Our love was a forest. We could count the years like tree rings, each one given its own character by the wild places we’d explored together. Dinosaur, Yellowstone, Arches, the Tetons, Bryce Canyon, and more, the geography of a relationship that grew out of a shared affection for the outdoors. From entirely separate lives we started to build our own grove, covered with moss, adorned with dew-dappled ferns, and soothed by the flashes of lightning bugs in the night, an old growth forest—a climax community—that rose towards the sun from our entangled roots. I didn’t expect the clear cut until the saws started meeting the bark of the grove.
That phrase, “climax community,” always stuck with me. I learned it about the time my spouse and I were both trying to finish up our ecology classes at university. Go out to the edge of the parking lot, the lab teaching assistant instructed my class one morning, and assess where the scraggly forest on the edge of the asphalt fits in the pattern of succession for woodlands. It was a diabolically early lab, the sun still low in the autumn sky and my breath leaving trails of condensation past my face as I walked out to the edge of the asphalt and peered into the woods for indicators of whether the forest had reached maturity or not. That was supposed to be the goal of all good little forests, after all—to reach stately, self-sustaining old age where everything from lichen to migratory songbirds had their place.
I had hoped the same for my relationship. Just 22 during that lab assignment, I was already looking ahead to marriage and the years of growing together. I wasn’t interested in having my wild years. I wanted to be grounded. I wanted to promise forever to someone, as permanent as the damp and earthy old growth. It wasn’t something that could be rushed. Just as a forest must start from seed, I believed, so did romance, the full expression of adoration aging gracefully to create something ancient and comforting. Everything else seemed too fleeting, only half of what it could be. I wanted to one day stretch my leaves and feel warmly content in the accumulated time.
But I was only a neophyte. I didn’t understand forests because I hadn’t lived in one yet. It took time to learn. You see, an old growth forest is not a placid place where all nature’s variety is welcome. Trees guard their territory as fiercely as wolves, perhaps even more so. The very existence of this or that tree species changes the chemistry of the soil, benefiting their own progeny while making it near impossible for others to take root. The twirl of a sycamore seed into a firmly-established forest will likely turn into food for a squirrel or decay back into the soil, all the available space taken and barely a sliver of sunlight to spare. It’s only when there are breaks in the forest that it can truly change, the barest chance that something new might start to push its way up from the soil.
It’s only when there are breaks in the forest that it can truly change, the barest chance that something new might start to push its way up from the soil.
I didn’t know any of this as I started to lose my identity to the infatuation I tried to maintain. I started to be buried under, sensing that something wasn’t right but not being quite sure what. I didn’t take care of myself. I tried to tend the forest itself, whatever I felt was being asked of me. I could only thrive as long as I asked for little. I doubted myself, but felt like I couldn’t question that this twining was a good thing.
I didn’t understand how the closeness of my marriage smothered the parts of myself that ached with want. I knew that I’d always been a woman, despite what I looked like to the world, but hadn’t yet found the words to clear a space for myself and my spouse’s insistence that I was the man she married didn’t make me feel optimistic. I knew I desperately wanted to feel loved, wanted, and desired, but I couldn’t find those feelings among the trunks and branches that demanded more sacrifice. I told myself that I would have to wait for them to flower in time, the rewards of a patient and dedicated love. As time went on, I felt less content to wait and watch the grass grow. I told myself that I wanted to reach that climax community, that lush comfort, but my roots weren’t being nourished. I tried so hard to care for my spouse’s wants and needs that I pushed my own to the background, which only made me hope for a distant someday when I wouldn’t hurt as bad. Flirtations spun in like sycamore seeds, reminders that I did not have to stay, but I was still so ensnared that there was no way for them to take root and change the nature of what I thought life would be. Nor did I feel safe to leave the familiarity of my home forest to start anew. I thought this was healthy, that the forest was merely protecting itself. Over time, the comfort I had grown with my partner had started to feel darker, more ominous. I started to suspect that maybe the forest hadn’t been healthy to begin with and that so much of what I had hoped to grow required submission to the idea of keeping the forest alive above all else. The woods began to feel darker and confining, the kind of place where you have second thoughts about whether that vine just tried to wrap around your ankle.
Eventually, my personal patch of forest died. By time I had realized what had gone wrong, and I began to push back the undergrowth to make room for my femininity, my desires, my sense of what love should feel like, there was too much history in those woods, too much growth to change course. The ground needed to be refreshed. I didn’t call for the clear cut, but I needed it just the same.
Every moment of the divorce hurt. Fifteen years, gone as if they never existed. As if they never mattered. There were literal trees that had grown since our relationship had started that had gone through their own seasons of growth and dormancy, counted through the rings of their tissues. Even then, I wasn’t ready to accept the truth. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that the climax community, in nature nor in love, should not always last.
Trying to maintain something as it is, forever, requires a naïve kind of hope—even denial. We’re not taught to grieve and bounce back. We’re taught to hang on.
Our frenetic primate brains have an incredibly difficult time with uncertainty. It can wear us down to specks. We want to feel sure, to know that love and home are permanent. We do so much—I’ve done so much—to avoid the fear of loss and knowing that we have to begin again with far less time than when we began. But we may as well argue with a thunderstorm. All things end, and sometimes what we want to anchor our roots to can only last for a season.
Longevity is a strange marker for success. It’s a monument to endurance, but perhaps not everything should be endured. Going back to revise what I took in almost two decades ago has changed my thoughts. We’re always meeting nature from our perspective, and sometimes life will shift our perspective for us. A dense, rich, loamy forest can be seen as an expression of resilience and beauty, or it can be seen as a battlefield where constant skirmishes to hold the gained ground play out over and over again. Perhaps both are true. Perhaps there isn’t a tragedy in the fire or the flood that changes a landscape, but simply a change that allows something new to peek out of the ground.
Trying to maintain something as it is, forever, requires a naïve kind of hope—even denial. Stability is seen as a sign that we have done something healthy and intrinsically right, perhaps because we can’t bear to think that “different” might not be synonymous with “worse.” We’re not taught to grieve and bounce back. We’re taught to hang on.
Losing all that’s grown, chunks of a lifetime gone in a mere instant, can’t be anything other than painful. But new growth isn’t somehow lesser. Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed, to return what’s been missing into the ground and shift the nature of who we are. The end of what I intended to be my most cherished relationship allowed me to flourish on new ground, to have my personal taxonomy finally seen for what it was, and be recategorized as the woman I’d always been but could never find the ground to stand on before.
I don’t feel the same way about forests anymore. When I have the privilege of hiking through old growth I think about all that those trees have weathered and survived. But such places are not the only ones worthy of awe. I’ve developed a soft spot in my heart for young shoots pushing up from a topography charred by fire and for the hopeful sapling reaching up from a sunny spot made by the fall of an older tree; life that is in a state of vibrant becoming. What could be more precious than that? There’s no telling what they might be, how they might grow, or what changes might come. They are creating something new by merely existing. Sometimes I stop in my tracks and reach out a hand to briefly touch their leaves, wishing for them what I can only hope for myself.