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Tales of Motherhood From an Unlikely Source

Updated: Apr 19

How a walk in the forest helped me adjust to the teen years




White wood anemones in a beech forest in southern Sweden. Photo credit: Nadine Bjursten.



Spring is here in southern Sweden, and the white wood anemones have begun to cover the forest floor. Peter Wohlleben talks about this period in The Hidden Life of Trees, when flowers take advantage of the short time before the leaves of the beech trees block the sun. Since 2010, when our girls were born, we have been showing them this marvel.


We have also heard rumors of wild garlic blooming early. It used to be an event that our girls delighted in, not just for the beauty of those star-shaped blooms against a carpet of green, but because you can eat everything from the plant, including the flowers. They make a sublime pesto.


I am ready for this walk. An ankle break from more than thirty years ago is giving me trouble, but I am not deterred. I am wearing hiking pants and a warm jacket, and while I put on boots, my husband dons his favorite blue hiking shoes, fleece, and vest. Our Rhodesian Ridgeback is waiting patiently in her harness.


In Sweden, they say there is no bad weather, only bad clothing, and we are, for the most part, dressed appropriately. One daughter doesn’t want to wear her hiking pants. Instead, she wants to wear her lavender inside pants and a light jacket, and we are stunned when she reaches for her white sneakers. We tell her it will be wet and muddy, but she insists. We can, of course, push the point, but we are getting warm and that brief glimpse of sun may soon disappear.


Winter is behind us, and I have The Hidden Life of Trees fresh in my mind. It is not Wohlleben’s latest book, but it was on my shelf. I liked learning about the trees, especially those tall, majestic beeches that are so much a part of this region. At least, they used to be before farming shrunk the forest to mere patches in the landscape.


True to Atticus Finch’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that you can never understand a person until you “climb into his skin and walk around in it,” the book invites a more complete understanding of trees by having the reader step inside their skin. The reader finds less a Darwinian fight for survival and more a Brené Brown-type exploration of how the trees feel and their ability to empathize and build community.


We find the wild garlic almost immediately. I gather a small bag for tonight’s pesto while my husband lets our dog sniff the area, and the girls stand around as if in some trance.

We walk on, and I find myself looking for the small nodes on the branches of the skinny beech trees we pass. They look like they are a few years old, but according to Wohlleben’s metric, they are eighty, and the mothers towering above are at least two hundred.


I show my girls something else: the way the bare winter crowns of the trees do not encroach upon each other’s space. “Lifelong friends,” Wohlleben says. I explain they take turns nourishing and supporting each other, making sure not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. They divide nutrients and water between them so each tree can “grow into the best tree it can be.”


The teenage eyes roll. Am I becoming that parent — a lesson always hiding in my words? Around us, the spindly beeches wouldn’t mind a good dose of sun to stretch their trunks. Wohlleben tells us of the recklessness of these youngsters, their risky leaf-shedding, drinking more than their share, and the favorite — chasing the sun.


Mother beeches don’t allow it. They know the dangers: their trunks risk becoming porous and vulnerable to infection and attacks from fungi and insects. They need solid and dense trunks to get the kind of longevity beeches are known for, and that means a strict regimen of partial sunlight with mothers passing the right nutrients to them through their root systems.


I know all about trying to give my girls a good start. I entered motherhood late at thirty-nine, and that pregnancy gave me twins. I was ready to be a mom, my head full of best practices, making their mostly vegetarian food from scratch, and I succeeded so much that they loved vegetables of all sorts and non-kid foods from different parts of the world.


The teenage eyes roll. Am I becoming that parent — a lesson always hiding in my words?

We made food and dessert together, watched the Swedish version of Master Chef, and had fun. That enthusiasm, however, has now waned to the odd afternoon or evening. They have discovered the joy of fast food. When we travel up north to their grandmother’s, they are over the moon at the chance to stop halfway for a halloumi burger and french fries from Max, Sweden’s version of McDonald’s.


Mother beeches bestow their motherly advice via the roots not only using chemical compounds but also through electrical impulses via the so-called “wood wide web.” They also send scent-mail and pump out phytoncides, a secret superpower that helps their offspring and friends fight disease. If it is a dry season or insects attack, or if they get some wound, the youngsters will get a dose of this goodness and at the same time be told and shown how to protect themselves.


I think it is all so immensely cool, but I know I have used up my sharing of the things I have learned from a tree book, even if it still feels like only yesterday the girls were excited about planting trees and saving the world.



An old beech using her crown to protect her offspring from chasing the sun and growing up too fast. Photo by Smileus/Shutterstock.com.


My ankle hurts going uphill, and the girls offer to hold my arm. I get a taste of what it feels like to age. I try to be bright about it. I try not to think of the surgery that is waiting for me, and the girls are good about not making me feel like a burden.


Flat ground again, and I pick up the pace, doing my best to look spry. I need not strain myself as the girls are starting to slouch, walking as if we have been out here five hours instead of one. They are thinking of friends and the cell phones waiting in their pockets. The girls are already almost my height. They will grow taller than me, and each wants to be taller than the other. They want to grow faster.


Suddenly, the girls receive simultaneous pings on their phones, and they steal a glance at each other, thinking of their promise not to be on their phones during the walk but also, I suspect, how they can do it anyway. I can’t help but wonder if there is some form of gaming and chatting on the wood-wide web that makes the adult beeches crazy.


The mother beeches give no hint of this as they are so calm and collected. I know it’s on me to center myself and seem chill. I need to allow my girls space. I remember some tree wisdom: “If one tries too hard to twist and manipulate a sapling away from its nature, it will break.” I am mindful of how quickly these teen years will pass, and I don’t want the time to be spent with me harassing them.


My eyes stray to my daughter’s white sneakers, which are soiled and no doubt sodden, but she already knows that.


I breathe in the forest air, feeling replenished by this walk. We pass a patch of white wood anemones and hang there for a bit as our dog sniffs around. The tree next to us has a large wound that must be years old, and I run my hands over it. My husband runs off with our dog, and the girls follow.


I think of what I read, that trees don’t delay treatment when they suffer an injury. They quickly release chemical compounds to keep the wound free of infection. Then, they get to work building a callus to grow over the damaged tissue. They don’t rush the process or cover the wound prematurely but make sure it is done right. Their sights are not on quick fixes but on longevity.


The doctor told me they have made enormous strides in ankle implants: they are anatomic now, and after about eight weeks, I will move around, with full recovery taking as much as a year. I asked the doctor what full recovery will look like, and I could tell by her glance she knew I was struggling. “You will be happy,” she assured me.


Only a few weeks ago, we were up north for Sweden’s yearly 90-kilometer (56-mile) cross-country ski race, the biggest such race in the world. My brother and husband competed as did his brother and cousin. One daughter raced in the junior version. The other daughter has more of a taste for mountains. They are all faster than me, more agile, more fearless, and I wonder what this operation means as far as keeping up with my family.


Their voices reach me from up ahead, but instead of picking up my pace, I take in the signs and sounds of new life in the forest. Wohlleben says that for trees, being old doesn’t mean being “weak, bowed, and fragile.” On the contrary, they get stronger and more robust as they age. As trees don’t move anywhere fast, it occurs to me this must have more to do with their resilience and even their empathy and wisdom. They are well past the youthful craziness of wanting more sunlight no matter what. They value the moment and, most importantly, the lives right in front of them.


I don’t need to share this thought with my girls or husband. I am alone for a few minutes with the trees.

 

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