained themselves to see more than that which is presented to them. And it occurred to me just then that that’s precisely why I was doing what I was doing. The seclusion. The removal from the world. The deliberate exit from the general populace. The turning off of that blaring radio… All of it was because I wanted to be someone who saw more, someone who perceive not just a tree but a tree and its roots… Someone who knew how and where to find those hidden doors along the forgotten hallways of reality, someone who has opened them and stepped through to the mysteries beyond…
Then I recalled the phrase, “As above, so below.” I knew through my previous studies that the saying was taken from the Hermetica, a 2nd century Greek/Egyptian collection of philosophical texts. The phrase, which today can be taken to mean many things, initially meant that whatever occurred in one sphere of reality would correspondingly occur in the opposite sphere of reality (whatever that means), embodied in the dichotomy between the “above” (or, in heaven) and the “below” (or, on Earth).
The tree was like that… As the branches reached for the sky above, so the roots dug into the ground below. Thus, the tree epitomized for me a kind of dualism, a yin and yang fused together, a representation of Newton’s proverb that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that what goes up will come down, the life is just a cycle of above and below, life and death, highs and lows. And I observed that whatever we do in this life does somehow echo in eternity, whatever eternity means. There is no action, nor a single thought, that doesn’t somehow invert and karmically come back to us.
I suddenly felt that my thoughts were trending toward the absurd. Indeed, I felt quite silly thinking about the implications of some tree and its roots. So I set my notebook aside and relit my pipe, trying to focus on something else but still being somehow captivated by that goddamn tree. Before too long, I glanced back at it. It was mid-April, and the leaves were out in their full splendor. The leaves of this particular tree were of a rich, ferny green. A light wind was blowing them about gently, and the silliness returned as I thought, just for the briefest of moments, that this tree was using its leaves to wave at me. Smiling, I finally gave into the absurdity and allowed my true inner nerd to surface. I actually waved back and, as crazy it as sounds, spoke aloud. To the tree. I said, “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, young man.” And in my mind, I imagined the tree saying, “Young? Son, I haven’t been young since there were Injuns roaming about these lands.” To which I replied, “You know, it’s actually politically correct to say ‘Native American.’ The term ‘Injun’ is considered to be offensive to some.” At this, the tree bristled and said, “I won’t be corrected by a Leafless One.” And that’s when I realized that this tree was actually a dick.
So I packed up my shit and hopped back over to the arched slope, giving the tree my middle finger as I passed it.
“Fucking racist asshole,” I said.
As I began the hike back to my car, which I estimated would take two hours, the truth about my body’s condition hit home. To say I was “out of shape” is putting it mildly. Having conserved no energy, I flung myself down trail with moans and groans. When I finally staggered to my car at the end of the trail, I was soaked with sweat, breathing in giant, rough heaves, and babbling slightly, under my breath.
Still, it was an insightful adventure, and I drove back to St. Louis feeling as though I was richer for having come…
 The park is called Hawn State Park. *shrugs*
 John Muir (1838–1914), a Scottish-American naturalist and one of the first advocates for preserving various sections of wilderness in the United States. He wrote several books and essays about his adventures out West, and his activism specifically led to the creation of two National Parks: Yosemite and Sequoia.