Prone to Wander

The Secret Life of Trees

“I like to take the time out to listen to the trees, much in the same way that I listen to a sea shell, holding my ear against the rough bark of the trunk, hearing the inner singing of the sap. It’s a lovely sound, the beating of the heart of the tree.” – Madeleine L’Engle

When we first had a baby a few months ago, one of the things I appreciated – or rather, clung to – as a part of our new daily routine together were the walks we took every day through our neighborhood. Sometimes we’d even go twice a day. A nice walk is just about the only thing that can shake off the feeling of sleep deprivation with some fresh air and vitamin D. As a plus, the baby seemed to like them too.

In our neighborhood, there are a great many interesting things to see and observe on a walk – new homes being torn down and re-constructed, friendly cats, kooky yard art, kids playing…  And while these things are all mildly entertaining, for the past few months, I’ve found myself much more interested in trees.

I’m talking about the huge craggy Texas live oaks with their squat, twisted trunks and thick low hanging branches that grasp outward in all directions like knobby witches’ fingers, zig zagging across the sky. You know the ones.

I can’t take my eyes off of them.

Perhaps I’ve read too much Tolkien and Lewis, who both anthropomorphized trees something fierce. But really, I can’t blame them. The longer I observe the trees, the more I find myself wondering whether they might indeed have a slow, quiet language all their own.

“I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.” – Treebeard (from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)

So what is it about trees?

For one thing, I love imagining the complex root systems spreading out beneath us. Roots are arguably the most important structural part of a tree –  massive and invisible, providing stability, water and nutrients.  Scientists now say that roots are part of an incredible underground network some are calling “The Wood Wide Web.”  And sure, they’re scientists, not comedians. But it’s an incredible discovery. There is a fungal network – an underground highway – that connects the roots of one tree to another and enabling them to share resources and perhaps even information. I read about one experiment they did by covering a small area of a branch of a Redwood tree with a bag containing some mildly radioactive material. When they came back to run tests days later, not only had the radioactive material spread to the roots of that tree, but also to all the trees in that area of the forest. It has been conjectured that established trees may be specifically helping to cultivate the growth of their own saplings while they are still too small to reach the sunlight above the canopy.

Wood Wide Web aside, the trees do seem to have lives of their own. Perhaps I am drawn to them because they seem to stand serenely and steadfastly at odds with modern life. It’s true that I’m not sure how I feel about the dizzying pace of life these days, with its frenetic surface level networking and its circus-like news reel that doesn’t stop. Perhaps I prefer the social network of trees. After all, they’ve been standing here for quite a while, unbothered by the passage of time. They’ve stood through storms and floods. Though long droughts. They’ve been blasted with ice and doused with chemicals from our homes and streets. They’ve seen neighborhoods and families come and go, and have watched the decades pass as the sun rises and sets. They are patient, quiet observers and survivors, constantly constantly preparing to out-weather any weather. They are anything but hasty.

Perhaps if the trees could speak English, they would tell us all to take a deep breath. To slow down. To stop. To shut up. To be still. To listen.

Under a tree I can hear myself think. I can hear myself breathe. Words feel optional.

Please don’t assume that I am advocating for passivity, especially at this critical moment. But I think I could learn a thing or two from the trees. Something about patience and thoughtful pauses. Deep thought. Preparation. Well-formulated arguments. Resilience.

Perhaps when I choose to engage, my roots will be deeper, my connections stronger, and my words less hasty.


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