Grandmother Willow and the True Test of Strength: A children's story for adults

Imagine you are a tree in a forest. You’re just a little guy, new to the woods. Learning what it means to be a tree in the springtime. One day you wake up thirsty, knowing you are craving something. You are surrounded by tall giants reaching their branches up high to the sun. So you reach your branches way up high to collect sunlight, just like you see around you.  The sun feels warm and happy and naturally attracts you to it. It feels great to be nourished by the light, and you begin to grow.

As you grow, your leaves get bigger and your trunk gets taller. Finally, you aren’t the smallest tree in the grove anymore, and you like that feeling. One day, you’ll be as mighty as the giants around you, if you just keep reaching…

But not too long after, you start to notice places of pain inside. You feel tired, slow, malnourished somehow. So you reach higher and higher for more light, more photosynthesis. Your leaves grow bright green with their chlorophyll in the hot summer sun, yet your insides feel like they’re shriveling.

You begin to feel frustrated. You have always been told to collect your energy from the sun. The goal is to grow tall and it’s clear that to do that is to reach. You are doing that, more and more and more, but it’s still not working. You begin to wonder, “Am I a messed up tree? All the other trees are reaching high to the sun and seem like they are doing great – it’s just me who feels incomplete on the inside. What’s wrong with me?”

Each day you try harder and harder to collect the sun, and each day you feel worse and worse. Until one day, you notice a very old tree nearby[3]. This tree seems to be glowing from the inside, creating its own soft light somehow. She is full and whole, even if she’s a little smaller than the giants, yet she is not striving for the light like you and the others. You can actually feel the difference being around her.

You know she has a secret the other trees haven’t told you. Maybe they don’t know it themselves. So you cautiously get up the courage to ask.

“Old tree, what is your secret to being so whole? How do you have everything you need without stretching for the sun like us?”

And she answers, “As above, so below. You must let the dark half grow.”

You look at her with confusion and disgust. She must be speaking crazy non-sense. Clearly you were just delusional for a moment. She’s not even reaching for the sun and she’s not the tallest tree, so her words don’t matter. You need to keep reaching.

But weeks later, you notice something terrible happening. The air is turning cooler, crisper. Your bright green leaves are losing their plumpness, greenness, and ability to collect light. They are starting to shrivel and fall off. OH SHIT. If you lose all your leaves, how will you be able to grow?! How will you be a tree at all?! You will be nothing but a joke!

You look over anxiously and see the old tree, just as slow and content and glowing as before. You see her leaves are falling off too, but she is not afraid.

Are you that crazy, old tree, that you don’t even notice your leaves are falling off?! That your only form of sustenance is shriveling and soon we will both be dead! How can you smile at yourself at a time like this?

The wise old tree looks at you gently, and speaks firmly.

“To consider my leaves the only form of sustenance is to miss the point of being a tree. You have more to learn about your own wholeness. What you see of me above the earth is merely a small reflection of where I reach below it. If you want to feel complete, you must attend to your roots.”

Roots? You think. You’ve heard of them. You’ve even sometimes felt them tickling from somewhere hidden below. But they have always been in the wrong direction. You want to go up, to shine! They are a distraction from your goal.

But you’re desperate. Your leaves are almost completely gone now and you have no other choice. This is a long shot, but it’s the only one you have.

So you begin to reach down. You feel little nubs under the soil, though you can’t see them. It’s cold down there, dark, wet. You feel alone and scared and a little stupid. “Is anyone else doing this or am I crazy like the old tree?”

But you continue. You use your reaching energy and aim it down this time. You can feel it awakening your shriveled roots, but it isn’t pleasant. It hurts. It’s gross, and it’s all the feelings you had been able to avoid above in the sun.

The first thing you feel is how much you’ve neglected these little roots. You begin to feel sorry for pretending like this part of you wasn’t there. As you cry, your tears wet the soil and you notice your little roots tingle as they absorb the water.  “Interesting” you think.

