(Note: This post was actually published on August 25, 2013. I’m placing it here for purposes of searchability.)
Entering the woods on a sunny day, breathing in the cool, earth-smelling air, I looked up to see an airy, slender evergreen of a variety I didn’t recognize. The short needles were soft and hung in graceful, drooping swags. The lower branches were thickly draped in green moss. The cones were tiny–about the size of my thumbnail, maybe a tiny bit bigger. I touched the scaly bark in greeting and moved on.
Later, when I started walking in Forest Park, I noticed these spindly trees everywhere. The further I moved into the shade of the understory, the more mossy the unfamiliar trees became, until some of them seemed like lumpy beasts preparing to trundle off through the ferns.
I was captivated by the way they seemed only minimally dependent on the soil for survival. One young hemlock grew atop a tall stump, some of its roots pouring down the outside of the stump like a waterfall, three feet before plunging into the soil.
Searching through my books on native plants and trees, I finally found a name for this mysterious tree: Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). It’s hard to articulate the magic of hemlock. Even capturing it in pictures is hard, with the way it grows in the shade. My pictures really don’t do it justice.
It’s been a while since I fell so hard for a tree or plant. On my daily walk, every hemlock I see (and there are a LOT of them) seems to call out to me. I greet them all–silently, in my head, because it’s embarrassing to get caught talking out loud to a tree by someone who doesn’t believe trees can talk. Yes, I speak from experience.
My relationship with these trees is new, and they are still largely a mystery to me. But seeing the way they grow atop the ruins of fallen others, I can see why they appeal to me right now. I’m doing something similar–building a new life atop the lessons and experiences of an old one. It’s hard when things fall apart not to view the past as a rubbish heap. It’s good to have an ally to show us that ruin and destruction can be the food of a beautiful new life.
I think it’s also significant that hemlock thrives in deep shade. It spends its formative years in the shadows of larger trees, growing slowly, biding its time until a gap appears in the canopy–usually when one of the bigger trees falls. A good friend to those of us who have to dwell in the dark for a time due to circumstances beyond our control. Hemlock can remind us that the world around us can change dramatically all at once, that the barriers can topple without warning. A reminder to use our time in the dark to good purpose, preparing ourselves for the moment when our opportunity to grow arrives.