1. OK, I feel like I have to ask this one, so I’ll ask it first. What is your favorite tree and why?
Yes, it would seem to be an inevitable question; however, it’s a difficult one. Truth be told, I can only narrow it down to three: maple, willow, and oak. I feel as though I’ve grown up with maples and willows — they’ve almost always grown either right outside the house where I live or in close proximity. I find their energy soothing and yet watchful. As a result, they seem like “aunts” to me. The woods where I walk and worship contains mostly oak trees, and their energy is so strong that it puts me in a wonderful state of mind. They are very grounding and supportive for me. Interestingly, last year when I was on a pilgrimage in Ireland many of the places that I was drawn to had oaks and willows.
2. In the introduction to Whispers from the Woods you write, “The gap between science and spirituality is not the chasm it once was.” In your mind, what specific changes reflect this narrowing gap?
I’ll preface this by telling you that I am a PBS junkie and my favorite television show is NOVA. In addition to that, when I was writing the book the four-part series “The Sacred Balance” was just airing. In it, biologist/environmentalist David Suzuki weaves so much together. Not only Suzuki, but other scientists in the program show a great deal of respect for Mother Earth in their work and are open to ideas that in the past (even twenty years ago) might have seemed too “out there.”
We can also see a change in the field of medicine. Things like acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, and the use of labyrinths at hospitals have been closing the gap. Don’t get me wrong, the gap is still there, but we’ve come a long way since the Middle Ages and Renaissance when alternative ideas were considered blasphemous and only the very strong willed spoke their minds.
3. Do you believe the scientific community’s movement towards embracing the spiritual world will have any long-term impact on modern environmental problems such as deforestation?
I hope it will, but I get skeptical about the American system: big corporations and well-funded special interest groups have such a stranglehold on our government. But Pollyanna that I am, I live in hope that the strength of environmental groups will continue to grow. I am especially hopeful when I hear about people like the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. When she returned to Kenya after college in the United States, she was horrified at the degradation of the forests and the plight of many women. Combining the two, she worked through women’s groups not only to plant trees for conservation and provide jobs, but also to raise awareness about the environment. One person can make a difference.
4. A couple of the ideas that you point out more than once in the book reminded me of the Slow Movement, which has received a lot of media attention recently. For instance, you emphasize that our contact with the natural world is held together by a “delicate thread” because of our fast-paced lives; and in Chapter Six you state that in ritual we seek balance with the elements. Two things fundamental to the Slow Movement are taking control of our time and achieving balance. Did this movement influence your work?
I heard about the Slow Movement a number of years ago and like their ideas because from time to time I get caught up in the frantic pace of our society. I discovered how a walk in the woods could just dissolve the unnecessary chatter that takes up so much brain time. However, two other things have influenced me more, and those are my pagan beliefs and yoga .
As a pagan, I try to live what I believe. Ritual is not a passive event; one must engage their energy to participate and each time, each ritual creates changes. I don’t think it’s possible for me to engage in something holy and then tuck everything away until the next ritual. Once you engage your energy that way you can’t simply turn it off and not engage in life. When we engage energy in ritual we are connecting with the natural world, the greater world around us. That stays with you.
Although the yoga classes I teach have a pagan flavor to them, I chose to go through a very traditional teacher training program where we studied the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In the Sutras we learn how vitally important it is to slow down and be present. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned in the nine years I’ve been practicing yoga is how to breathe — deeply and fully. Like ritual, it allows me to consciously come into both myself and the web of life.
5. You seem to advocate profound lifestyle modification when you speak of “spiritual poverty” and our waning connection with the natural world. Do you wish to promote social change through your teaching?
That wasn’t my intent, but social change wouldn’t be a bad thing. My intent was helping one person at a time to find themselves on the micro level and to see where they fit in the world. Because our modern world is such a blur, it’s easy to feel lost.
I find this question is connected with the previous one about slowing down because when we can be present with ourselves and open to the natural world we can see that so much of the stuff we frantically chase after is meaningless. Connecting with the natural world helps us learn how we are connected with everything and that we cannot go and do something like pollute a river or use more gasoline than we really need without there being a consequence elsewhere.
6. Are you active in any particular environmental efforts?
I’m not active with any particular group. The point I hope to make is that we don’t have to live in a tent or forego modern conveniences or dedicate a huge amount of time campaigning in a group in order to make a difference. It’s the day-to-day decisions on what we buy, how we use things and how we get rid of things that add up. Here in America we use a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources and we are wasteful, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I will be happy if I help even a few people to become more mindful of the impact each of us has on the world and how we can each produce an effect for the good of all.
7. What kinds of trees grow where you live? Did the abundance of these trees influence where you chose to live?
There is a huge variety of trees where I live, and I consider myself fortunate because even though I’m only 45 minutes outside of Manhattan I’m near an old growth forest with oaks that are about 350 to 400 years old. Yes, I think subconsciously the trees had an influence on my moving here. In addition, I have become aware that the particular routes I choose to drive are ones with a lot a trees.
8. You write about trees’ association with dreams, spells, rituals and gods/goddesses. How will your book speak differently to pagans versus non-pagans?
I’ve found that non-pagans aren’t put off by these things, and in fact there is a lot of curiosity. I think the Goddess movement and the yoga community have done a lot to open the door, as well as the interest in Native American spirituality by those of other cultures.
9. Is tree energy different from the energy of other natural things?
To me it’s different. I feel a deep sense of wisdom and connection that I don’t get with other things. I also get a sense of contacting something ancient, timeless and majestic, whose true purpose is about service — a valuable thing for us to learn about.
10. Is there a reason you wrote this book now?
Basically my reason is to share what I’ve found and experienced with trees. And, okay, perhaps my own way of stirring up social change. I guess it’s similar to the reason I wanted to teach yoga and not just practice it: when you find something that really wows you, you want to pass it on to other people.