For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by trees. Our yard has at least seven grand old oak trees that I often like to stand underneath and look straight up at the branches so high above me. These oaks were here before our house, which is a little over a hundred years old. These trees house birds, including our beloved owls, squirrels and even a raccoon. Sometimes I will lie on the grass of our backyard and just enjoy their shade and be amazed at how much history they have survived, including ice storms and hurricanes. When there’s wind, the branches move rhythmically, the leaves rustling. In the early morning and in the evening, they are filled with birdsong.
I’m not sure where my love of trees came from. Perhaps from reading books like The Lorax or The Giving Tree? Perhaps it was from all the time I spent exploring the woods as a boy? As a child, I used to go out into the woods behind our house with a field guide to trees of North Carolina to see how many I could identify. I would spend hours out in the woods during the months of summer vacation. Or from the small apple orchard on my grandparents’ farm. My cousins and I used to love climbing, picking and devouring apples until our tummies ached. If we weren’t careful and because we were barefoot, we sometimes got stung by bees that had gotten in the apples that had fallen from the branches and were rotting on the ground. There was also our neighbor’s weeping willow tree that my friends and I used to lie beneath its drooping canopy and we would talk about what our lives might be like when we grew up or we would make up stories (usually a patchwork of stories we’d read in books or heard told to us).
To me, the trees seemed magical, as if they could have woodland spirits living in them. Fairy tales are filled with forests of trees. The woods were always magical and mythical. Those stories helped to fuel my interest in nature. Certainly I couldn’t help but picture trees through the eyes of the fairy tale illustrations of Arthur Rackham, with his gnarled and twisted dryads. Trees seemed fairy-like and full of secrets that they would remain silent about. Perhaps if I listened closely enough to their branches and leaves rustling in wind, I might hear them whispering to each other?
Yet, even as I grew older, I never lost my interest in trees. Since I loved to draw, I often used to take my sketch pad out and draw trees, sometimes focusing on only a small section or trying to get the texture of the bark right. I would later learn that I was not the only one, as Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks were filled with sketches and notes on trees. da Vinci also was the first to note that, as trees shed their foliage in the fall, they revealed a nearly universal growth pattern; in that there was a simple yet startling relationship that always holds between the size of a tree’s trunk and sizes of its branches. As he wrote in one of his notebooks, over 500 years ago, “”all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk.” Essentially what this means is that, if a tree’s branches were folded upward and squeezed together, the tree would look like one big trunk with the same thickness from top to bottom.
I also loved studying the moss and lichen that grow on the bark of trees. There is an interaction and beauty that resembles both art and poetry between the moss, the lichen and the tree itself.
There is something magical about the way moss in the forest grows on roots. One fully expects to catch a glimpse of a fairy flittering about in such a way as to be mistaken by a butterfly.
On my walks, I stop often to just observe and notice (much to the chagrin, sometimes, of anyone walking with me). I bend down and get a closer look, to examine and see the amazing balance and to touch the softness of the moss with my fingers – gently – so as not to damage the mossy bed itself.
In her book Gathering Moss: The Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “One gram of moss . . . about the size of a muffin, would harbour 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 fly larvae. These numbers tell us something about the astounding quantity of life in a handful of moss.” When I read that, I was amazed and delighted by the idea that there is so much life going on in such a small bit of moss. Is it any wonder, then, that I love looking at and taking photos of mossy tree roots? Or simply of the roots themselves?
“To be rooted,” Simone Weil wrote, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” This quote always comes to mind when I am looking at the root systems of trees.
We live in an age where people prefer to move every few years and there is more uprootedness than with previous generations. What are we losing because of this? A sense of community? We have lived in our house for over twenty years and yet I am constantly amazed by what I discover by simply walking in our backyard. By looking at the trees and their branches reaching skyward at different hours of the day or by season.
“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers,” wrote Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse, “I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.”
I could not agree with Hesse more. Whenever I walk in verdant forests, under the canopy of their leaves, I feel as if I have found sanctuary. There is something ancient and wise about trees and there is a truth hidden deep within them. I cannot help but touch their bark and feel its roughness on my hands.
Or to find joy in the way light comes through their leaves: a chiaroscuro of light and dark. And to realize that no two leaves are exactly alike.
And to think that each tree grew from a small kernel or seed or acorn. That such immense and grand life started from that small spark, as if to remind us that we all did. That we are all of us made up of the stuff of stars. One can see life in these trees just as we can our own children. We can see the veins in leaves just as our own bodies have veins.
Yet how often do we pay scant attention to the trees around us?
Most barely do – unless there is a coming storm and we fear that these trees branches might come crashing down on our homes or that the very trees themselves will be uprooted in heavy winds and smash down on our cars or our houses.
“A few minutes ago,” John Muir wrote, “every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their song never cease.”
There is such strength in trees.
They should teach us that, like leaves in autumn, we must let go of things and, that with each spring, new life begins within us. Is it any wonder so many cultures view trees as sacred and holy? If only we did, instead of tearing down such forests to make way for another grocery store or subdivision or, in the case of the woods I played in as a child, soccer fields for the local school. How much is lost by children no longer being able to explore and be within those glorious woods, amidst the wonder of its trees? Unsupervised and unscheduled play and delight and finding connection to the very trees themselves.
I want to quote from Hermann Hesse again, as he writes, “When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”
Stop wandering. Be still. Be present to these trees. Be silent among them. Forget your smartphone or your iPod and listen to the sounds they make. This is not escaping, this is more than existing, this is being and living as we are meant to live. It is to understand the memories of our ancestors and of the metaphors that trees so often offer us. Trees remind us of birth and life and death and we must think on all of these things because they are interconnected and natural as the woods themselves.
Be among the trees. Listen to the long-breathing, rustling leaves. Hear the voices of the trees. Do not rush through the woods, but walk without hastiness. In his book The Tree, John Fowles wrote, “I cherish trees because of their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind – and because they seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest to its heart.”
The poet William Blake wrote, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
Be one of those people who are moved to tears of joys by trees. Be a person of imagination, as Blake suggests.
Take time to dwell in the woods. Be like children in the Hundred Acres Wood or the one from The Wind in the Willows. Listen to the song of the trees. Know that within those trees stirs the sap of life. See the woods and forests and trees for more than mere scientific knowledge or for their utility (timber and fruit) or for landscaping purposes but see trees as poetry, necessity, and as beauty beyond mere aesthetics.
As the French author Marcel Proust wrote, ““We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees, that vigorous and pacific tribe which without stint produces strengthening essences for us, soothing balms, and in whose gracious company we spend so many cool, silent, and intimate hours.”
Take the time to spend “intimate hours” with such “gracious company.”
To plant a tree is to offer hope, to believe in a future.
To walk among great, grand trees is to be filled with awe. We must learn from the trees: learn to be rooted in silence, to find strength in stillness. May we all cherish the company and wisdom of trees.