I have always found it difficult to think about the story of my life, let alone tell it. I suffered great traumas as a child. To protect myself, I took my pain and put it down a deep well in my mind. I hid it from myself so that I could function, and I moved through my entire scientific education and decades of research with my eyes always cast ahead, looking for the next question, the next answer, the next piece of understanding and wisdom.
But the person I am today could not exist without that trauma. It led me, as a thirteen-year-old girl, on stepping stones to one of the last bastions of the Celtic culture in Ireland, a place called the Lisheens Valley in County Cork. I arrived in Lisheens in need of something to help hold me together just as the place itself was falling apart. The ancient knowledge of the Druids and the Brehon Laws, kept safe,refined and handed down from one generation to the next for millennia, was on the verge of being lost. Instead, it was given to me, an understanding of the healing powers of plants and the sacred nature of the natural world that remains the greatest gift I have ever received.
The only thing asked of me in exchange for that gift wasthat I not keep it to myself. And though I have shared my ideas and discoveries freely during my fifty-year career in science,I have always held pieces of my story back, keeping the complete picture obscured even from myself.
But now we find ourselves in a special time. On the one hand, climate change poses the most significant threat to our planet that humanity has ever faced. On the other, we are better equipped than ever before to take on that challenge.To do so, though, we need to understand the natural worldas people once did. We need to see all that the sacred cathedral of the forest offers us, and understand that among thoseofferings is a way to save our world.
We are all woodland people. Like trees, we hold a genetic memory of the past because trees are parents to the child deep within us. We feel that shared history come alive everytime we step into the forest, where the majesty of nature callsto us in a voice beyond our imaginations. But even in those ofus who haven’t encountered trees in months or even years,the connection to the natural world is there, waiting to be remembered.
In telling the story of my life and the leaves, roots, trunks, bark and stems that weave all through it, I hope to stir that memory. I want to remind you that the forest is far more than a source of timber. It is our collective medicine cabinet. It is our lungs. It is the regulatory system for our climate and our oceans. It is the mantle of our planet. It is the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. It is our sacred home. It is our salvation.
Trees offer us the solution to nearly every problem facing humanity today, from defending against drug resistance to halting global temperature rise, and they are eager to share those answers. They do so even when we can’t or won’t hear them. We once knew how to listen. It is a skill we must remember.
Comfort in a Stone
My weeping stone sat on the highest shoulder of the valley, where it pointed to the blue above. The stone was way taller than my head, a huge rectangle except for the curve at its crest where chunks had broken loose long ago. Its surface was weathered into rough ripples interrupted by the rounded scabs of lichens. The stone was easily twice the size of the heavy dealwood table in the farmhouse kitchen, big enough that any changes to it occurred on a timeline far too slow for me to perceive, which gave it a welcome constancy.
I called it my weeping stone because I trudged up the hill to be by its side when I felt especially alone. I never really cried. I was beyond tears. Or I repressed my tears, never noticing because I swallowed them whole. I would sit at the stone’s base and lean back against its sturdy flank, ready to slip around to another side and hide if anyone from below called out to me—a reassuring defence, even if no one ever did call.
As I sat there, the slow throb of the Earth settled its calm into my bones. Below me was the farmhouse with its puffs of smoke and, beyond it, the fields of my great-aunt’s farm,each one named in Gaelic like an ancient song. Our neighbours’ farms blanketed both sides of the valley in a patchwork that glowed with a green that seemed to have fire in it. I could watch the seabirds spread open the timothy veil of the pastures and sometimes see the Owvane River, packed with salmon,at the heart of the valley spilling westwards to the open arms of Bantry Bay. If I turned north, I could admire the great sleeping silhouettes of the Caha mountains, colours dancing on their hulking forms. Cnoc Buí—the yellow hill—electrified by its yellow flowers, seemed to vibrate with the chrome of gorse. At times, as I watched the aquamarine of the sea, I wondered about the bolts of bronze that came and went in a silentsymphony of colour. From that vantage point, I could in fact see the entire landscape that had sustained my mother’s family in body and in soul for the past three thousand years. The light playing with the clouds, the salt wind and the rain soothed me.While I never cried buckets up there against my weeping stone,I was a child with no shortage of pain.
On this particular summer day I’m remembering, I had climbed to the stone carrying thoughts of my father. I was an orphan, having recently lost both my parents. I had been lonely most of my young life—separated from most of those around me by nationality, religion and class, just for starters—and I had learned to live with that isolation. But my parents’ deaths struck a blow that I wasn’t sure I could recover from. Months and months had passed and still I felt numb. The daily freshness of their deaths was disorienting, as though the ground and sky had been pulled out from under me. My mourning for my father was constant, the loss so strong that at times I felt winded by its power over me. Some vital part of me was missing and would never come back, because death had closed a door. I just wanted to be small, only a dot, a tiny one. Maybe if I held my breath I could disappear altogether.
I huddled into myself at the base of the stone to survive. The sight of the valley below made me feel both safe and like a tiny dot, as small as the black-and-white cows down there, moving slowly with their pink udders swaying. They were content. I must be, too. And, as I calmed down, I was able to take sober stock of my life.
On my father’s side, I was a descendant of the English aristocracy, the most fragile leaf on a Beresford family tree that included earls, lords and marquises by the branchful. On my mother’s side, I was as Irish as the heather in front of me, the last living drop of a bloodline that could be traced back to the kings of Munster. My dual heritage had inspired resentments, the consequences of which I have borne all my life. As a female child among the Beresfords, I faced the stumbling block of primogeniture. I could not inherit anything of value from my father’s estate other than my bloodline and my name. I was a crossbreed, too Irish for the English and too English for the Irish. My one saving grace in Irish eyes was that I was a femaleand therefore more important than the male. Thoughts that my father’s family would continue to ignore me, as they had since my father’s death, sent me into a panic.But that passed, too, as I looked across the pastures of the Valleyof Lisheens, the handful of square miles of rural Ireland where I would spend my summers for the next decade. I had no inkling yet of the hope that existed right in front of me or of the waysthe land and its people would guide and shape me. I didn’t knowthat the older generation of my mother’s family had already met down at Pearson’s Bridge to discuss my fate. I didn’t knowthat they had already decided to give me the gift of their ancient knowledge, their open secret, and that it would save my life.Or that they intended me to become their “child of destiny.”All I knew, leaning against my weeping stone, was that I was invisible, crushed from too many deaths and utterly alone.