Wild Patience Diaries: Wrestling Trees (After Whitman, Following Illness)

“Dear soothing, healthy, restoration-hours––after three confining years of paralysis––after the long strain of the war, and its wounds, and death” Walt Whitman

After each hard and slow return to the world I’ve had to make after serious illness, I turn always on my first days back up (as again now, after ten days with Covid-19 symptoms) to a few trusted rites and rituals.

The first day is always appalling. The world, whatever the season, has a layer of frost over it, and I am frozen out. My place in the nature of things is lost, forgotten. I feel fear, panic, self-pity. There is a lump in my throat, a stone in my stomach. It seems impossible I will recover my appetite for food, life, laughter.

This is when I take myself in hand. I scour myself with a rough flannel. Pinch my cheeks and bite my lips to bring my colour back. Tie on my apron, my headscarf. Sit then with blank page and pen to simply describe the view from a window.

It is always painful laboured stuff, as with the burning first walk nurses make one do after abdominal surgery, or the deep necessary breaths after a chest infection to force fresh air into the swampy lung bottoms. On my worst return – from month-long pneumonia that happened after the loss of a beloved friend – I believed myself finished. Broken beyond repair; heart, health. But I wrote anyway, if only to prove I was still made of moving parts (albeit unstrung by grief and illness):

New Year’s Day view from the kitchen table. An exercise in beginning again after loss, folly, failure, and the pain in the guts I am left with. Back garden gate swinging on its hinges, its crossbars rotted off leaving wet unpainted strips. Along the back bed, the verbena all fallen flat and tangled, like my daughter’s hair unbrushed during my confinement. Old cereal bowls and camping mugs left out on every low wall by her and her friends in their last mud-pie making of summer. (Sharp pang: Their last ever perhaps, being nine now).

Lid blown off the compost bin. Wheelbarrow brimful of rainwater. Sodden egg box. Go on. Keep looking. How ruined it all is. Watering-can consumed by weeds. The three espaliered apple trees bare of leaves, just unkempt twigs spread out like the chicken feet of Babayaga’s house. (I picked no fruit this summer; was hungry, following my return from a once-in-a-lifetime’s foreign residency, only for an unwise life as an entirely free woman. The work of this recovery will be to learn how to write as well as wife, mother, and husband my neglected home and friendships.)

It worked after all, once again. The strange alchemy by which a simple listing of even dismal things had me arrive at the private shames, fears and failures which had me hesitate to return to the everyday after illness.

§

My other recovery ritual is to read Walt Whitman and Annie Dillard, both of whom spent long seasons alone wandering creeks after serious illness: Whitman, strokes; Dillard, near-fatal pneumonia (Robert Macfarlane’s essay about how her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek emerged from this time is in itself a sort of smelling salts: reminding us, sharply, of how much life can emerge from drawing close to its opposite).

7 x 7: Irregular Cube of Himalayan Birch by David Nash - photograph Tanya Shadrick

To think of Whitman in 1877 always moves me and restores my courage. There he was, after all he’d seen in his time as a volunteer hospice nurse during the American Civil War and the strokes which followed. Facing too, at 58, that he’d never been fully reciprocated in the sort of male love he yearned for. He takes all this – his infirmity, his longing – to the trees:

Feb 20, 1877: – A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high – pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets and plays – or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes…I make the echoes ring, I tell you!

Rather than some passive idea of nature as cure, what delights me in Whitman is his genius for tapping joy and taking big giddy draughts of it.

I read him til I’m able myself to wrap up and reach whatever small patch of woods my circumstances allow. Once there, I smell, I touch. Improvise moves I imagine are Tai Chi among the trees. Let boughs and branches take my weight. Say aloud to the birds the small stock of poems I have by heart. Sing, like Whitman, the song of myself til my self comes back.

