Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Book Review - Becoming Forest by Michael Kearney

Reviewed for Cholla Needles by Greg Gilbert 

Sweet, simple, and profound. 

Becoming Forest is a lovely little book, 234 pages. Its tone conveys a sense of reverence for the natural world without becoming strident, didactic, or saccharine. Its simplicity is that of a close observer, a narrator that is absorbed in the present moment. Its profundity is in what is being seen, the viewer’s inquiries, revelations, and conclusive sense of purpose. The book opens when a young woman who lives in Ireland, Aishling, receives a travel voucher from her grandmother, Greta, so that she can join her in Santa Barbara, California.

Greta’s husband – Aishling’s grandfather, Bran, has recently succumb to COVID-19. He had died in the same hospital where he’d worked for many years as a doctor providing palliative care to help free people from suffering. In her grandfather’s journal, Aisling reads about a “Vision Quest” he’d once made to the Bodhi Tree in India, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment. Also in the journal is a letter to her explaining that he had journeyed to India out of a deep concern over the climate crises, mass extinctions and the uncertainty that young people are inheriting. In the letter, he asks her to pass along to others a message of “deep security.” As a result, Aishling makes her own journey to the Bodhi Tree where she meets a young monk. They travel together and we accompany them. Their travels are revelatory.

Years later in 2050, Tara, Aisling’s daughter, travels from Ireland to be with her mother after the death of her father, the young monk Aisling had met thirty years ago. As with her great-grandfather and generations of women in her family, she too has become aware of the happiness and sense of fulfillment that can come with creating resilience wherever you are.

The structure of Becoming Forest is in many ways a Buddhist story of life cycles and awareness, and, appropriately, of our vast connections to and within the natural world, beliefs that are central to many ancient and indigenous cultures. At the center of the story is the tree of life. Tara recalls her father’s words. “‘Think about it: Catholics have St. Peter’s Square, Jews have Jerusalem, Muslims have Mecca, and Buddhists’ he paused, and then said with a grin, ‘What do we have? A tree!

 Of course, in today’s busy world of screens and stress and double-shot lattes, the old wisdom found in sitting with a tree may appear too new age or pastoral for the serious mind. But then, there is the moment when Tara recalls her father pausing while tree planting to listen to a bird’s song. “‘Do you hear that? That’s what lively awareness sounds like.’ Or, ‘Look at the trees. They’re manifest awareness. Always right here, essential yet unassuming.’” A scientific explanation is offered as Tara explores a burn zone in 2050 and finds that a favorite old tree has died. She recalls a teaching from her mother, the “Mycorrhizae Sutra.” It speaks of “how the roots of trees connect with underground fungal filaments to form a vast web.” At the time of death, a tree will pass an enormous catalogue of benefits, chemicals, and carbons to the roots of surrounding trees, a network that provides for shadowed trees in need of sunlight and unhealthy trees as well, each according to its need.

Becoming Forest reminds us that all trees are the BodhiTree and, by extension, that we are all are part of a universal web of being.

The book is illustrated with Zen brush paintings by Tess Leak. Her YouTube site explores loss through the creation of haiku.

To learn more about Michael Kearney and his work, click here to visit his site.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus & Butchy's Rainbow.

click on cover of each for more info =:-)

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