L. Harwyn is a genderfluid writing witch and intersectional feminist. Harwyn received her BA in creative writing with honors from Mills College, Oakland, California and attended Scottish Universities’ International Summer School for creative writing in Edinburgh, Scotland. Harwyn has been published by Tethered by Letters, Shoreline of Infinity, Nonbinary Review and elsewhere.
I sat under the cypress tree, looking out over the sand dunes, hot tears puckering my skin. It was October 2017, less than two weeks after our home burned down in a devastating California wildfire. I was mourning the loss of every little thing in our house and the innocent belief that climate change could be avoided. There was no doubt in my mind that the 80 degree temperatures in October, coupled with incredible winds, was responsible for the fire that destroyed thousands of homes and took lives from our community.
The world was crashing down through the top of my head, like being pulled under one of the distant waves I could hear hushing and humming against the rocky shoreline. Behind me, stood the cypress tree, hairy limbs and perfect, round seedcones swaying above me. The branches creaked like rafters or sails and I found myself becoming quiet and listening to them scrape and groan against one another.
I'd been working for months on acquainting myself better with the natural world and my own ancestry and woke one night from a fevered dream about the word "haegtessa," an Old English word meaning "hedge rider." I was beginning to walk this path with somewhat more certainty, collecting books and letting them sit boldly on my bookshelf, talking with more people about my beliefs and practices. So, when I looked at the cypress tree, I let my mind focus on the living being behind me, supporting my back while I wept. Looking at the rough, dark wood, I felt that I was sitting at a portal to the Otherworld and that this was an Otherworld tree. I felt comforted and whatever communion I experienced sitting on the soft bed of needles was incredibly calming and I found myself returning over the next few days, the pain in my heart seeping away as I sat under those low-hanging branches.
Thinking I was getting to know the tree behind my grandparents' house a bit better, I thought I should do some research on the cultural symbolism and beliefs about cypress trees.
If you're a magical person, this has probably happened to you before but I'm always somehow simultaneously validated and surprised when something I uncover in research confirms a magical experience I've had. When I looked up Cupresses sempervirens, I learned that it is planted the world over in graveyards as a tree of mourning. I had been drawn out to that lone shape in the sand dunes by sadness and had sat under a tree that has comforted mourners for countless centuries. What an incredible connection.
But my eyes widened as I scrolled further and read an anecdote, a few lines at the bottom of the Wikipedia page, under 'Other Characteristics.'
"In July 2012, a forest fire for five days devastated 20,000 hectares of forest in the Valencian village of Andilla. However, amid the charred landscape, a group of 946 cypress trees about 22 years old was virtually unharmed, and only 12 cypress were burned. Andilla cypresses were planted by the CypFire European project studying various aspects of the cypresses, including fire resistance."
I felt my heart quicken and that immeasurable sense of wonder that floods me when I feel like I've brushed against the supernatural. After losing our home to the flames, imagining all the ways that our things bubbled and boiled and fluttered and burned, after worrying about breathing in toxic smoke and the stories coming out of those who hadn't made it, friends who had narrowly escaped...I had sat down and prayed and wept under a tree with the ability to withstand and survive fire.
These are the moments when magic seems so obvious to me that I can't even feign sheepishness for the mainstream, wider world. There are mysterious things moving under the surface of what we know. The earth and something in my own knowing, somehow, were working together to heal my loss. I met the cypress halfway and she offered her medicine of grieving and protection from fire as only she could.
I felt renewed after this discovery. Every sense and emotion was heightened by shock and fear and worry in the days after the fire and this spiritual connection too was brighter, and more intense. At the peak of my grief, I took a chance and sat alone under a windswept tree. The swaying of its limbs lulled my heartache into quietness for a moment and maybe something in the cypress said, 'I know how to survive fire, and I know how to soothe sadness. Stay as long as you need." And I did.