That Time I Got Scolded by a Tree
The Wissahickon Valley, part of Fairmount Park in Northwest Philadelphia, is a beautiful place. It’s a city park and heavily used. So many people have walked here since the park was officially created about a century ago, that the freshness has worn off the large rocks embedded in footpaths, smoothed by hundreds of thousands of shoes and boots. It’s a place of refuge for many, many people.
Years ago, walking in these woods, I discovered that if I touched the trunk of a tree, relaxed, and listened with my whole body, I could feel the energy passing between me and the tree. If I’m tired, I put my hand on a tree and come away refreshed and lifted up.
Yet — until recently — I always felt a little sorry for trees. They can’t run away or lower their horns and growl if someone comes at them with a chain saw.
Poor trees! They make great poster children for pending climate disaster. But will using them in this symbolic way motivate us to make the changes that might forestall disaster? We rise or fall together. Humans are intrinsically part of nature. Our bodies are earth, air, fire, and water: Earth of bone, Spirit of air, Fire of heat & electrical impulses, Water that blesses every cell. The fruits of the earth that we eat become our bodies; when we die, our bodies return to the earth.
It actually drains energy, causing pain and isolation within my own system when I don’t see myself as woven into Nature.
To perceive Nature as victim (often personified as female) and us humans as evil rapists not only fails to do justice to both parties, but it’s also inaccurate. It makes the natural world into a pathetic Other; in that scenario, we can only be saviors, rapists, or disinterested enablers of the rapists. We have abused Nature, but no less than we have abused ourselves. We’ve closed down our hearts, narrowed our definitions of what is “alive,” or “conscious,” created technologies in an attempt to dominate Nature, yet many of these technologies have trapped us in a spiderweb of our own making.
Recently a Wissahickon Valley Beech Tree taught me a powerful lesson in the ecology of relationships. These wonderful trees have a soft, smooth grey bark that’s very tempting to a human with a knife. I was walking along a path above the Wissahickon Creek one day and I passed a tall, sturdy Beech. Yet it was cut up like nothing I’d seen before. Smack in the middle of the footpath, a victim to the human impulse to leave a mark — literally. I felt bad for it.
I put my hand on the trunk. “You poor thing,” I spoke aloud. “I’m so sorry for what we’ve done to you.”
The Beech spoke inside my head: “Don’t patronize me,” it snapped back.
That caught me short! I stepped back and gaped at the tree with new respect.
Did the tree really speak to me? Was it a projection of my own mind? I could argue until I’m blue in the face that the tree actually told me off — but I can’t prove it, any more than a scientific rationalist could definitively prove that trees don’t speak to humans who are willing to listen. I will say that scientific rationalism and the culture that spawned it has gotten us to the brink of climate collapse and mass extinction largely because we’ve taken Nature to be a passive subject upon which to act.
There already are people who can teach us a whole lot about reciprocity within the natural world…People whom we fail to listen to at our own peril.
Indigenous people are taking leading roles alongside climate scientists, adding to climate change work a powerful mix of granular, locale-specific knowledge and the deep respect borne from living in reciprocal relationship with Nature.
“Our people have survived for centuries,” says Ms Ibrahim. “We’re already proof that it works."
As far as I can tell, the talking to trees thing hasn’t been mentioned in the BBC’s coverage of how climate scientists are seeking out Indigenous wisdom to apply essential wisdom to climate change work. I suspect that this has to do with the need for Indigenous people to protect themselves from being marginalized by and maintain credibility with the white-dominated scientific community. It’s one thing for me to claim that a tree talked to me; I’m not from a community that almost got wiped out through genocide, trying to be heard by people who are enmeshed within systems that still oppress my community. In Traditional communities, survival and spirituality aren’t separate, as in the West; truly finding out WHY they are’t separate will require deep humility along with a willingness to decolonize our Western minds.
This will be painful at times. Decolonizing the Western mind means owning and responding to the history of systemic oppression of Indigenous people. Yet we have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. We need nurture; we need to feel our kinship with Beech trees, mosses, sun and sky.
At the very least, the Beech Tree encounter taught me a huge lesson about respect. It taught me that my sentimentalism isn’t helpful; that pity is digusting. It taught me to be careful lest my grief over conditions in the world be about me and my tears and therefore not truly compassionate. It taught me that there’s a whole lot to learn FROM Nature…Not ABOUT nature.
It taught me that in the work to reverse climate change, Nature itself is surely our best guide.