N O V E M B E R 2 0 2 0
In mid-life I would often wander through a beloved forest a few miles from my home, a forest with no paths except for the thin trails left by deer, and though it felt like I was wandering aimlessly, I would typically find my way to one great tree towering up at the end of a ridge, and there I would sit with my back against her, happy to be a small animal nestled against her trunk, imagining myself to be one of her familiars.
I called her the “grandmother tree,” and to be in her presence was comforting to me, and steadying. I got in the habit of bowing to her when I arrived at her grove. She was an old-growth hemlock, the only one of that age that I found in this forest, the rest having been logged successively over the preceding centuries. The loggers had probably spared her because she was at the end of the ridge and difficult to get to, or because they hoped she would seed new growth, or perhaps, like me, they simply felt awe in her presence. The grove she rose from felt hushed and sacred.
The human world I come from, on the other hand, esteems the new, the latest, the modern. To be young is to be desired. To be old is to be past one’s prime. Usefulness and exuberance are honored, and old people are judged to have neither.
Now, having had the good fortune to arrive at the brink of old age myself, I’m beginning to sense there’s something numinous possible at this end of life, a transmutation—while not guaranteed—from one’s personal journey in life to something quite beyond the personal, something vaster and more meaningful.
When he was my age, the great writer Hermann Hesse spoke of this numinous possibility that is the province of the old:
"And the truth is, even if presumably in our younger years we have experienced more intensely and more dazzlingly the sight of a blossoming tree, a cloud formation, a thunderstorm, nevertheless for the experience that I’m referring to, one does need great age, one needs the infinite sum of things seen, lived through, thought, felt and suffered, a certain frailty and proximity to death in order to perceive, within a tiny revelation of nature, the God, the spirit, the mystery, the coming together of opposites, the great oneness. Of course, young people can experience this too, but less often, and without this unity of thought and feeling, of sensual and spiritual harmony, of stimulus and awareness."
Hesse is describing, in my view, the interiority of the elder—not the elderly, who may or may not be elders—but the unique capacity of the elder to hold the dream of life in its wholeness, simultaneously presencing the ages she or he has experienced, the grief and exultations, “the infinite sum of things seen, lived through, thought, felt and suffered.” It’s a rarefied state, bemused by the personal entanglements of our lives yet fully embracing them.
I feel this state, or “numinous possibility,” is an invitation to take our place among the old ones, the ancestors, by whose commitment and sacrifices our species has survived, and how we the living have been graced with life. It’s a current that’s trans-historical and trans-generational, a kind of spirit nourishment that gathers from the long generations of those who came before and streams through the millennia to us. Now it is our turn, those of us entering elderhood, to become part of that invisible stream of sustenance.
Taking our place with the old ones, becoming part of their sustaining power, is not a task we can apply ourselves to. It’s not work. It’s more like a presencing and a bestowing, like the grandmother tree was to me. She was old, the elder of the forest. There was dignity in her bearing, a quiet presence that was her gift.
Many old things—not only animate beings—carry this kind of dignity and blessing. Think of a mountain or a canyon. Think of a cathedral or an ancient stone circle. We go to these places and are touched by their “infinite sum of things seen,” the weather they’ve endured, the passing of people worshipping, the seasons they’ve known. They too are elders to us, nourishing us.
And so it is with the old ones of our species—not only the elders still alive but all the elders of the past whose “infinite sum of things seen” flows through time like a benediction on us. We are invited—we who are proximate to death—we are invited to join this benediction. All that is asked is our whole-hearted presence and love.