This is how I get to know a place. I start with one tree. Or a bush. Or a rock.
I look up through its branches at the sky and see what the tree sees. I see a flycatcher land on the top branches, a perfect lookout for him. I run my fingers across the furrows of its bark, wondering of the history that this cedar has seen in its life. I wonder how old she is. Was she here when this hillside was cleared last? Why was she spared? Was she too young?
A fly buzzes around me, investigating this stranger who has her hands on this tree that the fly already knows. I realize that I might be the first human this fly has seen.
I pinch off a tiny bit of the tree’s fan of needles and breathe deep, understanding how the incense cedar got its name. I bury my nose in the furrows of its bark and smell a different, fainter, still sweet smell.
As a child, I would have immediately climbed this tree and joined the flycatcher in its upper reaches. The branches are perfectly spaced and the perfect size for the smaller legs that I had 30 years ago. I am not nearly as limber now as I was, so I stay with my feet on the ground this time.
I look down at the bright green lichen covering manzanita ancestors at my feet, and I am called to join them. I sit down, back against the cedar, listening to a scrub jay calling down the hill from me, and another bird I can’t identify yet calling single hollow notes behind me.
I dig my fingers into the soil below the cedar, surprised at the depth of composting cedar needles that I reach through before I find the dark, loamy, rich soil below. This soil is different than the sandy soil just a few feet away. It is richer. Darker. Deeper. More moist.
There are the spent stalks of flowers here, supported by the cedar’s soil and shade, that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the area. One appears to be a scarlet gilia, or something related. I see the unmistakable umbrel
stalk of something in the parsley family, but I can’t be sure what. I don’t know this landscape yet.
Prajna the dog is chewing on an old fallen cedar branch, and I smell a new smell as she tears off the remains of the bark. I tear off some bark, too, and I see insect trails hidden on the underside of my bark. Prajna looks around, curious at the fly that just returned to land on my leg.
I look on the other side of the tree and discover branches of a wax current, and I wonder if it’s the same species I have nibbled on for decades in Colorado.
This is how I get to know a place. I sit. Listen. Smell. Touch, taste. I don’t know all of the plants, birds, insects, and mammals that this cedar supports, but I know this tree now. This individual. At least, we have introduced ourselves to each other.
Getting to know a landscape is a slow, patient process. Before I know the names of these places and these beings, I must know the beings with all of my senses. I must see and feel and smell and touch and taste, and slow down enough to notice all of the details.
I know Hotlum a little bit better than I did a few hours ago, and for that I offer my gratitude to this incense cedar, who invited me to spend some time in her shelter.
Prajna has run off now, investigating a motorcyclist that she heard on the road. The spell has faded, and I will arise to follow her, feeling my new relationship with this tree, and with this place.