At breakfast she is eager to release her damp dream into the dry air.
“We were traveling to see the ospreys, mama. They were on the cell phone towers making their gigantic nests.”
That is all it takes to release galaxies of oxytocin into my bloodstream and make my womb-heart contract.
This is the mama of knobby knees pressed into ribs while lying on the couch and the smell of soft cheek at the end of the day and the squeaky, hummingbird voice of her toddlerdom. Sometimes it feels like mama is all I have left, the dusty bones and pollen grains and dried insect bodies of her childhood.
And I know why she has been thinking about the ospreys. It is my own story lodged in her psyche, a surprising teaching about the natural world that has embedded in her.
Yesterday an actual osprey visited with me in the returning and circling of nest building. It is a serious thing, to be with a creature this alive. As she approached in the morning glare, her size and coloring began to differentiate her from a crow. There was no denying her creamy belly, the brown mottling through her wings, and the brown streak across her cheek as the mark of a fishing bird too far from water.
She brought a thunder with her as she dove for a branch with no intention of landing. With a fierce crack she broke the upper branches of the snag above me, somehow knowing the wood’s exact readiness. Branches snapped and a moment later she was flying away with one long, snake-like piece between her talons.
The truth is I have no idea if this bird was female. All I know is the biological squeeze of nest building and the hope of something coming.
She disappeared through the sky ethers, bound to add another piece to the massive, stunning nest she and her mate built in the cell tower high on the hill. Oh, how the wild always pushes forward through the steel industry of man in that way that only living things can.
As she flew off and I stood below the shriveled up tree of her choosing, a thought sprung upon me:
Always leave a snag standing.
Snags are where owls hold secret meetings and woodpeckers expertly stalk insects and a zillion microscopic worlds turn round. I sensed their underworldly importance as a keystone species of sorts, something dead but upright and life giving.
Always leave a snag standing.
Someone told me this once and when it was said, I knew it in my body already.
In a snag’s peeling bark and ever-hollowing center, in its still reaching roots…
A hiding place,
a food source,
a look out,
a place to live.
We don’t see many snags living and dying in our tidy, domesticated world.
We work hard to keep the messiness of decay and aging cleaned up quickly, already hauled off or woodchipped. We cut the wilted daffodils before they even have a chance to droop to the ground. We throw the roses in the trash with just the slightest ring of brown along their loosening petal grasp.
It is no wonder that we kneel in worship of youth. Its fresh essence and simple beauty pleases us. The mystery and ache of impermanence glimmers there too. But the truth is that we spend so little of our lives in the crisp green of pure youth. The vast majority of our years are spent in the slow arch of living while dying, so much more indistinct than we may realize.
Even when a tree is at its most vital, only ten percent of its tissue- the outermost rings, its sapwood- can be thought of as actually alive. All the rings of the inner heartwood are essentially dead, just lignin-reinforced cellulose built up year after year, stacked layer upon layer, through droughts and storms, diseases and stresses, everything that the tree has lived through preserved and recorded within its own body. Every tree is held up by its own history, the brown bones of its ancestors.
When I really look I find snags everywhere in the forest, each in their own personal expression of rot. I think of all the snags living in us, what is discarded, the traumas, the shadow burials, the intelligent fears, the abandoned pieces of ourselves that we long to forget. We may have tried to cut these snags down through therapy, medication, herbs, journaling, comfort-eating, or meditation. It is true that these snags may slowly break down over time, becoming less mighty with every passing year. But they may surprise us still, each time we catch them continuing to stand, all that we thought we had already abandoned in the name of healing and being fixed.
These unwanted and frightened fragments within ourselves are always longing for integration within the ecosystem of our lives. They remind us that there is nothing that needs to be changed, beautified, or even cured within us. Perhaps our pain, our sorrow, our hurts are not asking to be fixed, wanting instead to be held and reintegrated instead.
Every snag within me longs for this witnessing. With creeping revelation I have come to see the way that all of the things that I once felt were killing me have actually contributed to moving me closer to some greater pulse of aliveness.
Stretched wide within the earth, the roots of my gnarled snags remind me of my resilience.
They have resourced my life in ways I still can not fully understand. They have provided rich food for me to parent my way into spiritual maturity and beauty-making. For my morning prayers only ring with wild jubilation and astonishment because of their direct connection to my starless depths.
Then there are other snags that are slower to disintegrate, the snags I have tried to grow into stone just for the sheer stability of it. The stubborn wood that holds my longing to prove my worth through my doings and my old pattern of working harder and harder again.
There are so many ways I try and keep untangling the mess of me. Instead these snags remind me of some wisdom in this disorder, to just let the dwellings of my emotions be. For they seem to not be able to exist without each other, fear and hope, grief and beauty rolling over each other in a heap, licking, biting, claws out, hair matted, breath heavy, tongues hanging, gripping each other in turn. They somersault over and over each other until their naturalness blurs and I become less attached, more at ease with how they must hold each other.
Do not attempt to cut down your snags. We have this urge to try and dispose of all of the misunderstood parts of ourselves. So often we think we can outsmart our suffering or outwit our pain. We can’t afford to think we can banish the spirit that lives in this slow-dying wood, these slow-dying bodies. These snags are life affirming, sustenance for the rest of our short passing through, wood for the osprey’s nest, organic matter to slough and decay into the forest floor.
We belong to the disobedience of feral things. I admit that I am still working to retrain all of the conditioning in me to tidy what feels in disarray. I have to hold back my working hands from everything I have been silently taught to dispose of: pick those weeds, rake those leaves, blow those soil beds, keep that blue-green grass a blanket of excellence.
Do we have the patience to watch the breakdown without immediately cleaning up? What happens when we let layer upon layer of nutritive material build, feeding the black butter of the soil and all of its creatures?
The image of the osprey with her jagged stick circles in my mind and the rest of the day I long to see her nest. On a whim we hop on our bikes and ride down the small road, across the big road, and up the hill to the local high school. Along the way we pass the snag again, now occupied by the jackhammering of a hairy woodpecker. I wonder how long it will stay standing and when my neighbors will cut it down.
As we come to the high school parking lot I see that it is covered in dandelions, no weed control since the schools have all been closed for the remainder of the year. This sunshine patch of yellow rebellion and food for the bees makes me smile. Some small win.
In flight she looked so expansive but sitting atop her nest now the osprey looks small and camouflaged. I wonder what comfort she takes nesting in this looming metal tower. I wonder if it has been more peaceful since the school has been closed. I wonder if she is listening above us now, my daughter complaining about wanting to go home, my son ready to head off in a different direction. The difficulty, the frustration, the softness lives here with me.
As we pedal away, I give a silent thanks to have witnessed the beautiful chaos of this eyrie, so rugged and sturdy, the interconnectedness of that snag branch tucked tightly into its matrix, and to this bird, waiting to call herself mama.
Published in the January 2021 newsletter of the Nature Evolutionaries
Photo by Karo Kujanpaa on Unsplash