One day many years ago, my friend Eve Apprill asked if I would like to go visit some trees in Paris. It was an unusual invitation – though, given her name, I suppose it made sense that Eve was into flora and fauna. I’m from New Jersey. For most of my life I have loved cities. Bricks and asphalt, streetlamps and cafés, apartments illuminated from within. But Eve made the tree thing sound appealing, so I went along out of curiosity.
She took me, not to one of Paris’ many parks, but to its Gallo-Roman heart, the Île de la Cité, and the neighboring Right Bank behind the Hotel de Ville. I remember the trees as sturdy yet almost invisible in their small squares of dirt, so much a part of the urban landscape that they didn’t really register as trees. Eve knew their names. She invited me to look, really look at them, to stand quietly amid the traffic and tourists and put a hand to them, and eventually press my back against one or two. Part of me felt absolutely ridiculous. Part of me was fascinated. It was like approaching an animal, offering it your scent, making wordless contact.
Times changed, the city changed, and my love for it waned. After a long quest, the Jersey girl found herself in the countryside with a house in need of a complete overhaul and a garden full of green stuff. Before we’d even moved in, I went round and shook hands with all the trees, baffled by my good fortune. Laurel and walnut, apple and oak, pine and hazelnut. It was like being admitted to a fancy ball and not knowing how to dance, but wanting very much to meet everyone anyway. The linden waved graciously; the poplars stood in a circle and swayed. But the tree I was most drawn to was the birch. There were five of them close together, their trunks throttled by thick growths of ivy.
One day, I decided to set them free. On that occasion, I spoke to them, as one does when one is removing ivy from a tree – it’s like pulling the Alien off of Sigourney Weaver. So you talk, you cajole, you tell the tree it’s gonna be fine. Or at least that’s what I did. Beneath their ivy chains, the birches were milky white, papery and smooth. They stood elegantly like palominos in their green surroundings.
Then Covid appeared and the world went to hell in a handbasket. On a particularly dark day, I took my frazzled self to wander the garden and wound up in front of the birches. I remembered Eve all those years ago. I got quiet. I tried not to expect anything, not even to want anything except to be there. I didn’t want to make up pretty stories about the birch tree talking to me. I wanted to be in contact with something that was steadier than me in that moment, something that had access to deep earth and the stability it affords. I put my palm on the tree. My hand sat snugly on its curve. It felt solid and alive. I put my other hand on it. From there, my arms of their own accord went round the trunk. I leaned in. The bark was warm against my cheek. I felt shy and silly. What if bugs crawled in my ear? What if I got a rash? Torso to tree, I felt my heart beating, and something more – a muted drone, a vibration – that did not come from me. Tension dropped off me like sandbags from a hot air balloon. My legs came alive, as though they were trying to imitate the birch, reaching motionless towards the ground. At some point I broke the embrace, cupped my hand around the trunk once more, and then moved away, feeling markedly better.
Say what you like about the tree hugging: I’m not alone. In “The Birch-Tree at Loschwitz,” 19th-century British poet Amy Levy describes an experience uncannily similar to mine:
Lone and tall, with silver stem,
A birch-tree stands apart;
The passionate wind of spring-time
Stirs in its leafy heart.
I lean against the birch-tree,
My arms around it twine;
It pulses, and leaps, and quivers,
Like a human heart to mine….
Robert Frost, though he swings rather than hugs, also takes solace in the birch:
…I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Not long after I started hugging the birch tree, it left me a note.
I will not tell you what the note said. I hope you will find your own tree, or animal, or piece of music or painting or perhaps even human to embrace and decrypt. But I will tell you what the birch tree taught me:
- to listen to what I’m drawn to and not be ashamed to go towards it.
- to find another way to be with the world, a way that involves other parts of me, not just my thoughts, not just my eyes, not just my words. No rush to know or understand, but a simple presence, open and dumb.
* * *
My wise friend Eve Apprill went on to study and teach about the healing properties of floral elixirs. You can find her courses and potions at Art’Stella, including a birch elixir, which is apparently good for “vitality and regeneration.”
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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