Como el cometa
Quiero sentarme donde la rima no me alcance
lejos de bordes y límites, métodos y axiomas.
Donde dos más dos sea cualquier cosa menos cuatro.
Donde el ser fluido se mezcle con todo
y nada se acuerde de lo que es.
I´d like to sit where rhyme cannot reach me
far from edges and limits, methods and axioms.
Where two plus two is anything but four.
Where fluid self mixes with everything
and nothing remembers what it is.
–excerpt from Virginia Francisco’s, Like The Comet
The lines from Francisco’s poem above describe a self so completely connected to her surroundings that she merges with it, borders dissolved. How do we live a life that comes from a place of inner wholeness, that is in process of working toward unity with the world around us? We hear many voices in our world, often with opposing viewpoints, stating they are giving us the truth. Though we might have been raised in a particular way, as we age and come in to contact with other traditions, experience other cultures or other people’s ways of thinking and living, our picture of what the world is and how it works can grow less sharply defined. Instead of experiencing a sense of unity, we live in a place of inner dissonance. We might wonder how to see clearly again and ponder if we’re going blind or whether our vision is merely changing, the focus of the lens readjusting as we enter into a larger understanding of the world.
I’ve been sitting on my front porch in the morning, practicing being still. Eyes closed, I listen, and am noticing how the borders of sound are not firmly defined with specifically shaped form and edges. Sound is elastic. It bounces, reverberates, and stretches into diminishment, is more like the fading of light at sunset. As I listen, leaves rub against one another and grass rustles. Panting dogs run up the nearby road. Prayer flags flap overhead. Bees hum intermittently as they move among the borage in the planter bed. Sounds surface I earlier wasn’t aware of, and my thoughts turn to my sister who has been losing her sight to a rare disease that causes the eyes’ cones to stop functioning. How differently she negotiates now through every environment in the loss of sight. I think of her many adjustments to a new way of living and consider my own blindness in understanding what that would feel like, be like. There are many worlds that fall below my awareness. I have so much learning to do. Blindness of the mind. Blindness of the heart. As William Stafford has written in “Ritual to Read to Each Other,” “the darkness around us is deep.”
Blindness isn’t limited to physical blindness. Last week I went to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park here in California. I’d wanted to visit the trees since first reading about them in Simon Schama’s book, Landscape and Memory while living in Singapore quite a few years ago. In his book, Schama tells about the “Discovery Tree,” a sequoia that was felled in 1853. The tree was so enormous it took three weeks to cut it down. After turning the giant sequoia into a stump, people put a gazebo over it, and danced on it. The fallen portion of the trunk also had a structure put over it and it was used as a bowling alley. (Drawings of the tree and photos of the area from the time period can be seen here.)
The motivation for cutting the tree was the desire to make money. As Frances E. Bishop and Judith Cunningham state on the Calaveras History site, “Captain William H. Hanford, president of the Union Water Company, viewed the Big Tree and envisioned a way to make a fortune by stripping the bark and sending it on tour to New York and Europe. The bark was exhibited first in San Francisco and then New York, where it was consumed in a fire.” Felling the tree to prove such amazing beings existed proved futile, however. Not only did people believe the tree’s enormous size was faked, felling the tree caused much of the trunk’s wood to shatter. According to the National Park Service site, because sequoias’ wood is brittle, as much as 75% of the tree’s wood can be wasted when it falls.
The felled “Discovery Tree” measured 25 ft in diameter and the ring count ring count showed the tree to be 1,244 years old. Had it been left alive, some scientists say it would be today the largest living thing on earth other than the mycelia that is found beneath the earth’s surface.
When I saw the “Discovery Tree’s” stump, I was awed at its stupendous size and moved by the beauty in the turns of wood at the ancient trunk’s base. At the same time, I felt appalled and grief-stricken at what had been purposefully carried out. A portion of the fallen trunk that had been used as a bowling alley rested on the ground a short distance away. Sequoias have an average life span of 2,000 years but can live as much as 3,000 years. Looking at its enormous girth lying on the ground inert knowing very well it might still be living, I felt remorse that something so rare and wonderful was cut down for such frivolous reasons.
