I’ve written quite a few “Six on Saturday” posts and published several photographs on “Wordless Wednesday” since last March, but I’ve not written one piece in the character of the original After Eden posts. It is time to do so. To do it, though, I want to go back about a year to the Alabama Easter storms of 12 April 2020. I mentioned the damage to the garden and the trees lost to winds strong enough to twist, split, and fell giant pines in “Six on Saturday” for May 2nd.
As the cleanup began, though, I became more absorbed with the height of those trees and the enormity of their canopies than with the damage they caused on the ground. And the reason for that is that I had been spending all of the early spring looking at the ground. March through April is the time for the delicate ephemerals to break their three-seasons’ sleep and push through to the warming early spring sun. They are small flowers, often still under the cover of drying and matted leaves. You have to keep your eye to the earth to discover them, to keep from stepping on them–especially spotted wintergreen, whose bloom is no bigger than an English pea, and the cranefly orchid, whose crinkly green leaves with maroon undersides look as though they have already been stepped on.
And there are others. Wild ginger with blooms hidden under their leaves, blooms that give the ginger its other common name, little brown jug. The delicate rue anemone is another tiny wildflower that requires a sharp and dedicated eye, as do the lovely, diminutive bluets.
So, I had been keeping my gaze on the ground, completely unmindful of the trees that created the shaded understory I was investigating. Only in the aftermath did I realize the beauty and dignity I was overlooking, or more accurately underlooking. I was unconscious of decades and repeating seasons of arboreal life above my head while scanning for short-lived beauty beneath my feet. Over the past 10 months, this has become a metaphor of larger meaning for me, a metaphor for short-sightedness, for human selfishness, for sectarianism, for stunted spirituality.
Now, I’m not suggesting some romantic claim for the forest as God’s cathedral; however, I do see nature as the first manifestation of and a mirror of divine creativity, after all, this blog is After Eden. In fact, I could write an entire essay on the eighteenth-century assertion of Gothic architecture, specifically the pointed arch, as finding its inspiration in the branching of trees. Actually, the academic in me cannot avoid sharing the following excerpt from “On the Origins and Theory of the Gothic Arch” (1789) by the Rev. M. Young. Noting that some people credit either the Crusaders or the “Mooresque” style of Spain with the introduction of the pointed arch to the West, others, he reports, argue it is,
“derived from the ancient custom of worshipping in groves, where the eye being long accustomed to contemplate the arches formed by the branches of the trees that [sh]aded their altars, it was natural, when covered buildings succeeded to these groves of worship, that men should endeavour to introduce some similitude between them and those places in which they had been accustomed so long to perform their religious ceremonies ; and that accordingly we find not only the arches formed by the branches exactly imitated by the pointed arch, but the hems of the trees as accurately represented by the fender and clustering pillars. The elegance, ingenuity, and plausibility of this opinion have not failed to procure it the most general approbation” (“The Origin and Theory of the Gothic Arch.” The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. 3, 1789, pp. 55–87. JSTOR).
Again, I’m not claiming trees to be a divine blueprint for sacred spaces. But I am asserting that natural spaces—trees and the forest floor—can serve as paradigmatic reminders to look up as well as down, to search for the ephemerals but not to ignore the grandeur of the environment that makes those delicate beauties possible.
5 Replies to “you can’t see the forest for the forest floor”
Thank you, Susan. It is a thought provoking piece and is beautifully written.
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In my winter walks I marvel at the structure of the trees which is more apparent than when they are covered with leaves.
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Agreed. And, I marvel at their height and (usually) their ability to bend with the wind. It is both beautiful and frightening sometimes here at the lake.
Circular groves of redwoods are known as ‘cathedrals’, for that same reason. They grow around where a tree died a long time ago. They can also grow around the stump of a harvested tree, but are more likely to grow from the stump instead. The best cathedrals grow around a tree that died naturally and slowly, which is now rare where trees had been harvested. A small cathedral lives on one of my properties.
Spring have come!
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