My dream begins in a forest at the edge of a stream. Massive trees stand above me. Their crowns reach for the light. The shade underneath them is cool and quiet and covered in deep moss. Roots larger than my body push aside heaps of stones churned by glaciers. Ferns hold all traces of sound from inside the forest. A stream takes a bend in front of me and its water speaks softly across the pebbles of the tiny sandbar at my feet. I do not recognize the type of trees, but I can smell the resinous odor of evergreens filling the air. It seems to me to be an evening in early spring. I wait and watch to learn why I am here.
Suddenly my vision blurs slightly and I see the same scene form the point of view of a bird floating between the trees. Everything is much brighter and sharper than my human vision perceived the scene. I can tell the owl is aware that I am seeing through her eyes, but she does not respond. We float through the forest, looking down at the dense carpet of moss and discarded needles. The feeling of time passing is not exactly part of this dream, or maybe we are operating on the time scale of trees that live for thousands of years.
We fly and look. Then we turn and head downhill. Or perhaps I am suddenly in an oak forest looking out to the edge where the trees become a scrub of broom that has erupted into yellow flowers. I am looking up at the owl flying across a space under the canopy of a massive oak that twists and turns its way upwards. This tree is obviously the most ancient tree in the area. It spreads out in a way that I recognize, but cannot yet place. It is not the compact, insular shapes of the coastal live oaks I live near, or the thick-trunked, rambling cascade of branches favored by the Valley Oaks to the east of my home.
Then suddenly the realization hits me that I am on the east side of a hilly, wooded area someplace in North Wales. Only there are no towns visible and no roads or tracks anywhere. The energy of the standing stones and barrows that I have felt every time I have visited this island is also missing. There is a different, less modulated energy in the land under my feet. The owl flies at me, almost into my face. “Old! Very Old!” she screams and the dream is over.
The next night I meet a woman who shows me a damp meadow at the edge of the same oak forest. It is late afternoon and the air is warm and filled with a mix of scents, most of which I feel that I know, but cannot name. There is a small stream and the beginnings of a wetland behind me. Sedges and other water plants give way to a profusion of grasses and smaller plants with larger leaves near where I stand. A dense thicket of broom that is taller than I am faces me across the meadow. Behind the broom is the oak forest. I can see the spreading crown of the giant tree I visited the night before rising above the smaller trees that step down towards the edge of the meadow. There is a tension present that is very much at odds with the apparent tranquility of this scene. I begin to wonder if I am about to witness or participate in a battle.
The woman is standing next to me on a slight rise in the earth. She is visibly taller than I am. I compare her to my own height and find that she must be well over two meters tall, almost 3. Her long, white-blond hair blows in a breeze that I do not feel. I walk towards her and stop a small distance away. She seems to be very intent on something I do not see that is happening at the edge of the forest. She does not move or speak. I feel that I should not interrupt her. I wait with a sense of foreboding.
She stares out over the meadow towards the forest. I turn to look in the direction she is facing, and begin to feel the flapping of wings surround me. They seem to be trying to sweep me forward, away from where I am standing. I accept their suggestion and move across the meadow. Suddenly the wings disappear. I seem to have shrunk to about knee high to my usual stature. The grasses are now above my head. Above the grasses I can see a taller plant with leaves in clusters that have serrated edges. Each leaf cluster seems to be pressed down inn the middle, as if they are trying to fold in on themselves. Together they form a mass that builds into a rough and messy cone of intense green. A tall, rounded spray of white flowers sits above the leaves. The sun is directly behind the flower group and it sways in the same wind that was blowing the woman’s hair when I was beside the stream. Where I am now the air is still and smells of dampness. I begin to feel sleepy as I watch the gentle nodding of the flower dancing with the sun. It weaves back and forth between accepting the light and moving away from it. I experience the reverse. Each time the flower takes the sun, I am plunged into shadow. Then when it shies away, I am bathed in light. The breeze is slow and the movement is gentle. Soon my eyes are closing.
