I grew up in an Eastern forest, among stands of hardwoods and clusters of evergreens, where a walk in the woods was an act of wonder. As an adult I still walk for inspiration, but I also turn to the woods when I’m trying to learn how to be in my body, which is often a painful place to be. When I make my way through a forest of young, mature, damaged, dying, fallen, and growing trees, I do not judge their wild, searching forms the way I sometimes judge my own. The oak on the forest floor with its root ball in the air? Generous food for new life. The mature pine leaning on its neighbor? Resourceful. Beech trunk hollowed out and blackened by lightning? A love note from the universe. Woodpecker holes, insect galleries, broken limbs—these are places where the world enters the tree’s body. Where I, with my poet’s eye, can enter, too.
I am trying to imagine Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome as a place where the world has entered my body, but I can’t yet. My skin and joints don’t forget anything. When I banged my shin on a wooden dog gate at my workplace a few years ago, the injury bruised and opened and smoothed over into a round white scar, thin as cellophane over the bone. Recently my partner’s young nephew pointed at the scar and asked, “Is that a hole?”
Quietly, without prompting, the skin on my thighs and behind my knees is splitting into dark red stretch marks, evidence of collagen’s absence. Sometimes one hip or the other slips out of place; sometimes it’s one side of my jaw or the other, or a shoulder, or a knee. Can I say it? This painful place is where the world enters me? I want to.
My partner is at work, the rest of the family is out to dinner, and I’m sitting on the back deck next to my aloe plant in the early evening sun, both of us grateful for light after days of rain. Me with my open notebook, the aloe with its leaves splayed in all directions, we’re both doing our work of choice: slowly transforming unseen forces into something that can be held, touched.
The natural world has long been part of my writing process, but for the past two years, as I’ve been trying to write more authentically about the realities of living in a body with a connective tissue disorder, putting pen to paper in the company of plants has helped me go deeper into the fear, anger, grief, and longing that I experience around my body. Maybe it’s because we don’t ask much of each other, or because plants both resist and allow for my projections, but I find myself able to open up in their presence in ways that I can’t, always, with people.
Today the aloe looks a little beaten up from the recent downpours, a slow purple stain creeping up its lower leaves where the roof’s overhang couldn’t protect it from rain. Even the healthy leaf nearest to me, on close inspection, reveals a smooth spot where one of the spines should be, like the gap left by a lost tooth. I know that the inner leaves will thrive if I remove the older, waterlogged ones, and so I bring out the garden scissors and, with love in my heart and gratitude for the work those leaves have done, I trim.
Maybe this is what I wish for the most: that parts of my body could be pruned without harm. I wish we could shed and regrow the parts that no longer serve us. I wish these bodies allowed us the option to try again. Metaphor is my only way of accessing this possibility, and so I write.
In March of this year, I found myself in the middle of National Forest land in Blue River, Oregon. As a writer in residence at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest for two weeks, my job was to walk, observe, read, and work on my book of poems in progress, Connective Tissue. Unlike the luminous woods I was raised in, where all manner of creatures make their presences known at every hour of the day, this forest was quiet and shadowy. A few days into my visit, I noted:
Except for the songbirds I could hear on the trail, I’ve seen and heard few creatures here. The water is loud but the forest is hushed, and I get the sense that any animal I might encounter became aware of my presence the moment I stepped on the path. Here, it seems, we all value our privacy.
At first, the quiet put me on edge. Birds, the first living creatures I take note of on a walk, stayed out of sight, and I felt as if my landmarks had disappeared. But after the first week I became more attuned to the slow growth—the Douglas firs, silver firs, and other trees whose trunks had survived one, two, three hundred years of weather and change.
The Log Decomposition site, a spot accessible only by driving down several one-and-a-pullout-lane forest roads above the river gorge, initiated me into the trees’ language of slow change. On the forest floor among towering Douglas firs, scientists have placed hundreds of cut sections, called “cookies,” of four kinds of trees, in order to study the process of decay in a range of microclimates. If the lower forest near my writer’s residence was quiet, this site was near silent. But up there on the ridge, where light fell through the green canopy as if through the narrow windowpanes of a cathedral, every sound was amplified, organ-like.
On my first solo visit to the site, I sat to write on springy moss at the foot of a massive Doug fir. A few words came, but as I looked around at the gentle, patient logs resting under blankets of green, tears took their place. In an environment where all bodies—even those declared “dead” or “damaged”—were useful, respected, and beautiful, I felt at home.
Closed notebook on my lap, eyes in soft focus, my deep breaths slowed to match the pulse of life around me. Not much moved, but everything was in motion. Out of that stillness a barred owl called from high above my right shoulder, its voice booming and crackling as if over a loudspeaker. Before I could catch my breath, its mate replied from the canopy to my left.
For a long, golden moment, my body became the skin of a drum, vibrating and humming with each strike of sound. Aching joints, overwhelming fatigue, poorly-healed scars—none of these mattered when my singular purpose was to open to the gift of a shy owl’s song. It is possible, the owls said, to be broken, to be whole. As the calls electrified my entire being, I felt the truth: it’s through my broken places, however painful, that the world enters me.