Tree Talking

Endurance. Gratitude.

I find myself talking to trees more often than I used to.

It started, rather prosaically, with the elm. I run three times a week. Near the end of the run, on the hill up to our farmhouse, stands the stateliest elm I have ever seen.

I need cheering on at this point in the run, and find myself simply asking the elm for help to get up the rest of the hill. After all, the tree provides an example of endurance. Surely me making it up this hill is trifling in comparison.  They have stood there for a century and a half or so, against the odds, enduring.

(Most trees are hermaphroditic – male and female parts together on the same tree, so “they” seems appropriate, even though I am speaking about an individual tree. We use personal gender pronouns for animals, why not plants?  It is not anthropomorphizing, but rather an attempt to recognize members of the non-human world as subjects, not objects.) 

The disease that has killed so many elms has not yet succeeded with this one. It may be due to their relative isolation from other elms, indeed their isolation from the rest of the woods. This tree stands alone on the edge of a field, which was under cultivation 140 years ago when our house was under construction. I estimate the elm to be just about that old.  I like to imagine their sapling watching the farmhouse being built….

It would be a blessing if this elm had some aberrant genetic material that helps equip them with a certain degree of immunity, especially if their winged seeds find other welcoming places to grow. We just hold our breath and pray this elm endures, because their presence defines that part of the landscape, and they are…well…magnificent.

And then there is the mother (mothers can certainly be “they”s) white pine tree, growing next to one of the trails in the woods now deepening with second growth on the farm. They, much younger than the elm, probably grew up under the shade of early succession trees. I guess this because the trunk is quite straight. If a pine grows in the open, they are likely to be “weevilled”: the terminal bud chosen by a beetle seeking the warmth of the sun and subsequent food for her cache of eggs, the trunk forced to divide around the subsequent wound. Straight trunk on this tree – so terminal bud probably remained growing in the shade – of no interest to an egg-laying mother weevil.

The pine is accompanied, quite sweetly, by a “daughter” tree about ten years old I guess (barely visible in the foreground of this picture.) Science now explains that such a mother tree nurtures the small one…

…as it nurtures me, the smell, sound and growth of this pine reminding me of a huge white pine that stood behind the house where I grew up. The branches of that pine were particularly well-spaced for climbing. I climbed often, causing that delicious thrill of a bit of danger on the way up, before sitting on a particularly secure fork, quite high, absorbing the solitude and the tree-sound most sweet and soothing to my ears:  a white pine singing.

So, each time I pass this white pine on the trail now named for them, I gently touch the bark and whisper thanks, for them, and for the rest of their species.  

This is what I imagine, for better or for worse: that the touch, the voice, but mostly the silent energy of gratitude are registered, in some form. The tree may not “experience” my gratitude right away, but perhaps in tree-time, days, weeks or even months from now, however long it takes. Of course, if there is a response, I probably will not understand it. And – given tree-time – I might not be around.

That doesn’t matter.

Talking to trees no longer feels as illogical or even new agey as it used to. If you have been exposed to Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees, or SuzanneSimard’s Finding the Mother Tree, or a number of other articles, you will have learned about the intricate and highly efficient underground mycorrhizal network between trees of the same species and even of different species. Some call it the “wood wide web”.

Yah, I laugh to myself, but with the added cachet of eons of age over the electronic human version…

But, do I need to be connected to a tree by mycelium to communicate with it? Apparently not: pheromones, roots, sound – all have been shown as mechanisms for messages between these species. So, maybe my voice, maybe my touch?

No one really knows.

Some argue there is no “intention or will” involved in the messages being conveyed between trees, just chemicals interacting, so it is not true communication. Perhaps. But it seems to me that a little humility might be in order. Despite the cutting-edge science going on, we know precious little about this kind of interaction. Response – if there is any – might well be in tree-time, a cadence we are woefully inexperienced at sensing. 

I talk to the trees because they help me face down the unrelenting, increasingly sobering news of the day.  Response or not, for the time being, I will continue to ask for help, because the elm endures and inspires, and I will thank the pine, resting a moment in the peaceful memory they evoke. I talk to them because there isn’t remotely enough recognition of the inspiration and gratitude flowing between humans and other-than-human beings in this world.

We would all do well with more talking to trees.

It Must Have Been a Saturday….

