Thursday, February 26, 2009

The language of trees

I’d like to learn the language of trees but then there are so many other things I want to learn, too. I once owned a book and might still do in which the author sets out to expound upon the uniqueness of the various species, the physical and emotive qualities that distinguishes them one from the other, an idea that at first showed merit until one gives it too much thought and the whole thing falls apart. Trees with emotions? The emotions are ours, at once colored with our own prejudices and experiences, also some hearsay. And heresy. Oaks are magnificent, elms unsightly; redwoods stately, walnuts dirty; willows graceful, cedars nuisant, unless the cedar is one of the biblical cedars of Lebanon, so often invoked in the Old Testament and of course different from our own variety, the eastern red cedar. Because the word cedar incites such an inflammatory response from many midwesterners of the farming bent, and because quite simply the red cedar is not a cedar, I hereby proclaim a new name for the evergreen, to wit, the Virginia juniper. Let us make peace.

Language denotes sentience, so perhaps I’m overreaching. From the dawn of time humanity has endowed, or attempted to endow, trees and even stones with a lifeform not unlike our own. For centuries a lively thread of discord existed between Buddhist masters over whether trees could attain enlightenment, and if so, if they would then possess the 32 marks of Buddha. In some ways Japanese Buddhist traditions split from their Chinese counterparts over the issue of sentience within trees and stones, a divergence that might seem pedantic or even silly to those raised in Judeo-Christian traditions but not at all at odds with Druidic beliefs, nor of many other so-called primitive religions. Even Socrates argued that trees might have souls.

At heart is the idea that we humans are merely minor players in the web of life and not its central focus. Anyone who has beheld the graceful arc of a comet superimposed against a billion flickering galaxies can attest to the finiteness of our existence, or even apprehend something greater than we’re capable of understanding or, indeed, even possess words for. For that matter, the selfsame transcendence can be had through immersion in a river or stream, preferably one containing trout, where the current’s tug draws us out of our own narrow confines into a larger spatial universe containing centuries-old snowpack, springs, rivulets, brooks, confluences, watersheds, minnows, lunkers, tadpoles, single-cell organisms, midges, caddisflies, mayflies, translucent shrimp, hellgrammites, algae, moss, rotted leaves, fallen trees and a million other sentient and nonsentient beings that comprise the whole. 

In olden days the vast unbroken forests were particularly singled out for reverence, a term rarely used in this post-modern era. Wholesale logging has all but eradicated old-growth woods with their sentinel trees, leaving us with only remnant pockets to remind us of what was lost through cupidity and greed. One offshoot of this has been the inevitable elevation of prime specimens, the giants of hoary age, whom we have mantled with a nobility based solely on longevity. Proximity to humanity also engenders an almost familial aspect to these leviathans, as was the case of the massive cottonwood that fell several years ago in Blue Rapids. It was a sapling when the town was founded in 1869, and losing it was like losing a member of the family. A good portion of the town’s population turned out to bid it farewell in an inferno shooting flames a hundred feet into the crisp autumn evening, an act the ancient Druids would have respected.

I’m as guilty, or as human, as the next man. When in the presence of trees of notable stature I find myself enthralled, though in honesty I rarely take trees for granted. They spring up across our yard, some in odd places such as the elm and maple saplings pushing through the forsythia by the road, and for the most part I allow them unfettered access. My wife prefers a more organized yard. We’re now engaged in a spirited debate over what to do with several hackberries that cast their shadows upon her garden area. At first she wanted them removed, but now we’re at the stage of discussing trimming their branches. Several 12-foot-tall elms have grown too close to the house, though, threatening the roof and probably the foundation as well. They have to go and I am loathe to perform the axework.

Recently a sycamore has been calling to me, if that’s the word, drawing my attention whenever I cross the bridge over Fawn Creek. It’s not the largest sycamore I’ve seen by any means, and it tilts at an angle as if its roots were undercut by the stream. But there’s something about its stark contrast with the neighboring trees writhing along the creek’s course, the broad supplicant sweep of its bone-white limbs, its pallid singularity in woods gray with winter. Glimpsing it one evening luminous in the hard light of a setting sun made me want to photograph it, but my days have been hectic and clouds have invariably rolled in so I put it off until I could no longer resist the tug.

