Beauty, trees, Uncategorized

On Blindness and Learning to See

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.

“Discovery Tree” stump

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.

Mother of the Forest in the far center distance.

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.

 

 

art, poetry

Time With Trees

Tree at Hampstead Heath, London, UK

“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”-John Berger

Trees have been important to humans throughout time. The Atlantic points out evidence to demonstrate a connection between the health of trees and our human health. In countries of Turkish and Arab origin, trees are a symbol of life, and tree of life motifs are woven into carpets from the region. People plant trees to commemorate a baby’s birth, and sometimes when a pet dies a tree is planted where the animal was buried. The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, and the Bible tells the story of the Tree of Knowledge. In Japanese culture, the plum tree’s blossoms represent life’s beautiful yet fragile quality. These are but a few of people’s interconnections with trees. (The American Forest organization gives many further interesting insights about humans’ relationship to trees.)

Lately, I’ve been spending time with trees. Though I’ve loved trees since childhood when I climbed and played in the pepper and umbrella trees in my family’s backyard, I’ve developed a further interest in trees as a result of my recent endeavor to learn to draw. Drawing is a way of knowing. You look closely at what you’re drawing. You study what you observe in order to draw, and what you’re studying has a way of becoming part of you. You gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your subject. Families are connected to the idea of trees, and for my family reunion this summer I thought I would draw each family member their favorite tree. This way I could practice drawing, and get to know something new about my family, as well as give something to them. I’d also gain new insight about trees.

I set out on my endeavor. As I drew, I realized more clearly how trees each have their own unique architecture and character. Drawing them is a bit like getting to know a person. As you get more familiar with someone, their unique personality emerges. It’s similar with trees. It takes a lot of patience to draw–patience with yourself and your learning process. I want to draw better than I am able. As a beginner, it’s difficult to see well enough to draw the spirit inside of anything–which is what I want to do–to interact with the unique feeling or character of what I’m drawing and reveal it–but this is next to impossible because I’m still trying to develop the skill of how to put the lines on the page. It’s an amazing notice, however, when what I’ve made looks something like what I intended and others can recognize it! That’s motivation to continue the effort going.

After completing the drawings (a few of which are shown below), I interviewed each family member to learn more of the story behind why they chose their particular tree as their favorite. Reflecting on what I heard during these interviews, I noticed the strength and energy behind people’s attachment to their chosen tree, and decided to write a poem about each person’s tree, using some of the details told me during the interviews.

To do this, I had to imaginatively enter into the landscape where the tree grows, and envision both the tree and the meaning it holds for the person. I had familiarity with everyone’s chosen tree, but in aiming to write about the pine-filled hills of Tennessee, I was confronted with the fact that I knew little specifically about Tennessee pines. Though I’ve lived in more than one region of the US and have travelled to different states, it is not the same as living in a particular place and knowing it in its subtle moods and aspects. We connect with the land around us both physically and imaginatively. We know something by reading about it and studying it, but also by being present with it over time. This is what makes landscape or a tree personal–we interact with it and come to know it. Knowing pines in locations other than Tennessee, as well as reading about the landscape, and recalling novels and films that took place in that part of the US, helped me to imagine the pines of Tennessee so I could write about them. In this way, a world that was not my own could became part of my own experience.

After drawing and writing about trees, I decided to familiarize myself further with the heritage trees near where I live, and took a hike to the Byrne-Milliron forest. Santa Cruz County is home to some of the oldest redwood forests in the world, and the Byrne-Milliron forest contains one of oldest redwood trees in California, the Great White Redwood. The tree is 25o feet tall and a 1,000 years old. Though the tree is a redwood, its bark has a silvery white appearance. In spite of  the heat, I wanted to encounter the tree, to stand in its presence and observe how that felt, so with my water bottle in hand, I set out.

The Byrne-Milliron forest lacks a high volume of visitors, so when walking through the area, other than leaves crunching under my feet, a dense quietness filled the air. Dodging poison oak along the way, and guessing a bit at which way to go, I followed a path as it wound up a hill offering an overview of the Pajaro Valley, then dipped into gullies rich with shade before narrowing into more or less the width of my feet as I approached the tree.

Standing at last in the small clearing at the foot of the great tree, I gazed up its long, near endless height. The forest was so deeply still but for the butterflies moving in a gap high up in the redwood’s branches where sunlight fell through. The journey to find the tree had been a kind of pilgrimage, and I sat in silence before the tree for some time. Even with the tree’s top obscured by leaves from its branches, the tree’s solidity and immensity moved and overwhelmed me.

Great White Redwood, Byrne-Milliron forest, Santa Cruz, CA

Along the hike, I had seen a number of large redwood stumps where virgin growth trees had been cut at the turn of the last century. Previous to this, for a hundred years short of a thousand years, this tree and the forest itself had stood silent with only the hum of flies and the random call of a bird, rain patter, and perhaps some occasional thunder. Eons of of silence. Stillness. That’s what the forest held and the trees knew–an astonishing reality.

As I didn’t see other trees in the forest approaching the size of the Great White Redwood, it appears to be the one uncut virgin growth tree remaining. I imagined what it must have been like to enter this forest two hundred years ago where all the trees were this enormous, this ancient. Humans have done much to shape and alter the earth. Numerous pieces of human architecture have moved me–the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Majal, the Sagrada Familia, to name a few. Standing before an ancient tree is different. A tree is alive. Before this ancient living presence, I felt full of wordless awe. A large, solid slice of wood shaped like a plaque sits before the Great White redwood in the Byrne-Milliron forest, a commemoration of the tree, it seems, though the plaque contains no words. That emptiness seems worth noting.

Banyan, Monreale cloister, Sicily

People have altered and shaped the earth since the beginning but the land also shapes us. Our experience with geography and landscapes is an exchange–the land brings us its scents, colors, textures, lighting, and seasonal changes, but we also bring something to it with our specific interests, questions, perceptions, skills, and imagination. What is the affect on our lives of loving and caring for particular landscapes or specific aspects of nature such as trees? The nature writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, in his Education Week Teacher essay, “Losing Our Sense of Place” writes, “The intense pressure of imagery in America, and the manipulation of images necessary to a society with specific goals, means the land will inevitably be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image will, one way or another, be silenced or discredited by those in power.” Getting to know the land we live on, getting to know the trees and plants around us through drawing them, writing about them, or simply walking among them is a way to move beyond the idea that the earth is merely another commodity. These practices honor the land’s presence and our shared connection to the natural world. They help toward creating greater balance between being and the effort to possess, to attain.

How well do we know the place we live? How do we stand in relationship to it? As I draw trees, I grow more aware of their complexity. I thought I knew what a tree was, but when looking closely over an extended period of time, as is necessary when drawing a tree, I notice how there’s so much mystery inside a tree as well, so much I don’t understand.  Hikmet Nazim, in his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” writes, “I didn’t know I loved the earth/ can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it.” Our lives are linked with trees. They are important to our physical and emotional health. We may not work the earth but we can nurture our love for it. It’s worth our time to read and learn about the land we live on–the land we love. It’s worth taking time to visit the natural world, to develop a relationship with the geography we are a part of, to grow close with the land we love and with the trees they hold. They are an important part of what makes us who we are.

tree at Hampton Court, UK