Thursday, August 19, 2010
8.18 What the Trees Said
What was here before us?
The big double-trunked oak tree. A few other shade trees, but the oak is clearly the monarch. It extends over the air space of more neighboring households than I want to think about. If I need luck, there is plenty of wood to knock on.
The tree harbors squirrel families, and I have seen juveniles chase their way all across the back garden to the place where the trees touch hands and jump from the oak to the big tree on the other side of the yard.
Families of birds have worked their way through its leaves in their nesting time hunger, chirping (at each other, presumably) and darting from branch to branch. Were there caterpillars, inch worms, there among the leaves for them to harvest?
There are often nests of torn leaves. Squirrels chew through the ends of twigs and sent them wafting down upon the flowers and the wrought iron table where we breakfast. Is the tree trying to banish us? Some years squirrels chew off sachets of still-green leaves with acorns attached to the twig because they are tired of waiting for them to fall. They fall on top of the flowers; I harvest the leaves.
One year the tree dropped feasts of acorns, a bumper crop. They fell everywhere, throwing their caps in the air, littered paths and plantings. The squirrels ran mad with excitement; what to do with such bounty? The solution – squirrel logic – they buried them everywhere. Wherever I disturbed the soil for an autumn planting, a squirrel added an acorn. I was doing their work, digging graves for acorns.
What accounts for the magic of trees? Why do we grow silent among them? Why does their dry, unworried silence work its way into our thoughts, slowing the rhythm of our thinking, turning us into listeners?
People are the same everywhere under the skin. Trees are the true other. They covered the land before we got to it. Sometimes I think they are waiting us out, knowing it will be theirs again when we leave. Trees are the bones of wilderness. They are “nature” as opposed to civilization. They are what we get to when we get away from it all. They are “country” as opposed to urban.
They are home to magic, ritual, myth, fantasy, other worlds, other ages of the planet, other generations.
And yet we harbor them, a few of them – a prized few – within our homesteads. We adopt a few of these others inside our own numbers, our built, man-made, terra-formed world. We have domesticated them, I suppose. We grow them on “farms,” sell them in “nurseries,” picking them out like children for adoption. We have tamed their magic, thinned their numbers to a manageable few, separated them a proper distance one from the other. Made it harder for them to whisper their secrets one to the other. We have thinned out their silence.
But we rely on those whispers. We count on their shade, their balm on sunny days. We rely on them to soften the hardness of our created world, its paved, concrete impervious surfaces. We count on their green to soften our eyes, to link hands above our heads when we frame our image of home, village, neighborhood, street, city. Tree city. We all want to live in a tree city.
We plant them now in despoiled places to balance our carbon output. They breathe our waste. They consume our waste and render it – some part of it – harmless.
We want them in our lives. People, houses, pets, trees: these are the fundamentals, the things we want in our lives. When a pet dies, we weep. It is easier to forget the role of the tree, who does not follow us about, wag its tail, greet us, meow for supper. Who simply guards the sky for us and holds down our earth with its roots.
We don’t realize we rely on them until they are gone, or threatened. That’s our tree, we say. You can’t cut that tree down.
Our spreading oak is there for us when we pause and rest in the garden. It murmurs in the breeze or speaks its peculiar and peculiarly restful silence. We don’t speak its language and so can’t put what it’s saying into words.
It doesn’t need words. It knows. Sometimes, wordless, we know too.
Who knows what they hear
Neighbors speak in tongues of wind
This year we turn soon