Saudade: This Portuguese word specifically expresses the longing that accompanies missing something that has been lost or is out of touch. Saudade is an accurate expression of what I’ve been feeling for the woods I grew up in, wandered in, played in, walked dogs in, rode horses in, and got lost in. I hadn’t realized, or had been afraid to acknowledge, the extent to which they nourished my work even as I rarely mention trees or woods or even the outdoors in my stories.
For the last decade or so before moving here, I reveled in the moment to moment changes at Holcomb Hill, in meadows emerging from winter into spring, erupting into summer, and settling back into fall. I felt a hunger any day there hadn’t been time to take the dogs there. On winter mornings, I’d put cleats on my boots to take Eddie and Butch and then Annie to the icy fields, even if it was too icy for them to go very far, just so I could see the sun gleam across frozen, untouched expanses. How I miss that.
Years before, while still living in the city, I kept a horse at a stable in Westchester County. I’d get up on weekend mornings to ride in Pocantico Hills, a vast park, to explore its hills and paths on horseback, a huge tract of woods with ponds and fields and trails, sometimes lush and green, sometimes red and gold and orange, and sometimes white with snow.
During the winter, after a fresh snowfall, I’d get up extra early, to be the first with my mare through the powder. It was exhilarating. Like nothing I’d experienced in my life, and like nothing I’ve experienced since.
As a child, I played in a nice patch of woods behind my suburban house, a patch that seemed as big as a world to me, with my secret forts and cottages and stories. Summers, I’d visit my grandfather and roam in the woods behind his house. Later, I sometimes drove north from New York City when the maple sap runs in March, to meet my father at my uncle’s, where they were doing the hard work of gathering that sap and boiling it into maple syrup.
In Connecticut, on simpler days in my writing room, I’d watch the sun play through what I thought of as my woods, the more than two acres of woodland I could see from where I sat, as the sun stretched at low angles across trees’ knees and thighs as the morning began, rose along their chests and arms through the day, and, sinking towards sunset, left the clouds high above their heads pink and gold. How I miss that.
There is something wrong with the trees here. Their bark and branches and crowns don’t look right. I’ve tried to like them. I’ve taken their pictures, sat under them, drawn them. But come on. Is this tree not crazy?
Are these even trees?
Except for one, they’ve disappointed me.
This one, an ancient fig, with huge roots that extended some forty feet in interesting patterns, and with branches arching so widely a concert was held under her last year, was destroyed last fall in the hurricane. I haven’t been to the gardens where she lived since.
There is so much right about Portugal, I don’t like to complain. I hardly seem like a nature person, and some parts of me are quite urban, so I’ve mostly kept this saudade to myself. But it’s been leaking into conversations, and leaking into dreams. I even began to think I’d have to find a town other than Coimbra, a more rural town, a greener town, to at least attempt to satisfy the yearning.
Last week, I ran across Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mangroves”, written after she’d left her northern woods for Florida. I almost laughed.
About the mangroves, she says, “Mostly I walk beside them, they discourage entrance.” And,
The black oaks and pines
of my northern home are in my heart,
even as I hear them whisper, “Listen, we are trees, too.”
Okay, I’m trying.
I know what she means.
Last Sunday, friends took me for a ride through Coimbra surrounds where in fact I’d been some months before and guiltily thought, ‘nice, but . . .’, or, in Oliver’s words, ‘Admiring is easy, but affinity, that does take some time.’
During the latest drive, keeping her poem in mind, I sat back and recognized the very different drama of Portugal’s countryside. I’m not drawn in yet, I didn’t long to get out of the car and explore the paths, but the poem’s last line resonates, as the mangroves speak to Oliver:
We are what we are, you
are what you are, love us if you can.
This poem extends to more than trees, of course, to place and people, to culture and identity, but for now, for me, it’s trees. It’s helping.