Breathing Lessons

A New Year’s message about healing with trees

By Ashley Wahl     Photographs by Chris Van Atta


Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.

– John Muir

Nothing is ours to keep. It’s a gnarly pill to swallow . . . until it isn’t.

Summer before last, heart aching for a lover I chose to leave yet didn’t know how to release, I began humming an unfamiliar tune as I walked past a colonnade of ancient sycamores. The melody was soothing, but when the lyrics floated into consciousness, the haunting beauty shook me to my core.   

I breathed you in, now, Darling, I must breathe you out . . . 

Tears blurred my vision. Whatever dimension that song had come from (I sure didn’t write it), the truth of it felt like a blow to the chest. Love is as formless and infinite as air, and yet we find ourselves desperately grasping for it. I reached for a trunk to keep from falling over. 

You were never mine to keep. You were never mine to keep . . .

The heart wants what it wants despite the circumstances. I had just experienced the kind of love that births poets — the kind you never return from — and there was nothing to do but let go of it. Tears burned my cheeks as I gasped for air. I pressed my forehead against the sycamore’s mottled bark until I felt as if I could breathe again.

Trees are masters at letting go. Look at the sycamore, its gray bark peeling away to reveal a deeper layer of beauty. Study the naked branches of the black walnut against the crisp winter sky. Imagine being so vulnerable — having perfect faith in your own magnificent cycles and unfurling.

J.R.R. Tolkien wasn’t the first to envision trees as magical, spirited beings. The ancient Celts saw them as gifted healers, teachers and guardians between worlds. I happen to share these beliefs. Not because I adopted them from anywhere. I’ve just spent enough time with trees to know that they’re doing more than cleaning the air, although I can’t think of a more profound offering.   

In 2016, The New York Times ran a profile on German forester Peter Wohlleben, author of Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World.

“Though duly impressed with Mr. Wohlleben’s ability to capture the public’s attention,” wrote journalist Sally McGrane, “some German biologists question his use of words, like ‘talk’ rather than the more standard ‘communicate,’ to describe what goes on between trees in the forest.”

There isn’t a morsel of scientific research to back me when I say this, but I believe that trees share their sacred wisdom telepathically with those open to receiving it.

Some trees are more transparent than others.

Having spent countless quiet hours nestled in the sweeping branches of a nearby climbing oak, a favorite lakeside perch to watch the great blue heron stalk its supper, I wasn’t entirely surprised to receive this clear and simple message from the old tree one recent evening as a golden sunset painted the sky magnificent:

The love that you give is the love you receive.

“Thank you,” I whispered to the tree I call Spire. Yes, love is infinite and formless. I carry that kernel of wisdom like an amulet worn close to the heart.

In the late 1990s, environmental activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill spent two years 180 feet up an ancient California redwood to prevent loggers from felling it for lumber. Eighty-some days into Hill’s tree-sit, a wicked rain and hail storm with 70-mile-an-hour winds hit. Frigid and struggling for her life, she started talking to the tree dubbed Luna. This is what she heard back:

“The trees in the storm don’t try to stand up straight and tall and erect. They allow themselves to bend and be blown with the wind. They understand the power of letting go.” 

Witness one autumn and see the exquisite beauty of such complete and knowing surrender. Perhaps if we were able to quiet our minds and bodies for long enough, we, too, might accept that change is synonymous with life. We might have deeper faith in the big picture.

The summer I moved to Asheville — yes, heartbroken and searching for the love that was already within me — I spent mornings in meditation at the base of Mama, the twisted maple on the grassy hill in my front yard. When I closed my eyes beneath her, I felt deeply grounded, as if my own invisible roots were firmly planted in the earth. In that stillness, I could hear music with my entire being. The vibration of cricket song. A tapestry of chirps and warbles and caws. Wind through leaves.

Mama was not separate from this breathing soundscape, I realized. We’re all a part of it. The secret is being present for long enough to hear it.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate wisdom. Presence. Choosing to be here, now, again and again.

A few weeks ago, having realized it was time to say goodbye to another beautiful romance, I felt an aching in my chest that I knew was not mine. I walked upon a favorite tree, a multi-trunk vision with a portal-like opening just large enough for me to step inside. Cradled inside this healing channel, I did the only thing there was to do: exhale.

“Let everything that is not yours dissolve,” said the tree. “Only love remains.”      

As I let go, this time with less resistance and considerably fewer tears, I felt my heart grow light. Nearby, a squirrel playfully scurried across the forest floor, scrambled up a tree, then leapt from limb to limb with acrobatic grace. Off in the distance, a couple having a picnic shared a kiss.

A smile warmed my face as I felt the wisdom of the trees take root inside my being. Love is always here. Yes. There’s no need to grasp for it. All we have to do is breathe.   OH

Ashley Wahl is editor of O.Henry magazine.


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