Polly Greeks’ Blog: How to age well while living in the forest

Polly’s off-grid life hasn’t been good for the wrinkles. Luckily, trees are excellent teachers on ageing well.

Finally. I had a title for my new book. How to Age Prematurely — Going Off-Grid in the Forest, I announced. Friends guffawed before scuttling the name with the ubiquitous Kiwi comeback. ‘Yeah. Nah.’

“It’s not enticing,” someone said. Didn’t I realize eternal youth was the goal? Once you’ve pushed 30, nobody wants to look older.

The irony is you would have thought going bush was nature’s solution to Botox. Far from pollution and madding crowds, my family drinks forest-percolated water, inhales the oxygen-rich air, eats from organic gardens, feels at one with the encircling ranges and gets a pretty good workout from the hour-return hike to the letterbox.

Yet this year James and I mark the 10th-anniversary of being on our land, and while time’s passed astonishingly quickly, we’ve aged at least a decade in the process of turning an inaccessible wilderness into a home. It turns out heading for the hills has the opposite effect to anti-wrinkle serums.

The anti-ageing industry implies that looking like you’re 20 at 60 is proof you’re physically, emotionally and spiritually balanced. But while bush living is grounding, it tends to give one a seasoned appearance. Like a favourite pair of jeans, our 45-year-old faces look lived in. They’ve collected our story in a language of lines. I’m sure the deep furrow etched on my brow resulted from years of living too close to mud and unending rain.

Hand-washing laundry, bathing from buckets, and battling rats, rain and wind in an outdoor kitchen lend a certain severity to facial features. However, the good times are imprinted as well. A proper roof over our heads switched our grins to high-beam for months, embedding enduring happiness brackets around my mouth. Permanent appreciation for hot running water, a storm-proof kitchen and an indoor shower is creased around my eyes.

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If staying perpetually youthful is a modern symbol of achievement, James and I haven’t done as well as we’ve thought. Silly us. We were listening to the forest for guidance.

Trees are excellent teachers on ageing. While this culture is fixated on superficialities, trees patiently work at fulfilling their potential; reaching for the light and putting down roots. We don’t expect them to halt along the way, attempting to back-peddle from the inevitable thickening of their trunk. The saplings we’ve planted that still look like slender sticks aren’t thriving. The fruitful trees are those that have grown and changed.

As trees mature, they emerge in shape and substance. Meanwhile, the vast majority of ageing humans are tucked away from the public eye. Why are they deemed irrelevant, invisible, disposable and obsolete when we love the expanse of an old tree and marvel at the history threaded through rings that have spread slowly? Bark-lined, knotted and shaggy, fully grown trees are shaped by the world around them. They speak of experience, wisdom, patience, and a penetrative grip on life. So why do we resist ageing, when it offers us the same chance to become more fully formed?

Is death what we ultimately fear?

Trees grow on the shoulders of their ancestors — countless generations in our forest have risen, then fallen and decomposed to form soil for new trees to grow. Trees remind us we’re ultimately just energy passing through form. Do we probe roots through the ages to draw upon the wisdom that went before? And what sort of compost will we leave behind; a tangle of plastic for our great-grandchildren to scrabble though?

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Trees are celebrated for their uniqueness. Yet the generic youthful beauty prescribed by our culture equates to the blandness of a pine forest, with trees all of uniform age and look. Tradition says 10-year anniversaries are celebrated with tin or aluminium, but James and I will commemorate our event with living wood. It’s a pleasure adding another voice to the wisdom of trees.

The thousand-year-old kauri on our ridge continues to age magnificently. It might keep going for millennia. How to Age Well in the Forest, it whispers. It should write a book.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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