The Truths We Keep Hidden

Barefoot, I stood on the edge of the bluff, leaning out towards the great Pacific Ocean. The wind – dry and hot against my face – tethered me to the land. I stood in awe, surrounded by the beauty of the madrone tree. A sacred tree, revered for the strength of her roots, these roots that braid the whole wide world together. My gaze traveled up to see her gnarly, scarred body thrust out over the ocean, like a flower’s blooms stretching toward the sunlight. Full of shiny, dark leaves in the summer day, the madrone’s bark curled away from her trunk in terracotta spirals to reveal the fragile, smooth, pale-green surface beneath.

This thespian of mother nature’s stage. A tragedy? A triumph? A comedy? A love story? Perhaps all woven together in a mystery to behold.

If ever a tree was like a mother, the madrone is it. Rooted in strong, even on these rocky paths, she drinks from deep within the land. Sustenance coils through her veins, into each layer of her trunk out through her branches. In these arms she shields birds and provides homes for critters, all while standing fierce. She nourishes others with her berries, her perfumed flowers. Even her bark is said to have healing properties, her very own mother’s milk.

I wanted to speak to the madrone, one mother to another. So, I placed my bare feet against the warm, rocky ground beside her. I willed her language to flow through the intricate, web-like tunnels of her roots to me. I longed to know if her motherhood secrets were similar to mine. Or if she knew all the magic that eluded me. I hoped her knowledge could guide me towards understanding.

Where did this mother tree draw her patience from to grow during storms and drought, or while tiny wood borers fed to destroy her? How did she keep her temper in check when deer gnawed on her leaves? Where did she learn such quiet strength against larger trees that rise above her and snuff out her life source? And are the rings surrounding her trunk made up of graceful self-confidence or has her heartwood – the part of her that, even though dead, is her strongest support – succumbed to the disease of self-doubt? Is she like me, hiding truths, afraid of what exposing them will do, all the while knowing that to cover them up might cause a wound far worse?

As I studied her, I wondered, wishing I could see our secrets reflected in each other.

To survive, a tree must reach toward the light, but the madrone goes beyond mere reaching. These beauties, some monstrously shaped, like hands riddled with arthritis, are magnificent. She contorts her body toward light. Her uniqueness developed over years of battle. This fierce warrior will even sacrifice entire limbs to stay alive.

And how much it must have pained her to grow like this? Because in magnificence, there too lies pain. Like the stretch and growth of my body to make room for fetuses, the production of fat to feed my babies, even my ribs expanded during pregnancy, never to return to their origin.

Give madrone the rocky soil, void of many nutrients and she will thrive, like many a mother will in harsh conditions. But I want to know, is she really clinging to the shore in strength? Or trying to fling herself off the cliff to be taken away on the waves?

Is she silently crying out for help, too afraid to voice it aloud? Like me?

Her truest voice is materialized in summer as she sheds her bark. Pieces of her own body peeled away from her center. At first, it appeared both beautiful and magical, too breathtaking to witness. But the longer I stared, it felt more mysterious than that. When a tree sheds her bark, is she sloughing off the dead skin? Or weeping out her pain, her confusion, her regrets?

I felt as though I could hear her cries of anguish, scream by scream as parts of her body carved off, one mother to another. All these things we don’t say. Isn’t it enough that a tree must shed her leaves every year, must watch as they dry up and crumble off, so that other parts of her can thrive? And yet this tree also purges off her skin.

I wanted to mimic her, to learn how she fought these battles and still appeared fierce. My aching, exhausted body is her face beating back the storm. My desire to be a good mother reaches like her trunk toward the light, over and around other trees and obstacles, bending, stretching, no matter the painful path. My exhaustion and fear become her battle against disease. All my other selves lost to motherhood and the grief of those, curl away with her silent peeling bark. Our silent tears fall together into the ocean below.

Does she tuck away her questions and secrets in the darkness of her roots? All that is hidden in the complex relationship between roots and soil. Maybe these paths that no one sees house the anguish and loneliness from her inner conflict, what it feels like to both give nourishment, and have it taken from you, sometimes in the same motion, joy and pain twined together like new branches growing out of old ones.

Do we, as mothers deliberately push all our pain down like this?Perhaps we hope that they compost into minerals and vitamins to feed us in our darkest times, a mother’s strength.

I came to seek answers, to witness her truths. The truth is that nothing beautiful is simple. A tree’s heartwood might be dead, literally, but it is also her centering core. Beauty is made up of our scars and faults as well as our courage and confidence.

We are not so different, the madrone and I, pretending confidence while our roots soak up our failures. I hear her cries. I will keep her secrets and she will keep mine, and we will continue on in this drama. Closing my eyes for one last moment, I soak up the sun’s warmth and then I put on my mask, walk back into this masquerade ball of motherhood and away from the madrone, uncertain if this connection of loneliness has made me feel better or not.

Photo Credit: Giuseppe Milo ( Flickr via Compfight cc

Sara Ohlin

Sara Ohlin lives and writes in Bangor, Maine. Her essays can be found at (as Sara Mitchell), Trillium Literary Journal, Mothers Always Write, The Good Mother Project and the anthology, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America. She’s a contributor to Her View from Home and currently writes about life, food, grief, and motherhood at

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