“This oak tree and I , we’re made of the same stuff.”Carl Sagan
As part of the Pondering the Plants of the Winter Solstice, I am reposting this essay that I wrote in 2021. It is published here on my blog page and in the Plants and Poetry Journal anthology, Plant People: An Anthology of Environmental Artists.
Oak is the overseer of the lengthening light and is often burned as the yule log on the eve of the Winter Solstice. It represents long life, endurance, strength, and protection. In my work, I have an activity in which I ask my participants, if you could be a plant, what plant would you be and why? My participants are often hesitant to answer, so I begin – I would be a tree – never a specific species of tree, but strong, sturdy, wise, grounded, and deeply rooted, nonetheless. After returning from a short respite in remote Alaska, I found myself living in a small cottage with a large yard surrounded by forest. In my front yard, grows a gnarled, old white oak tree, Quercus alba. After observing the life of this time-worn tree over several seasons, I have decided that the queenly Quercus alba is the tree I would most like to epitomize.
Quercus alba, the white oak, is a deciduous tree native to eastern and central North America. Most grow to a height of 80-100 feet and live for 200-300 years. If undisturbed, some trees can reach a height over 100 feet and thrive for 600 years. Although both its common and species name (alba means white) indicates ivory attributes, the names refer to the lighter, ash-gray color of the bark. The bark of the white oak is its most distinguishing detail. Its exquisite, exfoliating exterior is a pattern of imbricate, protruding plates, a thick, vigilant veneer encircling and protecting the vital, living, inner sanctum of this stately species. This aesthetic armor acts as a shield, a physical adaptation to protect the tree from fatal fire damage. The wood of Quercus alba is heavy, hard, strong, durable, and naturally water and rot resistant. Artfully used in the construction of ship hulls, wine and whiskey barrels, caskets, and furniture, white oak is a valuable resource that withstands the test of time both in structure and story. In addition, its acorns are sweeter than those of other oak species, making them the most palatable and preferred food source for forest-dwelling animals, including white-tailed deer, black bear, squirrel, several species of bird, rabbit, and mouse. Native Americans ground the white oak acorns into flour. The white oak is a species strong and persistent in presence. Wrapped in its picturesque, protective bark, the white oak’s majestic form grows in grace and beauty.
Like the worthy white oak, I stand strong and deeply rooted. My unconditional love, unremitting joy, and intuitive wisdom spread out from my sacred center to others, like the farthest-reaching branches of a tree. At 58 years of age, my exterior, a pastiche pattern of wrinkles, laugh lines, age spots, and stretch marks, is as exquisite as the beautiful bark of the white oak. My silver hair is akin to the ash-gray color. Like the queenly Quercus alba, I am wrapped in a resplendent, but resilient skin. Grounded in gratitude, and sustained by self-love and compassion, powerful and persistent, I continue to age authentically in grace and beauty. If we lean into our strengths, grow our self-acceptance, and surround ourselves with our protective support systems, we stand strong and endure like the time-honored oak.