A second famous tree in the North Grove area of the park is called the “Mother of the Forest.” D. A. Plecke on the Cathedral Grove website states the tree was named for its graceful form. This tree also was destroyed upon discovery by people of European decent. In 1854 a scaffold was built to the height of 120 feet, and the tree was stripped of its bark, an act which destroys the tree. The bark was sent first to New York then onward to London in an attempt to make money, as well as to prove that trees as gargantuan as these exist. People who hadn’t seen the trees in person, however, didn’t believe they were real, and their views didn’t change after being presented with the physical evidence. The bark was put on display at the Crystal Palace in the UK but was destroyed by a fire in 1866. The tree was 2,520 years old, 305 feet high, and had a 63 feet circumference.
Walking among the sequoias, standing at the foot of the gargantuan wall of their trunks, one can’t help but feel both humbled, and speechless. Though nature is a refuge for our spirits and trees are a boon to our lives, little seems to have been understood about the value of trees’ living presence. We know things about trees now that weren’t understood in 1853. Among other things, they reduce asthma and depression, as well as help lengthen our life span. Trees’ benefit to our lives and complex nature are only recently growing to be understood. Even though this is true, it’s still difficult to understand why it would seem like a good idea to destroy these enormous, magnificent and ancient trees.
Cutting these giant sequoias demonstrates a blindness regarding the value of the trees’ lives. As Leo Hickman states in his article, “How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago,” at the time the trees were cut, Americans believed nature was theirs to exploit. Nevertheless, there were at least those who felt enough outrage at felling these trees that an effort to save other remaining trees was made. Deforestation didn’t cease, however, as these images from 1915 depict. Today, according to the Save the Redwoods League, only 5 % of the original redwood forests survive. Our blindness continues.
Plant blindness, the inability to see plants and to recognize them is real, is a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee. People tend to live outside of an awareness of trees and plants precious, life-giving presence. As mammals, our brains more readily pay attention to those things similar to us. Because of this, we don’t tend to see the plants in our environment. A botanist and biology educator, Schussler explains “humans can only recognise (visually) what they already know.” Few today are involved in nurturing plants, and plants are also nonthreatening. As a result, plants tend to blend into a background of green and people mostly ignore them.
We need wood for buildings, tools, furniture, fuel, and paper. But trees, and plants in general, are also important beyond their utilitarian function. What appears to be missing in our awareness as we use wood, as well as other resources, is a connection between our use of resources and our responsibility to the greater community of life–a foundation of respect for the natural world that sustains our life. As Richard Powers in his book Overstory states, “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”
In Thailand, the culture has a tradition of erecting spirit houses when humans choose to purposefully change the land or do something that alters its natural state. Spirit houses are physical embodiments of a cultural recognition that when land is built on, the life energy of the land and all it sustained is disturbed. There is an acknowledgement that one’s actions have consequences for others beyond what is seen. Spirit houses are a beautiful expression of an awareness of human interdependence with nature. In America, some people celebrate Earth Day and Arbor Day, giving recognition to the earth’s gifts, but these are one day events rather than a practice or a continuing way of seeing or interacting with the natural environment. What stories or practices might help our eyes be opened to see how the sanctity of human life depends on respect and care for life in other forms?
We are born into and grow in a particular environment or environments. Life is a long process of learning who we are, what the world is, and what our relationship to it is. While life differs from place to place and culture to culture, some form of loving our neighbors is found in beliefs around the world. Plants are most certainly our neighbors. Perhaps now could be a good time to get to know our plant neighbors better and to explore more of how we belong together in the world, and the joy a relationship with them brings. We don’t have to remain plant blind. We can start with learning the names of plants outside our door and in our neighborhood and discover what is native to our area. This website gives links as well as book titles with information to help you identify and learn about plants in various world regions. Here is a website for the US to help you do that, and also a plant database to help you learn about native plants of North America based on their characteristics. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Don’t Hesitate,”
We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world…
…whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.