Driving up to Sequoia last weekend, we listened to some TED podcasts. Podcasts are one of my favorite things. The TED talk was about vulnerability and shame. Shame is, at its core, a fear of not being able to connect. We shy away from what makes us feel vulnerable because we are afraid we will fail at connecting with other people. Picking up a telephone makes us feel vulnerable; text messaging does not. The TED speaker said that if we dull our vulnerability, we dull everything about us that makes us human. I am so good at lifting half of myself out of any situation in which I find myself, I've only recently noticed I do it at all.
I am naturally wide open when I hike, and even walking on city streets lowers my guard. I throw my heart and soul into crowds at concerts. Into books. Into, I think, I hope, my writing. But when it comes to people, I hide behind walls, which means my walls are there all the time. I am trying to fall my walls because they hurt me, they shield me from love and chance and luck and optimism. And social media, I think, are walls to hide behind. Safe. Secure. Nothing like the letters we used to write, meant for one person, with our souls all over them. A self can get diffused, scattered into the Internet, tiny meaningless tidbits that are disconnected from our true selves.
I have a media addiction-- facebook, twitter, email, TV, and I don't think I am alone. Right now it's socially acceptable to have your face in a screen at all times. We are all behind walls. We don't want to be fully present, anywhere, at any time. At concerts, the experience is mitigated by millions of tiny screens, experience shoved into a box, so everyone behind you has no choice but to watch you shrink down your own experience by taking yourself and everyone else around you out of the moment.
In Sequoia, there are no cell phones, barely any wireless signals. There are young men in cowboy hats on payphones. The lodges have DVD rentals, free book libraries. People play cards and listen to the radio. My husband and I, driving or hiking through the park, mostly just looked around at everything, the trees, the mountains, the deer, the stars. We stopped for a mother bear and her baby to cross the road and it was all we could talk about for hours.
Another TED talk says to raise your arms up in the air or stand like Wonder Woman and instantly, you will feel less stress, more happiness. In almost every picture of me that weekend, I have my arms up in the air.
We go for hikes through Sequoia groves. I read an article a few weeks ago that said plants do math, advanced trigonometry, and in calculating how much to eat and when, they anticipate the future. Giant Sequoias are immediately recognizable, bright, fiery orange in forests of brown and green. They are the biggest alive things. They take their water from the air and the earth. They reach for one another underground, intertwine their roots to help stabilize one another through the centuries. They not only live through fire, they need fire to survive. They are entire universes to some small species of animals who never know anything but their tree. They live for thousands of years. We are delusional if we think we have an afterlife and they do not, that we are more alive, more conscious than they are. We are crazy, we are lying to ourselves (I understand I have no idea what I am talking about here, because how can I), if we think there is an afterlife for us and not the Sequoia, the whale, wind, water, fire.
I want there to be an afterlife because I want there to be answers. I want to know the things I can never know. I am thinking about the afterlife because it is the reason for all religion and everything supernatural. I can’t decide if or how I believe in god. I can’t decide which story I want to tell myself.
There are fallen sequoias everywhere, and in their footprints new sequoias grow, and the dead giants slowly disintegrate back into the forest floor. Everything happens for a reason and that reason is to keep the world turning, keep life alive.
Fire is the only thing that will open the tiny Sequoia pine cone to release seeds, and the seeds will not grow on a bed of leaves, they need freshly burned ground. Sequoias have a thick, light skin that looks like fire, is made for fire, because it needs fire, and we need suffering, all life does, because we will not grow if we don’t suffer, individually or as a species. We are all of the earth, we and the giant trees and the small fish, and we live by much the same rules.
We did a hike we had never done-- Big Stump trail in Kings Canyon. There are giant, alive trees and a graveyard of stumps of trees cut down by man. It's sad to see the stumps, but also, in a way, thrilling to lay in the middle of a stump and imagine the ghost of the tree growing from your stomach, to feel the ghost of its energy.
Mark read the sign for the stump, and he said, "Sara, did you know this? They sent a cross section of this tree to the Museum of Natural History in New York." I grew up fascinated by that cross section of a giant tree behind glass, a permanent exhibit in the museum. I went on class trips and family trips and it was, next to the blue whale, my favorite thing at the Natural History. I could not imagine that it could be real-- a tree so old, so big. In the museum, there are little signs on certain rings that say, "On this year, Alexander the Great was born." Going back in time thousands, THOUSANDS of years. I never imagined the stump from which it was cut could still be in existence, much less than I would encounter it someday, on a spur of a small trail in Kings Canyon National Park, on the other side of the country, deep in the Sierra Nevadas. I stood on the stump and felt the long lines of thread connect me to my younger self, full of wonder at the museum, and to all the decisions in between and the millions of other people who gazed at the cross section in the Museum of Natural History, or who stood on this stump, and I felt tied together to nature, god, chance, wonder, curiosity, and I thought, yes, we are terrible for killing this giant, but this giant has done some wonderful things for humanity.
I don’t know how to tie my thoughts together. I think that’s what I am getting at. There is so much, and I want to face it all, life and the universe, and I want to breathe it in. I want to be an open field. I want god to be a million different things.
Many of the trees in Sequoia have names, and I stopped as I walked by Clara Barton. She was by herself. Her roots were gentle hills and I walked over and pressed my body against her curves. Her roots were so steady, strong, light, and they supported her giant body, careening straight up into the sky. I thought, I need stronger feet, I need to press them into the ground, I need to be exactly where I stand, I need to pull myself down when I notice myself drifting away. I need to welcome the fire.