📷 Banner: Ash Dome by David Nash; Main: 7 x 7 Irregular Cube by David Nash. Credit Tanya Shadrick

Further resources

Poem: ‘Walt Whitman Wrestling Naked with the Young Trees’ by Donald Platt

Interview: ‘David Nash in Conversation at Cae’n-y-Coed, May 2017′ with Rob and Harriet Fraser of Somewhere-Nowhere.

As in Whitman, what I love in the work of my mentor David Nash, is the interplay between mind, body and natural materials. His Ash Dome – which he began growing and shaping in the 70s in response to the Cold War – is an ongoing engagement with forces that act against growth: ash dieback, his own ageing. This is a lovely long interview, conducted in the place where the Ash Dome and other living works are situated.

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The Wild Patience Diaries are creative practice posts (occasional in this time of Coronavirus; once-weekly again thereafter) that draw on learnings from my late and strange writing journey of the last five years: shared for free in the hope of keeping others company in theirs. I would be so glad if you subscribe or share this resource with others you know who are at an early (or otherwise tender) stage in their artistic awakening. Followers receive each new post as an email.

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4 thoughts on “Wild Patience Diaries: Wrestling Trees (After Whitman, Following Illness)

  1. The power of your words contemplating the garden in winter made me realise how writing does not need to be wham bang alacazam … is that spelt right!!! Its observing what is there in front of you and giving it life with words. Deep inside I feel this pandemic was needed to shake the world up from the never ending greed for more and more … be it food, technology or achievements – our lives in a relentless linear world. It may allow some to learn what is truly important for them, they will have time to pause, though many are kicking out at that very thought of not chasing around. Who knows … we have no idea right now what our immediate world will look like at the end, if there is ever an end to this virus. Something so sinister, menacing and hidden until too late. After I lost my son 19 years ago, aged 14 to a sudden death from heart arrhythmia I wrote poetry … the words bubbled up from inside of me and bringing words to life on the page is really important for me so here I am writing how I think this morning. Thank you.

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    1. Jane, how moved I am by your response to today’s diary entry. To lose your young son to sudden death is a shock and sorrow few parents have to endure. To think of you today putting words on paper, as I sit here continuing with my first book The Cure for Sleep – about sudden near-death and a decade of slow change since – feels like being part of a true soul-community. Thank you for taking time to connect.

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  2. Dearest Tanya,
    I’m so sorry to read of your illness. I hope that your body and spirit will soon be healed and perhaps the growing warmth and light of spring may help. Perhaps if you can feel the growing energy of the sun it’s force for life and creativity might pierce the clouds and you may share a little of its strength. There is great power in it now, as it draws new life from the dark earth, new leaves from dry sticks and tender green shoots even from a crack in the road. The sap is irrepressibly rising.
    I wanted to tell you how grateful I am for the inspiration and stimulation of your Wild Patience Diaries. I have attempted several of your suggestions, such as slow writing. I am not very good at being slow or patient, (well, I’m getting old and there isn’t enough time) so this is a useful discipline. I have also followed up several of your leads, always to find something interesting and expanding. From your introduction, I tracked down Ray Bradbury’s Zen… book and I love it! Thank you so much for that, and for all your generosity and new ideas.
    Take specially good care of yourself, Tanya. Stay warm and try to get the best quality nutrition you possibly can. Give yourself time and build your strength slowly. Be kind to yourself.
    With great anticipation I look forward to happier times and to a day we might meet. Perhaps we might walk or fish together and we will have so much to talk about!
    Sending love and wishes for wellness,
    Michelle xxx

    Sent from Outlook
    ________________________________

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    1. How much this message from you does for my spirits on my first week fully up after three confined to bed then home. As well as less time in which to prepare these supposed-to-be weekly posts, I think I am also concerned not to put anything out in the world that feels like false or easy consolation. So to hear that some of the practices are keeping you good company means a lot. Thank you. I do have sitting on an Exmoor river bank watching you fish high on my list of things that help me look forward to next year!

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