The following reflections appear in my forthcoming dissertation, Arboreality: Revisioning Trees in the Western Paradigm.
How do you approach a tree? Walking up to the redwood, as unassuming as a redwood can be behind some brambles in a local forest parkland, I attempt to clear my mind of my preconceptions about this entity. This is an intentional clearing, setting aside and suspending as best I can ideas and conceptions to see what emerges in the interaction. The entity remains in place, so I must walk to them, advancing from the path just a few short steps on a springy bed of needles. What first strikes me is this approaching — I must bodily approach this stationary entity, and my choice in this advance informs my perception.
I must approach this entity; they cannot approach me. I must orient towards this entity; they do not orient towards me. I maintain distance. How do you ask consent of a tree for such an inquiry? I choose a spot a few feet from the massive column, overlooking a small creek bed, the column of my body parallel to the body of the tree. The entity beside me seems as a wall receding into the distance at either edge, rising with branches into the sky and bifurcated into two large trunks just above my head. The whole of them is mysterious. I feel their quiet immensity, their stillness on my timescale. I see why we have thought these organisms dead, inert. The forest around me is alive with bird song, buzzing, tender oils shooting forth on new leaves poking through the old. And the entity remains in place, not the slightest visible change in the outcropping of bark. We are both situated. Me in my heritage, my history, my privileges, and this redwood in the parklands of California, native habitat though dwindling, suckling deeply from the neighboring stream where roots are visible. But I can’t even tell from my embodied perception that this entity drinks. Do they grow? Do they change?
Over the course of a year studying my consciousness as I thought about trees, I moved into slowness and stillness, a quiet within. Only when my human pacing had been bracketed could I begin to recognize the livingness of trees. Removing from my thought the ways I had seen and interacted with trees is part of what precipitated the slowing. To approach a tree, movement slowed. To sit with a tree for a number of hours, nothing happened, but my inner world was alight, similar to the bevy of action beneath the bark. Rather than being by the tree, I noticed I was in them, sitting on what seems like ground but is actually above the roots and under the branches, enclosed within the body of the tree. I found how I was connected, or disconnected, from other entities in the forest that came and went, dependent or not on the tree. To be in the presence of a tree for hours or even days is insufficient. Their being operates on timescales beyond human comprehension, and this remains the primary block to understanding tree being. With that acknowledged, I glimpsed their intelligence, relationality, and agency, all qualities supported by scientific research with other plants.
Life is given us that we may recognize other life. When we look into the eyes of another human, we see the depths that belie their shared being. Without eyes, trees and plants show us their being on the tips of their leaves as the spring growth shows new green, in the wooden rings of their years when we share with them a passing immortality, and in our own bodies when we imbibe their leaves, liquids, and roots. Ecophenomenologist Erazim Kohák may be right in claiming that the first thing a philosopher says to a tree is “I’m sorry,” but the next thing is, “I’m listening.”
To know a tree, you must learn to be tree-like. You must learn to sit in silence and hear the stillness of your own breathing. You must become more attuned to the slow duration of time as the sunlight passes in front of you, creating changes around you, circling tenderly each day. To become tree-like is to pay more attention to the inner world, the stability of your legs on the firm soil and where there are weaknesses, your sacral core and what is needed to feel secure, the processes within that keep you balanced and alive, the care of your heart and how to heal, the loudness or silence of your voice in the wind, and the way your thoughts extend beyond you, reaching for others, concepts, feelings, archetypes. To become aware of all these things takes time, takes a slow deliberation of each moment, the careful consideration of each inhale and exhale, a recognition of the cycles within which you wind or unwind a drama only you create. To become tree-like is not to be alone. Rather, it is the recognition of your deep and abiding interconnectedness with all life, with all being, and with the all. Wherever you find yourself — in forest, in city, or in the darkness of night — you can access this stillness, you can be tree-like, and then, only then, can you begin to know a tree.
“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. [They] want to be nothing except what [they are].”~ Hermann Hesse
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