“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” –Albert Camus
In the northern latitudes we’re experiencing winter’s shallow light and shortened days. Storms have arrived with record snowfall and rain. We long to discover the invincible summers hibernating inside us that will help us keep in touch with the vibrant green world that lives on, and need ways to wait through the days of cold and the minimal hours of light. Winter is a good time to read, wander through old photos, and to journey out to find new unexplored landscapes. On one such recent journey into a forest area near me, I came across an outcrop of rocks covered with moss surrounded by overhanging oaks, their twisted branches casting shadows across the leaf-strewn floor. It felt an ancient place, one that might be found in Ireland where green is a predominant color and stones can be found scattered across the hillsides.
I encountered a similar shade of green some years back when bicycling up Ireland’s west coast with friends. While on that ride, someone we met told us that the small holes found in trees are places where leprechauns like to call their home. The idea delighted me. Though leprechauns are supposed to live only in Ireland, when I see holes in forest trees here in California, I like to imagine a leprechaun lives there. These tree trunk’s holes are often quite small. It seems there’s a good reason why they are referred to as “wee folk!”
Part of Celtic mythology, stories of leprechauns have circulated in Ireland since the eighth century. Though their profession as cobblers is a humble one, leprechauns are known for hoarding pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, and are thought to be older, playful men who are nimble tricksters and very difficult to catch. Additionally, they enjoy playing the fiddle, Irish harp, drum, and tin whistle. Important characters in Irish folklore and in the cultural imagination and many writers have created stories connected to leprechauns. Now associated with the color green, the poet Yeats indicated that as solitary fairies, leprechauns wore red.
I come to the forest to wander and be renewed by its green life, by its scent and uncertain paths where we explore new ground. Leprechauns are important characters in Irish folklore and in the cultural imagination. In a world often filled with news that feeds our anxieties and fear, expanding the imagination could be what we need to help us create a more pleasant world. Imagination helps us to reconnect with wonder, move beyond areas where our mind is stuck in thought patterns that constrict the flow of life. Using our imagination can enable us to reignite joy.
Sumana Roy, associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India, in her book, How I Became a Tree, from Yale University Press, writes how she came to the realization that she’d been “bulldozed by time” and yet was not a good “slave to time” as the culture she was living in expected her to be. She noticed trees can’t be hurried or rushed. Trees never stayed up all night to meet a deadline. They keep to their own internal rules and aren’t cramped by the pressure of ambition or success, explains Roy in her article, “Tree Time” in the Paris Review. Trees have a whole different way of relating to the experience of being alive. Tree time, Roy describes, is “a life without worries for the future or regret for the past. There’s sunlight: gulp, swallow, eat; there’s night: rest.” Trees’ organic way of relating to time from within their own internal needs and rhythms is something Roy felt worthy of aspiring to.
Before I moved to live beside oak and redwood trees here in California near a large tract of forest, I used to say I didn’t want to live in a forest. It was too dark. But time spent with trees changed me. Now that I’ve lived beside trees for years, thinking of not having them as my neighbors feels like a kind of grief. An abiding beauty, trees greet me when I rise, send out perfume on sunny days, scatter the confetti of their leaves when the wind blows, and reach out to cradle the house through the night as I sleep. Constant companions, their steadfast presence is an ongoing witness to the larger arc of time that reaches beyond human worries, goals and plans, and pushes at the boundaries of my limited awareness.
Similarly, to set out for a stroll in a forest is to be renewed and steadied. Walking beneath the trees, we breathe in the forest’s phytoncides, chemicals trees release that helps them fight disease. The antibacterial and antifungal qualities of these same chemicals aid our health as well, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Recent research has also enabled people to realize the value of forests and other plant life, not merely as objects to be used, but as sentient presences. Amitav Gosh, author of The Nutmeg Curse, in Emergence Magazine‘s November 2021 interview with him explains, “in Europe as elsewhere, people had always thought of so many other kinds of beings as being capable of making meaning. But what’s really interesting there is that many people may today be willing to accept that animals are fully sentient beings, that forests are sentient, that many kinds of trees are sentient, that they communicate—they have incredibly complex communications and so on, which we are now discovering… And humans have always believed in the real presence of these unseen beings.” The language trees use, the way trees, plants sense things (and other nonhuman or more than human presences) may not be the way humans experience the world, but that isn’t to say communication and some form of awareness isn’t occurring. There’s more going on in forests than we previously understood and we are only now coming to understand this through the work of people like Susan Simard, David George Haskell, and Peter Wohlleben. In these new understandings about the world around us, we can begin to imagine ourselves into a new way of living in and responding to the world.
We don’t have to believe in leprechauns to expand our imaginations and ponder the idea that the universe we inhabit is composed of more than dead physical matter, and to understand, instead, that it’s infused with various levels and types of consciousness. “The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance,” wrote the physicist Max Born. As we walk in the forest, we can allow ourselves to be absorbed again into the landscape, develop a feeling for it, and to allow our imaginations to invent new stories about our lives and interactions.
A while back, one of our recent neighbor’s children created a story about how to catch a leprechaun. After the boy read his story to my husband, the two of them strolled around the hillside singing Ratlin Bog looking for a glimpse of a leprechaun. For the boy and his sister, the forest became alive with possibility. For months afterwards, they left notes and gifts for leprechauns at the base of trees and tucked inside the bends of the trees’ arms. Connecting with our imaginations, we can discover or rediscover a world alive and new, a kind of hidden, interior gold.
Though it might be dark outside or the earth covered with snow, in the midst of discouragement, despair or doubt, we can walk outside and know that even if there are no leaves on the branches, the trees hold within them a dream of a green life that lives on, waiting in the way trees always do, for the time to rise up and burst forth in storied leafy boughs. During bleak times, we can journey inward and draw warmth from imagination’s fire, make new stories and in doing so, remake ourselves. Stories, songs, dance and the many forms of art—there are numerous ways to allow the landscape, internal or external, to come alive and to see the earth as more than a mere object or backdrop but, instead, to develop a relationship with it.
So let us pick up
the stones over which we stumble,
friends, and build altars…
Let us name the harsh light and
soft darkness that surrounds us.
Let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug.
Let’s lick the earth from our fingers.
Let us look up and out and around.
The world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked,
our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning.
~ Padraig O’Tuama in Daily Prayer With The Corrymeela Community