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  • Writer's pictureAnna

My life as a tree

Most life stories are told chronologically: a person was born in year X, spent Y years working at something, had their breakthrough in year Z etc. The standard biographical model might as well be a PowerPoint slide of sequential boxes laddering neatly toward a goal. And it is such an ingrained way of telling life stories, whether you're reading about a historical figure or having an introductory conversation with someone, that you might think it is the story of life itself.

But it’s not. At least, not in the more-than-human world.

The story of life in nature runs in circles and cycles, seasons and spirals. Rather than a one-dimensional, one-way, beginning-middle-end, it’s around and around and upside down, a dance floor folded into a Möbius loop where the music never stops playing. (At least, that's how I like to think of especially exuberant places in nature, like rainforests and coral reefs.)

This essential circularity and continuity of life in nature is something I have to remind myself of, especially when I get too pulled into living by the clock and calendar.


Last summer, when I taught a series of nature workshops, one of the exercises I used was “My life as a tree,” i.e. mapping your autobiography in tree rings. If you'd like to try it for yourself, the instructions go like this:

  • Spend some time looking at a tree ring pattern (you can use the image above, or try an image search on the term "dendochronology").

  • Notice the overall continuity of the lines as well as what interrupts or impacts them (if you've been out of school for a while, here's a quick refresher on causes and effects).

  • Apply this mental model to your own life story. Reflect on your own droughts and mast seasons, pollinating visitors or insect invaders, gentle breezes as well as lightning strikes. 

  • Now draw those lines for each year of your life. 

If you do the exercise as described above, with all of your life lines, it will take a while and you might even get bored, but that is part of the discovery.

For myself, I found there was something about tracing the circles around the page that approximated a real-time recap of life lived moment by moment. It showed me I have had relatively long periods of stability and spells of staying in one place, even though I tend to tell my own life story through my hops from one destination to the next. Equally important, the years where I stayed in one place were also times when I experienced growth and inner change.

If you do try this exercise, let me know in the comments what you discovered about your life as a tree!

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