Once upon a time, I went for a walk in the woods with brooding thoughts clouding my mind. Moss clung heavily to tree branches where no leaves grew. Broken snags were bored with holes where birds had dug out the bugs that devoured the tree from the inside out.
“Why does it have to be this way?” I asked the cold wind. “Why do we have to grow moss on our limbs, spread beetles and disease with our seeds, and give ourselves over to brokenness and decay? Why can’t we protect our offspring from these things? And why is a moss-covered tree so beautiful?”
Elder Tree met me on the side of a hill. His lower limbs were covered in bright-green moss. His needles stretched for the sky on higher limbs dotted with pine cones. He stood tall and vibrant.
“How can you accept this moss that chokes out your pine cones?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you rather be like this young tree next to you, bursting with needles and bright, purple cones?”
“I was once,” Elder Tree answered me, “but aren’t I beautiful now?”
Looking around, I saw an old tree on the other side of the slope. He, too, was covered in moss, but his top half had snapped and fallen to the ground. Pointing at him, I said to Elder Tree, “You will be just like that one day. Eaten away by the moss, dried up and lying on the ground. How can you be OK with that?”
“Go ask him,” said Elder Tree.
So I walked across the hillside to the broken tree, and he beckoned me in close to his crippled trunk.
“Look,” he whispered.
I turned to look at his fallen top half, but was struck by the splendor of the valley spread out below me and the distant hills rising up to the snow-capped peaks of the mountains beyond. As my eyes settled down upon the broken tree lying on the ground, pointing to the mountains, he whispered, “Aren’t I majestic?”
It was as if, after a hundred years of gazing upon those mountains, this Ancient One had finally cast himself forth and landed, his spine twisted on the ground, his limbs outstretched toward the peaks, only a few feet from where he stood moments before, but closer to those mountains than he’d ever been. And now he was content to give himself back to the soil from which he came, having accomplished more than he ever dreamed possible.
As I walked back to Elder Tree, his Acolyte stuck a branch out in front of me. His cluster of pine cones were a vivid purple with hues of pink and red. His needles were sharp and green. His limbs still small and…what’s this?…dotted with bright-green moss. I took his hand and looked from him to Elder Tree, to the Ancient One, and back again.
“It will happen to you, too,” I lamented.
“It happens to us all, moss or no.” Said the Acolyte. “It is an honor to be able to grow something other than leaves.”
I realized then that the moss was not the problem. The problem was merely that I didn’t want things to be this way.
Elder Tree beckoned me near. “A tree is no less a tree though he be adorned with moss or home to beetles or bent by the storm. He is a tree all the way through these things. Likewise, you are you even when things go wrong and get broken. That’s not to say that there are no real problems or that suffering is just an acceptable part of life; it’s to say that we all have everything we need within us to be fully ourselves in the midst of all the pain and joy and suffering and ecstasy. In that is contentment.”
I leaned into Elder Tree, shivering slightly in the cold breeze, and listened to the first expression of the Divine being at peace with the way things are.