… probably fall warbler time. I remember the moist, pungent smell of autumn leaves beginning to decompose on the ground beneath our feet, the golden path layered with their forms. The familiar open woods surround us – exposed gray trunks of various widths against the backdrop of leafy gold, green, orange.  A small gurgling brook, mostly hidden by the tapestry of grasses and wetland species alongside, lazily makes its way through a culvert under the path.

It is chilly. I am glad for my hat and gloves.

My dad stops mid-stride, raises his binoculars.  

My inexperienced eyes search and search for movement in the tree tops in the direction he is looking.  “What is it?” My excited whisper anticipates the information I know he wants to share. (I think I really did want to know what bird it was, as well as to have the rare opportunity for a quiet conversation with him.)

Bird watching early in the morning with my father is a precious memory. I was thrilled when he asked if I wanted to go with him the night before.  Yes – it meant getting out of bed particularly early on a non-school day – but I did not mind. Time alone with him was always special.  

My father loved birding for the sake of the birds – their beauty in plumage and song, but he was also a scientist, so he would go home after a bird walk and record exactly what he saw, where, and when.  Likewise, he recorded flowers, particularly when traveling outside his home territory. Thirty years after his death, I still have a small pile of the large index cards with his meticulous notations: common name, Latin name, place, date, all in his exquisite handwriting. These are from the periodic trips my parents took to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming.

I suppose there was passion in his work as a nuclear physicist – the minutia of the universe and all, but those parts were pretty much beyond my comprehension, especially at a young age. But his passion for birds, flowers…. those I could understand.

My father worked to preserve open space in the town where we lived. I roamed those open spaces as a child with my parents, then alone when I was a bit older. The woods and fields, more than a setting for my childhood, formed my very being. I always felt at peace with the other inhabitants – animals and plants. I became intrigued – wanting to know more – how they lived, what they did. The ecologist in me was birthed here.

Is this why I do what I do now?

What DO I do now, anyway?

I write, mostly because it helps me think. I think about the more-than-human world and its relationship to the human world. I think about how mending that relationship is now going to take a revolution in our thought processes, a revolution much harder to bring about than any recent policy or technology or regulation. A revolution as critical as anything else we can do to successfully navigate the future for all stakeholders, human and otherwise.    

But writing about how off-the-mark the human/other-than-human relationship is now, in light of the climate crisis, is getting very tiring, even as the emergency increases.

I need a course correction of my own.

I spoke once before (Nov, 2020) about the Haudenosaunee Address, the ritual of an Indigenous tribe that had caught my attention after reading about it in Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s brilliant collection of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass. By its daily repetition, respectfully acknowledging and thanking all manner of things from thunder to herbs, a relationship between the human and other-than-human world is affirmed and passed from generation to generation  in the hearts of people for thousands of years. Although I will assiduously avoid cultural appropriation, the Address has become emblematic for me.  With the possible exception of the scientific community, I have yet to find any other expression that locates the human animal alongside the rest of the created order – with no ranking.  And no other expression uses gratitude to secure that relationship.  

I will continue to explore and write about the human/other-than-human interface, including discussing why I use “other-than-human” as a designation for everything else. I look forward to learning more about the Address. I also look forward to searching for any other description of the interface that might resonate with that model.  

In the meantime, I think back to those mornings with my father. Sure – we were two human beings walking along paths that had been cut into the wooded ecosystem. But never at the expense of the whole. During our walks, I was absorbing from him an intense interest in – and respect for – the diversity of life. Although never explicitly acknowledged, I sensed my father felt at home, belonging to the whole. That sense was nurtured in me and explains why I still write about it.   

As I look at his notes, I see the scientist, of course, the careful classification: first the common name (Bluebell), family (Borage) in the right-hand corner, Latin genus (Mertensia) and species (ciliatia) under the common name.   But I also sense a person delighted enough by the beauty and awe of the other-than-human world that he took the time to look, learn and acknowledge what he was seeing.  Did he give thanks to them?  Hmm. Not likely. But he noticed.

And he taught me to notice.


Sprouting Revolution

Revolution: derived from late Latin or Old French to Middle English:  to “roll back”. To roll back – not necessarily surge forward with a sudden radical change and destruction of the status quo.

Interesting…. Who knew…?

During the last couple of weeks, I realized I need to switch gears, thinking-wise and writing-wise.

My miniature orange tree evoked the inspiration.

