The persimmon and witch hazel trees were planted before I was born. The persimmon tree was rarely known or joyfully eaten in our parts. The Witch hazel twisted back and around itself so much that I gave up following one branch as it bent back upon itself and through the loops of her siblings.
By my early teens I had taken to going along with my Dad as he “took a walk around the yard” after a day’s work. The story I love to tell from our “walk around the yard,” is about the family of rabbits who didn’t move when we approached them under the white peach tree. They looked up and some fell over, too dizzy to move. The others took a few steps and collapsed. They were drunk from the old, fallen white peaches.
Years later, after my Dad had died of a broken heart following the death of my twenty-one year old sister, I learned how his “walk around the yard” began. Having already struggled to recover from polio as a young man, there were days when my Dad would wake up, lost in his own interior dark wood. When my mother saw this she handed my Dad something that slowly brought him back to us: the Wayside Gardens catalog. And he would pour over the pages, looking for exotic trees that had a chance to survive in northern Ohio.
Then came the days of anticipation, and reading again about the trees that were on their way to him. And so began his contented “walk around the yard,” touching and gazing with great care and affection each tree, their branches and leaves and fruit. I imagine him becoming one with them, and they with him.
My dad was a photographer of tiny, fragile biologies like mosses and lichens, something that suited a quiet, gentle spirit. He joined a botanical society of university professors who took yearly hikes among the trees. He brought back exceptional photographs of the beauty of the tiny lives that lived under the protection of the trees, that were always filled with light.
Years later when I found myself lost in my own interior dark wood, I too walked among the trees, the only plant species that lived upright like me. I carried my cameras as an outward explanation for walking among my brothers, but no longer with my Dad.
Then one day I saw him, hiking a narrow ridge at the top of the Cataloochee in the Smokey Mountains. “Cataloochee” is a Cherokee word meaning, “those who walk upright.” I could see clearly between each tree at the top of a narrow ridge, and between them, my Dad, a Cataloochee, one who walks upright.
On one of these hikes, when I was lost in my interior darkness, the Loving Mystery who embraces and gently holds all things stopped me in my tracks. I was given this sense of Presence all around me. The Light of my Cataloochee brothers was vivid and vibrating, as if each were a silently singing tuning fork. What I heard was the soft singing of leaves.
I can get lost and stuck in trying to change what cannot be changed. But when I “walk around the yard,” the trees call out, “Stay awhile.” The light flows from their branches. And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say, “and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”
October 10, 2013 by John Holliger