‘Enlightenment isn’t about imagining figures of light, it is about making the darkness conscious.’ (-Carl Jung)
Once upon a time there was a little girl. She wore buckle up shoes and a little red dress no matter what the weather. She loved to climb trees. The taller, the better. And when she got to the top she would see a new tree, a higher place to which she could climb if she got down from where she was and began again somewhere else. There were other girls in the trees too. But as the years went by, more and more of them seemed to choose to stay on the ground, to make lives based on what they could see as opposed to what lay just over the horizon. And so it came to be that the girl with the red dress- her buckle up shoes long since discarded, as she could climb better in her bare feet- felt as if she was all alone up there, journeying amongst the wind and the sparkle of the stars, a slim grey branch in each hand, climbing. Then one day the wind brought a new thought. “What if freedom isn’t about limitless choice” it whispered. “What if it is about choosing a path; finding a tree that is yours and yours alone, and climbing it in order to better offer a gift to the world?” The girl came down out of the tree she was in, and sat on the forest floor. She thought about all of the trees she had climbed: some gnarly and some smooth, some reaching for the horizon in both directions, some growing towards the stars straight as arrows. There was one trunk that she remembered. It was huge and smooth and impossibly tall and somewhere, high up in its branches, a mysterious kind of fruit sparkled. The girl realized that she had been circling around this tree her entire life, not quite able to look at it, but not able to leave the circle of its power either. I must find this tree she thought. So she lit a lantern, and she began to search. She wandered for eight days and eight nights, slept huddled on the forest floor, instead of high up in the branches as she was used to. The people of the forest tried to take her in, but she would not go to them. “I’m looking for something” she said. On the morning of the 9th day she found it. The great and silver trunk that she remembered, as if it was a dream. She stood at the base of the tree and put the palm of her hand against its bark. The tree seemed to shimmer against her hand, as if in recognition. She was just beginning to find a finger hold for herself in the bark so she could begin her climb, when she heard a sound. Out of the depths of the forest there came a man, mounted on a silver horse, a falcon perched on his arm, a silver hood pulled over its eyes. “What are you doing here?” the man asked. “I’m climbing this tree” she said. “Why?” “Because it sang to me.” She could think of no other reply. The man looked up at the tree, looked back down at her. “Climb on the back of my horse” he said. “There is another tree I know of not far from here, that contains the very thing you are searching for. It is much easier to climb, and you will not have to climb it alone.” The girl looked at him, then looked up into the branches of the tree. It no longer seemed to breathe against her palm. Perhaps it was not the tree she sought after all. The horse the man was riding tossed its head impatiently, clinking the metal of the bit between its teeth. “Alright” she said. “I will go with you.” She got onto the back of the man’s horse, and they journeyed for many days, deep into the heart of the forest. After three days, they came to a clearing. And there was no great tree. Just a group of men and women working, clearing brush and burning it in a fire. The girl looked around her in dismay. The world she had been promised did not exist. Still, she was far from anything she knew, and would need to regain her strength if she was ever going to make it out of this place. So she got down off the horse and began to work. She ate the food the man gave her, and burned brush with the other men and woman, realizing it was not mere brush, but the limbs and hearts of great trees. A forest had stood here once, and it was now being burned. Every few weeks, the man would go out riding, and come back with another traveller, someone weary, who trudged towards the fire as if it were an island and they were shipwrecked. They had a blankness in their eyes, where there should have been the light of dreams. The girl began to tuck away pieces of bark and slivers of wood, a small handful that grew and grew until it was a tinder bundle, a nest for a spark that would lead her back the way she had come. Each day she would tuck away another piece of bark. And one night, while the man was out riding, she slipped away. She tucked two coals from the fire into the nest of the tinder bundle, and walked out into the forest, in the opposite direction from the tracks the horse’s hooves had left in the clay. After days and days of wandering- cold, tired, and exhausted, blowing on the little coals she had left in the tinder bundle, praying they would not go out- a horse came to her. It was a white mare, and she spoke: “do not think you are the only one who is left.” She pawed the ground with her hoof, as if making a point. “I, also, have chosen to leave the ones who captured me. Climb on my back and let us journey together.” So the girl- who was then quite exhausted- climbed on the back of the mare, and they went on together, far into the thick of the forest. When the mare was tired, the girl would feed her scraps of the bark from her tinder bundle which, miraculously, still burned warm in her hands. Then one morning she awoke to the mare’s nicker, and saw that the horse had stopped at the trunk of a great tree. Its bark gleamed silver in the early morning light. The girl held her breath, and put out her hand. And faintly, just faintly, she felt the tree sigh against her palm. She slid off the mare, and turned to thank her. “My journey leads elsewhere” the mare said. “But I hope that, from time to time, we can continue to give each other strength.”
The girl placed what was left of the tinder bundle inside her shirt, and began to climb the tree, curving the arc of her body around the heat that burned into her chest. Cautiously at first, as her fingers asked the tree’s permission, asked it to grant her a handhold, a place to anchor her toes so she could climb one step more. When she got to the crotch of the tree- the place where the branches forked off in all directions- she laid the tinder bundle down, and lit a fire in the heart of the tree. “Light me like a lantern for all to see” the tree told her. “Feed the fire with offerings of other branches, and I shall not be burned.” And so the girl sat in the tree’s branches, and tended the fire. When she was hungry, the wind blew down a bit of fruit for her to eat. When she was tired, she curled up and slept. Many days and months passed. One day the girl got up, and realized that she had become a woman. And each morning there was a new sound on the wind: the sound of footsteps growing closer, the feet of many people walking, looking for a mysterious light someone had seen burning, deep in the forest. And so she slept, and tended the fire, and waited.