Recently I carried the last of my father’s ashes into the Sierra mountains that he loved. His many glorious trips to those high-altitude wilds produced stories that to some extent defined his life. As a final remembrance, I delivered the dusty remnants of that life to a forest of enormous, ancient trees to leave beneath a pile of cones fallen from the canopy of pines. The wind sang his eulogy, welcoming his memory back to places that had seemed home to him. The pine needles received his remains to join them in becoming soil.
As I sat there contemplating this last gesture of remembrance, I gazed upward along the tall trunks through the swaying branches to the blue of the clear mountain sky hovering above. I saw then the forest for the trees. As my father’s remains literally joined the community of that mountainside, I came to realize that all of us, despite our station in life, despite what others may perceive of us, despite who we have been or may yet become, every one of us becomes the forest, just as every tree in its singularity embodies the complexity of the forest in a dramatic struggle to embrace a perfect balance of being. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the soil takes us in to become the nutrients feeding new lives, the saplings that in a century or two will tower above the forest floor as home, protector, food source for a million other new lives, each destined to become again ashes, dust, and the soil that nurtures the possibility of life on earth.
In the lives of trees we are reminded the elusive truth that we are never our singular selves, never completely taken over by our needy ambitions or petty attempts to squeeze the most from our brief time on this earth. We fool ourselves with the delusion of selfhood, forgetting that we have been, will be again, a forest tied by our roots to others, embraced by wind and sun and rain, battered by lightning and firestorms, by blizzards and raging flooded rivers, but always bound to the centuries of the forest life, the greater horizon of a breathing organic being that is always at once both ancient and new.