I rarely condone—let alone celebrate—people carving their marks into trees. My kinship with trees is such that when I see carved initials, slogans, or more obscene defacement, I feel the cut of the blade myself. I take the injury personally. It’s emblematic of the deeper damage we’re doing to the earth, and thus to ourselves and each other. I despair at the disrespect.
Yet there are exceptions to this. In tree carvings, wall graffiti, and discards in the street, I’ve occasionally found essential insight. I’ve seen art flourish in alleys; wisdom painted on trains. I love finding flashes of defiant wisdom in damaged places. It reminds me not to indulge in prejudice. It speaks of love’s persistence. When I find guidance within graffiti, I photograph and keep it.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, I photographed a heart carved into a madrone tree. Clearly the carving had been done long before that, as the wood had already scarred around the carving. Without complaint, the tree had begun to grow around the carving, in a way I felt beautified the carving and even the tree. That photograph ended up in my first book, Wild Grace: Nature as a Spiritual Path. In the twenty years since its publication, I’ve visited that tree whenever I return to the park in which it still stands. I’ve seen additional defacement, offset by growth. I’ve watched as its slow changes parallel our own. Like most people, I too have felt carved and disrespected at times, left with no better option than to silently stand and persist.
The carved heart changes are more evident to me now, because I no longer live near that tree. I only see it when I’ve crossed the long miles to return to my former home town. Constant change is more visible when seen at discrete intervals.
I notice this time that more recent and shallow defacements of the madrone heart have faded, while the deeper initial carving has persisted. The scar now resembles an intimate, feminine sacred space, as well as a heart. It also suffers with age. The tree still does not complain.
My own changes are similarly evident to those friends who still live there, as theirs are evident to me. I see an old friend in the park, and I barely recognize him due to his physical changes. Disease has gnarled him, yet his spirit is undiminished, his humor just as sharp through his shrunken words. I wonder what he sees in my own changes.
I wonder too if my own words are merely more carvings in trees. After all, they’re often printed on paper, which are fallen trees in disguise. I can only hope that this graffiti of mine is occasionally wise; at least minimally more than defacement.
Maybe my whole life is a wood carving. I do live in a log home that my mother hand-sculpted. In my kitchen I keep carved wooden spoons and bowls. The cutting boards, cabinets, and tables are wood. I’ve removed trees around the house to mitigate wildfire danger.
In the end, each of our lives parallels lovers’ carvings on trees, as they profess “forever” love in a world of eternal impermanence. Our carvings may last longer than we do. Is the person who carved that madrone heart still alive? Are they still in love? Impossible to know.
Our transience is humbling, as is the reminder that our expressions of love may only feel like defacement to another. To love the world as it is, we have to love the damage and the damaged. We have to love the constant flow of changes, too slow to see except upon occasional return. Change and healing happen at a scale of time far beyond our own. Yet they’re happening in every moment, imperceptibly but insistently. I find that comforting. I find faith in that madrone tree, in each other, in the carved ages to come that I’ll never see.