Before the canopy above awakens from its dormant sleep, blocking out the rays of the sun from the forest floor, the shrubs and bushes, vines and fleetingly flowering plants hurriedly open their leaves to bask in as much of that early spring light as they can before the tall trees claim it for their own.
This part of the forest is called the ‘understory’. It is a fitting name, as this story unfolds often unnoticed, out of sight, below what is obvious and easily seen. To observe what is happening, one must also be willing to go under and below, to allow the senses to go to places that are usually overlooked and ignored. Like Tiffany Aching teaches us, we must learn to open our eyes—and then open them again.
When we learn to do that, we understand that this understory can be watched, read, and heard all around us. We can follow the story as it unfolds. The closer we are able to look, the more we find such unimaginable beauty.
And things we take for granted as being common,
become uncommon treasures.
How much do we miss by keeping our eyes only on one level of things? How many subtleties escape us? Most days, I feel as though I am seeing this land for the first time.
I am learning the story of the dogwood. Did you know that the bracts of the flowering dogwood are often light green when they open?
They change to white when the flowers are ready for pollination.
This I learned by walking through the woods with my eyes open. Walking slow and staring in wonder at what I saw. Asking questions, listening and observing.
And then Googling. But listening and observing first.
Plants are not the only ones with understories. All living things, animate and inanimate (yes, I mean that) have stories beneath the surface.
Under rocks, there is fire.
I think this is a Southern Red-backed Salamander. Which I would not have seen if I hadn’t looked under that particular rock. I’ve never seen one of these before, and I saw two that day! Which makes me very happy since amphibians are indicators of the health of creeks and streams. Stories interweaving–the salamander, the creek, and me.
And then there is the understory of the underworld. Important in myth, for sure. But a different kind of underworld story is playing out right underneath our feet. No ferryman needed.
Entire worlds below us, and we just step over them like it’s nothing. But what is happening below is so complex that we are just beginning to understand how truly remarkable and necessary it is to life ‘above’. In this understory, ants play an important part in keeping the soil healthy. They turn and aerate the soil, affecting nutrient content, allowing air and moisture to reach the roots of the plants growing above. They carry seeds into the tunnels below—seeds that will germinate, thereby helping to disperse them to wider areas, helping to ensure survival and diversity.
Sometimes the understory has understories, but you’d never know this without getting down on your hands and knees to find out. Mayapples carpet the forest floor in colonies every spring. Their leaves are like umbrellas.
If you look underneath these funny, leafy umbrellas, you will find the most beautiful flowers. You cannot see them from above. I think they are worth crawling around of the forest floor to see. Next month, the flowers will have fallen, and the little fruits will grow in their place.
Every thing has a story. And every story is intertwined in some way with every other story, whether it’s big and obvious as a forest canopy or part of the ever-twining understory. Not every story will be one you want to know, and that’s ok. Not all stories require our participation. They don’t even require our awareness. That is for our benefit, not only to enrich and give greater meaning to our lives, but to help us understand our place within this world. Within the greater story.
As an example, even the goddamned poison ivy belongs in the understory. We don’t have to participate in that story, but we ought to be aware of it. ;)
Our stories run like currents underneath the surface. Our subconscious language of imagery and symbols, our constant thoughts, our changeable feelings are always present under our skin, under the canopy that we present to the world. One story on the outside, another on the inside. Both necessary, both meaningful. We are surrounded by stories at all times in all places. Being aware of our ‘understory’ reminds us that everywhere we look, if we look closer, we will find amazing stories playing right before our eyes. And being aware of the ‘understory’ around us reminds us to look closer at what is within ourselves, too.
And that’s all my deep thoughts from the forest floor, lol.