There they stood, gathered at the bottom of the garden.
Good to hide under at dusk, when supper was almost ready. Fine shelter from the sun in the hot summer afternoons. And in the winter, a great fort for snowball fights with my sister. We always referred to them as a trio: les trois épinettes. These three spruce watched me grow up, and surely witnessed more than my childhood memories. To me they were a century old, like the house next door. Because they were so huge in my child’s mind.
They would have been looking through the windows of the house, watching over my family. Maybe they remembered the cows who used to live there before the barn became a house. Maybe they were wild – spared when the land was first cleared. But most likely they were domesticated, planted trees. Wherever they came from, the three spruce marked the line at the edge of the property and mediated human and natural worlds.
Their presence blessed me for fourteen years. But some other humans didn’t feel the same way. Every time I drive by the cottage where I grew up, I look at the empty space where they stood. A sad, silent invisible memory suddenly takes form. What is left there? Can I trace it further back?
And looking carefully, it becomes obvious. My ancestral memory doesn’t go back very far. Not as far as an old spruce tree’s memory. Not even in recent past, on this piece of settler’s land my parents acquired after I was born, eventually selling it to move to town. Nor in the vicinity of what became Québec City, nor in the boat that brought the family on this continent. Nor in the stone house in Normandy where my father’s ancestors used to live. I can walk around the stone house and read the plaques. Find printed legal documents and artifacts. But nowhere can I find memory. My grandmothers are resting, each on their side of the Atlantic ocean. I have missed the stories of my elders, and now it’s too late. I can’t follow my roots deeper, even though I keep digging.
I keep digging in the moss and the crumbly soil of the slope. I dig my nails deep to feel the answer come with unflinching certainty, in moist comforting scents. I dig and my fingers mingle with roots from many plants. I recognize the one. Sending its slender explorers further away from its centre. The mighty strong roots.
I dig some more. I dig like I was taught by elders of a survivor community. Elders my elders’ contemporaries would not have listened to. Elders whose knowledge was selflessly passed down to me. Elders who knew the bounty of Spruce and how to receive its teachings. And their teachings are vibrant like a miracle. They taught me to use every part of Spruce, from the roots to the tips, its blood and skin. So here I am. I dig and pull and snap the long slender root, and scrape through the flesh and split the core in two with my fingernails. Preparing the strongest rope that will fix my harvesting basket.
I would not have known to dig for Spruce roots when I grew up. All I can remember is digging in the snow to find my way into the hollow at the bottom of the three spruce. Laying down on the bare mat of dried needles and hiding, cloaked in tangy smells and snow fallen from the branches. Grounded.
I would not have known, but Spruce’s protective spirit was already with me then, guiding me places where there would be healing for my bullied young human heart.
Beyond the three spruce, crossing the creek, following down a trail of precious wild hazelnuts, was what my young sister and I called dwarf country: le pays des nains. An old clearing for animal grazing that the forest had been slowly taking over. The field was strewed with giant boulders and minuscule spruce trees, like bonsais from another planet. Slightly past the boundary of human world, this space called for magical stories and rituals, strange and exhilarating games. Running between the boulders, looking under, into the cracks, climbing on the rough surface to overlook a vast microcosmic society below. In the winter, it was the best place to play “In the Arctic”, a lost expedition crew of two, walking desperately in the white emptiness towards our imminent death, hip-high in the snow. And dwarf country was also where I would find refuge when I was sad or upset. All by myself in the mysterious field of mini spruce trees, far enough from home that I wouldn’t be found right away… until the vastness and silence felt overwhelming enough to return me safely to my very human reality. Although hidden from the house, we could see dwarf country from the road. Driving by, we would witness in awe as it breached from our imagination into human reality, making itself visible to all.
Spaces like dwarf country, at the junction of human and natural worlds, always fascinated me. Like many children, this is where my younger sister and I spent most of our time. Connecting dreamtime through the games of daytime.
Lucky for me, the in-between places were plentiful in the neighbouring farming lots on the edge of the northern boreal forest. We played in old barns taken over by spider webs and hay dust, crowded with antique equipment and rotten wood. Down the road to the pit, tumbling down the sand slopes, we drove abandoned rusted cars, until the mysterious thump of grouse wings would have us run away in the trails. And up the road we hung out with Monsieur Tremblay in his woodshop and funky museum, up the fence into the cow’s pasture and up quickly, avoiding the insisting gaze of the bull. Running, running, running.
In the orchard, we ran chasing grasshoppers. By the well, we ran jumping on wet lumps of moss. In the ravine, we ran hiding from visitors, protected by the sound of the creek flowing down. Running to the pond, we crawled to catch a sight of the frogs before they stopped singing. In the hay field at night, we ran after fireflies. Running, running, running. Swirling and throwing ourselves to the ground, dizzy and hypnotized.
Le pays des fées, these woods behind the house, were another strange and familiar place to call home. L’Impatiente du Cap was overlooking the creek with her delicate orange flowers and explosive seed pods. Through her tall bush was the entrance – Jewelweed gate to fairyland. This clearing was the living room, and that one was the kitchen. Barefoot in the creek, I would move rocks and branches and transplant wild violets in the cold black dirt, for hours, for years. Under that thicket of fern, I would lay down and breathe a 360 million year-old breath. Beyond this safe haven, where the creek curved and the grey alder became denser, I would not bring my younger sister. A dangerous spot where it was best to come invited, and stay briefly. Immobile, eager to any sound and movement, attentive, vigilant. I would not have known yet, but this in-between place was where I met with the spirits of the forests, receiving their counsel.
In the winter, we went sledding across the road, au pays des corneilles – crows’ country. On top of that steep hill, tall slender spruce welcomed the gathering of dozens of crows everyday. I was attracted by the eerie feel of the wind and the cawing of the birds, all perched on top of the spruce and flying in circles. In this particular place, I would go in reverence, anytime of the year, and into my teenage years. I felt protected there, as if this particular eeriness was protective. A glimpse of the benevolent yet unpredictable wildness of things non-human, a powerful feeling of being part of the bigger unfathomable order.
I would not have known then, but contemplating the top of the spruce trees swinging to changing gusts of wind, I was training to release my own powers to the hand of our Great Mother, mysterious nature.
Spruce was my guide, and has been since then. It is my home, my country. Young dwarf trees or tall old ones, thick or scrawny, Spruce is with me.
Abundant across the world, it is the permanence I recognize in impermanence. In the National Park neighbouring the cottage where I grew up, its pungent scent is as bright as the white lichen growing underneath it.
On the highest mountain of the park, it holds the snow squalls, leans and hovers close to the ground, a teacher of endurance and presence.
In bogs and valleys, it shelters my favourite berries, plants and mosses. Spruce’s silhouette holds the space like a provider, giving food and shelter.
Every year, my sense of renewal and frenzy finds its place when the spring tips pop out. Salt, sugar, tea, vinegar, beer, pickle, pesto: Spruce’s vitamin C is part of my kitchen.
Anti-microbial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, analgesic: Spruce was the first plant to teach me medicine.
Significantly, the protective spirit of my childhood is also the most powerful healer in my apothecary.
To your scruffy bark
Golden resin blood
Scrawny northern tree, I pay respect.
To your aromatic branches
Short green needles, I bow.
It is at your feet that I forever find my ground