Being a Nurse Log

A fallen tree trunk lay beside the path.

There it lay, a fallen giant of the forest. Surrounded by tall powerful trees waving their strong limbs in the wind, this one was helplessly stretched out on the forest floor with all its shallow, spreading roots exposed for all to see.

Last week I was hiking with my family in the temperate rainforest of the Alaskan panhandle. Although icebergs floated nearby, in the forest, green life teemed around us. Tall spruce and hemlock trees were draped with moss, and small ferns lifted their fronds from the spongy forest floor. On low bushes, berries ripened hurriedly in the Alaskan summer while behind them, massive rocks bordered the hills.

Before me, stretched out next to the path was a nurse log. Probably struck down in a storm years ago, this fallen giant was slowly decomposing, and, as it rotted, it nursed new life. Ferns, moss, flowers, lichens, and even baby trees – all rooted on the trunk and roots of this fallen tree and were fed a nutrient-rich porridge of humus. The downed tree offered the stuff for life itself to other living beings. One expert wrote that a fallen tree’s “rotting years” could be as long as its upright growing years. What a rich, long-lasting legacy!

Touching the log, I thought to myself, “I want to be like a nurse log.” Like a nurse log, I would nurture life even after my own life ended. But unlike a nurse log, my nurturing of future life depends on how I choose to live now. It depends on the legacy I shape now.

We never know for sure what effect our own lives might have on a future generation. Beyond the land or money kind of inheritance, there’s the inheritance that we can give through the example of our lives. It is rooted in the ongoing influence of our decisions.

As I grow older, I am more aware of how my living today helps or hinders the flourishing of other lives. I want to choose life-giving paths. I want to make decisions now that will be my small part in helping the earth and its people to flourish in the future. That is the legacy I want to give!

A nurse log invites a wide variety of life forms to root in it, not just trees of its own kind. I want to be generously open-hearted, too, and lovingly foster others no matter who they are. I believe all of our lives are interwoven, and that suffering from drought or war in land far away touches all of us. I want to live now so that those who live after me are encouraged to recognize that we are one human family and to know that this troubled earth is home for all of us.

Being a nurse log, like raising any young ones, is a powerful exercise in hopefulness. I choose to nurture hope in the future, hope for the healing of the earth and for the healing of its peoples. In our present time in the world, it is easy to feel powerless and discouraged. If my voice and actions now demonstrate hope for the future, those who come after me will perhaps be more fortified by hope as they work to create a better world.

To become a human nurse log
one must live 
as a generous giver
 a compassionate lover;
one must live in hope
believing that
others will send their roots deep 
into the humus of our lives
and thrive.

The roots of the nurse log nurture plant life, too.

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it.

8 thoughts on “Being a Nurse Log”

  1. I had never heard of a nurse log until reading this piece. What an inspiring metaphor of leaving a legacy for others so they can hope and thrive. I will look for some nurse logs today on my walk in nature. Thank you, Nancy!

    1. Hi Laurie, It is a powerful metaphor, isn’t it? I’m glad this spoke to you. I had never thought of how we “nurse” others by our presence while we are alive, and also by the ripples that go out after we have died. Both are really important.
      Nurse logs are more frequent in the northwest U.S. in the temperate rainforest regions but I have seen them in Pennsylvania as well.

  2. Your reflection, Nancy, on aspiring to be as a nurse log and nurturing after your present life ends was an especially powerful message to me on this day August 6, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. May practice as a nurse log be a long lasting fallout of inspiration, embracing all of life.

    1. Dear Anne, There is a powerful message in letting our own lives represent a different path than the path of violence. May the peace-making path ripple out ever more strongly!
      Thank you for writing,

    1. Thank you for writing, Naomi. Yes, let’s all be nurse logs, and lovingly support and foster other lives. Each of us will find our own way to do this.

  3. Tuesday, on Aug. 2, my family was visiting Matt and Kirin. This was the day we went to the Hoh Rainforest in Olympia National Park. We saw nurse logs as well. I liked how you related nurse logs to your life as a way to honor your legacy. Now I am able to relate your insights into a new insight for me.

  4. Dear Linda,
    How wonderful that you were in a rainforest and saw nurse logs and then the next day received my post about them. The comparison I made was really fresh for you. I’m glad my reflection spoke to you.

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