I forget how long this potted tree has been part of my life – but she (more on my use of this pronoun later) has a history with me measured in decades, not years. She spends each summer outdoors, winter in the relatively cool front room of our house. She has had her ups and down in terms of health over the years, but last summer reached a new low, dropping most of her leaves, displaying a pale semblance of her former self. Following professional advice, I treated her with an organic insecticide (neem oil) and changed the fertilizing routine. She flourished, promising, I hope, to eventually flower once again and to produce the oranges. I accumulate these in the freezer over two or three years to make into small jars of marmalade to give away as Christmas gifts.

But during her resurrection something else on this tree caught my eye: a little shoot, vigorous and unexpected, out of place way down below her leafy canopy, growing from the otherwise bare, smooth trunk.   There is something about the odd placement of this shoot that says to me: Let us not overlook that revolution and restoration can emerge unexpectedly from some part of what went before, some earlier time, maybe something previously forgotten.

Maybe you have noticed that recently there has been renewed interest in, a re-sprouting of, a world view long understood and still held by indigenous peoples: humans are just one part of a community of substrate, systems, and beings with no dependence on hierarchy. Humans: Just. One. Part. One cog, one ingredient, one member. All parts have particular roles intertwined with all others.   

This renewed interest is fostered by our desperation. If the human species has any hope whatsoever to remain a part of this planetary experiment, it will be imperative that we realign our human expectations, relearn this existential understanding of ourselves in the fuller context, and regain our expressions of gratitude.   

I am increasingly convinced this must now “come before all else”. *

Having said that, we cannot afford to stop the myriad political, technological, and social actions currently underway to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, particularly on the poor and on non-human species. I simply believe this revolution in existential thought will eventually need to be at the root of how and why our species moves forward.

So we might as well get at it. 

The attitude we need to seek goes way beyond liking or loving or enjoying “nature”.  That attitude tends to set us apart, instead of acknowledging our existence within the household of the planet.

What we need to seek is also not about “stewardship” or exploring our role as “caretakers” of something given to us by a divine being. I am a person of faith, and I see sacredness in the world around me. But I think it is a grave mistake to see us as more crucial to the whole than any other part, or as having a hierarchical role that somehow qualifies us to be in control.  

A better attitude is one of intense gratitude toward the other parts. (Note: This does not need to be mutually exclusive from expressing gratitude toward God or some other creating divinity, as some of us may choose to do.)

Radical thinking?  Yes… and no. After all, it is a return to a way of thinking about humans on earth that is a great deal older than civilization.  One could argue effectively that embracing human exceptionalism was a poisonous ingredient from the beginning. Through time, it has become too comfortable, and too reassuring. But our time with this exceptionalism has run out. The “yet to come” arrived while we were busy ignoring the signs of how it fueled our destructive behaviors. The tipping point in the climate crisis (actually reached a while ago) has become more visible to people across the planet, experienced by millions, with storms and fires and migrations and deaths, most every day, in one place or another.  (Covid-19 is just another part.)

Relearning and internalizing the appropriate role of humans on the planet community will prove to be the most challenging part of our future. It will begin with seeing the universe as a “communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” as theologian Thomas Berry was fond of saying.

So, when I refer to the orange tree as “she”, it is not meant as a personification, but rather as my recognition that the tree is a unique subject rather than an object. More accurately, I suppose, the tree is a “they” as both genders are involved and pollination and production of fruit occur on the same tree. But it is easier for me to see a “she”, especially when she is decked out with incredibly fragrant flowers and then bears fruit, which we, in turn, transform for others in a labor of love. I want to show my respect for the tree as an individual, a member of our household, a being with which I can and do have a relationship. She has her role to play in our home, and so do I.

What does it feel like to have that kind of relationship with every living and non-living thing that surrounds me?

How do I seek relationship with rock, soil, plant, animal, earth system? How do I express thanks to them? And can I understand my part in the community over time, to the seventh generation?

Fred Rogers told us when we are unsure of ourselves, we must look for the helpers. We need to seek help from holders of the wisdom, indigenous friends and acquaintances, being careful not to appropriate their views inappropriately. Ecological science will help. Other writers and artists. But first we must each learn to listen deeply, to feel, to identify with non-human brothers and sisters on our planet and in our local communities. And to acknowledge our debt to them. We need to take that time.

This is not simple. This is revolutionary.

* “Words that come before all else”, is how the Haudenosaunee refer to their Thanksgiving Address. (