Life Inside the Trees: When Laying Roots Means Returning to Your Self
When I got ready to move back to Vermont after finishing grad school, I knew the one thing I would miss would be the metro park down the street from my apartment. It had become an old and trusted friend, another home, a place to center myself and be.
Something about my solitude and comfort on my trail runs had felt like laying roots even though I never had any intention of remaining in the midwest.
Just like I had done said goodbye to all my friends before my trek back home, I said goodbye to the park, to the trail, to my friend the heron. And I promised myself that as I journeyed now to the next chapter of my life, returning home where I would be laying roots in a familiar place, I would find a new path, new trees, to escape inside.
The apartment my boyfriend (at the time) and I had wasn’t immediately near any trail that I knew of. There was a man-made footpath that circled a park not far down the street, but it was not the same as the enclosed trail I had grown to rely on. Busy traffic whizzed along one side, a row of apartment buildings on the other. There was nothing peaceful to me about it. There was no ability to feel cocooned, restful, or hear only the wind and the sound of your feet on dirt.
It was strange to me being back in Vermont, known for its hiking and biking trails and yet I was not aware of one that was a hop, skip, and jump from my apartment. Not that it mattered. My job at the time had me traveling all over the state. I spent more hours in the car than anything else which was strangely draining for doing so little. Long story short, getting up to run in the morning or coming home and feeling motivated enough to do so, was minimal. And I wasn’t called to that footpath in the same way. Running became a memory.
When we decided to buy a house, one of my requirements was trees. I longed for that feeling of nature, distance, privacy, seclusion, and calm.
I wanted a plot of land where you looked out windows and saw branches and leaves and not just your neighbor’s lawn. It was hard to explain this longing with any precision. He grew up out of state in a city bigger than any of Vermont’s – or so it seemed – and was used to residential living. Houses stacked against each other along a street. Barely enough grass for a game of catch. He, his siblings and friends, grew up riding their bikes to the nearest parks and getting the wind and dirt in their fingernails there.
For me, I grew up stepping out into my own yard, and traveling a few steps to my grandparents’, kicking up grass with my bare feet. Thinking about having children and laying roots that went beyond just moving back home from school, I wanted to grant them the same happy memories I had of playing outside barefoot in the yard.
We ended up with a beautiful lot and plenty of trees.
Maybe, too many, honestly. At least come the fall. We were always upwards of 70 bags by the time the season had ended and we had raked and bagged all we could. But during the winters I loved to see the snow piled up on the branches and watch our Bernese weaving in between trunks, sniffing newly fallen snow in search of a buried ball. In the spring I loved to watch the trees blossom, the leaves return. And in the summer, I wished they were more appropriately placed so there was some shade to enjoy on the back deck. Nevertheless, their presence in the yard was meaningful to me. Encouraging. Comforting.
Not that long ago we sold the house. The chapter of our lives together coming to an end.
The trees were left to grace the new homeowners and their children. I moved into a condo and life began to feel similarly to how it had when I was in grad school, living on my own, trying to figure my shit out. Feeling unstable. Feeling like a failure. Recognizing that instead of laying roots down, I had yanked them up, broken them, tore them from what soil I had covered them with to begin.
I did what I have always done when I’ve dragged my fingers along rock bottom: I fell back into running.
Beginning on the treadmills at the gym. It was the middle of winter when I was settled in my new place and finally focusing on the things I needed to do for myself. Running outside was not something I was equipped for my first time back at it in years. By the time spring came around, I was in shape enough to tackle the run in the great outdoors when the weather turned nice enough to do so. At first, I just ran the loop around the condo complex, using parts of a bike path nearby. It was closer to what I was looking for, but still no trees. No seclusion. No shade. Lots of cars. Lots of noise. But I far preferred it over being on the droning treadmill, only smelling the sweat of the runners alongside me.
One afternoon on a whim, I took a drive over to a place not far from the condo. In some previous week, I had seen a path that headed away from the road. It seemed to parallel a field and some gardens. So I took my chance that afternoon to go and see what it was all about. I let my feet hit the pavement and fell into a stride, my music playing. Already I felt a difference, just running away from the road and onto a path that was surrounded by something other than cars, street lights or road signs.
Trees in the distance. Sanctuary.
The path began to veer around a bend. Where it led, I didn’t know, but I had no agenda that afternoon. Nowhere to get to. Running was the only thing I had prioritized. When the turn finally came, I wanted to leap for joy. For ahead of me the path finally dipped into the woods. Great, big, giant woods. Woods bigger than what I had grown up with. Bigger than the metro park I grew fond of. Woods I hadn’t considered or noticed from the road the umpteen times I had taken it.
But there it was. Calling me inside.
My pace picked up. I couldn’t wait to see what it held inside. It enveloped me in shade and greenery. The world was cut off. I felt like Alice crossing over the looking glass. All you could see was the path, trees, and more trees. With my earbuds out, all I could hear were bird calls. And my feet crunching along pebbles, stone, dirt. The trees towered above me. I hadn’t spent any time in the concave of the woods in almost a decade. This wave of calm came over me.
I felt like I had made it home. Like some other version of myself had been waiting inside there to jump back into my body, as though we had been separated some time long ago without my knowing. Peter Pan and his shadow. There was this impulse to carve my initials, to mark my spot, laying roots once more. Not to someone. Not to something. And not to a place. But to myself.
When I reemerged from the woods, the run over, I was anew. I was reborn. My childhood spirit, my invigoration, my strength, and determination reignited. I would return. Again and again.
Back to the trees. To my roots. Back to me.