A few years ago, I had an experience with a tree that forever changed how I think about love. I was out for a solo hike in one of my favorite nature spots, a lushly wooded valley up the coast from my home in Santa Cruz, California. It was late afternoon, and most other hikers had already headed back, leaving me free to immerse myself in the forest and listen without distraction.
I was resting in the arms of a special tree friend, a majestic California bay laurel, reclining on a broad branch and gazing up into the graceful crown of the tree. The sun was low in the sky, and just a few branches near the top were still illuminated, swaying gently in the breeze.
I hadn’t planned to stay long, since I wanted to hike out before dark, yet I sensed a clear invitation to linger that seemed to come directly from the tree. And when a tree speaks to me, I listen!
So, I nestled into the embrace of the bay tree and listened with my whole body. It was an experience I will always remember. I felt held and supported by much more than the strong branches holding me aloft, as though I was energetically merging with the tree. I sensed a level of unconditional love and acceptance I had never known before. It was one of the most powerful experiences of communion with another being in my life.
As I rested in the branches, a direct and powerful message came to me. It didn’t just pop into my head. It emanated directly from the tree, from a source of living wisdom much greater than my own mind. I felt it permeate my body and soul with a profound sense of intuitive knowing.
The message was: you can go to the natural world to help meet your needs for intimacy and connection and teach others how to do this.
I knew in every fiber of my being that I had received a beautiful and sacred gift that would serve me for many years to come. I basked in this experience of love and communion. Unable to pull myself away, I stayed with my bay laurel friend almost until sunset and made it back to the trailhead just before dark. The hike out was peaceful and magical. I watched the light fade into rosy hues and then deeper shades of blue as the first stars pierced the darkening sky. Great horned owls hooted in the distance and the gentle chorus of crickets, tree frogs, and the murmuring creek brought a smile to my face. While I saw no other humans, I felt profoundly connected and anything but alone.
This moment was one of many turning points in a rich and fascinating journey that has transformed how I think about friends, family, and love, and how I meet my needs for connection—all for the better.
Looking for Love
Most of us are taught to look for love in certain places: in groups of like-minded people, at bars and parties, in carefully crafted profiles on glowing screens. We are not taught to look for it in the strong branches of trees, the delicate petals of flowers, or water gliding over stones. We are also trained to search for love primarily in the form of one idealized romantic partner, which limits our options and leaves many people lonely and longing for more connection.
What if we could snap out of the hypnotic trance of fairy tale romance and inhabit a wider, wilder, and more inclusive love story? One that enables us to escape from the cramped confines of the humans-only club and rewild our friendships and love lives—not to replace our human relationships, but to expand our circle of kinship? What if we knew that every being could be our friend and teacher, and that we can cultivate loving connections with trees, lakes, and special places in nature and experience the unconditional love we yearn for?
We would feel more love, and more loved. We would feel less alone and more connected. We would have a solid base of support we could count on in good times and bad—perhaps more than we can rely on some of our closest human relations. Our love lives would become broader, deeper, richer, and (yes) wilder!
While making friends with plants, birds, or creeks might sound strange to modern ears, it’s healthy for us to experience profound love for nature and close friendships with more-than-human beings. For most of our history on planet Earth, we lived in cultures that recognized all beings as our relations and revered the wisdom of nature. This innate love and kinship are still inside us, ready to be rekindled.
What do you look for in a friend? Someone who makes you smile? Who you feel comfortable with? Who lifts your spirits? Who accepts you exactly as you are? All this and more can be found in the natural world, where many forms and flavors of friendship can flourish…
The comfortable familiarity of a trail we have walked dozens of times and that reliably leaves us feeling calmer and happier. The everyday intimacy of tending a garden and helping plants grow. The safety of a forest glade that offers refuge when we are recovering from a painful experience. The palpable sense of support when we lean into a tree or lie down on the Earth, let the tears flow, and release our burdens. The unconditional love we share with our four-legged friends, who may provide our most steadfast source of companionship.
Nature can be viewed as a diverse and loving extended family that is always available to support us. It reminds us that we are part of a vast and beautiful web of life. It encourages our interests, draws out our strengths, and teaches us about what matters, like a healthy extended human family would. If we attune to it, the natural world can speak to us very deeply. As Indigenous people have known for millennia, all aspects of nature have wisdom and medicine to share, and respectful contact with nature allows us to access that medicine.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should abandon their spouses and families, head for the hills and look for love only outside the human world. I am suggesting that many of us could find love and connection more easily and happily by expanding our circle of kinship to include the natural world. Time and again, in both my personal practice and work with clients, I have seen how healing occurs when we shift from viewing nature beings as objects to approaching them as friends, relations, and allies.
Making friends with “other” beings and natural places is easier than you may think, and more like making friends with humans than you might expect. It starts with giving the spark of connection a chance—noticing who and what you feel instinctively drawn to and allowing those relationships to grow and blossom. A little time and attention can go a long way, especially when you are present and your heart is open. The practices chapter in this book can help light the path.
Of course, a friendship with a fern, a bluebird, or the ocean will be quite different from one with another human. You may need to go to them and meet on their terms. The connections will likely be less verbal and more visceral, embodied, and instinctual. Much of the communication will transpire at a level deeper than words.
Nature beings and places can be some of our most trustworthy and supportive friends. The quality of connection is often purer, simpler, and less fraught than human relationships. And contact with nature is so beneficial that it can nourish and heal us even at a distance, as when we visualize ourselves in a peaceful place outdoors or call on a nature ally to guide us during our working day. We can even cultivate deep relationships with nature allies we never have physical contact with. For example, bison are among my allies, although I have only glimpsed them briefly and from a distance. Yet they responded to my request for an ally one day, and I have often felt their quiet strength when I needed it.
In these challenging times, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and shut down. Yet it is more important than ever to keep our hearts and minds open to the natural world. Like wind-blown seeds, love sows more love. Whether for wild poppies along the roadside, the oak tree outside our window, or our four-legged companions, the more we feel and express love, the greater our capacity for love will be. Nourishing our innate love for nature inspires us to treat the Earth, her creatures, and each other with more care and respect, and is a surprisingly important key to restoring peace and balance in our lives and in the world. Put simply, loving this Earth is one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves and our planet…