It was hopeless and I knew it. Nevertheless I mounted the camera to a tripod and walked the road’s shoulder to the crash barrier and traversed the grassy slope until I could frame the sycamore through a thin lattice of smaller trees. Other than an occasional passing car there was only the trickle of water and a soft flutter as a barred owl coasted in for a closer look. After taking a few desultory shots I dropped down to the pebbled creek and slipped through the fence. Beneath the sycamore’s upthrust arms, now glowing spectrally in the deepening dusk, there came over me a sort of reverie of which there are no words, only a sensory recognition of two living beings meeting and communing on common ground. Perhaps it’s the only language we need. 




Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your piece on trees. Mind if I share my two favorite trees in Topeka?
This locust, at Huntoon and Clay, is the oldest tree in Topeka. From what I've read, it offered shade to wagons stopped at a spring in what is now Central Park, Topeka. Pioneers rested while traveling southwest along a branch of the Santa Fe Trail, well over 150 years ago. This tree was made famous by Margaret Hill McCarter in her book "The Price of the Prairie," published in 1910.
I can't tell you much about the second tree except that this cottonwood stands in a private yard at the southeast corner of 18th St. and Collins. It dwarfs anything anywhere close to it.
Yesterday was so sunny and mild that I can't help but believe spring is on the way. Local trees are beginning to look "soft." That's another sure sign. Thanks for sharing!

Jenni said...

Really? Eastern red cedars are not cedars? I now know what my next Google search will be.

My husband sees trees much the same way your wife does. I'm the tree hugger. Just this morning I went for a walk down by the river and noticed again a large, white sycamore just beyond our property line. It is a stunning sight, but even the "piss elms" as my husband likes to call them get my respect. I've learned to love the open prairie, but my first love was trees.

This was a fascinating look at how people from different cultures and walks of life see or have seen trees. It makes me want to re-read To a God Unknown, a book in which trees figure pretty prominently. I don't yet fully understand it, but the feelings which trees can evoke in humans is something I very much understand.

Tom Parker said...

It's good to hear from tree people. Around these parts some farmers are whacking down everything on their property, even the old hedgerows and windbreaks. It's a sad sight.

Bogon said...

There have been a few times in my life, when I sat for a while with my back to a tree, that I fancied I sensed a spirit behind the bark.

The spirit does not speak as we do. It is deep, abiding and slow. Its heart beats once a day. What we call seasons are its hours. Its attention is directed upward toward the sky and downward along its roots into the ground. Everything in between, every fleeting thing that lives and moves outside the bark, it tries to ignore. It celebrates the sun, welcomes the rain and stolidly endures wind and cold.

There have been a few times in my life when I was privileged to stand in the presence of very old trees, ones that had somehow escaped the loggers' saws and axes. I remember towering sequoias in California and venerable tulip poplars in North Carolina. I felt comparable awe and reverence when I entered an ancient cathedral of Europe. The sense of accumulated time was just as palpable. The architectural space, the lofty columns, vaulted arches and filtered light were similarly impressive to a diminutive and ephemeral interloper.

I, too, have harkened to the call of a piebald sycamore leaning beside a grim gray grove. For some reason my camera never truly captures the moment. I'm not sure if the fault lies in the device or in the photographer. It may be that the world is simply too marvelous to cram into a little box.

Tom Parker said...

Bogon -- Yes, yes, yes! I commiserate with your failure to capture a magnificent tree with your camera. I'm beginning to believe it's an impossible task, though why remains a mystery. I've struggled to come to terms with my failures, but now find in your comments a deeply satisfying answer: the world is too marvelous to cram into a little box. We'll go on trying anyway, of course, because we must. If you ever capture the image, please share. I'll do the same.