From the strength of your own tears and attention, they seem to be ready, and they begin to grow down. The next thing you notice is that moving through dirt and mud is very different than reaching through air. It’s very different so at first it’s uncomfortable, but eventually, you almost get used to it. You even begin to notice a certain trickling that seems to happen. These roots are pulling energy from the soil to feed you! The old tree was right! There is something down here, once you move past the discomfort.

You realize one day that you’ve been so wrapped up in growing down that you’ve forgotten what’s going on above. You draw your attention up above ground again, and notice that all your leaves are gone! They are covered in snow, and everything seems frozen in time.

Panicked, you return to your roots, deciding you will drive downward with the same fervency you once used to reach to the sky. You must if you will survive, you think. You must get this root thing taken care of so you can go fix your branches and leaves again. But the mud is too thick. You notice that the harder you press against it, the firmer it holds you in place. You are trapped! Shit! Now there’s nothing good above and nowhere below. And you are stuck and cold and alone.

Then, from somewhere you can’t see, from somewhere even below you, you hear the voice of the old tree, more softly than when you heard her above.

“You have found the darkness of winter, child. Good. Now do not fight the mud. Become its friend, embrace the nutrients it offers you right where you are.”

You are tired and sad, but you listen to her. You surrender your fight with the dirt. Instead you begin to notice all the little articulations of soil and sand and clay. You feel the rocks, tiny and large, that you have brushed against but never noticed. You are not in a rush, you have nowhere else to go. And as you relax into that, you begin to feel the tingle again at the tips of your roots. They are growing! The soil is moving around you, ever so slowly, but only when you release into it.

This becomes your practice, slow and steady, feeling all the rocks nudging you in this direction or that. Rather than fighting it or pushing straight through, like you would have pushed through the air above, you learn to meander. This journey is slow and winding, and you aren’t sure where it is taking you.

Sometimes you hear from the old tree. You still don’t know how she does it, but she must communicate through the ground. She must have very deep roots to be so far under you. You sometimes fathom all the painful dark places she must have come across to get so far down, yet you remember her soft smile and glow the first time you saw her….

Which reminds you: the surface! Again you’d forgotten. Boy, you think, you must be all but destroyed back on the surface. You had relegated yourself to a life of darkness forever, which you don’t mind at all. The meandering calm pace, the gentle connection you felt with the other trees who had roots below, this wasn’t a scary place anymore. You’d even gotten used to the coldness. You now feel it as comforting.

But you decide to return, if for a moment, to the surface. The tingling in your bones compels you to go. As you move up your roots, you realize just how big they’ve grown. You remember all the countless bumps and cracks. You are proud of yourself.

And just then, you crest above the soil line, up into the part of you that’s been living above. At first the bright sunshine whites out your vision. “It’s so hot up here!” You think, as you realize that getting so used to being below made what used to feel like home now feel foreign.

Adjusting to life above the surface again, you take stock. Your trunk is thicker, your branches are taller, and you have little pink buds waiting to press out new leaves.

You can’t believe it! The old tree was right. Your source of nutrients from below really did feed you, all of you! You glance around quickly to find her. Standing there, tall and content, this old tree is the most beautiful tree in all the forest. You feel her glowing again, and now you know her secret. She has taken care of her roots. And she has taught you the same.

You speak to her happily, “look at my new buds and branches! I’ve grown so much since I’ve been down below ground. You were right. Each time I want to grow up I will push my energy down into my roots instead!”

And she answers, “As above, so below. You must let both halves grow. And remember what you learned. The rules are different. Reach for the sun, but meander in the soil. You cannot press straight through what is not air, you must let it invite you through.”

So you smile and begin to feel yourself, both halves at once. Energy below, winding through the dirt, and energy above, shooting to new heights.

You realize that even when you felt shriveled and dead, you were always whole. You only needed to access the nutrients your roots already knew exactly where to find. And now, as you grow, you remember those places, you have access and resources, and you know that no matter how far below you journey, you will never be alone.

Unless Grandmother Willow has better plans...

Rachel ThorComment