When I was eleven or twelve years old, I had a summer camp counselor who took us out into the woods and showed us things: how wintergreen picked along a path tasted better than chewing gum, how the roots of Queen Anne’s lace could be eaten like carrots, the delicacy of fern fiddleheads. Mostly city children, we were amazed. The things that grew all around us had uses, purposes beyond ornament.
They could feed us, heal us. Clearly, I never forgot the experience, and there was more to it. As we were chewing leaves and spitting grit from roots, the counselor hushed us and told us to look up to pay attention to how the wind swayed the tall Michigan pines, to watch the way aspens flipped their leaves to meet the rain and sun, and to think about the creatures that lived without human intervention or even notice in the forest canopy.
Leaves distinguish trees—each silhouette is distinctive of the species and is the best way to identify it. The science of trees spans medicine to ecology, and beyond. Just as every tree has a specific leaf identity, many trees heal in a specific way. We can bathe in birch essence or frankincense like royalty; be nourished by dates, ginkgo nuts, or linden flower honey; inhale eucalyptus steam and sip willow tea.
There is also healing that can’t be seen, such as the memories evoked by the comforting scent of camphor; the incense of hickory; the energy, or qi, of the larch; the power of forest bathing among sugi trees; and the inspiration of ash and yucca to heal our planet and, ultimately, ourselves.
I’ve forgotten that camp counselor’s name, but I’ll never forget that day in the woods. Sometimes, when I’m troubled, I go outside and just look up at my maple tree. Sitting with it, inhaling the subtle fragrance of its greening in the spring or the headier scent of its decaying leaves in autumn, make me better. Sometimes tending to it heals me as well—it gets me outdoors to sweep up its seedpods and, especially, to rake its leaves in the autumn, perhaps my favorite contemplative practice. In his essay “Listening to Natural Law,” Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation wrote: “In the spring when the sap runs through the trees, we have ceremonies, thanksgiving. For the maple, chief of the trees, leader of all the trees, thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for all the trees.” For me, the raking and the sweeping are a kind of thanksgiving.