If you get lost in life, put your ear to the ground and listen to its pounding heart.
Old Sami saying
As I write this one cold and windy March, I find myself longing for April springtime, with the flowers blooming yellow, pink, and blue against green grass and the trees stretch and come awake. By April, here in the mid-Atlantic states, the little leaves of trees uncurl so fast that in only hours they are waving their little paws in delight. The squirrels dash up and down the wrinkled bark, and birds raise a chorus of alleluias to the equinoxian light.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,”wrote the novelist George Eliot, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Surely if we had ears keen enough, we would hear the thunder of the tulips as they thrust violently up through the soil, unfurling leaves and blooms, or we’d hear the low bass of the petrichoring rocks, lifting dusty faces to be washed. This is the time when we are called to go out “forest bathing,” as the Japanese call it, though most of us, living in cities, have to make an effort to be in the presence of tall trees. So, let us talk, now, about trees—and of the only vicious tree I’ve ever met.
In one of his cantos Dante, writing in the 13th century, ponders the question of whether trees are sentient. Do they bleed when cut? Do they cry aloud in pain? We know that they communicate with their other trees, that they care for their young, and like all green plants they respond to music and in their own magnificent silence to loving words. Scientists have discovered that if beetles attack a particular tree, it sends pheromones out onto the wind, signaling of the infestation, at which the nearby trees eject a counter-scent to repel the attack; and this odor is so specific to that particular insect (and not just to bugs in general) that the trees protect against that singular threat. Scientists have discovered that a full-grown pine, when starved by drought or lack of nutrients, will send her nutrients to the growing seedlings at her roots rather than utilizing it herself. Does this imply sentient communication? Some form of dynastic comprehension?
We know they feel pain. Experiments with houseplants using Kirlian photography* ]have shown that if you cut the leaf of one plant in half, the corona or aura of a nearby plants shrink back as if in horror. Wouldn’t it be so with trees?I don’t know, but I know that it is possible to communicate with trees, and here is some of what I’ve learned in my decades on this earth of forest bathing, of observing trees.
(Kirlian photography is a collection of photographic techniques used to capture the phenomenon of electrical coronal discharges,or “auras.” It is named after Semyon Kirlian, who, in 1939, accidentally discovered that if an object on a photographic plateis connected to a high-voltage source, an image is produced on the photographic plate. Kirlian photography has been the subject of mainstream scientific research, parapsychology and art. To a large extent, it has been used in alternative medicine research.)
- On a windy day, find a small tree, a sapling perhaps 6 or 8 inches in diameter. Put your hands around the trunk. Close your eyes. You will feel it swaying in the wind. You will feel how the tree stretches and bends, and you may even feel the energy rising and falling inside its trunk. It’s wonderous. Imagine if you had such flexibility!
- Now move to a large oak or maple or tulip poplar, a strong tree with its branches soaring toward the clouds. Find the North Side of the tree (remember moss?). Now pass your hand along the bark until you find a “hole.” I don’t know what else to call it. It may feel like a little breath of air against the palm of your hand, a puff of wind. It is subtle. Put your back to the hole. Now close your eyes and listen to the tree. It is passing you energy. It is filling you with quiet peace and energy. I promise you will walk away restored.
Trees think we move too fast. They are amused by us, in the same way that we think (when or if we do) of rushing ants. Slow down, they say. Give yourself a hundred years to be. Maybe you’ll learn something.
Of course we humans don’t have time for that, but we can forest bathe, and it has been proven that to go into nature, to walk in the midst of trees, changes our brain patterns, moves us from the harried beta waves of problem-solving critical analysis, the crisis mode of, say, crossing Times Square, into the healing peace of the slower, deeper Alpha waves. Into quietude. It is in alpha waves that problems are solved. It is in alpha brain wave patterns that we find ourselves content, even happy, right with the world. The trees do that for us.
One malicious tree
In all my life I have met only one bitter, mean, and angry tree. It was in Belize. I was walking with a tour group to an archeological site, when I spotted a magnificent tree standing on a nearby hill, and it was so beautiful that I left the group to go closer. But as I approached, I was hit by a wave of hatred, and the command: Halt: Come no closer. I was surprised. I sent out a silent query. The answer came back that in the whole area it was the last remaining tree of its species, because all the others had been cut for lumber. It hated humans for what we had done.
I could only bow in apology to this beautiful, hurt, lonely specimen, and of course, out of courtesy I did not impose. A tree is rooted. It can’t protect itself from us, unless it drops a branch on our head, and that takes a lot of effort on its part.
Later I learned that it was a mahogany tree, grown extraordinarily large, and, yes, all the others in the area had been clear-cut decades earlier for their valuable wood. It must have been a sapling at the time, too small to be cut down—not worth the effort—and now stood silent sentinel for 100 years on that treeless field.
But most trees are friends to us and earth and sky. They provide nests for owls, squirrels, songbirds, ‘coons. They permit dens for foxes at their roots, and let fall nuts and fruits for our consumption. They offer shade in hot weather, shelter in rain. They draw water out of the deepest earth to pour down later from the clouds as rain. They bring us oxygen in exchange for carbon dioxide; and this is so essential that we would not even be alive without the trees.
I don’t want to think about what we humans are doing to the rain forests of Brazil. But there is a certain justice, don’t you think, in the fact that when we have destroyed all the trees, the rainforests gone, we will no longer be able to survive. It will happen.
Let us go out today, therefore, and walk among the trees.
© 2019, Sophy Burnham