• Karen Salita

Learning From Redwoods During Times Of Grief

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

In 2007, I was sitting on my therapist’s couch, holding back tears, when she asked me, “What will you do if you can’t snowboard anymore?” I took a deep breath and replied, “I think I’ll die.” At just 30 years old, my body was already breaking down and I was beginning the long journey of chronic pain after a decade and a half of competitive snowboarding. The wear-and-tear had finally caught up with me after an 18-year love affair with the sport. The consensus of several orthopedic specialists was that my spine looked 20 years older than the rest of my body.


To some, snowboarding was merely a sport, but for me snowboarding felt like a soulmate connection. Every time I was on a snowboard it felt like falling in love. Nothing else could compare to the feeling of all my muscles working together like a symphony, responding to the terrain as if responding to a conductor’s tempo and emotion. It’s hard to express the freedom of being airborne and flying like a bird, when time stands still for a brief moment, and sound ceases to exist. I was intimately familiar with the electricity of fear, and I often allowed it to move through my body without letting it stop my movement. I found silly pleasure in silencing and humbling the smack-talking teenage boys. And I felt great honor in being an inspiration for girls and women, who would often become giddy if I approached them to offer tips or advice.


Karen performing a trick in a halfpipe during a competition.
Competing in my favorite event-- halfpipe!

Snowboarding had not only been my dream and my joy, it had also become my identity. And suddenly I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was grieving. I was filled with the pain of losing something precious to me. I was heartbroken. I had lost control over my body, my choices, and my future. The vision of how I thought life would be no longer applied and I couldn’t do anything about it. My dreams had grown over time like a giant redwood tree. And like the falling of one of these formidable giants, everything seemed to be crashing down and it felt like the world as I knew it was coming to an end.


The legendary redwood trees of the California and Oregon coast are some of the oldest and largest trees in the world, reaching up to 380 feet tall and 24 feet wide, and living as long as 2000 years. Some of the tallest redwoods stand at the same height as the Statue of Liberty, while many of the younger trees were in their infancy when Columbus headed toward the Americas. A redwood is a very special tree and when one falls it feels like we’re losing an important part of our history.

However, consider this: in a redwood forest, the falling of an ancient tree actually becomes a huge gain for the ecosystem in a couple of ways. First, it creates an opening for sunlight to come in and nourish new growth. Redwood forests tend to be very dark because the massive trees block the sunlight, and little else is able to grow on the forest floor. When a giant tree falls, sunlight enters and new life begins to flourish.

Second, redwood trees are the result of a remarkable root system that can gather and exchange nutrients with other trees. When a redwood dies, its decomposing material is sent through the root system to help feed other trees. Over time, the neighboring trees’ roots send nutrients back and a new tree begins to grow where the old redwood once stood.

A man hiking in a forest overlooks a fallen redwood tree.
A fallen redwood lets new sunlight into a forest. Photo: Canva

Our dreams and visions of our futures are like these precious redwoods. We nourish and grow them throughout our lives. But sometimes these dreams and goals become fragile and they may fall during a storm, which may come in the form of a job or relationship ending, the loss of a loved one, a chronic injury or illness, or perhaps the loss of comfort and security during the COVID-19 pandemic. When this happens, it may feel like the end of an era, or the end of the world. And you may feel very sad and you may grieve.


But beneath the surface of your forest floor there exists a beautiful root system, a life-force that nourishes your spirit and enlivens your dreams. I like to refer to this life-force as your Wiggle, and it’s the root of all your deepest desires. Your Wiggle is a signal, a pulse, a heartbeat you could say, that gives life to all that you do. When you’re “in the zone” or engaged in the kinds of activities that nourish your spirit, your Wiggle creates an energetic vibration in your body that lets you know you’re on the right path. Sometimes it feels a bit like a dog wagging its tail!


When something in your life feels good and right, you’ll feel your Wiggle and you’ll know you’re connected to your internal root system. When something that once felt good is missing, you may feel grief in its absence. But no matter what happens above the surface in your life, your Wiggle root system is always present for you and it will always seek out experiences that are energizing and nourishing. Your Wiggle will breathe new life into new dreams, much the way the roots of fallen redwood trees breathe new life into the forest.


Grief is a common experience right now as the COVID-19 pandemic is clearcutting millions of people’s visions and dreams for their lives and futures. If you’re experiencing the sensation of grief over the loss of a dream or the loss of control amid the chaos of our current events, consider some of the ways in which this loss may not be the end of something so much as the beginning of something else:


· Is it possible that the absence of the thing you lost is shedding light on other aspects of your life that have been neglected but deserve your attention?


· And is it possible that this loss is creating the space to nourish new personal growth?


· Could it be that your discomfort is encouraging you to reach out and focus your attention on other people such that it allows you to build stronger relationships?


· And could it be that their support will help fuel your success in the future?


After injuries rearranged my life, I began a great spiritual journey which led me down a path of valuable personal exploration that I may not otherwise have stumbled upon. The good feelings that snowboarding provided had masked some of the bad feelings and unfinished business from my youth that really needed my attention. I was forced to address those issues head-on, and in the process I created a new community full of amazing support and deep friendships.


As the years have unfolded, I’ve continued to manage my chronic pain, and I’m still able to ski and snowboard, though certainly not at the level I did before. I cherish every moment on snow, even if it’s only one day or even one run per year.


This year I wasn’t feeling well enough to snowboard until around the time the pandemic hit and the ski resorts closed. So I strapped on my snowshoes and hiked two miles-- which included a 2,000 feet elevation-gain-- and got my one glorious run in, thus continuing my record of never having missed a year sliding on snow in 37 years.


New opportunities have arisen over the years as I have allowed my Wiggles to guide me. I’ve discovered activities such as ATV riding, overlanding, and sailing which give me a thrill and enable me to experience the awe and beauty of nature. My heart feels nourished as a volunteer and role model for local foster kids. All of the work and discovery I did for my own personal growth has led me to begin writing this blog and to share my learning in a book. And, perhaps most wonderfully, a solo adventure through the Alaskan wilderness enabled me to meet my human soulmate, an amazing man whom I’ve been with for nearly five years now.


Looking back to 2007, it is true that a giant tree in my forest of dreams had fallen and I was mourning its loss. But I came to realize that the roots, my Wiggles, were still alive and could be nourished into new and different dreams. Following the clues that my Wiggles provided has led to new adventures and many meaningful experiences. Sure, there have been challenges along the way. But now when I look out upon the forest of my life, I see many new dreams growing and flourishing.


Karen poses with Lake Tahoe in the background after hiking 2000 feet in elevation to get her one glorious snowboarding run of the season.
Standing above Lake Tahoe before my glorious snowboarding run on March 29, 2020.

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#FollowYourWiggle #WiggleRoots #OvercomingGrief #RedwoodTrees

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