Once, while walking in a forest on an island in British Columbia, my wife and I came upon an old sawed-off stump. Rising out of its massive, rotting platform was a full-grown tree, its own base several feet across and its canopy soaring a hundred feet in the air.
We took it as a sign, and a lesson: endings are less, and more, than they seem.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in an old-growth forest. Nurse logs, dead for centuries, lie moldering on the forest floor while small animals take up residence in the hollowing wood, insects and microorganisms burrow through the bark and into the grain, and the earth softens to receive the nutrients and return the last vestiges of “tree” back to soil where new saplings rise and start the process all over again.
In the forest, death is not an end to life or even a failure to thrive. It’s just a stage in the ongoing living process.
I found myself thinking of that stump in British Columbia and its next-generation tree just the other day. How many rotting stumps in my life have I discarded as useless or avoided as reminders of past failures? If I were to follow the model of an old-growth forest and treat my stumps not as failures but as fuel for seed, how much deeper and more joyful might my living be?
Every loss or failure, disappointment or ending is a kind of death, and it’s painful. But how we ultimately respond to our life depends a great deal on our concept of life, what we believe about the nature of life.
I believe life is like an old-growth forest. It’s a community, a living circle, and the individuals, and individual events, always have a place in that circle. Endings are hard, but they’re also openings into something wider.
We are part of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
I’m going to experiment with my endings, my stumps. Even as I mourn their loss, I’m going to look for cracks in the armor of my perception. I’m going to watch for things I hadn’t noticed before now. And I’m going to operate on the assumption that the ending and what went before it isn’t the whole story, but a prologue to a longer work.
I don’t know where this experiment will lead. But I have a feeling it might involve a walk in the woods.