As I sleep in the afternoon of the meadow I see huge walls of ice receding and melting into braided rivers. The evergreens from the night before have died to make way for the oaks of today. These trees are what is known as a terminal species in the language of science because they are the final trees to grow in a place. Once they reach maturity, they own the light and no other tree can grow unless one of them falls. This will persist indefinitely unless the climate changes to the point where they will all die. I see an ice flow returning and scraping all of the earth away until only rocks remain. Trees are scoured away from the places that sustain them and pushed into heaps where they are either covered with ice or begin to decay. The dream is equal parts rather pedantic science teacher and a wild, dazzling flow of colors and shapes that are beyond words. It is like hallucinating a boring lecture given by a wild person who keeps changing shape while throwing glowing confetti. I do not know how to respond.
Then it changes and I see the dense broom growth pushing its way out into the meadow. It is the advance guard for the trees as they seek to eradicate any cleared land and claim it as forest. Everything is movement and uncertainty. There is indeed a battle going on here in the meadow. It is a battle carried out in tree-time.
Tiny oval green leaves flutter in a stiff breeze as the fill my vision. This breeze I can feel, and it seems strange that I cannot feel the wind in the earlier part of the dream. The wind in the dream inside the dream pushes my hair playfully into my eyes. I being to smell the scent of other shrubs and other trees, but they get pushed away by the explosions of yellow flowers from the brooms. These multiply until I can see nothing else. My vision is blown full of flowers until I see what appears to be a living watercolor. All around the edges there is yellow, and in the center the white flower that lulled me to sleep here in the meadow is nodding in the sun.
“All these are mine!” cries the voice of the owl in the forest. The sound crashes through my awareness like a spear and hits me bodily with its force. The vision of flowers is shatters and blown away in the wind. I see the oak, the broom and the meadowsweet in succession as they disappear.
I awaken from the dream in the meadow and find myself in a different forest full of the slanting gray light of an afternoon in late fall. The trees are all watching me and I feel that if I stayed too long here I might become a face in the bark watching and waiting as well. There is a sense of permanence or finality about this place. The acrid scent of fear seems to seep out from around every branch. If I look directly at any of the trees, the eyes close, the faces recede and I am left staring at ants or beetles and the occasional spider walking slowly up the bark in search of a meal.
Even as I observe some ants following each other in orderly lines up to a large branch the juts out to my right, I sense that there are branch-like arms reaching out for me. They are half human and half tree and they move in a slow, calculating way. I do not want to be here when their movements speed up and their final action is taken. This too is a terminal forest, but of a very different kind than the oak grove near the meadow.
I try to leave, but each time I find myself back in the same place. The trees are still watching me, though I am denied the experience of seeing who is seeing me. There is some type of loop here that I need to understand. After several attempts, I begin to realize that this is not a place that is unchangeable. The sense of permanence was an overlay that came form somewhere else. Instead, this is a place where the change that it is undertaken is unthinkable to the living. I am in a land where things that need to happen, but are unacknowledged, have a place to take their course. It is indeed a land of monsters, if that term includes strange hybrid creatures who would willingly make me one of them if they could. I would then follow a path that is repugnant to me. But this is also their home and to be here is taken as a wish to join them. They have no voices, so their language is made up only of position and location. I am present, and to them that is a loud and insistent statement. The rules that apply here are not those of my world, yet they are also part of it in a way that I do not comprehend.
As I receive this information, I also realize that all of the faces I can see at the edges of my vision are very definitely female. I see that every face shows layer upon layer of wounds inflicted upon it by others. My fear melts away and is replaced by a great sadness so heavy that I feel it is squeezing and crushing me into a dense vertical cylinder that is rooted to the spot. I open my mouth to cry out, but there are no words. The cause of the sadness in this place is too terrible to be spoken. It is not that it should be avoided, or that I look away form it because I lack the capacity to face it. It is simply that its horror has exceeded language, and yet it is till present.
