In the dim light of winter solstice, 2006, I was asked by my mother to bring a small hatchet and venture into the forest behind our house to cut down a Christmas tree.
Seventeen and spiritually broke, terrified of that hallmark phrase, “the real world,” I didn't want to admit that I was depressed, uncertain about what to do after graduating, and craving something deeper.
Shamanism, or what is typically referred to as such, had contained a visceral kind of magic that I instinctively connected with. Raised in an alternative school on a little island off the Canadian coast of Cascadia, my down-to-earth mother was the only thing preventing me from becoming the kind of hippie that forms our geographic stereotype.
A deep, lifelong interest in the natural world is what got me started, and this interest had lent me a special kind of listening.
It was cold. Colder than usual. Putting on a coat and searching inside the side-shed for a hatchet, I suddenly stumbled unrequited over a memory of my father. It was a complicated emotion: longing, anger, and profound disappointment. I hadn’t seen, nor spoken with him since I was twelve. But that's another story. A long one.
Finding the hatchet behind a box of old self-help books, I began trundling towards the cedar gate that lead into miles of evergreen wilderness. Dutifully, I dulled the emotions of pain, even of longing. I tried to think instead of the family I had, who loved me, whom I wished to support.
Shutting the gate behind me, I noticed a beautiful fir sapling standing small and strong next to the trail.
In this photograph, the fir sapling lies just beyond the limits of the eye.
In terms of size and proportion, the sapling was perfect. Shoot, I thought. Didn't want to destroy anything for mere cultural rite. Better to find the top of an older tree, or a tree that had fallen down in the recent windstorm.
So, I moved on. During the next several hours, I would search an area of three square miles for a tree resembling that accidental paragon discovered at the outset.
No such luck. The sky was beginning to darken. My frustrations grew, realizing in disappointment that my discovery of that beautiful tree would not be replicated. Like an itch, the feelings of pain and anger at my father began to return, and — without fully realizing it — I began to direct them inward.
Trying to forget the pain of past and future, I arrived reluctantly in the present—alongside the sapling.
In a moment of sudden helplessness, I turned back and headed towards the house. I still remember the excuses filling my head; “it’s just a tree, it might grow back, your family will be grateful,” et cetera. I didn’t feel good about it, but the increasing darkness of mind and sky were persuasive arguments.
Trying my best to forget the pain of past and future, I arrived reluctantly in the present, alongside the sapling. Pulling out the hatchet, a brief moment outside of time occurred, during which I appreciated the quiet exuberance of the creatured life before me: eyes tracing its lines, hands easily surrounding its diminutive circumference, mind gauging the best place to make a cut.
Realizing I had just slammed my axe into the side of the tree, my soul woke up schizophrenic: half contented, half in shock, body numbly persisting in its violence. I had discovered the perfect tree; I had ended a life. Disgusted by my complacency, subsumed by apathy, I was — without warning — a paradox that couldn’t resolve itself. Something had to give.
When the axe reached the tree’s center, something gave: I broke into tears and slumped against my life, body a tingling mess, confronted by the loneliness it had felt all year, my need for a father who loved me, my simple inability to comprehend betrayal.
Having gestated in the scholarship of shamanism, my yearning for deep connection was delivered in a shock of presence. I could barely breathe. All I could do was cry, and question.
Why the hell was this happening? Was I going crazy? Was I just a wimp? Why did I still care about my father? Why did I feel so alone? Why was I depressed? What did I really want? A thousand questions, summarized in Hamlet’s opening line: “Who’s there”?
Alone, I couldn’t answer. I was too small. Somehow, the sapling had asked these questions — not me1. Knees weak, eyes dewed, I remained seated.
Inevitably, I rose. Taking a deep breath, I very slowly took the hatchet, retraced with shaking fingers the v-shaped lines of my incision, and heart breaking, renewed the act of violence.
Except this time, I was not alone. It was not an act of violence. Impossibly, profoundly, simply, the fir sapling revealed itself as compassion. “It” had become “Thou”. Something told me my tears were neither for myself nor for the tree, but somehow, for each of us. Unconscious ere now, cleaving myself with every stroke. The tree? Suffering, just the same.
The world felt different. Within the encroaching darkness, I hoisted the fading life over my left shoulder. In the throes of paralyzing regret, a more courageous part of me was starting to realize that a sacrifice had taken place. I was confronted; asked to host one emotion, and one emotion only: gratitude.
During that winter, there was deep magic coursing through the world.
For the first time since I was a child, I found I could listen to that magic. My encounter with the sapling left me with an inability to commit pretense.
In the spring of 2007, my final semester at high school, I decided to become a peer tutor. Started writing poetry that exhumed vehemence. Infused with a species of courage which could only ever be borrowed, I gave away who I was. And for the first time in many years, there was no need to be anyone but myself.