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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Listening to Trees


Walking more in the woods these days. Early summer woods, filled with grace, and I try to take in fully, as I have before, the existence of trees.  All my life, the part of my life that joins in the shared reality of modern humans, I have been assured that trees are simply wood. Wood is simply what? Useful. Non-sentient certainly. Western culture views trees entirely as a resource – like corn and oil and cotton.  Even Buddhist lamas are, in the main, uninterested in trees. I think we may be missing something.

As I sit in the spangled green and gold web of light and shadow that forests create, breathing the full resonant silence there, I marvel, really marvel at how much we have forgotten to notice about these remarkable living beings.  Consider dear reader, how trees quietly offer so much to other species – more than any other living creature on earth – without demure or resistance. Just endless provision. What bodhisattva could do more? 

Trees provide humans with wood to burn to keep us warm and cook our food, wood to fashion cups and toys and weapons and sculpture and boats and tools and pencils, and the daily comfort of furniture. Paper is the gift of trees. Paper to tidy our tender bottoms, paper to preserve our stories, our memories our collected wisdom and the vital instructions on what we have learned about how things work  to all the generations to come.  And of course wood provides shelter, and not only to us - trees provide protected nooks or sheltered boughs to house a myriad of small birds, insects, and animals. More anciently, trees offered hiding places, climbing places, protection from enemies and from weather. Trees provide fruit to eat, medicines to heal, shade from the hot sun. They cool the air, and bring rain where deserts would be without them. Indeed it is trees who give the energy of motion and life to every species on this earth - directly or indirectly -  where there would be none without them, for it is they and other plants who weave sunlight into digestible sugar and pass it down to those on the ground. Their buried remnants coalesce into carbon and oil, still holding the energy of  two billion years of sunshine behind us, and now power our cars and electric lights and planes in the sky.  

Staggering isn't it? Without them our planet would not have even a livable atmosphere. This Garden of Eden we have inherited would be a rocky cold desert with a nitrogen atmosphere without trees. Without them there would be no ozone layer to protect us from solar radiation; there would be no greenhouse effect to keep us warm.  

Even now, in this disintegrating, over-crowded, and over-synthetic civilization we have so unwisely made, trees provide balm for the troubled spirit, filling forest space with endlessly varied beauty and an intensity of healing quiet not found in other spaces.  Our species was birthed in trees. And now trees make possible our civilized life.  They have guarded and protected and fed and soothed us.  Trees in a profound and real way are the mother of life on earth, and now they even do their best to filter out our massive overload of carbon from the atmosphere to keep us from killing ourselves.

They do all this for us and other creatures and yet they pollute nothing, harm nothing, destroy nothing – save the rare incidents when a tree, pushed by wind, may fall and, without volition to do so, harm someone in its path. Even in death they offer their bodies to insects, feed a few more bears, house a few more small mammals, and finally enrich the soil. How can it be our culture never thinks of them, thanks them, honors them. Nary a tree deity to be found in any old pantheon.

Yet what amazing beings they are, standing quiet and uncomplaining through the millenia, broken in terrible storms, or radiant with bird song in the warm days of summer, whispering tree secrets to the wind that moves through their branches, reminding us below to listen, listen.  And these beings are alive – sometimes striving upward for as long as 2000 years and more, and now known to send chemical messages of support and nurture to other trees around them.  Why are we SO sure a tree is insentient? Julia Butterfly reported a tremendous increase in sap  production in the tree Luna as she moved about barefoot when sister trees were being felled nearby.  Have we truly bothered to check? They may be sentient.  Or they may not be sentient in the way we understand sentience. But it is definite that they are SOMEthing alive and something to notice and honor; indeed, they are central to all life on this earth. The heartsong of this place.

It wounds something in me when I hear trees referred to so cavalierly as board feet, or lassoed by pencil lines into cutting lots for timber companies to bicker over. The presence within a forest is something so much more powerful and graceful than any museum I can think of, A forest is truly sacred space, offering its wood and fruits to all living things to take what they truly need, but NEVER to desecrate into clear cuts  or tree farms.

Trees would teach us to be alive inside again if we will stop and listen to what is really here before us, gentleness incarnate, and such benevolent mystery beyond.  Will you go out into the trees again and listen with me?