oak tree in the garden

July 5th, 2013


This is an excerpt from my next book Paradise in Plain Sight, coming next spring from New World Library.

A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?” Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.” —Gateless Gate, Case 37

From the beginning, I called it a grandfather tree, the oak tree in the garden. The reasons were self-evident. It was tall, broad-shouldered and thick around the middle, like my grandfathers. Plus, I had an album of photos that showed it standing at full height before I was born. Only later did I learn that there wasn’t even such a description in arboriculture. What I called a grandfather tree was instead grandfathered, protected from removal by a village tree ordinance. But that made sense, too. It’s impossible to remove your grandfathers from the line of life you’ve been given. When you’re little, they hold you. You look up to them. They might teach you something useful that no one else has the time or patience for. In time, they slow down, grow feeble, drop things—but you can’t do a damn thing about it.

Even approaching a hundred years old, the oak tree in our garden was a fount of life. It cradled nests of marauding rats and raccoons. Noisy squirrels chased the length of it all day long. Jays shrieked, hawks roosted, and the wind flew through its wide-open arms. Its canopy shaded a teahouse built by a groundskeeper in the 1920s for his kids to play in. That’s a lot of hide-and-seek and games of tag: generations of joy and laughter. Two years after we got here, our daughter Georgia was born. Suddenly, we saw only peril in a yard full of rocks and water, not to mention dirt. If it had been left to me, fear would have kept us locked indoors. But Georgia kept proving that she was born to play in the garden, as we are all born to play in the garden. She watched her step; she knew her place. Before long, the neglected teahouse was crawling with kids for parties and play-acts: revivals of The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie, stories about making yourself at home wherever you are, stories retold with every generation.

The oak tree in the garden drops more than two thousand acorns a year. Each acorn is both a culmination and a seed; each carries its own ancestral imprint and the full potential to evolve. In California, the principal propagator of oaks is the scrub jay. A jay picks up thousands of acorns and stores them underground in the fall, and when it’s time to eat, remembers where nearly all of them are placed. Nearly all. A few stay undisturbed underground, and those are the ones that sprout. The lineage of the coastal live oak depends on what a bird forgets, and the survival of the Western scrub jay depends on what a live oak leaves behind. It sounds like a willy-nilly proposition, only it isn’t.

One acorn in ten thousand becomes a tree. On the one hand, what a waste. On the other, it works. In the crapshoot of life, you—I mean you—turned up. You rose from the ground of your ancestors, their dust in your bones. Without accomplishing another thing, you are the complete fulfillment of all those who came before you. How can you doubt yourself?

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  1. Maezen,

    A beautiful teaching today.

    Thank you.


    Comment by Danny Parker — July 5, 2013 @ 7:40 am

  2. Beautiful. I am breathless.

    BTW, if I may ask a small favor, would you please add a Facebook share button to your posts? I want to post your links sometimes, but there’s only a Like button available here … Many thanks!

    Comment by Mary H Ruth — July 5, 2013 @ 8:14 am

  3. Thank you Mary. If you put your cursor over the Share button you’ll see a drop down menu of places you can share the post, including Facebook. Let me know if it works!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — July 5, 2013 @ 9:11 am

  4. “Without accomplishing another thing”….i am enough. thank you.

    Comment by laura hodge — July 5, 2013 @ 9:16 am

  5. Aw for Pete’s sake, I should have known that. Thank you!

    Comment by Mary H Ruth — July 5, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  6. a beautiful answer to Joshu he was so tough but I think your answer would go heart to heart—

    Comment by daniel — July 5, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

  7. aaaaah. Gosh what a powerful last sentence. Beautiful!

    Comment by Hillary — July 5, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  8. Beautiful on multiple levels, Karen. I have massive oaks in my garden, and they worry me too. They are messy, and the leaves are prickly on bare feet, and the branches hang over the house, and blah, blah, blah. Your piece also makes me realize how much I love them.

    On another note, your lesson with the list of ten things is helping me get through a stupid little thing with a friend who disappointed me. So stupid, but wow, my impulse to react badly is shockingly strong. But there is the list right in front of me….

    Comment by Clare Kirkconnell — July 5, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

  9. Sobs came forth from me without warning as I read this post. Karen, I know that you say that your teacher needs to be in close physical proximity to you…and I agree with you. But I just want you to know…that there have been countless times when I go to check in to see if you have a new blog post…and it exactly, overwhelmingly, is what I need to hear. You are my teacher too…and I am blessed.

    Comment by Kirsten — July 5, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

  10. Thank to you I go to bed with beautiful thoughts tonight, Karen and share it, I will. Looking forward to The New Book 🙂

    Comment by Mary P. — July 5, 2013 @ 7:15 pm

  11. Ah, oaks! No other tree so full of folklore, especially in Celtic traditions, and with good reason–no other species supports more life. I too am ankle deep in acorns in the fall and line them in the windowsills to ward off harm (and collect them for the Dept. of Forestry).

    Trees teach us how to age gracefully and bestow the gifts of a long life. The oaks all have dead bits by the time they hit a 100 and will keep on going another century or two, supporting more and more wildlife, if only we respect these elders and ancestors.

    The British naturalist Roger Deakin, in “Wildwood, a Journey Through Trees”, wrote of squeezing “inside the hollow of the thousand year old Yew and [looking] up into the lantern of its twisted trunk, illuminated like the inside of a dovecot through the perforations where long-dead boughs once emerged. Yet the tree was in full foliage and blackbirds were sampling the first of its ripe pink berries.” Death in life, life in death.

    Comment by Laura — July 6, 2013 @ 8:23 am

  12. This is so beautiful, so grounded, so solid. Another pearl in the strand of your posts I save and treasure. I spent a summer in Bar Harbour Meine in which I fell deeply in love with these majestic giants, thank you for taking me back there now as I close my day and have time for the journey!

    Comment by Daisy Marshall — July 7, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

  13. Nice story. I love oak trees. How generous to reproduce by sharing food. What generousitree.

    Two other interesting stories:
    (1) A friend told me that an oak tree supports 200 other species of plant and animal. These include fungi, insects and small animals. More than any other kind of tree.

    (2) My brother told me once that an oak tree spends a 100 years growing, a hundred years living and 100 years dying. During all these years, it gives and gives and gives….

    What inspiration. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Paul Brennan — July 9, 2013 @ 3:40 am

  14. […] about this […]

    Pingback by Can I be a grumpy acorn? | faeriesrevenge — December 18, 2014 @ 8:01 am

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