The arms at the edges of my vision no longer reach for me. I look at the tree in front of me and see the face of a young woman holding her dead child in her arms. There is blood flowing from a wound on her head and I can hear the shouts of a battle near her. There are flames and the sound of blades on shields. She is wearing the skins of animals and no shoes. Next to her is a grandmother who is enclosed by a stone cell that has no window. Her blank eyes burn towards me in the darkness. I catch a glimpse of a rough, dark-colored fabric. To the other side are a pair of sisters tied to a stake with a pile of wood at their feet. They have long, black hair and the marks of whips on the side of their faces. One of them has had the garment she was wearing torn from her body. The other is still clothed in a formless sack-like piece of fabric. Their eyes look empty and resolute at the same time, like someone who has already made an irrevocable decision. Beside them is a 30-something woman in the clothes of an 18th-Century English servant. She is staring down at her enlarged belly in despair so deep that it flows out of her like a river. Then I see a woman with deeply tanned skin wearing 1980’s business attire. Her blazer is shiny and pink, with exaggerated shoulder pads. She is looking into her hand and I see several large, white pills between creases of her fingers. A powerfully-built woman in a corseted dress with long, curly hair falling out of a high bun on top of her head is staring at a closed door. She is holding an ornate dueling pistol in her right hand. There is a ramrod and powder horn on a chair next to a desk in front of her. She raises the pistol very slowly and points it towards her own face.
I turn to look behind me and catch a glimpse of the tall woman who stood and looked across the meadow. Her hair is the same as before, but the rest of her is different. Part of her is an owl, part of her is an oak, part of her is broom and part of her is the white flower clusters of meadowsweet. She is crying angry, fierce tears that fall and soak instantly into the earth. They seem to be made of rainbows or dancing flames. Which part of her body is which thing is constantly shifting. She is an owl with oak limbs and breasts made of flowers. She is a broom bush with owl wings and human toes. She is a pile of meadowsweet leaves with human arms, and owl’s beak and the top of an oak. I find it difficult to see where she begins and ends. There is a terrible sense of loss coming from every direction. She raises her eyes and sees that I have found her.
I want to help the women I have seen. It feels to me that I cannot leave this place until I work to heal them. The sadness they have shown me is too desperate not to offer something to it. I look at the owl eyes and I know that I can offer only one thing. I can only give quiet witness because this is not a place to heal. It is a place to know and to respect for what it is. And what it is starts and finishes beyond language, beyond time and beyond the healing arts.
Now my vision is full of flowers again. Only this time they are sprouting from the head of an owl. There are no tears, only the piercing, unblinking gaze of a raptor. Her owl voice full of nights on the hunt calmly tells me “My story is a tale of a forest lost through change from human hands.”
The next night I am back at the edge of the creek running through the same quiet forest of giant conifers. I am on my back, looking up at them as their dark silhouettes stand against the afterglow of a sunset that is fast becoming night. One of them is shorter, but more pointed than the others. It seems to be bending towards me like a beckoning finger. A choice is offered to me, and I accept.
Soon I am once again flying on the wings of an owl. It is deep night, and nothing I see makes any sense to my memory of human sight. There are shapes moving below me that seem to be illuminated. The remind me of close-ups of the lightning bugs I chased as a child in the Appalachians. Then I notice that some of them seem to be broken and mixed with other things. The owl I am dives and catches one of these.
I am watching as a large, gray owl devours the fragmented glowing object. It uses quick, precise strokes of its sharp beak to separate what is glowing from what is not. Then it quickly swallows all of the glowing parts. What is not glowing fades away and seems to soak into the darkness. I look up and see the owl as no longer gray. It is a swirl of color that match the tears in the forest of disasters. She has eaten only the undamaged parts of her prey and the have become whole again as her.
“I take them back. Back to the beginning” she says.
My owl-sight is gone and I no longer see the owl. I can only sense her floating away into the darkness that is not dark to her. The giant trees reach up above me and I can hear the gentle sounds of a night becoming. I know that my journey has ended because I have reached the beginning.
In the morning I awake with her poem on my lips.
There is virtue
For the deeply wronged
With talons sharp
And eyes awake
I hunt without sound
Before that day
My oak stood tall
A quiet shade beneath
In gray light
Stand the dead
Released by their own means
A choice to go
A dangerous act
My food is different now
Before that day
My broom in bloom
Along the edges grown
In ancient times
A place reborn
Slipping from the mind
An owl in flight
Recalls the trees
Cut down without a thanks
Before that day
I chose my path
I wanted only to return
Two men dead
I turned to one
In hopes of an escape
The other forced
Into my arms
The blame was left with me
Before that day
A beauty in the sun