Talking to Trees
In 1997 the scientist Suzanne Simard published her breakthrough study about how trees communicate with each other. Her findings were met with near universal skepticism and sometimes derision in the scientific community. This was partly because the idea seemed preposterous and maybe a bit new agey, but mostly because she was a woman. Since then Simard has expanded on her findings and they have been replicated and confirmed by other scientists. Today the idea that trees communicate and even help one another is not absurd, but accepted fact.
All this made me wonder if different tress speak different languages just as humans in China and France and the US do. Are the differences based on species; i.e. do oaks have one language, maples another and maybe pines another? Or is it geographic? Perhaps all the trees in one area have a common language but those in a different region or continent use another. As my wife likes to say there's a dissertation in that.
For more than 35 years I have lived in a grove of trees but had never thought of talking to them. I have tried to communicate with what I presumed to be more intelligent forms of life, with decidedly mixed results. Our dog on occasion tries urgently to communicate with me, but honestly, after 5 years of trying I still don't understand a word she says. She, on the other hand, definitely understands human words, so I must face the fact that she is smarter than me. Of course, just because she understands my words does not mean that she does what I ask. There are significant parallels to my spousal communication here.
My attempts to communicate with other creatures have been even less successful. Deer that I politely ask to stop eating our flowers ignore me. Chipmunks and squirrels make what I take to be disparaging comments but at least our resident owl often answers me with a wise sounding hoot or two.
So it was with this checkered history in mind that I approached the idea of trying to talk to the trees that share our space. Many of the trees were here before we came and they may feel slighted that I have not spoken to them in 35 years of near co-habitation. I am also aware that the world has changed when it comes to communicating with those who are different from ourselves. Communicating across differences in race, gender, sexual identity, and religion requires heightened sensitivity even without the challenges of communicating across species.
While keeping all this in mind I decided to give it a try. I decided to approach the largest oak tree which stands quite near our house. As I did I wondered how close should I get? What are the personal space requirements for a tree? I don't want to be uncomfortably close, but I need to be close enough to hear and be heard. I decided to go with the current social distancing recommendations, just in case, so I got about 6 feet from the thick trunk. I began with a form of the Indigenous lands acknowledgement. "I acknowledge that I live on the traditional land of Indigenous people, plants and animals and especially trees and I thank you for sharing this space with me." I waited. No response.
"Hello Oak Tree. Do you have a preferred form of address and have you chosen pronouns that you would like me to use?" Still nothing. "It has been a pleasure living with you all these years and hope that you have found it equally congenial." All quiet.
After thinking about it for a few minutes I decided just to go back to my beginning interaction with trees as when I was a kid, without concern for social distancing or political correctness. I sat down and leaned my back against the trunk of the oak. I paused for a while enjoying the solitude and companionship. "When I was a kid I use to love to climb trees. I guess most kids do, given the opportunity. My favorites were the apple trees because they were easy to climb and I got to eat the apples, sometimes when they were still green." I smiled to myself at the memory.
I leaned my head back. "You know, Oak Tree, your leaves look especially green with the sun shining on them. They sort of sparkle. And what a beautiful day. It’s great to share it with you; to just hang out. Thanks." I leaned more into the trunk.
"How old are you? When I came here more than 35 years ago you were already good size; more than 15 feet I'm sure, but less than 25, I'd guess. Now you are at least 60 feet tall. I understand that age is best estimated by the diameter of your trunk, which I'd guess to be 30 inches or more. According to Google, the standard growth factor is between 4 and 5 so that would make you 120 to 150 years old! Wow, the things you have seen! The first car to drive by, the first plane in the sky here and the houses built along this old farm road. All those changes and yet you have endured straight and true. We humans could learn from that."
"Well, this has been a pleasure. I appreciate your time and hope it’s ok if I drop by again. Oh, and thanks for supporting the other trees and plants here in the yard. You've help raise a fine-looking group."
The leaves stirred. I looked up. No wind. But the leaves rustled like a whisper. I strained to hear. I could not make out a word but I felt a greeting, like they were enveloping me, welcoming me to the community for the first time.
One Small Voice
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