By Celeste Martin
Edited by Charles Hart
Written March 22
The grocery store parking lot is only a quarter as full as usual. I wait in line for half an hour among people standing at a distance from one another. I am admitted and handed a sanitized cart. As I walk in, I unknowingly enter a sort of ballet with many dancers. I glance down every aisle to see whether there will be relative ease in avoiding others. Meeting other shoppers, we slowly maneuver past, oh so careful to avoid bumping elbows or coming too close. We are graceful and gracious in our dance—and I notice here, as elsewhere on the island, that there are smiles despite the physical distance we are all trying to keep.
In this, we are like trees, for this is an island of woods and forests. Grand firs with their shiny needles. Douglas firs with their thick bark bearing remnants of a long ago fire. Bigleaf maples with their burls—burls that try to seal off an infection or intruder, creating bumps that run the length of their trunks. And cedars, gentle cedars that bend and weave their way along. We are surrounded in every moment here by trees: strong and resilient.
Last year, while weeding and listening to a Science Lab podcast, I learned of the dialogue carried on between the trees. Drawing on a network of fungi underground, trees are able to send each other nutrients and water, to tell each other when they need help. This fungi supports a web of communication, and while trees compete with one another for some things, such as sunlight and space, they are also interlinked helpers.
Another phenomenon is called crown shyness, where trees do not touch the branches and leaves of the trees surrounding them, creating a zone of protection from wind damage. Pictures of crown shyness are akin to a jigsaw puzzle or a photo of a river delta, with the space between the trees weaving here and there through the canopy.
It is no great leap to imagine our community as such a forest. We’ve been supporting each other in visceral ways: offering to help pick up groceries or other essentials, forming new online groups dedicated to sharing music, trading goods and services, or simply checking in by making a phone call to a sheltering neighbour. Humour and levity can still be found, and I have no doubt that when a call goes out for help there are often an overwhelming number of responses.
Still, there is crown shyness in our forest at the moment. Social distancing has made even a normal interaction awkward, as thoughts of contagion meld with the normal day to day. We are an island with many elders—some of the folks most at risk at the moment. We have people isolating themselves after returning from travel or because of underlying health conditions.
We have families with children, suddenly finding themselves without the normal routine of school. Our small businesses are closed or generously offering deliveries and take-out. Our ferries are populated with fewer people, and those that need to travel now stay in their cars rather than chatting outside in the gorgeous spring sunshine. We are trees busy maintaining a barrier from others, trying to protect ourselves and the rest of the forest.
Meanwhile, our underground connections persist, and will last longer than the current pandemic. Soon, there will be hugs upon meeting once more, and coffee with friends, concerts and togetherness. But for now, I am doing the dance of crown shyness in the market, and spending my time wandering empty trails in forests. Forests where I know that the trees are talking to each other below my feet just as my sweet island community continues to do.
We form connections, we love one another, and we wish for good health.